All Italian football is suspended after fans' bomb kills policeman

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Italy's Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, promised drastic action against football violence yesterday after riots at a derby game in Sicily resulted in the death of one policeman and injuries to dozens of police and fans.

Stadiums were silent yesterday after all league football in the country was halted indefinitely Italy watched in horror on Friday night as gangs of fans ambled the streets of Catania, hurling rocks and fireworks at riot police, who huddled behind their shields, occasionally darting out to fire tear-gas grenades. Cars and rubbish bins were burned and trashed, and the streets were carpeted with stones and broken glass.

Violence has become an everyday part of Italian football. It makes headlines only when it is really startling, as when AC Milan fans smuggled a scooter into their stadium and hurled it from the third tier, or when an official was kicked to death last week trying to stop brawling players in Calabria.

But Italy was shocked into action by the death of Filippo Raciti, 38, hit in the face by a home-made explosive in his car after arresting a fan. He died in hospital from heart failure.

After an emergency late-night meeting, the Italian football federation commissioner, Luca Pancalli, announced an immediate and blanket ban on all professional Italian football, including games involving the national teams.

"Enough is enough," he said in a statement. "This is not sport. The football tournaments will remain suspended until we solve the violence in our football. ItÕs unacceptable that such incidents happen in a country like Italy." There was no indication how long the ban will last, although the president of the Italian playersÕ association, Sergio Campana, said yesterday it should be up to a year.

Mr Pancalli said the Italian football federation would meet tomorrow "to identify those drastic measures that will allow us to restart. Otherwise, weÕre not restarting the games." ItalyÕs interior minister, Giuliano Amato, and the sports minister, Giovanna Melandri, will also draw up proposals for "long-term measures, strong measures that can radically change the situation", said Mr Prodi.

Catania and Palermo, SicilyÕs two biggest cities, are perennial rivals. After CataniaÕs promotion this season both are in serie A for the first time, placed fourth and third respectively. On Friday morning some of the more simple-minded commentators were preening at the fact. "Once upon a time we were considered the pilgrims, forced to fight tooth and nail to avoid losing," Pippo Baudo, a television celebrity and a Catanian, wrote in a Sicilian daily. "But in football terms, we are the north now."

But all Italian derbies are tense events. And other factors were at work, too. Yesterday[sat] was the feast of St. Agatha, patron saint of Catania and occasion for the cityÕs big annual holiday. The match was brought forward a day to avoid clashing with the feast day, but the partisan mood was high. PalermoÕs fans were trapped in traffic and were not led into the ground until the second half was under way. No sooner had they filled their side of the stand than it was invaded by CataniaÕs "ultras" (as hard core fans are called in Italian).

The air was soon thick with smoke from the flares and bangers which are still ubiquitous in Italian games, and explain why Italian football no longer attracts families. Police fired tear gas which drifted down to the pitch, forcing a suspension. Nerves frayed and tempers continued to rise as the game stuttered towards a conclusion, finally ending two hours and 20 minutes after it started with a 2-1 victory for Palermo - furiously contested by Catania officials, who claimed that both Palermo goals should have been disallowed.

Violence had already broken out on the streets outside, with Catania supporters attacking riot police head-on. The statistics on Saturday - more than 70 in hospital overnight, only 14 arrested, nine of them minors - tell the tale clearly enough: the police lost control. But in the mood of mourning for PC Raciti, that was not the story Italy wanted to hear.