James Lawton: Italy's swift ban sends a message to England

The suspension of matches in Italy after a policeman dies in crowd trouble obliges our FA to look at themselves
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Now the shame of Italian football is washed in the fresh blood of a Sicilian policeman some, especially it seems here in a land of football sweetness and towering profit, are saying it is some final, damning judgement.

Maybe, but then maybe not. Perhaps the accumulation of match-fixing corruption and violence on the terraces and in the streets, and climactically the tragedy in Catania last Friday night, has pushed one of the world's great football nations to a unique point of responsibility.

The truth is there can be only one interpretation of the decision by the emergency administration of Italy's equivalent of the Football Association to ban all levels of football over the weekend and almost certainly for at least one more weekend until "appropriate measures and safeguards have been established".

This is unprecedented action, the kind that was never even contemplated in England in all those years when hooliganism was gestating and then being exported into every corner of the European game, a product leader which in its numbers and its scale exceeded anything ever seen before, even in some of the more warring examples of Italian volatility.

Interestingly, there could only be reflection when one English newspaper yesterday listed the trail of Italian football violence. There were some shocking examples stretching back to 1962, no doubt, but the death toll happened to be seven.

You may say that every football game ever played is not worth the unnecessary cost of an innocent human life, and there is certainly no way to comfortably measure a problem by counting up fatalities, but it does happen to be true that the cost to life in Italy, over 45 years, was only fraction of that caused to Juventus fans in Heysel, largely by the conduct of Liverpool fans. And it took not 45 years but roughly 45 minutes. What happened then? English football was banned from Europe - and, naturally, there was unsuccessful appeal.

This may go against the prideful assumption that English football has largely cured itself of institutionalised hooliganism, but if intelligent co-operation with the police has brought huge benefits, the problem, as it always will be, has not disappeared but is reassuringly dormant, a fact which was illustrated dramatically enough last week when 11 policemen were injured, fortunately not fatally, as an estimated 500 Wolves fan expressed their anger at being defeated by West Brom.

How serious will be the repercussions? No heavier, we can be sure, than when Leeds fans invaded the Elland Road pitch in the Seventies, and the club were required to play a few games on neutral grounds, or when they rioted on the south coast during a push for promotion in the Eighties. How sustained, come to think about it, was the official reaction to the attempts last season of Liverpool fans to overturn an ambulance containing the Manchester United player Alan Smith, who had just broken his leg.

The point here is not that Italian football is suddenly a paragon of strong-minded virtue - or that it has not inherited a malignant harvest after many years of refusing to face up to the long-terms consequences. No, it is not that - it is to say that however late the hour, Italian football has responded to the scale of its own problems in a most meaningful way.

Yesterday one Italian football lover Alessandro Berto contemplated an empty football field in a suburb of Padua, one where local junior teams normally split the calm of siesta time, and said, "Finally, they have done what needed to be done. They have told the idiots and the crazies that football cannot be reduced to something that is dangerous for decent people to attend.

"There is so much wrong with the game in Italy and it has lost so much respect, but at least there are doing something now. For the sake of a game which should be beautiful I hope it isn't too late."

One did not hear too much of that sentiment in English football circles when "fans" of the national team were raging through places like Marseilles and Brussels in the 1998 and 2000 World Cup and European championships, when in the first case the despairing chief executive of the Football Association, Graham Kelly, shrugged his shoulders in despair at the hopelessness of advocating serious sacrifice by the national game and agreed that the only solution was probably summary execution.

There was a more realistic possibility, when you thought about it, and Italy's embattled football authorities - who when they staged the World Cup in 1990 banned all alcohol on match days because of the presence of English supporters - may in their extremis have produced it. It is also true that, despite many reports to the contrary, that behaviour by England fans was much less than impeccable, something that can be confirmed by anyone who was either in Cologne to see them rampaging on the steps of the ancient cathedral or saw a recent television documentary on the currently unfashionable subject.

They have said, unlike the FA and almost all leading football men in this country when misconduct threatened to squeeze the life out the game before Hillsborough, decent grounds, and vast amounts of television money, that hooliganism is not a problem that can separated from football. If the game is where abusive and violent behaviour attaches itself as a gruesome, life-threatening parasite, then the oxygen it provides must be cut off - at whatever the financial cost.

Last week it was written here that Italian football was likely to live in a moral vacuum for some time, an inevitable consequence of confirmation that it was in so many areas rotten to its core. This provoked a thoughtful message from Italy. It said, "You say that Italian football is rotten, and maybe it is, but tell me another leading football nation that, whatever its moral health, is capable of winning a World Cup and relegating its most powerful club in the same year?"

Such is the terrible cynicism - and lingering beauty - of the Italian game. Yesterday an English headline proclaimed, "Italian football hunts for its lost soul." No one could argue with such an assessment as the widow of officer Filippo Raciti tearfully faced a suddenly empty life. But then by saying that no profit, no pleasure, could justify such waste, and that the alternative to violence-infected football, for at least some time, was no football at all, the Italian administrators may at last have launched a proper search for that elusive soul.

Certainly they have earned the right to a little suspended judgement, and nowhere more so than here.