A Policy in Vain – Italian Soccer’s Crackdown on Blasphemy
The phrase can mean a lot of things in the context of a sporting event: Exasperation after a bad play, disagreement with an official’s call, or merely a casual request for divine intervention, for instance.
Utter those words on the pitch in an Italian professional soccer match, though, and you might get more than you bargained for.
Like a red card and a subsequent one-game suspension.
Italian soccer officials recently concluded that blasphemous outbursts fall under the umbrella of “offensive, insulting or abusive language” and therefore should be penalized with an ejection and suspension. That’s right, make a comment about a deity in the wrong tone of voice, and you can hit the showers.
And if you think Italian officials are taking this new edict lightly, think again. They even have technology on their side. Last week, Chievo player Michele Marcolini was captured by a camera apparently muttering “dio” (God) as he left the field after picking up a red card.
That’s right, a camera. He didn’t scream it at the top of his lungs, making nuns weep, mothers hide their children, and eliciting a bolt of lightning from the heavens. No, he may have been seen saying something.
Such an offense warranted a review by the College of Cardinals – sorry, I meant to say, league officials – who instead determined that he was referring to someone named “Diaz.” There was no player on either roster with that name, but why should that matter?
Marcolini’s coach, Domenico Di Carlo, wasn’t so lucky. Three minutes into the second half of the same match, Di Carlo reportedly said “porco dio,” which equates God to a pig in an unkind manner. Those two words earned him an ejection from the game and a suspension for Chievo’s next contest.
Now, I have never been to Italy. I won’t profess to know Italian sensitivities over any reference to God. By geography alone, I would suspect that a country that encapsulates The Vatican may be a little touchier than, say, the United States.
Even so, does this really deserve an ejection and a suspension? Is it a more egregious offense than sliding, cleats high, at an opponent, which normally would earn just a yellow card? Is a statement to no one in particular more offensive than an insult directed at an opponent?
Remember, this is a country that won the World Cup in 2006 only after Italian defender Marco Materazzi so insulted French star Zinedine Zidane in the final match that Zidane head-butted Materazzi.
So just to get the record straight, questionable use of the Lord’s name in an Italian professional match is prohibited. But creating new ways to insult a French star during the World Cup in an effort to infuriate him, well, that’s downright patriotic.
It’s interesting that the powers that be have chosen to create this new use of the offensive language rule, instead of enforcing the original intent of the rule – that is, the verbal abuse of other players. Nothing is made of the caustic exchanges between players during a match, which are likely enough to make a sailor blush. Cameras and lip readers aren’t employed when players go nose to nose to hurl insults at each other.
This smacks more of Italian officials creating an opponent they can beat, instead of taking on real issues and failing.
For instance, Europe has seen a massive influx of immigrants in the last several decades, resulting in a rise in racial tensions. Soccer stadiums across the continent have been the site of racial and neo-Nazi chants from fans. In Italy, fans have been heard singing “a black Italian does not exist” towards opponents. Worse insults have been hurled by Italian fans, even at their own players.
Italian officials publicly agree that this sort of behavior can’t be tolerated. The president of the Juventus club angrily called out his own team’s fans after their demeaning behavior towards Mario Bolatelli, who is Italian-born but of Ghanaian descent.
But beyond rhetoric, little has been done to stem the racial tide. Small fines have been levied on clubs, with stiffer penalties threatened but never imposed.
So what do you do when you can’t correct the evil you know? Find a much lesser evil, and fix that one, even if no one really cared about it in the first place. (Of course, this is proof positive that Italian soccer officials are taking tips from politicians, who have employed this strategy ever since the sound bite was invented.)
And who gets to judge what’s offensive and not? Kaka, who starred for AC Milan before his transfer last year to Real Madrid, would routinely point to the sky after he scored a goal as a gesture of thanks to God. Would it have been blasphemous, if he missed a shot, to spread his arms wide and implore to the heavens? Does a player who looks skyward and shakes an angry fist get the same punishment as someone who verbalizes his disappointment?
If all of these questions sound like childish hair-splitting or meaningless topics of debate, you’re right. Italian officials have chosen to argue over the dust in the corner and ignore the elephant in the room. And every time they decide another player or coach should be suspended because of this rule, I have but one reaction: