Di Canio & Lazio’s Coliseum of Hate

Andy Newman

 

The announcement by Italy’s football league that Lazio star Paulo Di Canio has been fined 10,000 euros ($12,000) for the second time within a year and banned for one game for making a fascist salute to Lazio’s fans raises important questions.

The incident occurred at a recent away match against Livrono, who have a reputation for having left wing fans, and Italy’s far-right have been quick to make the comparison. Lazio Chairman Claudio Lotito said his players had been provoked by Livorno fans. "Is it political or not to sing the Bandera Rossa (red flag)? Is it normal for people to give the closed-fist salute? Is this a football match or a party meeting?" Daniela Fini, the wife of Gianfranco Fini, Italy's post-fascist foreign minister, said Di Canio was the victim of media bias against the right and said there was little criticism of the closed-fist communist salutes of Livorno fans. She is reported as saying: "It should be his own affair, but every time it happens it becomes a matter of state"

It is a little disingenuous to argue this is a private affair, as the fascist salute (or Roman salute) is illegal in Italy; and Vittorio Pavoncello, president of an Italian Jewish organisation, the Maccabi Federation, is reported to be considering legal action against Di Canio. It is also laughable for the far-right to complain about left-wing media bias, when Prime Minister Silvia Berlusconi's empire includes three television channels with a 45% viewing share, Italy's biggest publishing house, an advertising agency, and the Panorama news magazine.

The international profile of the controversy is also unavoidable because Di Canio has been selected as one of two sportsman (alongside Francesco Totti of AS Roma) to represent Italy in carrying the Olympic torch for the Turin winter Olympics in February 2006.

 

Di Canio

There was little controversy about Di Canio’s  politics while he was playing in Britain, although he did once mention to a BBC radio Five Live interviewer that his hero was Benito Mussolini. After winning the 1996 Italian championship with AC Milan, he joined Celtic, where he became a favourite of the fans and was voted the player of the year in Scotland.

The biggest controversy was after moving to the English premiership at Sheffield Wednesday where Di Cannio pushed over referee Paul Alcock after being showed a red card. The FA punished him with an 10 game ban and a £10,000 fine. But later, after signing for West Ham for 1.7 million pounds, he earned the 2001 FIFA fair play award after refraining from scoring against Everton for the Hammers, having noticed Blues goalkeeper, Paul Gerrard, lying injured on the ground.

It is also somewhat charming that 37 year old Di Cannio was prepared to take a 80% pay cut to leave Charlton Athletic in order to finish his playing career with the club he loves: SS Lazio. He said at the time "I would not have settled for anything else. To wear the blue and white shirt again is something really special. I have always been a true Lazio fan, even when my career has taken me a long way from Rome."

Earlier this year, Italian journalist Gabriele Marcotti argued in the London Times: The first thing that sprang to mind is that Di Cano’s [salute] was totally unplanned and yet, somehow, predictable. … at that moment, he wasn’t thinking. At that moment, he was striding towards 40,000 of his own fans, most of whom, for better or worse, were saluting him that way. Not because they are Fascists or because they were making a political statement, but because they are Lazio and that salute is as much a part of Lazio as it is a part of Fascism. And he responded in kind. Not because he is a Fascist, but because he, too, is Lazio.

 

Lazio: the fascist club

There is no doubting Di Canio’s commitment to Lazio, and allegedly as a younger man he was associated with the hooliganism of Lazio’s feared ultra gang, the irriducibili.

SS Lazio has a long association with Italian fascism, and in recent years this has manifested itself with extreme racist chanting and symbols.

For local Derby matches against AS Roma, it is common for signs to insult the Roma players as 'squadra di negri' - team of blacks - and 'curva d'ebrei' - bunch of Jews. In the year 2000 fans displayed a banner sayingOnore alla Tigre Arkan”, in tribute to the Serbian butcher Zelijko Raznatovic (known as Arkan) indicted by the United Nations international criminal tribunal for atrocities during the Balkan war, and who had been killed the previous week. In 1999, a 50-metre banner was unfurled to AS Roma fans saying: "Auschwitz is your town, the ovens are your houses.”

