ESPN the Magazine Senior Writer Wright Thompson is arguably one of the best sports writers in the business right now – rightfully reaffirmed with his profile of Michael Jordan as His Airness prepared to celebrate his 50th birthday. His latest piece, “When the Beautiful Game Turns Ugly,” finds him traveling to Verona, Italy to document firsthand the hooligans – under the guise as fútbol-enthusiasts – who have made international headlines for their racial torments of the likes of Kevin-Prince Boateng, Mario Balotelli and others. In this provocative long read, Thompson explores the racist ideologies that rear their ugly head during Serie A matches – exploring various political and historical factors that contribute to the hate mongering. While a choice excerpt appears below, head here to read the piece in its entirety.

I’ve given up hope of ever fully understanding the fractured things I saw while chasing the Serie A soccer circus around Italy. Let me be honest. I got sent to write about racism, which I found in staggering amounts. But Italy isn’t like America, and racism there is tied into a thousand years of feuds, and hatred of anyone different, even if they’re from only a few miles away, and fascism, and the recent wave of immigration. That’s all in here, but it’s unfair to hide my predicament, which became clear after only a day or two. I’d fallen into a parallel universe of contradictions.

The rabbit hole opened when Boateng walked off the pitch during a match in Busto Arsizio. It was Jan. 3, in a small mountain town in the north of the country, a picture postcard of bell towers and winding streets. Serie A, the top division of Italian soccer, was in its mid-season break, so Milan had scheduled a friendly against a small local club, Pro Patria. When Boateng touched the ball for the first time, a small part of the crowd made monkey noises: Oo — oo — oo — oo.

It was a little stadium, and Boateng could see their faces. Fifty or so people called him an animal. He locked eyes with them and could see the hate. He pointed to his head, to say, “You’re an idiot.” The chants went on for 20 minutes: Oo — oo — oo — oo.

Boateng had been abused before and had ignored it. This time, he kicked the ball at the fans, took off his jersey and walked to the locker room. His teammates followed. Something important happened at this moment, which didn’t get reported much in the frenzy that followed: Most of the stadium stood and applauded him. Only the small group of fans screamed and whistled. Some laughed.

The team boarded its bus and headed back to the AC Milan compound. When they arrived, Boateng insisted they practice. He needed to run. Tension still filled the air. The managers rolled out the balls, and Robinho immediately kicked one off the pitch, turned to Boateng and asked if they could be finished. Everyone laughed, and the jokes began, about firing a ball into the stands whenever they were losing. The players thought they’d made it through one bad day.

They were wrong.

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