Parked outside Cherif Traore’s apartment on the outskirts of Treviso, a uniformed policeman approaches the car and peers through the window. It is the middle of the afternoon, blue skies in a sleepy suburb where nothing much seems to happen.
Traore’s childhood friend is sitting in the driver’s seat. Young, black, well-dressed and successful enough to own a customised Mercedes sportscar. The officer asks to see some form of documentation.
It feels unnecessary and provocative. Traore challenges the interrogator, clearly angered by the unwarranted intrusion. A couple of cars stop to see what the commotion is about. No one really knows.
When a second officer recognises Traore as an Italian rugby star, he steps in to defuse the situation. ‘Cherif! Cherif!’ They move along. Nothing to see here.
‘They see a black guy in a nice car and they ask questions,’ mutters Traore’s friend.
Cherif Traore has spoken of his experiences with racism in rugby throughout his career
The rugby star has experienced discrimination several times throughout his career
Back at his apartment, Traore takes a stool at the kitchen table and recalls similar incidents of discrimination. Ironically, he is here to talk about his experiences of racism in rugby. He was presented with a rotten banana during a Secret Santa event at his club — and here at home is facing racism on his own doorstep.
‘On one occasion I turned on the engine and a police car drove up behind to block me in,’ says Traore. ‘I was on the way home from training. Two officers jumped out and one was pointing his torch. They bombarded me with questions: “Whose car is this? What job do you do? Where are you going? If you don’t answer these questions we’ll take you to court”. They were rifling through my car, wanting to see what I had in the boot. People were stood filming it on their phones.’
Born in Guinea, Traore grew up in the city of Kindia with his three siblings and a huge number of cousins. Settling in with a glass of fruit juice, the 27-year-old discusses his African roots. His bookshelf is full of literature about women’s rights, marketing and the Quran. He talks about his mother’s African cooking and reaches for a wooden carving of a Guinean woman.
‘It was a wonderful life there,’ he says, breaking into a huge grin. ‘My grandad had five wives and 42 children! He had lots of properties, companies, a factory, a dairy farm. He was a successful businessman who looked after the family. I always had a very close relationship with my grandad. He would take me to mosque, take me on trips away. We came to Italy when he passed away. My father moved first and we followed. I was seven.’
Italy became Traore’s home. Like many Italians, football was his first love. He looked up to his older brother, Mohamed, who was signed by Parma in Serie A at the age of 17. ‘My brother played under Francesco Guidolin. He was in the same squad as Hernan Crespo but he got injured and went on loan to Serie B. Eventually he had to stop because of the injuries.’
Traore went on to join his local rugby club, where a coach told him he had the potential to become Italy’s first black prop. His prediction was right and Traore earned his first cap in 2018. ‘It was always a dream to play for my country,’ he says.
His last cap was in July and he was left out of this year’s Six Nations squad so he is free to have this conversation away from the gaze of his club’s spin doctors. He acknowledges improvements in the diversity of the national team but his enthusiasm wanes when he recalls the deeply shocking incident at his club two months ago.
‘Rugby’s my job, it’s my life, it’s all I have. I was angry,’ he says. ‘This isn’t an example for young people. My overwhelming feeling was disappointment.
He explained how it was always a dream to play for Italy, though he was left out of this year’s Six Nations squad
Traore explained how he received a banana as a ‘gift’ from someone at his club two months ago
‘It wasn’t nice. It wasn’t easy for me to accept. There were lots of people in the room. The gifts were being passed around and I waited my turn. It was in a gift bag. Everyone was taking out their present and then they had to tell the room what it was. I opened mine to find the banana and I just couldn’t bring myself to say anything. I couldn’t look left, right or ahead.
‘The person sitting next to me told the room what it was. My eyes were getting red and itchy, I was getting angry. I just wanted to get up and go home but I stayed out of respect for everyone else. The Christmas sack finished going around the room and then I went home. I didn’t want to see anyone, I didn’t want to speak to anyone. I was so angry. I couldn’t sleep, tossing and turning because I was so upset.’
