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  • Italian Soccer Fans Go too Far

    Find out how fanatics are making the beautiful game pretty ugly – and have been doing so for quite some time
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    Everything in Italy is old, including its sport. Soccer, which is the national pastime, was born in England but grew up in Italy. Some historians actually point to the game of Harpastum, which was played in ancient Rome as the forerunner of calcio, which is the Italian word for soccer or futbol. There was also calcio Fiorentino, which was played in Florence in the 16th century, reportedly by famous figures of the time including popes and members of the Medici family. But it was Englishmen living in Italy, who brought the modern version of the game to the country in the 1880s.

    Passion for the sport was almost immediate. And it eventually translated to wins. Italy's national soccer team has won four World Cups (surpassed only by Brazil with its five), and the country's club teams have won more than 25 major trophies. Serie A, the first division of the Italian soccer league, is one of the most popular sports organizations in the world. More players have won the Ballon d'Or or Golden Boot while playing in Serie A than in any other league.

    With all this achievement, you'd think stadiums would be bubbling over with joyful fans. But the fierce competition has birthed a monster that Italy has ignored for far too long. Ultras are considered to be the most passionate and ardent fans. While these organized groups, which pledge allegiance to a club team, had good intentions when they first developed in the early 1950s, they have become associated with violence and hooliganism across Europe.

    If you have ever watched an Italian soccer match, you have probably seen these gangs. They wear team scarves, carry flags and large banners, and set off fireworks and smoke bombs inside the stadium, all in an attempt to silence and distract the opposing team and its fans. Over the years, Ultras have thrown motor scooters onto the pitch and gotten into brawls that resulted in injuries. On occasion, the authorities have stepped in and had teams pay fines and experience penalties, such as having to play what should have been a home game on another field or without any fans in the stadium.

    The Breaking Point

    The despicable behavior and violence has been escalating. Many of the Ultras displayed racist attitudes by making monkey noises at black players on opposing teams in 2013. This was particularly disturbing because one of Italy's brightest stars and a member of the Italian national team, which was headed to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil at the time, was Mario Balotelli, who is black.

    Kevin-Prince Boateng, a player for A.C. Milan, was so taken aback when fans directed chants of “Oo oo oo,” at him for 20 minutes during a friendly match against the local Pro Patria team that he walked off the pitch and his teammates followed, ending the game right then and there on Jan. 3, 2013. The incident sparked an awkward conversation that Italy had been avoiding. With an influx of immigration and Balotelli holding the future of Italian soccer in his hands, the country had to face its racism. Wright Thompson perfectly summed it up in "When the Beautiful Game Turns Ugly" for ESPNFC and ESPN The Magazine:

    Balotelli's mere presence in Italy has caused a long festering sore to rupture, bringing hidden rot into the light. A nation has projected its hopes, and its fears, on him, a strain that shows on his face. He's been distancing himself from old friends, cutting off anyone who talks about him to reporters, even if they say nice things. He's angry a lot of the time, which is probably not how he imagined his homecoming.

    Thompson's piece is worth reading because he truly studied the Ultras to write it. And he perfectly explains the marriage between soccer hooliganism and neo-fascism and extreme right-wing leanings. This union between sport and politics, he believes, is driving much of the racist and anti-Semitic outbursts at Italy's soccer stadiums. The story will have you sympathizing with Balotelli and could, perhaps, explain his disappointing World Cup run. Racial slurs, abuse, and ostracism aren't exactly the ingredients in the recipe for making a champion.

    The country that created the saying, "Una faccia, una razza," or "One face, one race" certainly isn't living up to that motto. Thompson can't understand it either:

    Let me be honest. I got sent to write about racism, which I found in staggering amounts. But Italy isn't like America, and racism there is tied into a thousand years of feuds, and hatred of anyone different, even if they're from only a few miles away, and fascism, and the recent wave of immigration. That's all in here, but it's unfair to hide my predicament, which became clear after only a day or two. I'd fallen into a parallel universe of contradictions.

    The Tragedy

    Racism is not just a soccer problem, and its roots are firmly planted in Italy's past. But it's not the only cause for concern when it comes to fanatic fans. While tension was still high from the hatred directed toward black players, things took a turn for the worst in May, just before the Italian national team left for the 2014 World Cup. Ciro Esposito, 29, was among three fans treated at the hospital for gunshot wounds during violent clashes outside Olympic Stadium in Rome ahead of the Coppa Italia final between Fiorentina and Napoli, according to The Guardian.

    Esposito eventually passed away, and 7,000 people, many of whom wore T-shirts and scarves for his beloved Napoli squad, attended the funeral, including players and Italian V.I.P.s., according to USA Today. The alleged killer, Daniele De Santis, is one of the best-known Ultras of the A.S. Roma team. He himself was treated at the hospital for injuries following the violence. And his team wasn't even involved in the match on that fateful night.

    What is certain is that these hooligans – even if relatively speaking make up a small portion of fans in Italy – are destroying soccer. Families don't feel comfortable going to the stadium to catch a game. The place isn't suitable for young boys and girls, who idolize Balotelli or any of the other players. Balotelli himself was once one of those kids, who sought refuge in soccer, who sought to fit in by developing a talent.

    The Result

    Sport, after all, should unite people. It is meant to keep them healthy and off the streets and in good spirits. Instead, soccer in Italy has become a scourge that speaks volumes about the country's identity crisis amid an influx of immigration, desperation during an economic recession, inability to come to terms with its recent past, and the breeding of political extremists, some of whom – scary but true – want to revive the work of Hitler and Mussolini.

    In the wake of the incident, The New York Times quoted Italian journalists and experts, who are calling for change. "In Italy, many analysts say the authorities have never fully confronted the problem – just as others blame politicians for not taking on the hard economic and political decisions confronting the country," according to the article.

    The real problem is that the nation is stuck in the past and not fully united. With its regional divides and local allegiances, Italy is going to have a hard time evolving into a melting pot. For goodness sake, I know Italians, who won't talk to other native Italians who live a town over because their paesi argued over something 100 years ago. What is happening on the soccer field is only a symptom of a much bigger problem, one that won't get resolved as long as people hang onto the past and their ignorance.

    Di Meglio is the Newlyweds Expert for About.com, and you can follow her life and work on the Italian Mamma Web site or on Twitter @ItalianMamma10.


    Article Published 10/04/2014

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