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Opinion: Why Juventus’ Racist Tweet Risks Isolating Fans Like Me

It took me a couple of days to write this, as I needed all that time to sort out my complicated feelings.

FC Barcelona Women v Juventus Women - Joan Gamper Trophy Photo by Sportinfoto/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

When people ask me why I like Italy so much, I tend to give them a plethora of reasons why. I tell them about how when I first heard Tiziano Ferro sing ‘Sere Nere’, I was moved to tears by the beauty of the song. I couldn’t understand Italian back then, I was just moved by the emotions. And I was moved enough to fall in love with the country.

Eventually, my fascination with Italy led me to become a fan of the country’s favorite sport: Calcio. I became a fan of Italian football due to the country’s winning legacy and I did so shortly after they won the 2006 World Cup. Italy won through a combination of technical skills, dogged determination, and outsmarting their opponents through tactics. It’s the latter part that really appealed to me because, as a lower-middle-class kid who had to put myself through college, I too, had to rely on outsmarting people to get where I am in life.

I could relate to the Italians in other ways too. American society tends to ethnicize Italians and I too, have been subject to that same ethnicization. The only difference is that most Italians are white and I’m Asian. More specifically, I’m Asian-American and my family emigrated to the US from Laos in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. It’s an immigration tale not too dissimilar from the ones forged by the Italian immigrants of the early 19th century.

I could also tell you about how I first experienced the thrill of football by becoming a fan of AC Milan. I’ve also experienced the joy of winning it all twice with the Azzurri. Watching Italy win Euro 2020 felt like a reward for all of the hell I had been through with the team and my own life. It felt cathartic.

I’ll also tell them about the Italians who showed me support when my mother and I had the coronavirus. The virus afflicted both of us pretty badly and I once had chest pains so bad that I had to go to the ER twice in 48 hours. I posted this to both my Twitter and Tumblr pages and received an outpouring of support, with a lot of it coming from my Italian friends.

Furthermore, I can write of the thank you notes I’ve received, both from Italians and non-Italians alike, on how much of an effort I’ve put into covering Serie A Femminile.

Occasionally though, I have come across something that makes me question whether I should keep covering Italian football. Usually, it comes from the men’s game, and the FIGC’s inability to effectively combat racism in the country’s football. The latest existential crisis was a result of this tweet by Juventus.

Somehow, someway, someone thought that it was a good idea to post that. The tweet caused a firestorm and rightfully so, a lot of people began calling out the team’s Twitter admin. Their non-apology afterward, where the team said the tweet ‘may have offended’, didn’t help either. The statement pretty much confirmed that they didn’t understand that what they did was pretty racist.

Juve’s tweet also comes at a bad moment in time. As a result of the current COVID-19 pandemic, hate crimes against Asians have spiked across the globe, including in Italy. Hate crimes against Asian-Americans have also increased dramatically. In my home state of California, they’ve increased by 107%.

It’s worth noting that the little cone that Ceci wore on her head is also nicknamed a ‘cinesino’ in Italian. ‘Cinesino’ means ‘little’ or ‘small Chinese person’ and the suffix ‘ino’ is usually used affectionately. In this case, the cone is called a ‘cinesino’ about the conical, straw hats that are common throughout Asia. That type of hat is more common in Southeast Asia than China, but to non-Asians, our cultures are just an amalgam that blurs together. There are no nationalities or cultural differences when it comes to these floating signifiers, as when the white Italians look at them, they all mean the same thing:

You’re Chinese.

But Heaven forbid if you do the same thing to Europeans. It would be like calling the Italians ‘Greeks’ based on the tunics they used to wear and the fact that they stole their Greek gods.

The fact that Salvai put the ‘cinesino’ on top of her head and pulled her eyes back to make her look Chinese just confirms that she was true, mocking Asian people.

When Salvai did what she did, it brought back all of those familiar feelings. It made me feel like I was a kid all over again, watching my classmates do the same gesture to make fun of me. It brought back the way I felt when one of my classmates pushed me off my bike and called me a ‘Japanese p-ssy’.

I’m not even Japanese but again, to non-Asians, you’re all the same thing to them.

Seeing those pictures of Ceci making the slanted eyes and pretending to be Chinese felt like a punch to my stomach. It also felt like I had swallowed a giant stone and my stomach was experiencing a bad bout of indigestion. I also felt this deep sense of disappointment. Before this incident, Serie A Femminile was my refuge from the problems in the Italian men’s game. As I’ve described it many times before, it was, for the most part, an escape, where the problems of homophobia, sectarianism, territorial discrimination, and racism hadn’t infiltrated the women’s game to the same degree as the men’s.

