Leonardo Bonucci’s response to Moise Kean showed how far Italian soccer has to go to address racism

CAGLIARI, ITALY - APRIL 02: Moise Kean of Juventus celebrates his goal 0-2 during the Serie A match between Cagliari and Juventus at Sardegna Arena on April 2, 2019 in Cagliari, Italy. (Photo by Enrico Locci/Getty Images)

Moise Kean, the 19-year-old superstar in the making for Juventus, scored his fourth goal in four total games in the 84th minutes against Cagliari. Afterwards, he jumped over the goalkeeper and the last defender, ran to the right side of the goal, toward Cagliari’s fans, and stood in front of them with his arms spread out.

Kean started the game, and the Cagliari fans had been making monkey chants at him and booing his every touch. When he celebrated in front of them, their disdain became even more pronounced.

After the game, Kean posted the celebration on Instagram, similarly to Raheem Sterling after England’s game against Montenegro, when Sterling ran up to Montenegro fans and cupped his ears at them after being racially abused.

Sterling captioned the picture of his celebration on his instagram with, “Best way to silence the haters (yeah I mean racists).” Kean captioned his with, “The best way to respond to racism.”

Both of their responses signaled that players are no longer willing to simply endure racist abuse. Yet at the same time, their examples also highlighted a sad trend in football, in which the abused are forced to shoulder most of the burden of addressing racism by themselves.

Kean received some support. Cagliari captain Luca Ceppitelli pleaded with the fans to stop after Kean’s celebration, and Juventus midfielder Blaise Matuidi was so angry that he protested to the referee to stop the game and threatened to walk off.

And yet, after the match, Cagliari president Tommaso Giulini blamed Kean for inciting the fans, even though the fans had been abusing him since the game’s outset:

”I heard mostly boos, if they started making animal noises then we were in the wrong. What happened at the end was because of a celebration which was wrong and it would have happened with any other player.”

Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri agreed with Giulini that Kean was partially at fault:

“He shouldn’t have celebrated in that manner,” Allegri said. “He is a young man and he has to learn, but certain things from the crowd also shouldn’t be heard.” Allegri also said in his post-match interview that fans who racially abuse players should be identified and given lifetime bans.

Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci also blamed Kean:

”I think the blame is 50-50. Moise should not have done that and the Curva [fans] should not have reacted in that way.”

Those comments stung the most. Bonucci should have been the most sympathetic of the three to Kean as an experienced member and leader of the team.

They were particularly embarrassing because they went against a teammate. Sterling called out Bonucci for his comments, as did many other prominent voices in soccer. And in Bonucci’s tweet celebrating the win, many fans filled the replies with pictures of Kean’s celebration and admonishments of the defender’s response.

Bonucci’s comments were stupid and ahistorical, but he’s a good example of the biggest challenges in the way of combating racism in Italian football and the sport as a whole. What he represents is a prevailing stance within the sport that denies how racism exists, and the continual failure of players to stand by abused teammates.

When Bonucci says Kean shares equal blame for the racist abuse from the Cagliari fans, he’s equating a response to abuse with abuse itself. He ignores the chants that even the commentators were aware of, the fact that Cagliari fans have a history of this type of abuse, and that racism exists without incitement. Inevitably, what Bonucci defends is maintaining the status quo.

Bonucci puts the burden on Kean to suffer in silence, something that so many racially abused players have had to do. The point of his statement, like Giulini’s, is to say nothing is inherently wrong with the racist fans, that those fans only behaved in such a way because the player made them. Thus, nothing should be done, except for the player to learn to deal with abuse in a more civil manner.

Bonucci and Giulini, like so much of Italian football, are less concerned with dealing with racism, and more with moving on from it. It’s no surprise then that Italian football has a reputation for bigotry, and has failed to deal with racism in a concrete way.

Bonucci also passed on an opportunity to support a teammate. Matuidi stood with Kean, because he’s been racially abused by the same fans before and understood the experience. White players and coaches like Bonucci and Allegri shouldn’t need to share the same experiences to stand against it, however. They should see racism as a moral problem, as something that needs to be dealt with because it’s wrong.

Two months ago, I interviewed Ben Carrington, a sociologist from USC about the problem of racism in football, and he brought up how the lack of solidarity is a big factor in why racism persists:

“Solidarity is the bedrock of taking stands because it’s the morally right thing to do. In other areas, we’ve seen examples of this. Someone like Andy Murray in tennis. There are a number of times when Murray will speak up for female tennis players and speak out against sexism within sports media in moments where he doesn’t have to.

“So, you’re right that the pressure gets put on the black athlete. What will [Mario] Balotelli do? What will Raheem Sterling do? But, what is [Harry] Kane going to do? What is [Andrea] Pirlo going to do? Ideally if they are supportive, it’s not just because the abused player is their teammate, because it implies that if he wasn’t on their team, then they wouldn’t do it.”

Unfortunately, as Kean’s situation shows once again, Italian football isn’t learning anything when it comes to racism. As long as the default stance of the league and its players is to parcel blame onto abused players on behalf of their fans, there’s no hope that racism will ever be dealt with properly in Serie A.