Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Italian Soccer Excursus

Well, anyone who follows European soccer, or soccer in general, is by now all too well aware of what went down last Friday in Sicily. In case you haven't been following soccer, what happened was this:

Italian league halted by violence

The Italian Football Federation (FIGC) has suspended all matches indefinitely after a policeman was killed at a Serie A match between Catania and Palermo.

This is not the first time that the Italian authorities have shut down the top divisions (or more) of Italian soccer; similar measures were taken after a fan was killed outside Genoa's stadium in 1995. However, this time there seems to be a sense that, even if the games resume soon, it may be awhile before fans are let in to watch them:

Serie A and B clubs meet on Tuesday to discuss a government proposal to close stadiums deemed unsafe for fans.

That's all well and good, on the surface. It would leave open only five stadia among the forty-two teams in Serie A and B, although some of those venues host more than one team; presumably games not taking place in those stadia would be played behind closed doors. Something along these lines is indeed necessary; it's something of a miracle that Italy has not experienced, domestically, a disaster like Heysel or Hillsborough. However, fixing up the stadia is not, by itself, going to fix up the problem. The policeman in Catania was not killed in the Stadio Angelo Massimino, and the Genoa fan in 1995 was also killed outside, on the street.

Restricting access to the games (and yes, fixing up the stadia will help with that) is indeed part of the solution. However, what's really got to go away is the influence exercised over the clubs by the "Ultras". What began as simply somewhat boisterous fan clubs have developed into groups of violent marauders, condoned and often even financially supported by the teams themselves. Far too often, now, these groups have been taken over by elements of the violent right (or, in the case of Livorno, the violent left). They control access to parts of their home stadia, and they control what goes on there (one lovely example: in May of 2001, Inter Milan Ultras smuggled a motorscooter into their stadium, set it on fire, and threw it off the upper tier. Miraculously nobody was hurt). So, what's to be done? Well, here are a few ideas for starters:

  1. Clubs should be prohibited from giving money etc. to supporters' groups. Let the Ultras buy their own damn flares.

  2. Put the infrastructure in place to allow dangerous materials to be effectively banned from stadia. Right now, flares, weapons, motorscooters, etc, are banned from soccer games, but there's just no way of making that stick, particularly with the Ultras controlling access to parts of the stadium. Hopefully, a meaningful ban on dangerous items would prevent people from bringing them to the game in the first place, which would make the area around the stadium safer as well.

  3. No large groups of away fans at games. Difficult but not impossible to enforce, this seems to me to be simple common sense.

  4. People convicted of soccer-related violence should not only be banned from the stadia, but forced to report to the police when their team is playing. This has been done in response to hooliganism in Britain.

  5. Maintain the crackdown on extremist political behaviour at matches. In 99% of the cases, this means stomp hard on neo-Nazis. No racist banners, no anti-semitic chanting, no monkey noises at black players, and, to be fair, no celebrating Stalin's birthday, or your team pays the price both in the standings and in the bank account. Yes, this means that the team becomes responsible for the behaviour of its more lunatic fans, which isn't really just. However, it also provides an incentive for the "ordinary" fans, just out to support their team, to turn around and say to the Ultras "look, you are hurting your team, shut up now." It's a difficult thing to do, and not entirely effective, but the effort has got to be made.

Even taken together, this does not represent a panacea (nor is it terribly original; the Italian parliament is hard at work on numbers 2 and 3 as we speak, and attempts have been underway at number 5 for years). However, it represents a start.

To end on a positive note, and to clear up any idea that I'm just bashing on Italians in general, the Italian Olympic Committee has stepped in to fund the educations of the two small children of the policeman killed in Catania. A decent, classy, move.

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