It was not the sort of story you expect to make the national newspapers. A journeyman forward, whose team play the fifth tier of Italian football, getting into a fight at a wedding reception is not exactly high up the public interest agenda. It had been a significant brawl, with police called and the player requiring stitches in his arm, but hardly hold-the-front-page material.
The identity of the player, though, ensured that the incident last October would indeed receive prominent coverage. Akeem Omolade’s career might not have panned out as successfully as he envisaged, but in the Italian national consciousness he will forever remain the player at the centre of one of the most remarkable anti-racism protests ever to play out on a football field.
In the wake of Kevin-Prince Boateng’s walk-off against Pro Patria last week, it is a story worth revisiting. If the image of Milan’s players following their colleague off the field was certainly a powerful one, it was still not nearly so striking as the sight of an entire football team emerging from the tunnel with their faces painted black before kick-off.
Still just an 18-year-old kid in May of 2001, the Nigerian Omolade had been with Treviso for the best part of two seasons but never played with the senior team. Away to Ternana, he finally got his chance. Treviso, teetering on the brink of relegation, had just fallen 2-1 behind when the manager Mauro Sandreani finally instructed Omolade to get ready to enter the game.
No sooner had he run out onto the pitch, than the abuse began. Not from the home support, but Treviso’s own fans, who first began to whistle, then to make monkey noises, then to hurl insults in Omolade’s direction. After a few minutes they settled on a more radical form of protest, packing up their flags and banners and exiting the stadium with more than 15 minutes remaining.
For Treviso, it was an all-too familiar scene. The club had already been fined more than €50,000 that season over instances of fan racism, with their Brazilian midfielder Pelado so severely targeted that he wound up leaving the club mid-season to return back home. As is often the case, only a minority of fans were involved, but they had certainly been effective in making themselves heard.
The official response to this latest incident was deeply dispiriting. Treviso’s general manager, Giovanni Gardini, said that the club would continue to use black players but otherwise seemed eager to deflect the issue. “Having made this clarification, we are now interested only in occupying ourselves with football,” he said. “It is pointless, even dangerous, for the team to keep commenting on these issues, since we do not have the tools—not even on a legal level—to address them.”
Inside the dressing room, however, the players were formulating their own response. An idea was hatched for the players to paint their faces black for the next game—at home to Genoa—in a show of solidarity with Omolade. The defender Nicola Marangon even sought advice from friends at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice, one of Italy’s most famous opera houses, about which face-painting products might best suit their needs.
The midfielder Federico Smanio was responsible for purchasing, and on the day of the game it was Lorenzo Minotti, one of the team’s elder statesmen, who took charge of face-painting duties. The players had kept their plans a closely guarded secret, so much so that at least one of them arrived for the match completely unaware.
“[Alessandro] Gazzi, a youth-team player, was making his debut against Genoa and didn’t know anything about it,” Minotti would recall. “He didn’t even know he was going to be playing, and he was so emotional that he forgot to spread it around a bit after I had put it on. You can see it clearly on the pictures.” (He’s the redhead).
It was not only the starting XI who took part, but also the entire bench and even the manager Sandreani. The reaction as they emerged onto the pitch was at first of shock, and then approval among the home crowd. Those Ultras who had kicked up such a storm at the previous fixture were either absent or chose on this occasion not to make themselves heard.
The match would be a scrappy one, Treviso showing off all of their many flaws. Omolade once again started on the bench, but this time his second-half introduction was met with applause. At that point the score was 1-1, and by the 86th minute the stage was set for a Hollywood finish. Omolade rose to meet a cross from the right with a header into the corner of the net.
Under pouring rain, he careered away to celebrate with team-mates whose face paint was beginning to smear away. This was the penultimate game of the season, and for a few short minutes it appeared that Omolade’s goal would allow Treviso to go into the final weekend with hopes of salvation still alive. But then, in injury time, Marco Carparelli equalised. Treviso were relegated.
Nevertheless, Omolade thanked his team-mates one-by-one afterwards for their gesture. “I will never forget that Sunday in Terni [when I made my debut],” he told reporters afterwards. “But things like today are what help you to continue … I would like to thank everybody.”
Of course, many outside of Italy might have come away with a very different take. Many people would consider using black face paint under any context to be a highly offensive gesture. But in Italy the gesture would be repeated in a number of anti-racism campaigns over the ensuing years, with players as high profile as Alessandro Del Piero, Alessandro Costacurta and Andriy Shevchenko taking part.
The response to Treviso’s act was overwhelmingly positive—the team winning praise in the media as well as all manner of commendations from various sporting bodies. Omolade himself earned a Uefa Fair Play award for the dignity with which he handled the initial abuse.
“Confronted by the stupidity of the few, they showed the courage not to hide,” read one article in La Repubblica. “Confronted by acts of racism from a fringe group of their supporters, Treviso’s players decided not to pretend they hadn’t heard.”
But for all the many plaudits Treviso received, the impact of their gesture was not a lasting one. Omolade moved to Torino in the summer, but the following season those same Treviso Ultras who had targeted him at Ternana repeated the exact same routine with the team’s new signing Reginaldo, jeering him before walking out in protest during a game against Lumezzane.
The events of the last few days—from Pro Patria’s game against Milan to the abuse of Victor Ibarbo during Cagliari’s defeat to Lazio—show that on a national level the problem has never been resolved. It will take something more powerful than symbolic gestures to truly change the way people think and act.