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When the Monkey Chants Are for You:

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A Soccer Star’s View of Racist Abuse

As black players in Europe endure racist incidents with increasing regularity, striker Romelu Lukaku speaks out about what he has endured: “It’s crazy.”

Romelu Lukaku was racially abused in his second match with Inter Milan.

Credit...Antonio Calanni/Associated Press

Rory Smith

Dec. 22, 2019

MILAN — Romelu Lukaku was planning on a relaxing evening in front of the TV. He might now find himself playing in Italy, but he was looking forward to following the fortunes of two of his former teams in the Premier League.

His hopes of a quiet night ended long before the games did. Not for the first time this season, he found himself composing a message for his Twitter and Instagram feeds. Not for the first time this season, he felt compelled to speak out against racism.

The cause, in this case, was the front page of the next day’s Corriere dello Sport, one of Italy’s sports newspapers. Its cover had been posted on Twitter late that evening with images of Lukaku, a Belgian striker whose parents were born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Chris Smalling, a former teammate of his who is of Jamaican descent and is now playing for Roma, to tease their teams’ weekend matchup. The headline read: “Black Friday.”

When Lukaku saw it, he was staggered. “It’s crazy,” he replied when he was sent an image of the front page over WhatsApp. He then criticized the paper publicly, saying it was the “dumbest of headlines.”

The mix of disappointment and frustration is a feeling Lukaku has had with dispiriting regularity in recent months. From England’s national team threatening to walk off the field during a game in Bulgaria to a match stopped by racist chants in the Netherlands to more recent incidents at Manchester City earlier this month and at Tottenham on Sunday, black players have reported being targets of racist incidents on what has seemed like a weekly basis in Europe this season.

Chelsea defender Antonio Rüdiger reported being subjected to racist gestures and songs in Sunday’s Premier League win at Tottenham.Credit...Eddie Keogh/Reuters

In Italy, it has been particularly virulent. Lukaku was racially abused in his second game after moving to the country this season, a chorus of monkey chants greeting him as he prepared to take a penalty during his Inter Milan team’s game at Cagliari. As he listened to the abuse in a stadium with a long, grim record of such incidents, he said he thought what he has always thought in these situations: “I’m going to score. I’m going to win. I’m going to go home.”

“I’ve been confronted by it many times in life,” he said. “You build a type of shell. I take my anger out on the field.”

He is not the only one to have been placed in that invidious position. Fiorentina’s Brazilian left back, Dalbert, heard racist chants at Atalanta and Sampdoria’s Ronaldo Vieira was targeted by Roma fans while playing at home. Mario Balotelli, now at Brescia, was so incensed at the abuse he received during a game in Verona in November that he picked up the ball and kicked it into the upper deck. Like Lukaku, Balotelli then had to endure a group of his own team’s fans publishing a verbose statement explaining away the incident.

Brescia's Mario Balotelli was racially abused by fans in Verona in November.

And he is not alone in feeling that the response of the country’s authorities has been lacking. Cagliari, whose officials initially denied anything had happened to Lukaku, escaped punishment from Serie A.

Outbursts of racism have long disfigured games in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, but the frequency with which they have occurred this season is especially alarming, given the rising nationalist tide across the continent. Italy, for example, saw racially motivated attacks triple after the populist Five Star movement entered into government with the Lega, a far-right party, in 2017. That increase is reflected in the experience of black players in the country’s stadiums.

The situation has grown so troubling that the Italian league’s clubs were moved to action themselves. In November, all 20 released a public statement admitting they had “not done enough” to address racism in Italian soccer, and informing the country’s authorities that now was the time for “serious change.”

In the weeks after that statement came the Corriere front page, which the newspaper defended, saying the criticism of it was like a “lynching.” Then Serie A’s general manager was caught on tape suggesting the solution might be muting stadium microphones, so at least the abuse is not broadcast. This week, Serie A unveiled a new anti-racism initiative featuring three paintings of chimpanzees, provoking a heated backlash that it was tone deaf.

“I say what I think,” he said. “If something is on my mind, I will stand up and speak.”

Pace and Power

Lukaku wanted Paul Pogba, a friend long before he was a Manchester United teammate, to be the first to know. Last summer, while they were in Australia on a preseason tour, Lukaku pulled Pogba aside and told him he had decided to leave England. “I told him I was done,” Lukaku said.

Lukaku had reached the conclusion a few months earlier. He had spent close to eight years in England by then, blossoming into one of the world’s best forwards, but his final two, after a $90 million transfer to United, had been arduous.

Lukaku with Paul Pogba. They forged a friendship as teenagers and were at last united in Manchester.

“It was always, ‘Yes, but …’ right from the start,” he said. “I scored against Real Madrid in the European Super Cup but missed a chance. It was: ‘But he missed that one.’ I scored against West Ham in my first Premier League game: ‘Yes, but. …’ From then on, I started to wonder how it was going to go.”

He still scored goals — 96 games, 42 goals — but he bristles at how his perceived poor form affected his reputation in England. “One year at United erased eight years prior to that,” he said. He feels that he and Pogba were “blamed for Manchester United’s fall.”

He wonders, now, if it was because United had paid so much money for him; he is, in cumulative transfer fees, the third most expensive player in history. There is, though, one other possibility.

There has always been a divergence between the player Lukaku is and the player he is perceived to be. One former manager, Roberto Martínez, always regarded Lukaku as a “thinker,” but that opinion was an outlier in discussions about him. As with many black players, analysis of Lukaku’s performance tends to focus on his strength, his athleticism, his physical attributes.

“It is never about my skill when I am compared to other strikers,” he said. “My one-on-one dribbling is good. I can do a step-over. I can beat a player. I remember one comment from a journalist that United should not sign Lukaku because he is not an ‘intelligent’ footballer.” That one, he said, stung.

It is what he calls the “pace and power element,” and it is hard not to wonder if he is seen that way because he is black. Research by Cynthia Frisby of the University of Missouri has found that black athletes are more likely to be portrayed in the news media as “innately physically gifted, yet lacking in intelligence and strong work ethics.”

Lukaku, playing for Manchester United, celebrated during a Champions League match at Paris St.-Germain in March.