That was until that tweet from Juventus. It felt like someone had infiltrated a carefully built sanctuary and knocked over all the statues. In retrospect, it was perhaps rather naive of me to think that it would always be that way.

And when Ceci made that gesture, it felt like she was not only mocking all Asian people but mocking me personally. It also made me feel unwanted and was a stark reminder that I’m not one of them. Now, I wonder if I should keep covering a league with players who think it’s okay to mock me.

I also wonder if I should keep supporting the team that has her as one of its key players. Cecilia Salvai is one of the best defenders in Italy and often starts matches for the Azzurre. As of right now, I don’t feel okay supporting a team with a player who thinks it’s okay to make fun of people who look like me.

There are others who might feel the same way. I’ve already heard from a few of my friends who are Asian-Italian about how Juve’s actions have affected them. One of them is a Juventino. I’ve also heard reports about how much Juve’s actions have angered fans in Asia. What makes this situation even more frustrating is how helpless we feel when it comes to this racism. Often, whenever Asians talk about the discrimination we face, our feelings get downplayed.

They get dismissed and marginalized. We’re told to get over it or have people who have never experienced racism before explaining to us what racism actually is. ‘It’s just a joke’, we’re told. The problem is that these jokes aren’t just lighthearted banter. They’re meant to dehumanize us.

The little microaggressions we experience are meant to otherize us too. When I was training to be a nurse, I was often fed these poisonous little pills that were wrapped in the shiny veneer of candy-coated ignorance. ‘Do you speak English?’ or ‘Were you born here?’ The thinking behind these questions is that you must be a recent immigrant. They can’t fathom the fact that you were born here. Even if the intent was not meant to be harmful, it still hurts. I was born in San Diego, CA, and currently live in Sacramento. I’ve lived in California my whole life and am college-educated. So I dunno, maybe I speak English well.

And those little microaggressions feel like a death by a thousand cuts. It also normalizes racism against Asians and makes it acceptable.

The fact that this incident made international headlines will either compound or complicate the way they feel. Outlets that normally don’t pay attention to the Juventus Women were tweeting about them. It’s not the type of exposure that you’d want a burgeoning league to have. Incidents like this also won’t help the growth of Serie A Femminile as it continues the march towards professionalism and becoming a global presence. However, it has left a deep, red stain on the league, and one that will brand it with the scarlet letter ‘A’ for ‘avoid’. Casuals who are new to women’s football, and Italy in particular, might be turned off by things like this. It’s something that has hurt Serie A and sadly, it might also affect the women in Serie A Femminile.

And as someone who is seen as a bridge between Serie A Femminile and the English-speaking world, it also puts me in a tough position. As things stand now, I have been having some doubts about whether I should continue talking about the league. However, if I don’t continue to talk about them, then a link is lost and so is the knowledge that comes with it.

When people ask me why I like Italy and Serie A, I’ll tell them about how my own team, AC Milan, have taken efforts to combat racism.

Milan, however, has taken steps to combat racism. They spoke out against the FIGC’s poorly thought-out art campaign involving monkeys. They also walked off the pitch when their players were racially abused in a friendly match in 2013.

The men’s team were also the first team in Italy to take the field in shirts that showed support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

AC Milan

The women’s team also took a knee for the movement. To date, they were one of two teams in Serie A Femminile to do so.

This is not to say that Milan have been perfect in this regard, however. Former president, Silvio Berlusconi, often said things that were downright dumb or just plain offensive. Oftentimes, they were both. There were also the Milan fans that used to sing songs about Samuel Eto’o selling roses. The goal of the song was to reinforce racist stereotypes about Africans and imply that Eto’o was just a poor migrant who sold flowers, and not one of the greatest forwards of all time. It was their way of punishing him for playing for our rivals, Inter. And if that wasn’t enough, a former Milan player, Alexandre Pato, once mocked Asians too.

The sad truth is that Asians and other POC will always face discrimination everywhere we go. It’s an unavoidable fact of life. And it hurts every single time you see it.

I just wish the other teams in the league would also try to actively combat racism. Going back to Ceci, some people have mistakenly called her the captain of the Juventus women. This is due to pictures of her wearing the captain’s armband. She is not, in fact, their captain and is instead their vice-captain. The team’s real captain is Sara Gama. Gama is biracial and is half-Congolese and half-Italian. She is a Black woman who is not only the captain of Juventus but the captain of the Italian national team. Gama is also a rarity, as Italy is the only European country to have a Black woman as their captain. Even the major footballing powers outside of Europe can’t make this claim, chief among them being the United States, Canada, and Australia.

