Hooligans spark Italian crisis

Andrew Gumbel reports from Rome on the nationwide impact of the murder of a Genoa supporter
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The Independent Online
When 39 fans, the vast majority of them Italians, were crushed to death at the European Cup final at Heysel stadium 10 years ago, football hooliganism was considered a strictly Anglo-Saxon phenomenon and Italy - easy-going, friendly Italy - the un fortunate victim of a vicious outside assault.

Well, that may have been true then, but it certainly is not any more. In the last few months Italy has become increasingly uneasy about its own hooligan problem, which helps explain the sense of national outrage when a young Genoa supporter was knifed todeath outside his home team's Marassi stadium minutes before last Sunday's league match with Milan.

It seemed the whole country stopped dead in its tracks on hearing the news of 24-year-old Vincenzo Spagnolo's death. Eyes were glued to television screens all afternoon and evening as first the match was called off at half-time, then fighting broke out in the streets of Genoa as the home fans sought their revenge.

By Monday, events had turned into a full-blown national crisis, culminating in a decision by the Italian Olympic Committee to proclaim next Sunday a day of mourning on which no national sporting events would take place.

"This has never happened before, except in wartime. It will now happen because of one of those little Sunday wars that we have learned to put up with," the newspaper La Repubblica wrote in a front-page editiorial yesterday.

It is estimated that two million sportsmen and women will be inactive throughout the country on Sunday. The football shutdown will also prevent bets of about 60 billion lire (£23m) in the weekly pools.

Six people have died in fights at or near football stadiums since 1979. Nor was it the first sign of trouble this season. Last October, there were 10 taken to hospital in Naples after a fight with Bari supporters, while in Brescia, the local deputy police chief was stabbed by a fan following the visitors, Roma. The following month, fighting broke out in the stands during a Roma-Lazio derby and some fans hurled teargas canisters on to the pitch. Some 200 police officers have been injured at matches this season alone.

What made the incident in Genoa different was that it seemed to touch a raw nerve at a time of great political and social uncertainty in Italy. The country is mired deep in recession, young people cannot find work, and the far right is growing more popular by the day. In the past football has been a focus of national cohesion, arousing such passions as to make it something of a second religion; violence against soccer is therefore being seen as violence against the very harmony of the state. "Last Sunday's spectacle is a snapshot of the general discontent and the distorted conception we have of values and human relationships," wrote the political commentator, Enzo Biagi, in the Corriere della Sera.

It does not help that the 18-year-old gardener who has been charged with the voluntary murder of Spagnolo is a supporter of Milan, the team owned by the recently deposed prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Italy's new government has so far ruled out a political motive, but Berlusconi has been vehement enough in his condemnation of the attack as to make his embarrassment obvious.

Milan have the rowdiest supporters of any team in the country, with gangs such as the Tiger Commandos or the Red and Black Brigades - named after the team's colours - voicing open sympathy either for Berlusconi's brand of populist politics or his allies on the far right.

Clubs are under fire for their cosy relationships with these groups of so-called "ultras" (diehard supporters), often offering them free tickets and subsidising their away trips in a bid to keep them sweet.

Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy's leading sports daily, yesterday urged clubs to cut all ties with the hard-line fan clubs and accused such groups of fostering a climate of hate. "Let's break all links with them [the ultras] and chase them out of the stadiums," it wrote.

Curiously, the suspect in the Spagnolo killing, Simone Barbaglia, belonged to a much smaller group of neatly dressed fans distinguishable by their Barbour jackets, the favoured outdoor wear of British Sloane Rangers.

Whether they are young fogeys with far-right sympathies or simply good, middle-class kids remains to be seen. The Barbour coat company was alarmed enough to issue a statement denying all responsibility for the violence. Barbaglia's relatives all rallied round and told the press he was a blameless, quiet boy, but one newspaper dug up an old school document showing he had once been suspended from an end-of-term outing for violent behaviour towards his school-mates.

Sports officials and politicians have been quick to propose ways to nip hooliganism in the bud. Proposals - which will sound familiar to anyone who followed the debate in Britain in the mid-1980s - include identity cards for matches, bans on some fans, heavier policing and faster sentencing for suspected hooligans.

No sooner made, however, the proposals have been denounced as unwieldy and unworkable, drowning the national sport in "a sea of bureaucracy", according to the president of the parliamentary commission for constitutional affairs, Aldo Corasaniti.

Certainly, the authorities did not get off to an impressive start this week. Antonio Brancaccio, the interior minister and Antonio Mattarese, the football federation's chairman, publicly ruled out a day of mourning next Sunday, only to change their mindsunder pressure from the Olympic committee. Yesterday newspapers were denouncing the disarray and calling for Mattarese's resignation.