Sunday, February 4, 2007

Series A Tragedy

Imagine waking up one morning in your home outside of Boston, or Chicago, or Los Angeles. Imagine turning on the morning news and discovering that the NFL or Major League Baseball had cancelled all league games for the foreseeable future. Imagine the government ordered the league to shut its doors because fans of one of the teams in that league committed acts that led to the death of a police officer and scores of injured. Imagine your friend’s reactions as they discovered there would be no NFL games this weekend; or no baseball games for the next week. It would be one of the most important and talked-about events in the history of American sports.

Well, such a scenario just happened this weekend in Italy; the Prime Minister and his government ordered a halt to all professional football games until someone, somewhere, can come up with some sort of solution to fan violence. The murder of the police officer has served as the final straw that may lead to real changes in Italian football. Or, maybe not.

On Friday evening in Sicily a game was played between Palermo and Catania. During the second half rioting started, and so tear gas was shot into the stands and play was halted. Regardless, the violence went on and continued after the game. The police officer, Filippo Raciti, (the father of two small children) was killed either by a firecracker thrown at him or by a blunt blow to the head. Authorities are sure only of the fact that the death was deliberate and planned. A further seventy fans were hospitalized for various injuries. As a result CONI, (the Italian Olympic Committee, the highest authority in Italian sport) acting on the advice of the Italian government, has essentially shut down Italian football, and they have vowed to halt all games until they have figured out some way to stop the violence endemic to Italian soccer.

As I’ve written before, lots of people have strong feelings about Italian football, but lots of those feelings are not based on solid facts. The most common critique of Italian soccer is that it is boring; this critique is usually made by someone who has never seen the Italian game. This year, as in years past, Series A continues to be one of the highest scoring leagues in the world, with fluid passing and appealing, attacking football. Teams like Inter and Fiorentina are fun to watch because they play such positive football.

The real problems of Italian football are the absolute corruption of the administration of the league (which I have written about before) and the violence associated with the fans. It is unclear whether Series A will ever clean up its corruption problems; this summer’s slap-on-the-wrist solution to the moggiopoly scandal suggests it will not. We shall now see what they do about fan violence.

Violence in Italy is yet another misunderstood part of the game. Italy is not, for sure, the worst league in Europe for fan violence and racism (the French league probably wins that dubious award this year for the ultras of PSG alone); any level of violence and racism, however, is unacceptable. The English leagues, and especially the Premier League, has done an admirable job of cleaning up what was once the seedy and dangerous world of English football. Now that games are safe, it is no surprise that the premier league is among the most profitable football leagues in the world.

When I attended the Fiorentina- Atalanta match this November in Florence, I did not feel unsafe. I sat, with my wife, among nice people in an obviously family-friendly section. During both our walk to and from the game we felt and saw a visible police presence. However, I kept one eye warily on the ultras who occupy each end of the stadium in Florence. There the fans chanted and threw lit flares at one another, and especially at the penned-in visiting fans. Only two weeks after I returned to the States from Italy, in a game again at Florence’s football stadium, the fans lit a car on fire and tussled with police. I was never in danger at the game I attended, but conditions were obviously present where a dangerous situation could have materialized. Apparently in Italy danger is never that far away.

So how will Italy address this problem? On Sunday CONI met and came up with some preliminary suggestions, including more police at games, installing cameras in stadiums, and holding clubs more responsible for fan violence. We will see how many, if any, of these measures are actually enacted. In Italian football, as we have seen, problems tend to get swept under the rug once the camera lights go away. Critics are wrong to criticize what happens on the Italian football pitch, where the game is played as beautifully as anywhere in the world; but Italian football keeps giving fans reasons to turn away, for reasons that are very real. If Italy doesn’t clean this up soon, turning away is all the fans will have left to do.

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