Monday, February 5, 2007
More than words needed to halt hooligans
There is no 'I', albeit a lot of ego usually, in 'column', so apologies for beginning this with a personal note, but you'll understand why. I am currently in Miami, covering the Super Bowl as I do every year, for one of the few Italian newspapers which treat it like a great sporting event and not just a kitschy exhibition of Americana.
This makes me thousands of miles away, physically, from Catania, site of Italy's latest horrific episode in a long list of football violence, and a couple of universes away on a metaphorical level, as I listen to the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears coaches speak gracefully about the upcoming match, watch fans mingle peacefully with each other and bask in the chance to be at a sporting event where you don't have to watch your back at all times - unless you fear pickpockets.
You have read the news: a police officer, Filippo Raciti, was killed and another was seriously injured by a smoke bomb hurled by rioting Catania fans waiting to ambush rival Palermo supporters in one of the six Sicilian derbies this season, the region's other side being Messina.
The match itself had to be held up for a few minutes when a cloud of tear gas from the clashes outside the stadium wafted in, players and officials having to rinse their eyes and cover their mouths in order to breathe.
In a tragic coincidence, a minute's silence had been held before the Catania-Palermo match in memory of Ermanno Licursi, a director of an amateur side, again in Italy's South, who had been kicked to death just a week earlier after he tried to separate players who had been going at each other at the end of a match.
Soccernet readers will remember the many times I have already written about the desperate, hopeless state of football - and society - in my country, the most recent a little over a month ago, and it is extremely disheartening and sad, although hardly unpredictable, to see that again Italy is in the news for the wrong reasons. The World Cup triumph of last summer is as far from memory, and from everyday events, as it could possibly be.
Not for us the deep sociological analysis that may pop up somewhere else, but the roots of the problem are so deep that I would never want to be in the shoes of those called to eradicate them.
Simply said, Italians - and I DO NOT mean ALL of them, but a growing number of them who pat each other on the back every time they avoid paying a bus ticket or light up despite the no-smoking sign - are reluctant to follow the rules and look at any restraint on their freedom as a nuisance that must be avoided or disposed of.
Local and regional rivalries are still felt strongly throughout the country, and each derby match presents the less responsible supporters with a chance to exact revenge for a previous episode of violence or disrespect, or to establish bragging rights until the next encounter.
The planning of confrontations, now greatly aided by the internet and mobile phones, is often intercepted and disrupted by intelligence work done by the police forces, but that has in turn made the security services more and more the fans' 'real' enemy throughout the country. They have been targeted even in some instances which had nothing to do with football, which proves the theory that political influence among the 'ultras' and hardcore fan groups is growing and bringing non-football issues into the arena.
Only last month in Livorno, three carabinieri - the police branch of the Army - were pelted with rocks, bottles and sticks by dozens of youths whose carelessly parked cars had been blocking the path of a fire-fighters' truck responding to an emergency. So the violence - or 'ambushing' as one police officer described the Catania tragedy - is part of each weekend's fare throughout Italy, or every time a police presence is required for public safety reasons, which in turn is seen by any group of protesters, fans, activists as, er, 'provocation'.
And it was somehow not surprising to learn that in some places - Palermo, Livorno and Piacenza - walls had been spray-painted with words celebrating the slaughtering of the Raciti as a revenge for what happened in 2001, when a young protester was killed during the G8 meeting in Genoa.
Please note that the young man was shot by a carabiniere while in the act of hurling a fire extinguisher at him through the back window of a van, but this has not stopped many from making him a martyr. A room in the Italian Parliament building was even named after him, while the carabiniere must watch his back wherever he goes, and not even the fact the police forces also did some dirty tricks during that God-forsaken weekend (a few policemen are under trial for allegedly planting bombs inside a schoolroom which was being used a shelter by protesters) can mask the absurdity of the situation, which sits uneasy with many.
But this total disrespect for any form of policing, which has nothing to do with football and has allowed all forms of criminal activities to flourish in Italy, is just a component of a problem that has many facets. Again, I have already written a few times about them and it is discomforting to have to repeat them each time something tragic happens, while knowing all along little will be changed unless something drastically modifies the collective Italians' psyche. And this could hardly happen, could it?
A couple of years ago, former Home Secretary Giuseppe Pisanu drafted tougher measures against football violence, with clubs required to build an exterior perimeter fence, install turnstiles, require that all ticket buyers give their name to be printed on their ticket and match those credentials with an ID card - all Italians have one - at the gate.
At the time, many clubs protested because in most cases they do not own the grounds so the improvement work would have to be done in conjunction with local authorities, which is one of the nightmare scenarios in modern Italy, while others claimed this measures would put off fans who had to go through too much grief before finally being allowed to sit inside dirty, outdated grounds with rudimentary facilities. Some relief, eh?
You may also remember that a common practice of the Italian way is to allow fans way too much leverage in the day-to-day running of the clubs. There are many examples of this.
Current Lazio owner Claudio Lotito has become the subject of a hate campaign by the hardcore sections of the fans because he'd wrestled control of the club's merchandising away from the ultras and had refused to continue his predecessors' habit of paying them thousands of euros each week for banners and fireworks.
Footballers are also to blame because in order to appease the fans and avoid trouble they sometimes give in mindlessly to stupid behaviour. After scoring a goal in December, Palermo's Brazilian striker Amauri lifted his jersey to reveal a message supporting a few dozen 'Ultras' who have been 'diffidati' and hit with a restraining order keeping them away from any sporting venue.
But it's not just those intrinsically involved with the clubs who can affect change, we'll need some help from the media and casual fans too. The media should immediately stop praising the supporters' displays of fireworks - which have been banned for a while, but still regularly make earth-shaking appearances - although it can be difficult in the smaller markets where writers, often working for a pittance and in no hurry to become martyrs, can be easily intimidated if they refuse to play along with the cliché of 'we have great fans' and dare to criticize the petty episodes of violence which occur regularly at all levels.
Of course, a responsible media is not something we enjoy a lot of in Italy, with most weekday talk shows ending in shouting contests and the vulgarization and oversimplification of concepts resulting in the impression, to the less discerning and more belligerent, that the actual game-day experience is a war between opposites who could or should never meet.
The media usually rebuke this concept, but I have been working as a journalist long enough to be disillusioned both about the attitudes and agendas of too many of my colleagues, especially those working for TV networks. They have no desire to provide a balanced view and some sort of guidance through the complexity of sports, preferring instead to bring out the lowest common denominator.
The decision by the Italian Football Federation's chief Luca Pancalli to cancel this and next week's matches was the least he could do, under the circumstances. But it was anger-provoking and unsettling, and other colleagues here in Miami share this view, re-uttering statements like 'we now need drastic measures', 'this can't go on anymore', 'violence has no place in sports' and 'clubs must stop subsidizing fans' travel'.
Hey, those same words were heard more than thirty years ago, after a rocket fired from Roma's end travelled the length of the Stadio Olimpico and exploded in Lazio fan Vincenzo Paparelli's face, twelve years ago when Genoa supporter Vincenzo Spagnolo was stabbed to death by Milan fans, and any time something bad has happened since. And what effect did those words have? Zilch.
So it is only natural that scepticism has arisen once again, and a simple column like this was never going to be able to explore all avenues and give a complete, thorough analysis but, hey, you and I saw the pictures and read the stories, and the anger and frustration were simply not going to be kept inside, at least in my case.
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