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Why the football world must take notice of how Roma challenged racism

Brazilian defender Juan Jesus was abused on social media
(Getty)

There is a myth that everyone deserves a voice, that there are two sides to every argument. It is not true. Racists warrant only disgust and no airtime. Letting them explain themselves only normalises their perverted views.

This was proven true over the past few days in Italy. Andrea Dell’ Aquila, a Roma fan, sent a direct message to Juan Jesus on Instagram. The words directed at the Brazilian defender were as disgusting as they were outrageous: “You belong in a zoo, damn monkey, ******.”

Jesus plays for the team that Dell’ Aquila purports to support. Jesus was appalled. To their credit, the 26-year-old and Roma refused to let it slide. The club reported the post to police and Instagram and banned the transgressor for life.

But then Roma did something that no one expected. Recognising that bigotry is a much wider problem that needed addressing, the club put the authorities on the spot. “Are you really serious about tackling racism in Italian football @SerieA,” they tweeted the league.

It was a bold move by Roma on a number of fronts. They are the first team in Italy to ban a supporter for life – before recent changes in the law, the onus was on police to bar individuals from stadiums.

Asking questions of Serie A on a public forum was also ground-breaking. There have been too many incidents of racism on the ruling body’s watch and too little response of any significance.

In general, the reaction in Italy was positive. Giuseppe Conte, the Prime Minister, tweeted praise for Roma, as did a number of politicians. Supporters from across the country applauded the club’s response.

Roma use social media brilliantly and have a dynamic, inclusive vision of how the game should operate. They were not afraid to go out on a limb. The tweet to Serie A essentially said, ‘this is not just about us or Jesus. It’s about football and society. It’s a problem for everyone. We need leadership. Are the people running the sport prepared to lead?”

It is a pertinent inquiry, applicable way outside Italy's borders.

Then on Sunday, La Repubblica, a centrist newspaper, published an interview with Dell’ Aquila that seemed to shift the discussion towards a different debate. The questions were soft to the point of parody. After all the usual, trite, “I made a mistake, I don’t want to make excuses,” guff, he criticised Jesus and Roma for invading his privacy by naming and shaming him. “To have me undergo public humiliation is too much,” Dell’ Aquila said.

It was a private message, he claimed, and exposing his name was “serious.” Diddums. How quickly the bullies squeal when confronted and identified.

“Do you realise what it means to receive threats, insults, like ‘I hope you will die’?” Dell’ Aquila was allowed to ask, as if he was the victim. “I am convinced that 90 per cent of the people who are attacking me have said the same things at least once in their lives.”

Roma defender Juan Jesus (Getty)

That statement was allowed to go unchallenged. The follow-up question was: ‘Are you a racist?’ You all know the answer. People like this never are, are they? They are invariably misunderstood.

The interview even allowed Dell’ Aquila to conjure up an image that feeds a host of provocative racial stereotypes. “What if I go home now and find 10 black boys waiting for me? Did Juan Jesus think of that?”

The gall is breathtaking. Roma’s hierarchy were shocked by the piece. Trying to turn an unsolicited, gratuitous insult into an invasion of privacy issue after it backfired is a classic attempt at misdirection. No doubt the closet and overt bigots across Italy will seize on the chance to shift the narrative.

The bottom line is simple. Racism is as racism does. There are no excuses, no justifications and there should be no exceptions. Sometimes people may not realise what they are doing or saying. It can be insidious and ingrained.

Bernardo Silva has since deleted his tweet (@BernardoCSilva)

Manchester City should have realised this after Bernardo Silva’s inappropriate tweet about Benjamin Mendy last week. The two players might be close but that’s hardly the point. If neither can see that Silva used a crude, racist image then they both need to be educated. It is unlikely Mendy would require much clarification. The Frenchman has probably spent a large proportion of his career - nay, his life - smiling awkwardly at some of his white friends’ witticisms. Letting it go just feeds the boorishness.

Even worse, Pep Guardiola and Raheem Sterling defended Silva. How much more refreshing would it have been if Sterling in particular – in the week Megan Rapinoe lauded the winger for his stance on racism - had admitted that the image Silva tweeted was ugly and demeaning? Perhaps the Portuguese has grown up never thinking about this sort of thing. Most people don’t comprehend their position of privilege and never stop to consider the implications of their ‘jokes.’ Silva needs to understand the notion of institutional racism and how it manifests itself in crass humour.

It reflects badly on everyone at City. Excusing someone because, ‘he’s my friend,’ is the flip side of ‘I’d send them all back, except for people like you, mate. Don’t have a problem with people like you.’

Roma sent out the right message. City have not. Everyone in football needs to take a long, hard look at how they deal with racism. The only voice worth listening to is the one that calls out racist attitudes.