In addition to being a leader on the field, Gama is also a leader off the pitch. The defender is currently a member of the Federal Council of the FIGC. The position allows her to have her say in calcio’s governing body and she’s wielded her influence with good measure. Gama was instrumental in the fight to professionalize the women’s game in Italy. As a result, Serie A Femminile will now become a professional league in 2022.

Gama is also the first woman to become the vice-president of the AIC (footballers union). She has also been inducted into the FIGC’s Fondazione Museo del Calcio (football hall of fame). Sara’s captaincy and appointments are proof that in a small way, Italy is trying to progress forward. Lamont Marcell Jacobs and Paola Egonu bringing success to Italy in the Olympics and also being chosen as the nation’s flag bearers would also attest to this progress.

Unfortunately, Salvai’s actions have brought them two steps backward from all this progress. They are also a reminder that Italy still has a long way to go.

It’s also sad that Sara Gama’s achievements rarely if ever, make it into the English-speaking press. The woso media tends to be very insular and does not pay attention to anything that doesn’t happen out of England or the United States. As a consequence of this, Gama’s achievements fly under the radar, while Salvai’s mistakes are magnified at the highest level.

During their pseudo apology that they have always been against discrimination. Earlier this year, they wore special jerseys that had the statistics of racism on them. This included Anti-Asian racism as well. And yet, their actions just six days ago flew in the face of their claim that they’ve ‘always’ been against racism.

I should also add that many Italians themselves have been outraged by these things. Many of them are also outraged over what Juventus did. The situation on the ground is always complex and there are always many nuances. However, the country needs to work on better educating people to prevent things like this from happening in the future.

Racism is a common problem in every area of the world. It is also prevalent in other leagues and countries, and the recent abuse of Saka, Sancho, and Rashford after they missed their penalties in the Euro 2020 final, just confirms this. However, the thing that separates Italy from other countries is that they are bad in dealing with these issues.

In England, eleven arrests were made in the wake of the online abuse of the previously mentioned players. In Italy, on the other hand, it often seems like the country is bad at handling these incidents. Oftentimes, the Ultras don’t get punished for their abuse and when they do so, it’s after hours of mealy-mouthed deliberation or debate.

However, before you go thinking that England is somehow a utopia or racial harmony, it is not. A recent advertisement by The Ivy Asia shows just how ignorant people in the country can be. It also shows just how endemic Anti-Asian racism can be.

Not too long ago, Devin Funchess, an NFL wide receiver, made the same gesture that Salvai did. But the fact that Funchess did it and didn’t realize it was offensive shows just how normalized Anti-Asian racism is and how accepted he is all around the world.

The only difference is, Devin has apologized for it. Salvai has yet to apologize for her faux pas. One wonders if Cecilia will also face any discipline for her actions. When Yuli Gurriel mocked Yu Darvish during the 2018 World Series, he was suspended for five games during the next season. Sanja Djurdjevic, a Serbian volleyball player, face similar disciplinary measures when she was caught in 4K making fun of Thailand’s players during a match.

In a perfect world, Ceci would face similar disciplinary actions. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world.

I’m guessing the club has placed a moratorium on her speaking about this issue, if only so Ceci doesn’t pull out a rope and fasten a noose for herself. Again.

Maybe she wants to apologize but isn’t allowed to say anything about it. Perhaps the weight of her actions is beginning to weigh on her, evident by her poor performance against FC Barcelona in a ‘friendly’ match.

The fact that she hasn’t been allowed to express any regret makes both her and her club look bad. It also leaves me in the position of wondering if I should keep supporting Italy and supporting the Azzurre. I don’t feel comfortable supporting a team with someone like her on it.

I do also realize that it’s also not fair to lump in the rest of the Italian players with her. As was noted before, Valentina Giacinti, her compatriot on the national team, took a knee for Black Lives Matter. Alia Guagni, the team’s vice-captain, also took a knee in a UWCL match against Barcelona. Moreover, Laura Giuliani (Italy’s starting goalkeeper) has also shown her support for the movement.

So, now I feel that I’m at an impasse and have to make a difficult choice. Juve’s actions were stupid and harmful and they have hurt others in more ways than one. Now, they risk isolating fans like me as I don’t feel comfortable supporting any team with Cecilia Salvai in it.

It’s not a position I want to be in. But sadly, if you’re a racial minority, then you’re used to going through things like this.

All I know is that I’ll have a lot to think about in these next few days and a tough choice to make. I’ll let you know what I decide to do in the end.