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I read an article in the New York Times a while back talking about how Italian culture will never change because people like it too much. When traveling in Italy, the foreigner can sense that it is a different place.  The people are deathly serious about their holidays, espresso, food and wine, and even more serious about their soccer. They seem to have figured out that life is in the living, not in the retirement.  Even the sun seems to be intentional about falling differently on Italian hills and faces.

Italians themselves take pride in their pace of life, culture of relaxation and almost carelessness towards anything that’s not food, wine or culture.  And it’s fair to say that most of the high-strung west looks upon this wanton lifestyle where rules are mostly optional with olive-green envy and a sigh: Italy is that romantic place where art and food and love all get smashed together under an orange sunset.  It’s that place where honeymoons and holidays are had.  Most of the world agrees that rules shouldn’t apply to Italy too much, there’s far too much cultural currency at stake.

Part of that wonderful cultural currency is how the Italians have put their own latin spin on soccer.  Known to them as Calcio, the Italians do football their own way, and very effectively, mind you.  Italy won the 2006 FIFA World Cup and that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, because, simply stated, they were the best team.  The played well when they had to, held onto the ball, defended well, created incredible goals, and flat out got the results that they needed.

Unfortunately, there’s a grimy side to that ‘latin spin’ which the Italians are admittedly not as proud of.  It’s a side which is not very well hidden and very recently came out of hiding in a deadly way.

Gabriele Sandri was a Lazio fan and a fan of Italian soccer.  A BBC report of the incident says that “The Lazio fan (Sandri), was hit by a bullet in the neck as he sat in a car while police tried to stop fighting between followers of his team and Juventus supporters,” and that he was sitting in a car on his way to see Lazio play Inter Milan.  The shooting was nowhere near the stadium and a complete accident.

Accident though it was, Mr. Sandri’s parents now have a dead son as the result of football riots and reckless and amateur policing.

Lazio is “that other club” from Rome that nobody really hears too much about.  The Tuscan club was in the news in 2005 because a Lazio sriker, the infamous Paolo Di Canio decided to show his love for fascism by giving the Mussolini salute in his goal celebrations.  Or whenever he wanted to.  He was not apologetic.   To the club’s credit, Lazio tried to distance themselves from their wacko striker Di Canio, saying that they reject the “politicization of football in any way.”

Oh, and there was also Lazio’s involvement in the massive match-fixing scandal which swept through all of Italian soccer and for which Lazio were penalized.

But unfortunately, the controversy surrounding Lazio and the death of Mr Sandri are just two examples of the plight of Italian football, as the problems surfacing time and time again in Calcio Italiano are bigger than one club or one man.

Italian stadiums are all equipped with Plexiglas barriers or fences to separate fans from the field.  Players regularly enter the field of play under 20-yard long protective tunnels, so missiles from the opposing ‘fans’ wont hurt someone even before the game is started.

Why must it be this way?

What is this mysterious transformation when the individual fan joins up with others to become a horde of seething “Ultras?”  What happens to normal human sensibilities and rational thought?  When does the avid supporter become a die-hard “Ultra” who seeks out violence?  Why would anyone think that violence against other fans would be a good way to support your club?

Group psychologists could spend their careers on this alone.

Being part of a crowd cannot become the rubber-stamp which makes violence OK.  Rivalries in other countries have as much history and passion as Juventus vs. Milan for instance, but must there be riot gear and rubber bullets (or sometimes real) every time they face each other?

It seems apparent to me that the problems already existent in Italian society come bubbling up and manifest themselves in the violence of soccer riots.  (Having said that, we must remember that Italy is by no means the only country with these types of problems surrounding soccer hooliganism, only the country most recently in the spotlight.)

Clarence Seedorf, midfielder of AC Milan made this same point most recently by saying, “The people are not happy. They are coming to the stadiums to express their feelings and their feelings are not positive.”  He also blames the Italian government for lack of leadership in times like these.

Other players are making their feelings known, too.  The great Kaka, also of AC Milan, says that Italian football is losing credibility. Fabio Cannavaro, Real Madrid center-back and captain of the Italian National team, admitted that he’s glad he’s not playing in Italy anymore.

Those of us who are not Italian citizens and have little or no connection to Italian society, myself included, cannot fall back on our standard view of Italian soccer: “Someone got shot at an Italian football match?  How interesting!  Gosh, they’re so passionate!”

As Gabriele Sandri’s parents will tell you, it’s not passion that killed their son, but the mishandling of a situation which shouldn’t have occurred in the first place.

I think in general, people realize the severity of incidents like this one and hope for a better Italy where soccer can be played beautifully and safely.  Hooliganism is the kind of thing that should have no connection to football and three cheers to UEFA for condemning it.  Now what is needed is reasonable and careful action to remove hooliganism and violence from Italian soccer.  Thankfully the vast majority of fans are not this way, this alone should be the brightest glimmer of hope for Italian soccer.


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One Comment

  1. great article …. i really enjoyed reading it