Not being racist is not enough: interview with Kevin-Prince Boateng

Published on: 11 December 2020

After twenty-five minutes of play, on the left-wing of a stadium somewhere in northern Italy, on January 3, 2013, and with the shoveled snow visible in the corners of the pitch, Kevin-Prince Boateng picked up the ball from his feet with his hands and threw it. , with surprising violence, against a grandstand. Massimo Ambrosini, AC Milan captain for that winter-friendly, then spoke with Prince and withdrew the team in the locker room. The game never restarted.

In the replays of the evening news, without too much effort, we all heard the now-famous onomatopoeia clearly marked by the fans of the Pro Patria. Yet the day after the mayor of the town - who was Busto Arsizio - Gianluigi Farioli, elected with Forza Italia seven years earlier, said that the player's reaction had been excessive. Then two years passed, and the intoners of those onomatopoeias were acquitted on appeal because "the fact does not exist", despite the fact that the onomatopoeias were very clear in the recordings. Among the pardoned howlers, also the former councilor for sport of the nearby town of Corbetta, Riccardo Grittini, elected on the list of the Northern League. Just the mayor of Corbetta, a few days after the friendly ended, it had been recorded defining Kevin-Prince Boateng with the unequivocal dialect word "negher". Boateng, that day, was one of the very few players able to react to the repeated racist insults received. He was not, that day and in the following ones, sufficiently protected neither by the football system, nor by the media, nor by the institutions. Who preferred to minimize racial abuse rather than showing closeness to a footballer who is too tired, or angry, or who knows - I can't know or understand, fortunately for me.

In the following months and years, the racist episodes in Italian football continued. They involved two forwards of the Italian national team such as Moise Kean and Mario Balotelli, or the Belgian Romelu Lukaku. In all these cases, the racially motivated insults were obvious, heavy and embarrassing. In all these cases, both on the part of the media and on the part of political and football institutions, the distinctions were very scrupulous. From that day, Kevin-Prince became the face - the only one, or almost the only one - of an active opposition to racism in Italian football. On March 21, he was invited to the United Nations in Geneva to give a speech during the commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. In that speech, Prince compared racism to malaria: "Vaccinating people isn't enough," he said. "We need to drain the ponds where mosquitoes proliferate." At the end of 2019, almost 7 years after that episode, theCorriere dello Sport came out with a front page in which the photo of Romelu Lukaku and Christopher Smalling, new signings from Inter and Roma who would compete that weekend, was matched with the title "Black Friday". The newspaper did not feel it had to apologize.

Ⓤ: What happened that day, in Busto Arsizio, not outside, but inside you?

My childhood is back, when they screamed at me. I saw certain things from my childhood, and I had a blackout. I said enough, I can't take it anymore. I felt bad, I felt alone. I worked hard, sacrificed a lot, and again I have to feel like when I was seven, and I was locked in my room and I was alone, and I didn't know what I had to do, my coach told me they are idiots, ignore them, not even the ref there was, I had to figure out for myself what was happening. I was in my country: I was born here, why do they hate me? And in that moment I felt exactly like that. And I said: so I don't play anymore.

Ⓤ: Did you feel alone afterwards too?

People used to tell me: you only do this because it's a friendly match. No: because you cannot understand what you feel inside. I didn't do it to become a symbol, an idol, an ambassador. I didn't do it for that. This came out later. I did it because for me, at that moment, it was over there.

Ⓤ: In your speech to the UN two months later, you said that you initially tried to ignore the problem of racism in your career. When did you not make it anymore?

That day of the friendly. There I could no longer. When I was young I always ignored the problem because I said: there are four or five idiots who have no brains, but I couldn't anymore, and I didn't want to anymore. Why have I worked my whole life, and made sacrifices, to get to the point of being a very important player in Europe, in one of the strongest teams in the world, and still have to judge me by the color of my skin? I said enough, I can't take it anymore. At that point I wanted to do something.

Ⓤ: Did you think there that this commitment could become something more all-encompassing in life, almost a kind of job?

I expose myself this way because it is already a kind of job. I have to do it. Why, first: nobody does it. Second: I feel like doing it. I don't want to be a leader of something, but I feel like doing it. I felt the pain, I know what it means. I know how Koulibaly felt, how Lukaku felt, how it feels afterwards. And nobody knows this. Because then they don't tell you: I felt terrible. Because we are men, we are proud, we are all strong, we are footballers. And therefore nobody tells the truth. But I said it: I was crying, I was sick, and I didn't want to leave the house anymore. Then I went out, and I said: now I'll show you. With me, never again.

Ⓤ: Are players afraid to expose themselves?

Sure. And I understand it, too. Many do not have the character, they do not have the possibility to say: I'm going away, and maybe lose a contract, money with which they are helping the family. Of course there is fear. This is why there cannot be a point where a player is forced to do this. Because there aren't a hundred Prince Boatengs who say: I don't give a damn, I'm going. We see it: how many players are there who really do something against racism? Posting a photo and writing #blackouttuesday is not enough. I see everyone. I see the older ones, I also see my friends. I check them. It is not enough not to be racist. You have to be anti-racist.

Ⓤ: In Italy racism is also rooted in institutions and in the media: in 2012 La Gazzetta dello Sport published a cartoon in which Mario Balotelli was portrayed as King Kong.

