Monday, November 19, 2007

Rome Soccer Riots

I want to thank everyone who has stayed with this blog even through my extended absences. I know it can be tough to stick with these things sometimes, and especially when there are not posts on a regular basis. I do appreciate all the people who read this.

As a few of my friends know, I haven’t been posting to this blog for the last week or so because my wife and I took a brief trip to Italy. We vacation there, of course, because we enjoy it; we enjoy the cities and the art and the museums and the people and the food. It should be said, moreover, that we also enjoy the football. I have said on this blog that I believe Italian football is the best in the world, and in spite of all that has happened this last month, I still believe it.

Anyway, I went to Italy. Readers know that I am a fan of Fiorentina, but my travels were taking me to Rome on the weekend, so I purchased two tickets to the Roma-Cagliari game that was scheduled to take place on November 12. The game was originally scheduled for 2:30 in the afternoon, but it was changed to 8:30 at night. This made me a little nervous, as I am aware of the violence that can happen at an Italian football match, but I still wanted to go. Plus, I had been to Fiorentina games at night and everything had been fine.

We spent the day as many tourists do in the Eternal City: we went and saw the forum and the Coliseum. At night we went back to our hotel room near the Spanish Steps to relax before the game. We watched some TV, and although we do not speak Italian, it was obvious to my wife and I that things had gone very wrong in the Italian football world that day. There was a protest and violence in Milan, and a game had to be stopped at Atalanta because ultras were destroying the stadium. I suspected the Roma game might be canceled, but we were not sure. The hotel concierge did no know anything, so we decided to take a train ride up to Olympic Stadium to check things out. It was a foolish decision to bring my wife, but she knew I really wanted to go to the game and she didn’t want me to go alone. Plus, we hoped everything would be fine. It was, as I said, a foolish mistake.

Of course, I now know things I did not know at the time. On the morning of the game, the Italian police accidentally killed a young man who was traveling on the way to a different football game. The Italian ultras decided that all football matches should be cancelled that day to mark the young man’s death. When a policeman was killed last January in football riots the games were postponed for weeks; now the Ultras saw it as disrespect that the games were still to be played. So they marched in Milan and tore up the stadium in Atalanta. And the Lazio and Roma Ultras decided to team up to wreck havoc in Rome.

We got on a tram around 6:45 to get to the stadium. We turned a corner when we were about a mile from the stadium and witnessed chaos. We saw about 100 young men, almost all disguised (many wrapped their soccer scarves around their face) fight toe-to-toe with around 50-75 uniformed police officers. And all of them were really going at it: clubs flying, punches and kicks being thrown, flares being thrown, all of that kind of stuff. We saw the police batter the ultras and force them into an alley; we saw fans smashing windows and turning over dumpsters. We saw a bus that later, on TV, we would recognize as it burned to the ground.

Remarkably, the tram we were riding on then dropped us off in the middle of this warzone. We had to get in a train that was in the front of the line to get out of there. I was terrified that my wife would be hurt, so we sprinted across the park and boarded a train that, sadly, contained a number of not-so-scared people. They had simply become used to the ridiculous levels of violence and knew that if they kept their heads down and stayed out of the way of the police and the Ultras, they should be okay. They shared none of our fear and outrage.

Twenty minutes later, we were back at the Spanish steps, sitting among children eating ice cream and wondering if we had just imagined the riot scene we had walked through. In our room we watched hours of television coverage of the riots. Eventually the ultras attacked and attempted to destroy a police station, broke into and damaged the headquarters of Italian football, and generally destroyed a bunch of property of innocent people.

My wife and I were unhurt, and spent the rest of our vacation at museums and restaurants and other places where there was no violence.

After last season’s riots, I wrote an impassion plea to clean up Italian football. (See my column from February 4). Now, I don’t know what to say. The chaos, violence and hate I saw at the riot were a symbol of the very deep-seeded and real problems of Italian society. I may love the country, and its people, and its football, but Italy is also a country full of profoundly angry young people. Many have chosen to use football as a means to express that anger, a shame doubly both because of the violence and also because the great sport of football has nothing to do with it.

Last winter I wrote that if Italian football did not clean up its act, it would become a joke. It is now another step closer to becoming that punchline, and it becomes harder and harder for me to defend the game. As a reasonable man, I most certainly can never take my wife to a Series A game ever again. As I reasonably sane man, I wonder how long it is before I cannot even allow myself to go again.

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