Two time AC Milan coach and Serie A winner and ex-Italian national team coach Arrigo Sacchi’s comment that there are “too many blacks” in Italian youth football unleashed a sh*t-storm in which it was eventually universally agreed that the man is a racist. These accusations predominantly came from people who are firstly, unfamiliar with Sacchi’s work as a coach and secondly, culturally unaware and unable to put these comments into context.
The looming witch-hunt and accusations of condoning racism have ensured that perhaps one the best people to explain Sacchi’s comments, the manager of Di Marzio’s English page and Italian football expert, David Amoyal – is too scared to speak on the matter. No worries, David. As a black Arab Muslim man (who has experienced discrimination throughout my life), a football and a cultural nerd – I can help explain.
Sacchi’s complaints are regarding the fact that currently, the best youth players in Italy are mostly of immigrant background. This includes Arabs, South Americans and West Africans alike. Moreover, there is a concern that many Italian youth teams are increasingly picking foreign players with forged (age) documents for short-term gains. It’s not an attack on black players alone, but a denunciation of the lack of ethnic Italians coming through.
In fairness to Sacchi, he is just a product of his society. Italy is no stranger to race scandals. From the black MP who had bananas thrown at her in Parliament, to the president of the Italian Football Federation Carlo Tavecchio calling foreign players banana eaters. From Inter Milan fans racially abusing their former player Mario Ballotelli to Kevin Prince Boateng walking off the pitch after racial abuse in a friendly match with a lower-league Italian side.
Thus, the first mistake that the accusers are making, is to hold Italians to the same politically correct standards as northern Europe. Passion is part of the Italian genetic make-up, and this means that you don’t mince about your words, especially when it comes to matter of patriotism. Their racism is less nuanced than say, the racism of northern European pundits. Are Sacchi’s comments any less different than British pundits complaints about the perceived lack of opportunities for British coaches? The constant complaints about the dearth of homegrown talent? Or the fact that every tall black midfielder is considered to be the new Patrick Vieira? Moreover, it bothers me that the same people who will only talk about football during the World Cup, can misconstrue Sacchi’s mistranslated, poor choice of words – but will never complain about the lack of footballers coming through from the Indian subcontinent.
People have mocked Sacchi for playing the ‘look at my record with black players’ card, which is considered no different to a racist attesting that they have black friends. But as a football nerd, I can see that Sacchi was one of the first coaches to not pigeon-hole black players into positions where they have to use their physical traits above everything else – in spite of the culture that formed his brain.
For example, his Milan team of the early 90s put black players in positions where you have to work with your brain, not brawn. First, there was Ruud Gullit in the trequarista/number 10 role. This is a position where you not only have to be technically proficient, but you have to move intelligently – to operate in the spaces between the oppositions defensive and midfield lines and to feed clever passes into the forward, wingers and overlapping full-backs. In that same team he played Frank Rijkaard as a regista/number 8. In the deep-lying playmaking role, you do what the trequarista does, but the emphasis being on dictating the tempo of the game with patient and probing passing.
In his second spell as Milan’s coach, his first move was to turn Marcel Desailly from a box-to-box destroyer into a ball-playing centre-half. Under Fabio Capello, Desailly was the team’s water-carrier. He charged around the pitch like a slave using his physical qualities to intimidate the opposition, force them into mistakes and disrupting their rhythm. Under Sacchi, he was given the duty of a libero/sweeper. To be entrusted with this role in a Sacchi team is a huge responsibility, considering their high-press and propensity to playing the offside trap. Not only did Desailly have to build attacks from deep, but he also had to be extremely intelligent in his defensive positioning. Considering how vulnerable a high-press team is to straight passes in behind the defence, as the last man back (before the goalkeeper) Desailly had to show unbelievable anticipation skills to prevent his goal being bombarded. Desailly would go on to win the World Cup in 98’ in the position that Sacchi converted him to.
There was much less of an uproar regarding Willy Sagnol’s recent comments:
"The advantage of what I would call the typical African player is that they are cheap... ready to fight. But football is not just about that, it is about technique, intelligence, discipline, so you need everything."
These are the kind of comments that reinforce the stereotype that black players are only good for using their speed and strength and that their football brains are somehow deficient. Sagnol (Bordeaux head coach) is one of the few to express these views publicly but it isn’t far off the mark to say that they are present in the subconscious of the European coach/fan/pundits mind-frame. Take for example, how tall black midfielders such as Jon Obi Mikel, Alex Song, Charles Kabore, Cheikh Tiote and (initially) Yaya Toure are considered defensively minded destroyers for their European club teams, where they bully and batter the opposition. Yet they all came to prominence as either registas or trequaristas playing higher up the park and utilizing their technical skills and indeed, these are roles they play in for their national teams.
If Sacchi was really a racist, do you not reckon that Lillian Thuram, who said the infamous racist Chelsea fans “should stand trial”, would have spoken out by now?