The club has seemingly colluded in this association with fascist politics, despite routine official statements regretting the politicisation of football. When the previous Olive Tree coalition government sought to ban fascist banners from football grounds, the club allowed fans to display Viking symbols, and slogans in Gothic script. Weapons, and flare guns are brought into the ground by the ultras. Black players are routinely booed, and a climate of threat and violence extends through the stadiums and beyond.

As Guardian journalist, James Richardson reported:The Curvas, the areas where the hardcore supporters go, are seen as Ultra territory and the police do not and will not enforce the law there. This was underlined again just last weekend when Lazio supporters at the Stadio Olimpico unveiled a giant banner boasting "Rome is Fascist" and happily waved Nazi flags throughout the game. Both acts are against the law in Italy, but no attempt was made to stop them.”

 

The Ultra problem

Violence has become a widespread problem across Italian football. The Champions League quarter-final between AC Milan and Inter Milan in April was suspended after AC’s goalie Dida was floored by a lit flare, as Inter’s fans rained bottles, flares and other projectiles onto the pitch. Seasoned hooligan leaders, known to the clubs, are allowed free reign to organise within the Curva. In Italy in particular the choreographed spectacles by the fans in the Curvas, with huge banners, coloured flares and organised chanting are an integral part of the football experience: deeply intimidating to visiting teams; and bonding the home fans with a sense of shared theatre.

In an interview with CBC Sports Online in 2004, Paddy Agnew, Rome correspondent for the Irish Times, explained: You can not underestimate the influence that the ultras yield over clubs. It is not uncommon for the ultras to hold the clubs up for ransom: they'll demand the clubs give them free match tickets and buses to transport them to away games. If the club doesn't provide them with these things, the ultras threaten to go to the games on their own and run riot in the town centre, start scuffles in the stands and attack opposing fans. It's a very effective form of blackmail that the ultras have no shame in using." Ultra groups have been known to infiltrate training facilities days before a big game to influence the team selection, or threaten players who have played poorly.

Of course, the Ultra problem is not unique to Italy. Hooligan “Firms” such as the Chelsea head-hunters are present in England; and gangs of barrabravas (fierce gangs) are an integrated part of Argentinean football, with links to club officials, politicians and police.

The most extreme manifestation of Ultra influence was the formation of Arkan’s Tigers in Belgrade. Ethnic identities within the former Yugoslavia were often expressed via allegiance to football teams. The Balkan war was foreshadowed by the last ever match of the Yugoslav league, that saw Red Star Belgrade’s Delije (Heros) battle for hours against Dynamo Zagreb’s firm, the “Bad Blue Boys”. The match had to be abandoned after 10 minutes, and Dynamo’s stadium was left razed by fire. At some time the same year, Slobodan Milosevic recruited Arkan to organise the Delije, and during the Balkan war Arkan’s paramilitaries– also including hooligans from Belgrade Partizan’s Gravediggers’ firm – acted as an Einsatzgruppe. They first saw action in Slavonia in 1991, and the indictment at the Hague against Arkan related to the Vukovar hospital massacre, in which hundreds of patients - mainly Croats - were bussed to a deserted field and butchered.

Even to this day the Delije are provided with free transport to away matches by Red Star, and have office facilities at the club’s ground.

 

The role of the Crowd in Football

Naturally, the overwhelming majority of football fans utterly reject the violence of the hooligans, and the associations with far-right politics. However, the phenomenon of fascist involvement with football crowds is a recurring problem in different countries and in different eras, and football hooliganism has also become an entrenched part of the culture of the game. Unfortunately most of the discussion of the issue is shallow or moralistic.

The capitalist sport industry is founded upon two pillars: i) competition based upon maximum physical effort; and ii) attracting income based upon its entertainment value, and this income is distributed in the final analysis based upon competitive performance.

