Balotelli Brazil
Italy's Mario Balotelli appears during the team's 2014 World Cup Group D soccer match against Costa Rica at the Pernambuco arena in Recife, Brazil, June 20, 2014. Reuters/Dominic Ebenbichler

MILAN -- At the end of a football game last month in Forte dei Marmi, a coastal town in Italy’s Tuscany, an 11-year-old striker playing with AC Milan’s youth team walked off the field in tears. He wasn’t sad about the score: His team had just crushed France’s Paris Saint Germain, 4-0, moving on to the semifinals of a 48-team youth tournament.

The boy was crying because the parents attending the tournament had hurled racist insults at him and his four black teammates.

Italian football is popular all over the world, and the national team playing the game called soccer in the U.S. is tied with Germany for the most World Cup victories, trailing only Brazil. But in Italy the sport has an ugly side that distinguishes it among other European nations: the blatant racism displayed by many fans, players and coaches.

Episodes such as the one in Forte dei Marmi, and recent instances of racist statements by top figures in Italian football, are an alarming signal that while overt racist episodes in the sport are on the decline in other parts of Europe, the problem may only be getting worse in Italy.

Experts say football may reflect the persistence of racism in Italy, where episodes such as the racist heckles directed at Cecile Kyenge, the first black cabinet minister in the country’s history, are commonplace. She has been compared with an orangutan by a national politician and had bananas thrown at her.

“In the last two or three years, we had a higher number of racist episodes in youth tournaments,” said Mauro Valeri, a professor of sociology of ethnic relations at La Sapienza University in Rome who works with the government’s National Office Against Racial Discrimination.

After all, this is a country where fans of the national team routinely heckle their own star striker Mario Balotelli by chanting while he is on the field, “There’s no such a thing as an Italian n----.” In addition to being offensive, these comments also ignore the growing number of black players growing up in Italy. Balotelli is an Italian citizen, born to Ghanaian parents in Sicily and adopted at a young age by an Italian family from Brescia. He speaks with a distinct Northern Italian accent.

“In Italy, there is an increase of young black players,” Valeri said, “most of whom were born and raised in this country.”

According to Valeri, authorities recorded about 750 episodes of racism in all of Italy’s football leagues between 2000 and 2014. “Just during the 2013/2014 season, we experienced 118 incidents, especially among youngsters,” Valeri said.

“Clubs paid almost 4 million euros in fines, but the money was not used for anti-racism initiatives as happens, for example, for the Union of European Football Associations,” Valeri said, referring to the body governing Europewide competitions. “In Italy, it was used mainly to pay for assistants or to make photocopies.”

African players are frequently the targets of incredibly offensive heckling. In January 2013, Kevin-Prince Boateng, a Ghanaian player for AC Milan, walked off the pitch with his teammates during a friendly match against third-division Pro Patria after opposing fans howled, to simulate monkeys, every time he carried the ball. In May 2014, Atalanta fans threw bananas at Kevin Constant, an AC Milan defender from Guinea.

Experts say the Italian football federation, or FIGC, is responsible for not stamping out racist attitudes among Italian fans, players and coaches.

“In Italy, part of the problem has been the leaders within football. It sometimes seems that even at the top level you have individuals who either carry these prejudices themselves or feel it is OK to talk in a loose way,” said Piara Powar, executive director of Football Against Racism in Europe.

One of those football leaders is the current FIGC president, Carlo Tavecchio, who made headlines last summer with a racist remark uttered while campaigning for election. He indicated African players get jobs too easily with the Italian top teams, while in other European nations only good players make the cut.

“Here we get Opti Poba, who previously ate bananas and then suddenly becomes a first-team player ... In England, he must demonstrate his curriculum and his pedigree,” Tavecchio said, referring to a fictitious African whose name he had made up.

The episode shocked many, but a few weeks later -- amid the feeble opposition by a large daily newspaper, a few clubs, some coaches and players’ associations -- Tavecchio was elected president with 64 percent of the vote. The Union of European Football Associations and the International Football Federation sanctioned the newly elected president for racism, but an internal FIGC investigation cleared him of any wrongdoing.

“My words were unfortunate and I immediately apologized,” Tavecchio told International Business Times through a representative via email. “On this topic, my human and professional paths are clear: for over 30 years I collaborated with [aid organizations] in Africa.”

Tavecchio may really have believed he wasn’t being racist. He is currently traveling around Italy presenting an anti-racism program directed at young people.

“Often, things that in other countries are seen as racist are not seen as racist in Italy. The former Italy manager [Arrigo Sacchi] said there are too many black players, and then said this isn’t racist. That’s quite ridiculous,” said John Foot, a professor of modern Italian history at the University of Bristol and one of the foremost experts on Italian football.

One of Italy’s most successful and respected coaches, Sacchi said this year that in Italian football “there are too many black players, even on the youth teams. Italy has no dignity, no pride. It’s not possible that our teams should have 15 foreign players on the roster.”

When confronted about his comments by journalists, Sacchi, who was technical coordinator of the youth program at FIGC until last July, replied indignantly that “I am certainly not racist, and my history as a coach proves that, starting with [Frank] Rijkaard,” a black Dutchman who was a prominent player on his AC Milan squad in the 1980s.

“There is always a denial that something is racist. It shows that most Italians think that racism is a bad thing,” Foot said. “They don’t want to be openly racist, but they don’t really understand what racism is.”

Or even understand that it’s a problem.

Tavecchio, a former politician who served as the head of the national amateur football league for 15 years, considers racism an overblown issue. “There are only a few bad episodes,” he said, “and thousands of positives that should make news.”

But we may know about only a fraction of the racist incidents that actually happen on Italian football fields.

In March last year, a 19-year-old playing for top-division Atalanta’s youth team was suspended for 10 games after calling another player “vu cumprà” or “wanna buy,” a racist term for African street peddlers. Last October, a 16-year-old AC Milan player was suspended for five games and fined for 5,000 euros for insulting a Ghanaian opponent with the Italian equivalent of the English N-word. In January, an Italian 15-year-old of Ethiopian origin was insulted by an opponent’s parent in Florence, after a match between two local teams.

According to Foot, racism is clearly a problem in Italian society as a whole, since Italy had very little immigration until the 1970s, and society doesn’t yet have the cultural tools to deal with a population that has rapidly grown diverse.

“Football mirrors the social tensions faced by Italy, as well as other nations,” Tavecchio himself said.

According to the National Institute of Statistics, as of January, there were 5.73 million foreign residents in Italy, about 8.3 percent of the total population. In France, Germany, Spain and the U.K., the comparable figure is well above 10 percent.

To be sure, Italy may not be alone among European nations in being a hotbed of football racism, but its inability to deal with the persistence of racism is baffling.

“Eastern Europe in some ways is even worse,” Foot said. “Italy however is an interesting case: It has a very powerful football federation, it has a very important league, but despite 25 years of racist episodes it hasn’t resolved this issue.”

And, he added: “The example that’s coming down from politicians is a terrible one, and very little has changed in terms of cultural ability to deal with it. Progress is very slow, and there is still a long way to go.”