05/28/2013 01:18 EDT | Updated 07/28/2013 05:12 EDT

Italy: Where Sport, Politics and Racism Dine Together

Italians, said Winston Churchill, "lose wars as if they were football matches, and football matches as if they were wars." In 2013, the worlds of Italian sport and politics match and mirror each other in the unfortunate experiences of Cecile Kyenge and Mario Balotelli as victims of racial abuse. And not thinly-veiled abuse -- a la, "I'm not a racist, but..." -- but monkey chants and accusations of nefarious "tribal" allegiances.

Kyenge is Italy's first black cabinet minister; an eye surgeon from Modena, she was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and moved to Italy when she was 18. An Italian citizen for many years, she is married to an Italian, has two children and has long been active in local politics. In short, Kyenge is a dream immigrant.

She was appointed Minister of Integration by the coalition government of Enrico Letta in April (formed two months after elections in Italy resulted in no clear winner). Upon her appointment she found herself the recipient of less than charitable comments, and not only from neo-fascists jeering from the relative safety and anonymity of the internets, but from fellow politicians.

Mario Borghezio, a European parliamentarian from Italy's anti-immigration Northern League party, suggested Kyenge's appointment meant Rome would be home to a "bonga bonga government" -- not to be confused with Silvio Berlusconi's "bunga bunga" parties -- and that Kyenge would bring "tribal traditions" to Italian politics.

Exactly what he meant isn't clear, though perhaps he feared that Kyenge would show up to policy debates with a spear in hand. Perhaps he has watched the Road to Zanzibar one too many times. (For the record, it's a very funny movie, but not a nuanced representation of life in Africa.)

Kyenge has handled the situation with a great deal of grace, tweeting that criticism can be helpful if expressed with respect.

Balotelli's story is better known, even to those who are not fans of English Premier League or Serie A soccer (he has played in both leagues this season), as he is possessed of a big personality and bigger talent.

Only three weeks ago, the AC Milan striker -- an Italian whose biological parents are from Ghana -- was subjected to monkey chants from spectators at a match against Lazio. (Had that not happened, the most noteworthy thing about the match might have been the hideous gold kits the Milan players were wearing.) Similar incidents have occurred during other matches, including one in April against Juventus, nearly resulting in the Turin team having to play their Scudetto-winning match on May 5th to an empty stadium. Instead, they were fined. And last year, during the European Championship, Balotelli found it wasn't just his skin colour that inspired hatred:

Death threats were issued by extreme right-wing groups when, after a visit to Auschwitz, he revealed one of his adoptive parents was of Jewish heritage.

AC Milan midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng, who has Ghanaian and German citizenship, drew headlines in January when he led his team off the pitch after a barrage of racist taunts during a "friendly" match. That his team supported him sent a strong message, but one wonders if athletes would be willing to abandon a Serie A or Champions League match.

Racism in European football is not unusual; Italy is not the only offender, as the Onion recently made clear. Anyone who has ever watched a World Cup match is familiar with the sight of teams unfurling banners bearing platitudes about respect. The gesture is nice, innocuous -- it probably does very little.

Likewise, Boateng was invited to speak at a UN racism forum, the UN being about as effective at fighting intolerance as a platitudinous banner.

Still, he has given valuable input: in particular, he wants more power given to referees to halt play. Others have suggested point deductions and even relegation to a lower division for teams whose fans are serial offenders, as well as adopting some of the harsher measures used in other leagues. In England, for example, a fan shouting slurs at Balotelli last fall was identified, fined and barred from attending matches for three years.

It should be said that the Italians who wave inflatable bananas at black players or who call Kyenge names do not represent the majority. But the problem persists, aggravated by a number of factors: a cursory look at history shows us that economic crises can inspire the worst kind of nationalism; the unwillingness of stewards and even of the police to deal with the fans known as "ultras"; a high tolerance for the existence of neo-fascist groups in Italy (visitors to Italy are often unpleasantly surprised by how easily Mussolini paraphernalia can be found for purchase) and a high tolerance for bigoted comments, in general. The February elections saw huge successes for Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement, despite Grillo's isolationist world view and history of anti-Semitic slurs.

Another factor is immigration:

"There was no racism 40 years ago because there were no non-white Italians," said James Walston, a political science professor at American University of Rome. "You need the other in order to hate the other."

"It will take a long time -- probably there will never be a completely racism-free society -- but it will take a long time for Italy to reach the sort of acceptance, multi-cultural acceptance that the rest of Europe has and North America has," he said in an interview.

Kyenge has said she wants to make it easier for children of immigrants to become Italian citizens and has talked about having Balotelli contribute to the debate. In soccer-impassioned Italy, that might help, though nothing quite helps like an apology. And last week, Borghezio offered one to Kyenge, along with a dinner invitation. If she accepts, the two of them might be wise to remember the words of the great Italian actor Toto, who said, "A proposito di politica, ci sarebbe qualcosa da mangiare?"

Or "Speaking of politics, is there anything to eat?"