The Italian disease

Football in Italy refuses to face up to the disgraceful behaviour of its fans

To a non-Italian speaker the interrogatory manner of the questioning, and grave tones of the replies, suggested Roberto Mancini, the coach of Internazionale, was being grilled over the shameful behaviour of his team's supporters. Given that the Champions' League quarter-final against Milan had just been abandoned after Inter fans threw flares on to the pitch, one striking the Milan goalkeeper Dida, what else could have been under debate?

To a non-Italian speaker the interrogatory manner of the questioning, and grave tones of the replies, suggested Roberto Mancini, the coach of Internazionale, was being grilled over the shameful behaviour of his team's supporters. Given that the Champions' League quarter-final against Milan had just been abandoned after Inter fans threw flares on to the pitch, one striking the Milan goalkeeper Dida, what else could have been under debate?

Incredibly, it was the delayed arrival from the bench of the Nigerian striker Obafemi Martins which was exercising the Italian press corps. Mancini had refused to comment on the fans and the media simply moved on.

This was one of several incidents at the San Siro on Tuesday night which highlighted the continuing failure of Italians to comprehend the seriousness of the hooliganism that has infected their football. The flares rained down on the pitch because Inter had had a goal controversially disallowed, and when Dida was hit there were cheers, not a shocked silence. In the expensive seats the abandonment was widely greeted with a shrug of disappointment rather than a sense of shame. The police felt they had done a reasonable job.

Even the players seem relatively unconcerned. "It isn't right what the fans did but you can understand it," Juan Sebastian Veron, the former Manchester United and Chelsea player, who played for Inter on Tuesday, said afterwards. "I don't know what the referee saw because I thought it was a goal."

Despite years of crowd violence, culminating at the weekend with outbreaks at five matches that left 85 policemen injured, too many people in Italian football delude themselves that everything is fine. As with the English game before Heysel 20 years ago, the feeling seems to be that as long as teams are successful on the pitch - as Milan are - what is the problem?

It is not just hooliganism either. Match-fixing, which has long besmirched the Italian game, remains a problem, as does racism, and then there is the growing suspicion of the use of performance-enhancing drugs. As ever in Italy there is a political dimension, with last Sunday's match between Lazio and Livorno being played to a backdrop of swastikas and hammer-and-sickle flags. Lazio remain associated with Benito Mussolini, a link which was given fresh impetus by Paulo Di Canio's fascist salute when he scored in the recent derby, while Livorno is a stronghold of the Italian communist party which was founded in the town.

Di Canio was fined by the Italian federation; so were Lazio, for the fascist chants their supporters made during the match against Livorno, but the sums, though, are miniscule. The likelihood is that Uefa's disciplinary and control committee will be equally lenient when they meet in Nyon tomorrow, to mull over Tuesday's scenes in the San Siro. Milan are certain to be awarded the match, as was provisionally decided on the night, but punishing the hooligans requires a firmer hand than Uefa has previously shown.

When Roma's group stage match with Dynamo Kiev earlier this season was abandoned after the referee Anders Frisk was struck by a coin at half-time, Roma were merely told to play their next two homes games behind closed doors. When Inter fans caused the abandonment of a Uefa Cup tie with Alaves four years ago Uefa settled for fining the club 75,000 Swiss francs (£33,000) and ordering them to play two European home games away from the San Siro. The ban had little impact on the hardcore "Ultras" as, later in the same season, the San Siro was shut for two Serie A games after fans threw a motor scooter from the second tier in a league match against Atalanta.

Clearly, ground closures are an insufficient deterrent. The only sanction likely to have any effect is expulsion from European competition, perhaps a two-season ban with one season to apply to the lucrative Champions' League. Even that, though, should only be the starting point for a prolonged campaign. For while it ill behoves any Englishman to pitch his tent too high up the moral high ground, especially in the week Liverpool visit Turin, the question has to be asked: must it take a tragedy of Heysel proportions before Uefa, the Italian federation and the Italian government act decisively, as had to happen with England?

There are indications that the government, at least, has had enough. Even before the match Italy's interior minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, described the situation as "intolerable" after the weekend violence and warned that stadiums would be closed if supporters failed to behave.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi became involved. Milan is Berlusconi's power base; he still owns Milan the club. After meeting Pisanu yesterday, Berlusconi's office issued a statement warning: "There is a clear risk of even more serious incidents in future, a risk which must be avoided by all possible means. Resorting to the most drastic measures available should not be ruled out if necessary."

We shall see, but as the English game discovered, controlling the hooligan menace (it is not eradicated, only controlled) requires a raft of measures. The post-Heysel ban on English clubs was not, in itself, enough. Only after Hillsborough had exposed the rotting fabric of the stadiums, and the military nature of much of football policing, did English football - at the government's behest - reinvent itself to such an extent it was being hailed as an example in Italy yesterday.

In many respects watching matches in Italy is, for a Premiership regular, like stepping back two decades. Stadiums, even the ones refurbished or constructed for the 1990 World Cup, are outdated with few facilities and backless seats simply fixed on to terracing. Fans are caged with netting blocking off the pitch (the missiles on Tuesday came from the upper, unfenced tier). Policing tends to be aggressively reactive rather than pro-active and based on intelligence. It is often simply absent. On Tuesday fans were able to throw missiles with apparent impunity, just as Lazio's waved swastikas unhindered.

There is another factor, too: the "Ultra" fan groups. These are usually behind the worst of the violence, despite which they are often accommodated by club presidents, keen to cultivate their support. Tickets are provided and misdemeanours overlooked. But such fans are also a fundamental part of Italian football's appeal, providing superbly choreographed spectacles. On Tuesday the Inter and Milan end each unfurled huge banners, Inter's being particularly inventive. At that point they generated an enthralling atmosphere, but once it became clear Milan would extend their recent supremacy over Inter the mood soured.

The increasing crowd violence is just one of the problems besetting Italian football. The English game has problems relating to the misuse of the Sky millions but it is in a healthy state compared to calcio. Match-fixing has been a concern for decades. Prosecutions are rare but few believe the game to be clean, whether the problem be institutionalised bias, organised match-rigging or local corruption. Francesco Totti, the Roma captain, spoke for many last month in claiming the federation favoured Juventus and the Milan clubs.

Racism is as much a problem in Italian football as in Spain and eastern Europe and not just on the terraces. And then there is the doping. In February Judge Giuseppe Casalbore finally delivered the judicial explanation for the 22-month suspended sentence he handed down in November to the Juventus club doctor Ricardo Agricola. "There is no doubt whatsoever that [Juventus] administered eritropoietina [EPO] to its players with a view to influencing their athletic performance," he wrote. Agricola was found to have used 281 different pharmaceutical products on "healthy" players. Among the 20 players named, most of whom, said Casalbore, Agricola practised "a chronic use" of EPO on, were Alessandro Del Piero and Zinedine Zidane. To date the Italian federation has taken no action, partly because Agricola has appealed.

There remains much to admire in Italian football, notably the passion, when peacefully channelled, of the fans and the quality of the players. Tuesday's abandonment rendered meaningless Andrei Shevchenko's marvellous goal, Dida's commanding goalkeeping, Veron's revival in form and Paolo Maldini's enduring class.

Perhaps the final word should go to the veteran Maldini, a man who, with his polished football, charitable work and one-club loyalty stands for so much of what is good about calcio. "We couldn't go on, we couldn't finish the game," he said sadly. "It is the first time in 20 years of my career that this has happened. It was very bad." For all the threats of ground closures, only when this view becomes the accepted one will Italian football reform. One hopes it will not first require another tragedy.

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