Fascism stalks Italy's stadiums

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 December, 2007, 12:00am

After a difficult victory against Scotland last week at Hampden Park stadium in Glasgow, Italy's footballers qualified to take part in the 2008 European Championships.

In the days following the match, Italy's victory received surprisingly little attention in the nation's newspapers. Italian headlines were more focused on the lesson in sportsmanship that Scottish fans provided, despite having lost on their own soil. Both during and after the match, Scottish and Italian soccer fans could be seen around the city celebrating, joking, and drinking together amicably.

It is almost impossible to imagine a similar scene in Italy. It is absurd to think that a Juventus fan could sit next to a Roma fan at a match. And whereas many Italian fans walked the streets of Glasgow in Azzuri jerseys last week, it would be suicidal to wander around an Italian city in a rival team's jersey. It would be considered an unforgivable provocation.

Soccer in Italy has been sick for a long time. A few days before the Scotland versus Italy match, a Lazio fan named Gabriele Sandri, 26, was accidentally shot in the neck by police during a scuffle between Lazio fans and fans of Serie A rival team, Juventus. The incident sparked riots all over Italy, particularly in Rome. Gangs of extreme soccer fans known as Ultras set fire to a police bus using Molotov cocktails, attacked a large police barracks near Flaminio Stadium and destroyed the entrance of another police station near Piazza del Popolo, a popular tourist spot. For over 10 years now, Italy has been dealing with hooligan violence on a weekly basis.

In response to the death of Sandri, the Italian Soccer Federation suspended several Serie A games and banned all fans from attending matches.

Last Sunday, four Serie A games were played in the surreal circumstances of a stadium devoid of fans. The players, some of them world champions such as Gennaro Gattuso, Alessandro Del Piero and Andrea Pirlo, took to the field, and no one was there to cheer for them. Only authorised personnel were allowed to enter the stadium: players, coaches, referees, ball boys and the like. The Italian soccer world needed a lesson and this was the one the authorities felt was most reasonable.

Problem is, the lesson is long overdue. Italy has a long-standing problem with violence at soccer stadiums and this has only worsened in the past year. In February, a horrific riot left a policeman dead in Catania, a city in the west of Sicily. He died when a homemade bomb was thrown into his vehicle during clashes between fans and security forces at a Serie A game between Palermo and Catania. The violence also left 150 people injured, 60 of whom had to be admitted to hospital.

A week later, fans of the team in Castellammare di Stabia, a city near Naples, put four Molotov cocktails in front of the stadium with a letter claiming they wanted to kill another police officer.

Every Sunday, when Serie A plays, Italy essentially militarises itself so that games can go on.

Soccer stands are like maximum-security jails: fans are carefully segregated according to what team they support and are guarded by security at all times. Outside the stadiums, riots can get so bad that tanks are needed to restore order.

The Ultras are the ones who cause most of the chaos. Organised into clearly defined and well-structured groups, each gang has its own rules, rituals, dress code and initiation rites. Prospective members must demonstrate that they possess certain qualities - usually solidarity, reliability, courage and a certain 'toughness'.

For the most part, these groups are ideologically right-wing. Many define themselves as fascists. During matches, they hold up banners with racist slogans and wave flags bearing swastikas or Celtic crosses.

There are some left-leaning Ultras as well. For example, those in Livorno, the city in which the Italian Communist Party was founded in 1921, use the image of Che Guevera as their symbol.

Until recently, the Ultras were paid by the clubs of Serie A teams. They were paid to cheer, to support the team, to scream and shout for the whole 90 minutes of a match. Now, most club presidents oppose this practice and have cut the funds for Ultras.

In the past, Ultras used violence to intimidate and humiliate fans of the opposing team. Lately, they seem to have identified new enemies: the police and the state that they represent. Many Ultras feel that the officers sent to repress them are just as keen to use violence themselves.

'After a game, the authorities just send out bullies to beat us,' says Alberto Mariani, 25, of the Pescara team's Ultras. 'These guys aren't interested in keeping the peace, they just want to get us.'

Mr Mariani's statement highlights a more general problem with youth violence in Italy.

In July 2001, the northern city of Genoa was transformed into a battlefield as young demonstrators protested against the G8 countries. They clashed with the police, who responded with batons and other weapons. Carlo Giuliani, a 23-year-old supporter of the No Global movement, died after being struck in the head by a police bullet. Since then, ties between the authorities and extremist youth have become much more strained - and violent.

Last week, Ultras and young members of the left-wing political culture went to Genoa and protested together to remember Giuliani and Sandri, both of whom are seen as victims of state violence. If the state is the target of all these extremists, what has it done to cause it?

Professor Andrea Cozzo, who teaches the history of non-violence at the University of Palermo and instructs police how to deal with protesters peacefully, explains: 'Democracy in Italy has been in a major crisis for quite some time now ... The state seems incapable of including all of civil society. It has become a democracy for politicians only, unaware of the needs of the people.'

Such elitism, he continues, 'permits the creation of groups that ... organise in a terrorist manner [but] have no hope of resulting in positive social effects because of the very means that they adopt. And this fanaticism ... manifests every time an idea, a value or an object becomes charged with significance to the point that it seems the only solution.

'Carlo Giuliani and Gabriele Sandri have something in common: they are both victims of the police. This - the armed branch of the state - is a concrete object on which to unleash rage for groups that, for some reason or another, are fighting the state, which itself is unreachable as a physical opponent. The impunity of the police in cases of evident abuses of power becomes analogous with abuses of power by the state, which no longer demonstrates any direct relationship with its citizens,' Professor Cozzo says.

'Often, stadiums are purposefully used by right-wing extremists as places of recruitment; they voluntarily exploit ideologically neutral youth, socially marginalised and already with tendencies towards brutality [for other reasons], making them believe that violence is also of 'political' value and therefore legitimate. The stadium is also the place in which the aggression of some bands of fans becomes channelled to political ends, in an ideology that sanctifies the idea of destruction.'

When society at large leaves marginal members behind, he says, extremist groups offer them a sense of belonging. The stadium becomes a place where the unemployed and unwanted can come together and express their anger.

The anger may be misdirected, but it is real, and those wrapped up in it feel the government is to blame.

What the Ultras either do not realise or do not care about is that the biggest victim of soccer-related violence is the game itself.

In the light of the violence, Manchester United has decided to reimburse fans who may no longer want to go to Italy for the team's Champion's League game against Roma. This is the sad epilogue for what was once called 'the most beautiful league in the world'.