The following day, Traore posted his account of events on Instagram.
Why? ‘If I hadn’t spoken out about it, the guys could have just come in the next day and joked about it. The next week, the next month . . . “Oh wasn’t that funny?” I wanted to speak out.
‘Everyone always says it’s banter, a joke. Don’t get me wrong, I like having a joke but what happened was just too much. It’s not normal. It’s like they think you’re stupid, so they can say anything they want and get away with it because it’s just a joke.’
Traore described the incident as ‘too much’ and ‘not normal’ and discussed the events on his Instagram account
Italian rugby was rocked by the incident, which Traore’s club seemingly tried to brush under the carpet
The incident rocked Italian rugby. His club seemingly tried to brush it under the carpet, recording a video with Traore for their social media page, but this was subsequently deleted. He politely declines to comment on that process, with an ongoing investigation launched under huge public pressure.
Before our meeting, I learned that a different black player was presented with a banana a year earlier. It never surfaced in the public domain, so I ask if he is aware of the allegation.
‘Yes, I’d heard the same thing, but I can’t remember who. Again, people said it was just a joke but there are certain things that you shouldn’t joke about. Look at football stadiums. My brother was a pretty tough defender and as soon as he got the ball at his feet people would make monkey chants. Our mum always told him not to listen. Ignore it. He used to say, “The more they chant, the more they make fun of me, the better I’m going to play and the harder I’m going to tackle”.’
On the subject of his brother, he recalls another incident in the car. ‘My brother had a sponsor in a local town. A clothing store. We drove to the store in his Mercedes one Friday to pick up some stuff and the police stopped us.
One of them had his hand on his gun. My brother actually put his hands in the air as if something bad was going to happen. I was only 16 at the time. The policeman shouted, “Get your keys out! Whose car is it? Where are you going?” They were only stopping us because we were black. They picked on us. I wanted to react but my brother said don’t do anything. Footballers tend to be a little bit calmer than rugby players . . . ’
Traore explained he has been stopped by police in the car on more than one occasion
Conversation moves away from racism as he poses for photographs. Headshots, lifestyle shots and eventually location shots beside the iconic gondolas of Venice.
He talks about the influx of Wasps players — Jacob Umaga, Marcus Watson and Matteo Minozzi — to Treviso, as well as their old clubmate Paolo Odogwu, who recently spoke about his own experiences of racism in these pages. ‘Is he English or Italian?’ he asks with a laugh, referring to the debate around Odogwu’s eligibility for both countries.
What are Traore’s international ambitions? ‘My last Test was against Romania. I would love to play again but I don’t pick the squad unfortunately. What I would like to say is that [Italy coach] Kieran Crowley and all of the national team staff have been very supportive to me, on and off the pitch.
Paolo Odogwu has also spoken to Sportsmail about his experiences with racism
‘Kieran and his staff used to be here at Treviso, so I have played under them before. Kieran left his mark on club rugby, taking us to the play-offs, and now you can see the Italian national team are changing as well. We’re getting closer each game. No one would have thought we would beat Wales last year but we did. With Kieran, winning one game isn’t enough. He doesn’t look back.’
So does he fancy their chances at Twickenham on Sunday? ‘Obviously it will be a really challenging game for Italy. England want to get back on track so they will be hungry for victory, but Italy will be even hungrier. We are developing and growing as a team. We have never won at Twickenham, but we could win and that would be fantastic.’
Over the course of our conversation, there is a noticeable change in Traore’s body language. He grimaces in frustration when he talks about racism, his words speeding up as if they have been waiting for their release. His smile returns when he talks about rugby in its purest form, free from the imperfections of society, as he shows off his awards in the living room.
He shakes hands as the conversation draws to a close but offers one closing message: ‘Society is changing for the better. Certain things have changed. I hope that what I did is convey a message to everyone, not just people in sport. There are certain things you can’t joke about. You can’t hide things behind jokes. I hope everyone understood my message. Regardless of the colour of our skin, we are all the same.’
Traore closed the conversation with the message that society is changing but that you cannot joke about certain things
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