Italy’s government basks in the glow of footballing success

A victory for the European idea, but also for the Italian right


THE EURO 2020 final between Italy and England was striking, not just for the clash of footballing styles in the match itself, but for the socio-political undercurrents that swirled between the two sides and touched on issues that included nationalism, internationalism and racial sensitivity. In at least one respect, it was a victory for Europeanism. It was the first UEFA European championship final to be played since Britain’s exit from the European Union. And although Brexit was not prominent in Italian commentary in the build-up to the game, it was never far below the surface. Hours before the match, one of Italy’s most popular television presenters, Ezio Greggio, used Instagram to urge Roberto Mancini and his team to “make them do a Brexit from the Euros too”.

That they did just that was as much of a boost for Italy’s fervently communautaire prime minister, Mario Draghi, as it was a dampener for his Brexit-sponsoring counterpart, Boris Johnson. A columnist for Il Mattino, a Naples daily, credited Mr Draghi, a former president of the European Central Bank, with “creating an internationally favourable context for Italy, presenting it in European and global forums as a serious and credible country”. Such a country, he added, was “equipped to win”.

Not everyone would agree with that analysis. But Italy’s victory on July 11th will certainly spread a warm glow of satisfaction through the country that may benefit Mr Draghi’s heterogeneous, and often seemingly fragile, coalition. The current Italian government spans a broad arc that stretches from the radical left, as represented by the small Free and Equal alliance, to the radical right, in the form of Matteo Salvini’s much larger Northern League.

To the extent that any sporting event can have an impact on politics, this one unquestionably favoured the right—and not just the League, but the even harder-right Brothers of Italy party, which is in opposition. The most striking aspect of Italy’s 26-man squad before it took to the pitch was that, alone among the main contenders,it did not include a single player considered as being of colour (Although three were born in Brazil, they are of Italian descent). The publication of the team photograph prompted a slew of criticism on social media, particularly in France. And there was further criticism of the squad’s ambivalent approach to “taking a knee” as a gesture of opposition to racism. Only some of the Italian players knelt before the game against Wales. They subsequently took the odd decision that they should all do so, but only if the opposing team did too.

Almost every country has learned that, in sport, diversity brings dividends—and indeed medals and cups. Italy, although it has a smaller and more recently acquired immigrant population than either France or Britain, is no exception. Fiona May, a British-born long-jumper of Jamaican extraction who became Italian by marriage, twice won gold for Italy in the world athletics championships. Mario Balotelli, born in Italy of Ghanaian parents, won 36 caps as a striker in the national football squad between 2010 and 2018.

But one reason why talented young sports people of colour in Italy are not nurtured through junior national teams in the early parts of their careers is that they are not Italians. And that is the way that Mr Salvini and the Brothers of Italy’s leader, Giorgia Meloni, want it to stay.

Italy’s citizenship law is a modified form of jus sanguinis, whereby the right to nationality is inherited. Children born in Italy to immigrant parents cannot usually apply to become Italian until they reach the age of 18, and only then if they have lived in Italy continuously since birth. Some never do. Around 5m people who speak Italian as their dominant language, often with the accents and inflections typical of Italian regions, continue to be considered foreigners.

When he was elected to lead the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) earlier this year, Enrico Letta said that he would make it a priority to change the law to allow for a form of jus soli, whereby the right to nationality arises from the place of birth. His announcement met with angry criticism, not only from Ms Meloni in opposition, but from his notional ally, Mr Salvini.

After Sunday’s match, both party leaders tweeted images of the members of the Italian squad celebrating, broad smiles on every face. It will do neither politician any harm that none of those faces was black. With the black British footballers who missed penalties suffering vicious racist abuse online, European football’s big night was not a great one for multiculturalism.

Harry Byrne

Harry Byrne

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