Racism row takes spotlight away from football's pressing issues in Italy
Carlo Tavecchio, one of two candidates for the Italian soccer federation presidency, has caused an uproar with his 'banana eaters' comment
Italy's dismal World Cup performance has added to the already depressing scenario of Serie A decline, falling attendances, racism, match-fixing and a failure to find new talent.
Yet, with an Italian federation (FIGC) presidential election looming on Monday, those pressing issues have been sidelined by the racism row involving Carlo Tavecchio, one of the two candidates for the position vacated by Giancarlo Abete.
Tavecchio was addressing the thorny subject of the lack of opportunities for young Italian players in the professional clubs when he described African footballers as "banana eaters" and referred to a fictitious player he named Opti Poba.
"In England, they identify the players coming in and, if they are professional, they are allowed to play," said the 71-year-old who is vying for the job with former Italy and AC Milan midfielder Demetrio Albertini.
"Here instead we get 'Opti Poba', who previously ate bananas and then suddenly becomes a first-team player with Lazio."
Far from being an off-the-cuff comment made in the middle of a media scrum or in a private conversation, Tavecchio's remark came during a speech to an assembly of Italy's amateur league association (LND), of which he is president.
Previously expected to sweep to victory, Tavecchio quickly lost the support of the players and coaches associations as well as a number of Serie A and Serie B clubs.
But he retained the backing of Lega Pro, comprising the third and fourth division clubs, and LDN, who between them hold 51 per cent of the votes, enough to guarantee victory over Albertini.
The campaign comes at a critical time for Italian football but its focus has turned to whether Tavecchio is a suitable candidate.
There has been almost no debate, for example, on Albertini's proposals to cut the number of clubs in Serie A from 20 to 18 and force professional teams to have a set number of home-grown players in their squads.
Albertini would also like a domestic version of Uefa's financial fair play plan to force clubs to live within their means, another suggestion which has been overlooked.
The subject of match-fixing has also been swept under the carpet and there has been not a murmur on what to do about stadium ownership, the issue which, more than any other, is regarded as holding Italian football back.
Juventus are the only Serie A club who own their own stadium while the rest play in publicly owned arenas, which are often in dilapidated state, depriving them of alternative sources of revenue which clubs around Europe can earn by renting out their grounds for non-soccer events.
"We have ended up on to a negative path and it's extremely difficult to reverse that," Juventus president Andrea Agnelli said.
"We have a lot of ground to catch up. The stadiums are really old, we haven't got a technical plan, we haven't got any idea where the system should go collectively.
"We are currently running the elections for the football federation president and at the moment we have one candidate who talks about players eating bananas, rather than putting through a proper plan to relaunch Italian football."
Giovanni Malago, head of the Italian Olympic Committee (Coni), agreed with the Juventus boss.
"I must say that it's certainly not edifying that the centre of the debate is a speech with a racist sentence and references to a banana," he said.
In fact, apart from Tavecchio's choice of words, the matter of racism itself, which has plagued Italian football over the last few years, has also been left off the agenda.
With European soccer's governing body Uefa and the Italian league itself fining clubs and ordering partial stadium closures for racist abuse by fans, a win for Tavecchio would prove highly uncomfortable. Fifa has already asked for an investigation.
Jeffrey Webb, head of Fifa's racism task force, said "the football community is appalled by the recent racist comments made by Carlo Tavecchio".
"The FIGC and the football family at large deserve exemplary leadership capable of directing the industry in a transparent way for a dignified, diverse and inclusive society."