You can't go wrong on these things. Because you already have it, a label as a country. Like Germany too has its own label, and you can't make these mistakes. There are many things that have happened in the last ten years that cannot happen, but it has become a bit normal to be racist. And why? Because there are no consequences. Nobody does anything. That's what happened in America: they kill a person, and they can go home to dinner, and wake up at home the next morning. That's no good. It seems that it is now normal to be a racist, because nothing happens anyway. Nobody says anything. This is the thing that needs to be changed. One should be afraid of doing such a thing.

Ⓤ: Returning to the UN discourse: you compared racism to malaria, saying that to fight it, the ponds in which they grow must be reclaimed. What are the ponds today?

We must start with children, with our children. Not that we need to find medicine for them. But we must start with education. If we can educate our children not to think racist, then there is a future. This is the key: school, education. School should be taught math, history ... and racism. Every week, two hours. Show children what it means to be racist. To show that this is not done, this does not exist. Why has football, in general and even more so in Italy, remained so impervious to the demands of society? Football has to do much more, I've always said that. It is the most popular sport, the most followed in the world, and it is not possible that it does so little. I don't know why, but it makes me think that maybe it's not that important. Perhaps it is more important if the ball went into the goal or not, or if it was offside or not, it always seems to be the things we talk about. And this bothers me a lot.

Ⓤ: Not to mention Fifa and Uefa, of which we remember beautiful advertisements and little else.

Everyone has to do more. Economically, it is not enough to show a video with Ronaldo and other people before the Champions League final. It's beautiful, okay? We need all these players who say no to racism, sure. But a video is not enough.

Ⓤ: America is far away.

On this issue, football in Europe is far behind. We think they are distant problems, let's say: it happens in America, it doesn't happen here. But what should we wait for the same things to happen in Europe too? In football, in Europe, there is racism, we know that. I lived it, many other players have lived it. What the NBA did, what Colin Kaepernick has done for years… If we already listened to those claims, years ago, perhaps we would not have reached this point. We should follow the NBA, look at what they have done.

Ⓤ: It must also be said that there is no non-white representation in the world of European football: in management, in managerial roles, on the bench.

This is something I have always said. The world is ruled by whites. For that I also say that it is not that we only need now all the blacks who now want to fight, that is, of course, we do, but the key is still the whites. Whites must change. Because they are at the top of the food chain. In football, in the NBA, in the NFL, most of the properties are all white. They are the ones who can make a difference now.

Ⓤ: Speaking of representation and models, what were yours?

I grew up with Muhammad Ali as an idol. That's what's missing today, someone like him: he was the best in the world, but our freedom was more important to him, that his brothers and sisters could walk on the street without being afraid. And then Michael Jackson. Later, in football, there were Zidane and Ronaldinho. And Nelson Mandela. I've always said: I want to meet three people in my life, and I've managed to meet one, Nelson Mandela. They are the only people I could sweat for, shake when I met them.

Ⓤ: What is your identity made of between Europe and Africa?

I was born in Berlin. I was born German, I grew up German. But inside me I always felt something, that I was a little different from a real-real German. I grew up on time, tidy, with the house having to be in order, take off your shoes when you walk into the house, all these very German things. Then, in 2009 or 2010, I started feeling this feeling, and I said: I want to understand who I am. I realized that in Germany they didn't accept me one hundred percent. In Ghana, I wanted to know if they accepted me there. I wanted to see where I came from, what my family is, what my roots are. Where did all this fire that I had inside come from. And it was very important. Because now I have found this balance.

Ⓤ: And you chose to play for the Ghanaian national team that year. Late, in short.

Yes, very late. I would say that I discovered my roots, and Ghana, very late. But maybe it was also the right time. Because I wouldn't have understood before.

Ⓤ: What about your children?

My children need to know immediately where they come from, who they are. My parents got this wrong with me: they never let me know, understand, feel where I come from. But this is something that I want my children to learn immediately. They must know that they have a grandfather from Ghana, an Italian grandfather… They must know all these mixes. The choice of Milwaukee, and then of the other NBA teams, not to take the field after the injury of Jacob Blake, on August 27, 2020, was a unique first time. The players joined, and then some of the owners joined. It has reached a saturation point that has perhaps never happened before. Maybe something is starting to fall apart now. Needs to. Because I don't stop. As I also see in America, LeBron James, all the older ones, don't stop. We've gotten to a point where we, as blacks… I'm George Floyd. Because I think I can go on vacation to America too, and the same can happen to me.

Ⓤ: If on the one hand there seems to be a growth of awareness, on the other hand there is also a growing resistance and reactions, increasingly angry.

I hope that in the next few years something will change because if it doesn't change now, it doesn't change anymore. Because now we are at the limit. People are dying, and it seems normal. But we have to start with politics, and then go down from there. It is important who leads us. Who do we choose as our leader? Of course if it's Donald Trump, then it doesn't work.

Ⓤ: You don't believe in bottom-up change.

But to change the world, you have to start from above. To change our lives we can do it too, many are doing theirs, but these are moments. Those who help us give us strength to keep fighting. This is the time to be reborn. It's time to put your city, your country on the map in a new way. This is the time to do new things. Starting a new thing.