The Italian Job
Under normal circumstances, Monday evenings on here would be given over to a review of the previous weekend’s action in England, but this has been no ordinary weekend in Italy, and events there require some sort of examination. Apologies, first of all, for any errors that I may make in trying to detail the events that have taken place there and the circumstances that have surrounded them, but it is an extremely complex issue, and I have been somewhat rushed in the amount of time that I have had to do my reading up. Feel free to correct me on any mistakes that I may make in the comments section. Also, I am looking at this from the perspective of an English outsider. I would not claim for any period of time to be an expert on Italian football or the terrace culture which accompanies it. However, when did not being an expert on something ever preclude me from commenting upon it? Well, quite.
The incidents that may have caused the final meltdown of football in Italy occurred at a Serie A match on Friday evening between Catania and Palermo. The match was always destined to be a flashpoint for trouble. Catania and Palermo are Sicily’s two biggest clubs, and Catania are back in Serie A for the first time since 1984. There was considerable trouble when the two clubs met in Palermo earlier in the season, and Catania have also performed beyond expectations this season – they are currently sitting in fifth place in Serie A, just two places behind their local rivals and on the cusp of a place in Europe. On top of this, the league had inexplicably scheduled the match for the weekend of the Catanian festival of St Agata, a traditional weekend of drinking and fireworks. Mindful of the trouble in Palermo earlier in the season, the match was brought forward to 6.30 on the Friday evening, but it wasn’t enough. Before kick-off, it was notable that there were very few Palermo fans inside Catania’s Massimino stadium. Rumour had it that the police were keeping them away from the stadium in the hope of minimising the trouble. Meanwhile, a sizeable number of Catanese supporters were now outside the stadium, and it was they that appear to have turned upon the police. The police responded with a tear gas attack on the Catanese. When the tear gas drifted inside the stadium, the players were called off the pitch and the match was suspended. At this point, a bus load of Palermo fans (that may or may not have been deliberately diverted away from the stadium) arrived at the ground. The Catanese went to attack the bus, and the police stepped in to defend it. The Catanese then turned on the police and, in the midst of the fighting, a rock was thrown at a police officer, 38 year-old Fillipo Paciti, seriously injuring him. Moments later, a home-made bomb exploded in his face. He died a couple of hours later in hospital.
Immediately, the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) cancelled all remaining matches in Serie A, Serie B and Serie C. All matches below this level had already been cancelled after a club official was reportedly killed in a fight during two sets of players at the end of a Serie D match the weekend before. The Italian equivalent of the PFA released a press statement calling for all Italian League football to be suspended for a year. This week’s friendly match between Italy and Romania is, as you might expect, also off. This afternoon, representatives from CONI met with the Italian interior ministry to decide on what further action to take, and their decisions are expected to be announced publicly on Wednesday. Just how draconian these measures may turn out to be will shock the casual English onlooker.
Two years ago, you may recall, a Milanese derby in the quarter-finals of the Champions League was severely disrupted by serious crowd disorder, including flares being thrown onto the pitch. In the wake of this, a law was brought in requiring Italian stadia to introduce certain minimum safety standards – names were to be printed on tickets, more CCTV cameras were to be put into stadia, and more turnstiles installed. These regulations have largely been ignored – at present, only one stadium in Serie B and four in Serie A comply with them. The problem seems to be an inherent problem with the management with stadia in Italy. Most are municipally owned. The clubs are, in view of this, reluctant to spend money on their stadia, whilst the cash-strapped councils are unable to afford much-needed renovations. Many Italian clubs and councils were hoping on a successful Italian bid to host Euro 2012 to bring in the required revenue for them to be able to carry out the required improvements. It seems clear that this bid will be severely affected by last weekend’s events. The question now is this: will the clubs and councils make the changes required, or will Italian football be largely played behind closed doors for the rest of this season?
It seems clear to me that Italian football needs to review its relationship with Ultra groups – at least the worst excesses of them. The groups are, it’s important to point out, not merely hooligan groups. Ultra culture is largely misunderstood outside of Italy. The groups provide much of the atmosphere inside the stadia that makes Italian football so unique, and have been closely involved in anti-racist and other initiatives at a time when the clubs and the authorities have been seen to be slow to act. Having said that, though, the introduction of Sky Italia broadcasting has brought different kick-off times to Serie A. Crowds are down. The lunatic fringes have been allowed to act as they see fit for a long time, whether it’s the settling of scores in Sicily or increased neo-Nazism at Lazio. It’s also possible to argue that the municipal ownership of stadia gives fans the belief that the their home grounds are (arguably correctly) their property. Within them, they act as they see fit.
As someone who watched a lot of English football in the 1980s, there appear to be some parallels with what happened here. Dilapidated stadia, depressed crowds (meaning that the lunatics may be on the verge of taking over the asylum), non-existent stewarding and atrocious policing are all having a serious effect. The youth of those involved is also a major concern. Over half of those arrested on Friday night were under eighteen. This appears to be the behaviour of a particularly nihilistic young generation who seem hell-bent on causing as much violent confrontation with the police as possible. It’s significant that the serious trouble on Friday took place outside the stadium rather then inside – the clubs and the authorities may be able to contain the trouble inside the grounds, but can anybody control what goes on outside of them? The knee-jerk reaction from politicians and the media is predictable. One would hope that they avoid the initial knee-jerk reactions of the British authorities in the 1980s by turning their stadia into fortresses. Highbury was barred from hosting FA Cup semi-finals in 1984 because it didn’t have fences around the pitch. Five years later, 96 people were killed at Hillsborough, during an FA Cup semi-final – killed by a mixture of police incompetence and rotting infrastructure. The fortress had contained trouble for so long, but eventually it had proved to be a death trap. It was an illusion of order, and those in charge of unltimately ensuring the safety of the spectators had opted for a policy of containment. They had no back-up when that policy, for whatever reason, failed.
On Wednesday, the authorities will announce the short-term measures that they are to take. At this particular time, it is critical that they get it right. It may well be a painful transition for all concerned, but having lived through a era when the crowds in English football visibly disappeared and it looked for all the world as if what is, in my opinion, a great and beautiful game would be strangled in its country of birth by its own incompetence and negligence, it would be a tragedy for another great football nation to make the same mistakes. We shall wait and see with interest.