Black Pioneers: Breaking Boundaries in Italian Football

Serie A has developed an unwanted reputation as a haven for racism and bigotry. Aided by the perplexing inertia of the authorities and emboldened by the wider political environment outside of the stadium, the problem has been allowed to fester. Instances of racial prejudice now appear to be on the rise and, to the vexation of the watching world, Italian football has shown little appetite for tackling its demons.

Against this regressive backdrop, it is timely to reflect on the impact of three black pioneers who challenged perceptions in Italy over half a century ago. On one hand their story is uplifting, showing the potential for attitudes to shift and for outsiders to become integrated. On the other hand, it offers a cautionary tale of enduring relevance, demonstrating that the journey is arduous and acceptance not guaranteed. Their story begins in South America in 1962.

The seventh FIFA World Cup in Chile is a tournament remembered for its brutality. With several teams adopting variations of Nereo Rocco’s ultra-defensive catenaccio style, it was characterised by a lack of goals and chess-like exchanges, to which the sporadic outbreaks of violence provided some relief. One key exception to this was, of course, the Brazilians.

The fluent attacking play of the seleção saw them successfully defend the title they had first won in Sweden four years earlier. They lost Pele to a thigh strain in just the second game in Chile, leaving Garrincha, Vavá and company to inspire Brazil to victory. Their play was fast, expressive and beautiful on the eye.

Innovation fostered imitation. Club presidents across Italy began to ponder how they could recreate the fluidity and flair of Brazil within their domestic game. In the summer of 1962, three clubs took a step into the unknown with the recruitment of attacking players from Brazil. Inter swooped for Jair da Costa, Napoli for Jarbas “Canè” Faustinho, whilst reigning champions Milan took Jose Germano de Sales.

Italy was not unaccustomed to foreign players at this time. The nation had an extensive global diaspora stemming from the emigrant flows of the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. Oriundi was the name given to South American players of Italian descent who had returned to the peninsula to ply their trade, several of whom went on to represent Italy internationally.

What made these three transfers so remarkable was not the players’ lack of Italian heritage – but rather the colour of their skin. All three players in question were black.

The trio were not the first players of colour to appear in Serie A. However, since a Uruguayan by the name of Roberto Luis La Paz had turned out for Napoli some fifteen years earlier, there had been a notable dearth of progress on this front. The Brazilians were the only black players in Serie A as preparations for the 1962-63 season got underway.

Their arrival posed a direct challenge to established perceptions towards nationality and race in Italy. Public opinion was characterised by elements of both curiosity and hostility.

These exotic signings were welcomed by their own supporters with a genuine sense of intrigue. But there was a lingering impression that the trio had to work harder than players of another hue to prove themselves. And where acceptance came, it proved at times fragile. Both Germano and Canè became the targets for abuse when matters didn’t go well on the pitch.

More widely, the adverse reception was accentuated by the fact that the three players would have been completely unknown within the peninsula. Between the three, Germano and Jair had been capped once apiece and none had participated in Brazil’s World Cup-winning team. It’s not particularly contentious to suggest that the tenor of the causal public debate would have been different had Italian clubs been able to prize away more established stars such as Pele or Garrincha.

In a manner that would today be considered politically incorrect, public discourse frequently referred to the colour of the players’ skin; one newspaper ran a season preview article entitled “I tre negretti del campionato di calcio”. There did not appear to be any malice behind the choice of words, but at best it was racially insensitive. And the result was to emphasise differences, rather than to establish common ground.

Meanwhile, a more sinister row erupted between the television companies and the football federation, the former concerned that an influx of black foreign players could be damaging to the image of the game. A public debate ensued about whether the players should even be allowed to participate in the championship.

It is perhaps of some consolation that the modern hallmark of racism in Italian football – coordinated verbal abuse from sections of the curva – was conspicuous by its absence back in the 1960s. However, each player was individually subject to incidents of overt racial discrimination. Astonishingly, Germano was the target of derogatory name-calling by his own coach and team-mates. Canè recalls instances of racial provocation from opponents on the pitch. Whilst Jair recounts a story about team-mate Gianni Facchetti intervening when he was racially abused in the street.

Notwithstanding these inhospitable beginnings, one player would display extraordinary resilience to become a highly-decorated club icon. Another would go on to make history in his own right, settling in his adopted city when his playing days finished. The third would spark a societal controversy of almost unimaginable proportions.

This four part series looks at each player in turn, following their journeys and the impact they had on Italy and Italian football.

Part 2 – Jair Da Costa (Inter) – available now

Part 3 – Jarbes Canè Faustinho (Napoli) – available now

Part 4 – Jose Germano de Sales (Milan) – available now

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