It was a striking image. A pointed finger and a clenched fist, Clarence Seedorf and Mario Balotelli kindling a spark that AC Milan fans will hope is just the beginning of an enduring flame.
It was not the effusive eruption of relief one might have expected following Balotelli’s 82nd minute winner against Hellas Verona but then again that wouldn’t be Seedorf’s style, nor the volatile Italian’s. It was a gesture of solidarity. A moment of mutual appreciation that portrayed respect between two men who might just hold the key to each others success. Yet with all the recent speculation surrounding the Dutchman’s lack of coaching experience and his suitability for the job, his appointment arguably raises a more pertinent issue. Seedorf is the first black coach to take the helm at AC Milan. But does this appointment signify a step forward for Italian football?
Seedorf is nicknamed Il Professore (The Professor) and it is an epithet he thoroughly deserves. In addition to a decorated playing career (which includes three Champion’s League winners medals with three different teams), he is fluent in five languages and has proved himself to be an accomplished pundit and entrepreneur. As Gabriele Marcotti points out, he is simply not like other footballers and to repeat his words verbatim “you’re left with one of the cleverest men in the game right now.” In a recent press conference the former Champions League winner alluded to the connotations of his appointment beyond football.
“Of course racism still exists in the World but once again AC Milan has shown itself to be an innovative, brave and forward-looking club.”
Seedorf will be battling on many fronts. He has to negotiate an intransigent hierarchy who continue to pull in competing directions, appease a combustible set of Ultras who are currently staging their own coup and mold a group of players who collectively are a shadow of the Milan Seedorf used to know. This would be enough to unsettle the most phlegmatic of personalities but more importantly, the Professor will have to carve his own path and identity. For he confronts a history which offers little in the way of reassurance.
Racism has often reared its ugly head in Italian football, Mario Balotelli, Kevin Prince Boateng, Samuel Eto’o are a few of the star names who have had to endure such taunts. But what Seedorf confronts is something completely different. Not overt racism but the unspoken, possibly unconscious attitudes some still hold in positions of power.
This quote epitomises attitudes of yesteryear, ones which are no longer held by the majority. But this does not mean their vestiges have simply disappeared.
While the number of black players have steadily risen in Italy’s top flight, their presence in head coaching roles is virtually non-existent. The numbers speak for themselves. Many articles suggest Seedorf is the second black coach in Serie A history, citing Brazilian born Jarbas Faustinho Cané as the first after he took the reins at Napoli from 1994-1995. However some (myself included) would perceive Seedorf as the third.
Born in Rome after his mother had moved to Italy from Somalia, Fabio Liverani was the first black player to represent Italy during a friendly against South Africa in 2001. Having played for a number of Serie A clubs including Perugia, Lazio, Fiorentina and Palermo he experienced racial discrimination first hand. This did not stymie his ambition.
Liverani was once quoted as saying “I want to be the Carlton Myers of football.” Myers was an Italian basketball player of Afro-British descent and a symbol of ethnic diversity in Italy after he became the country’s first black Olympic flag bearer in 2000. It is safe to say Liverani became an equally iconic figure and 12-years after becoming the first black player to represent Italy, he took charge of the head coaching role at Genoa. Thus without getting embroiled in classifications of race, not acknowledging him as one of the only three black coaches in Serie A history would be doing him a grave disservice.
Unfortunately for Liverani his tenure at Genoa was short-lived and after just six games in charge of the Rossoblu he was sacked in September 2013. Although the former Lazio midfielder only managed one league win at the Genovese club, six games is hardly enough time to judge a man’s credentials. Genoa president Enrico Preziosi is not renowned for his patient demeanor however some might question whether another man would have been jettisoned after such a brief spell.
Former England international John Barnes has suggested that black managers are given less slack and a shorter time period in which to succeed as a head coach.
In Clarke Carlisle’s BBC documentary ‘Is Football Racist?’ Barnes is asked ‘Do you believe that a white manager would have to wait so long for his next appointment? (a question in relation to Barnes’s eight year wait for another managerial job after he was sacked by Celtic back in 2000).’ This was his response.
“Well first of all I think that white managers are given longer when you get a job, longer to fail…Its almost as if they don’t really believe in you in the first place…and then when you’re not successful straight away its like, well that’s what we thought anyway.”
Indeed the landscape for black coaches looks no greener in England, nor in any of Europe’s top leagues for that matter. Just recently Paul Ince was sacked after less than a year in charge of Blackpool leaving only two black managers across the English football leagues.
It would be banal to attribute this to simple racism and as the issue is of such complexity, it goes well beyond the remit of this article. Listening to Radio 4 just this morning a similar question was broached when Gary Beadle (an English black actor) was asked if racism is holding back black, Asian and other minorities from a career in the arts?
His response articulates the issues as well as any explanation I could give.
“I wouldn’t call it racism… I’d say its institutionalised attitudes that just hold people back , whether its their gender or cultural background, it’s a problem that we seem to suffer from.”
So returning to football, it’s not that Seedorf is confronting direct racism, although it will be interesting to observe whether he suffers racial abuse from the stands even as a coach. He is confronting a range of expectations, whether they be the white hegemony expecting him to fail, or quite possibly produce a miracle, or black people hoping he can become a successful trailblazer for those aspiring to coach in the future. Quite simply he is not just managing a European giant he is managing millions of projections across the world.
Having addressed the question of whether Seedorf was ready to take charge at AC Milan, Gabriele Marcotti concluded his ESPN piece perfectly
“Is he ready? Heck, like he says, he was born ready. If he fails, it won’t be because he’s not ready. It will be because he’s not a good coach”
He is spot on, Seedorf should be judged solely on his performance at AC Milan, not on his suitability, not on his previous and/or lack of experience and certainly not because he is black. And that’s when it dawned on me. Seedorf’s race should at no point come into the equation. It shouldn’t be comment worthy. So am I contradicting my argument by writing this very article? Perhaps, however the day we feel no need to say “he is only the ‘second’ or ‘third’ black coach in Serie A history” and I feel no need to share my musings, will be the day real progress has been made.
Take Paul Ince for example. His record suggests he was dismissed simply because he is not quite good enough however the fact there remains a shortage of black coaches leads people to suggest otherwise.
So to answer the original question of whether Seedorf’s appointment constitutes a step forward for Italian football? Yes, its a step forward for football in general. Because when the next black manager is appointed perhaps we won’t feel the need to point out that he is the umpteenth black coach in that league.
We can only hope that Seedorf exceeds all expectations as he will not only restore AC Milan’s fortunes, but like all great professors he will also re-write history.