Sport is based upon winning. The competition is regulated by the rules of the sport, but within those rules it is the team who can produce the maximum performance who will prevail. The successful clubs are the richest: this not only means they attract the players with the best natural skills, but also the best dieticians, sports physiotherapists and coaches. The richest clubs are the best able to nurture and develop talent, they have the best training facilities. The appeal to the spectators of course is that individual skill and talent can express great artistry, but in order to allow individual skill to flourish the football club must provide the institutional framework. This in turn requires money, and the money follows the silverware.

Even in leagues where the majority of funding comes from television rights, sponsorship and merchandising, the teams still need to win. The crowd provides an important part of the competitive framework. A buoyant mood from the home fans will boost their teams performance and visiting teams can have their confidence undermined, and crucially the match officials are notoriously susceptible to influence – subtle and not so subtle.

What is more, although the income of each club is linked to its competitive performance, premium team brands can attract more secure income. Building a club brand is a complex process where the fans help to shape the perceived identity of the club.

For both of these reasons, a fan culture that has life independent of the formal structures of the club is very commercially valuable. The existence of extremely committed fans who will choreograph demonstrations of support is a benefit to the clubs. The fact that football has also created its own sub-culture, and abides by its own rules, also reinforces the feeling in some fans that events and behaviour connected to football are not accountable to the wider laws and customs of society – this is especially reinforced in Italy where the Curvas are under the jurisdiction of the Ultras, not of the club stewards or the police.

For the vast majority of fans, identification with a particular club simply heightens the participative pleasure of spectating, and perhaps provides a vicarious and escapist identification with a wider collective. However, even though the hooligan fans are only a tiny minority, (in the same way that alcoholism only affects a tiny minority of drinkers), the phenomenon of Ultra organised violence is inherent in the competitive way that club brands develop.

As French Marxist Jean-Marie Brohm pointed out: “Sport treats the human body like a machine. The subordination of the human body and spirit to the collective will, and the tribal identification with particular club symbols and flags shares a common vocabulary with fascism. The delight in de-eroticised physicality, of energy and fearlessness, aggressive action and feverish insomnia, these are the animal pleasures of the fight, but also of the phalange.

Some ultra fans have a similar mindset to organised fascists. In a similar way that workers who are not socialists may recognise that a socialist militant might be the best trade union representative because not despite of her beliefs; ultra fans who are not themselves attracted to far-right politics may respect the fascists. There is some evidence for example that the notorious British C18 Nazi gang were regarded by other football hooligans as simply a slightly eccentric England “firm”.

 

Time for Action

The hooligan phenomenon is inherent to football crowds, and the crowd behaviour is itself structurally reinforced by the financial and competitive organisation of the sport. And because fascist influence is inherently symbiotic with Ultra violence, it is vital that firm action is taken to prevent the poison spreading from the terraces into wider society.

The €12000 fine and one match ban issued by the Italian Liga is pathetically small for a man of di Canio’s wealth, and tantamount to condoning the affair. What is more, Lazio themselves have a vested interest in allowing the phenomenon to continue. The intervention into the debate by Daniela Fini, the wife of a senior government minister, (and the fact that the Italian Prime Minister himself owns AC Milan) clearly shows that no action is likely from the Italian state.

Fortunately, The FIFA president Sepp Blatter has responded very well. He invited a group of journalists to a press conference and made it clear that an investigation was being started and Di Canio could possibly find himself kicked out of the game. He also spoke tough to the clubs: "Definitely, the only sanction you can take against racism is the deduction of points, suspension or expulsion from competition -- or even relegation to the next league," he said. "It's a shame for sport. A financial sentence is nothing. We have to be really tough."

The responsibility lies with UEFA and FIFA. Sepp Blatter’s words must be turned into action. If there are further incidents involving Lazio they should be suspended from International competitions like the champions league for a period of at least one year. With the World Cup in Germany next year, in easy travelling distance for all of Europe’s ultra fans, it is necessary for the sport’s governing bodies to force the clubs to confront the Ultras.

 

 

December 2005

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