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Racism and Violence in Calcio: No Heroes in this Story

Racism barely scratches the surface of the cleanup needed in Italian football culture, where lives will be lost ahead.

US Lecce v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images

It’s a coincidence that I wrote this at the same time a fellow CdT writer was publishing his own view. This isn’t a reaction to Ssciavillo’s post, but I did want to open up this article originally with:

‘We’ll be told that Roma’s social media team standing up for Juan Jesus is symbolic of a bigger fight against racism.’

And, sure enough, we’ve already begun to do exactly that.

But there are no heroes or villains, for me, when it comes to straightforward issues like racism, violence and inequality. There is just confrontation and the guarantee lives are going to end - whether literally or figuratively. Or both. More than likely both.

AS Roma v Istanbul Basaksehir F.K.: Group J - UEFA Europa League Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

In fairness with the many people who praise Roma’s social media team for their actions this past weekend, I do hope what they’ve done sets an example for kids using social media. If we see (and I include myself, as I’ve used Twitter like a kid at times) that social media isn’t the place to become another persona and let out repressed thoughts and emotions without care for others, then that’s a worthwhile example to set. It’s a slim hope of mine, but a hope nonetheless. Because at the heart of Italian society’s closed culture, you’re looking at issues that run a lot deeper than racism. Claudio Ranieri said as much last season, and everyone gave him a free pass for it.

Anyone can claim I’m minimizing the importance of tackling racism itself, but we’re not forced to do either one or the other. You can do both. You can act against racism and actively give a shit about the underlying issues.

Getting an Italian football fan to say “yes racism is bad” is one thing. But that doesn’t mean the underlying resentment fueling all of this is magically cured.

And I’m speaking as someone who is foreign, mixed race and has run into racism more than once since I moved to Italy. So I’m not about to go down the path of getting into whether Italians are crying victim or not because that’s just another way to derail anything productive coming from the brutal changes ahead. But if I went out of my way to be outraged at every fan like the one made an example of by Roma’s social media team, I wouldn’t have a life.

By the time that fan was caught out, he wasn’t even willing to own up to his behaviour and instead claimed his account had been hacked. No matter how ignorant and racist his messages were, he buckled at the first sight of adversity. He didn’t even believe in what he was saying and, in some ways, I lose even more respect for him. But he’s far from alone having a light shed on how crushingly tame his way of life is - as we’ll see below by the end of this post. It looks to me that racism - whether you choose to confront it or not - barely goes beyond the surface of the what needs to be confronted in Italian everyday life.

Roma is one of the few clubs with credibility to be ramping this opportunity up into a cleanup on fan behaviour, owing to James Pallotta’s consistency in confronting the underlying issue among the Italian football stands: the threat of organised violence.

Feeding the Daspo with the Names of F*cking Idiots

Roma v Liverpool UEFA Champions League 2/05/2018. Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Well, we’re back here aren’t we? Back to that famous catchphrase of Pallotta’s, now seen in a light much closer to his original intent. In the spring of 2015, Roma’s president infamously said:

“It’s not fair for all of our fans to be tarnished by a few fucking idiots and assholes that hang out in the Curva Sud, and I’m sure the overwhelming majority of romanisti are fed up with their stupidity.”

Four years later, and any club taking the old ‘well it’s not most of our fans, just a minority’ party line is seen as a club in denial of the widespread problem. Pallotta’s original statement was not denial. It was a straightforward signal of intent.

Not only did he refuse to back down from working with the football authorities (the Daspo in Italy are the first point of call for crime at sporting events) but doubled-down on his stance that all Serie A clubs should be using a networked camera systems, biometric ID (if you know anything about blockchain, this could easily become obsolete in a few years even if it seems new today) and other measures to make sure attending fans are aware that their matchday actions come with consequences. This is one of the main points for championing clubs’ right to privately own their own stadia. They’d have direct control of managing their matchday audience without the local council getting in the way.

Roma also agreed to be a part of Interpol’s Europe-wide controlled experiment: Installing plexiglass divider through the middle of the Curva Sud for two seasons. Paris Saint Germain did the same with their own season-ticket holders for two seasons prior in France. Despite the fact it was concerted effort Europe-wide, you may remember the original reaction to Pallotta and Roma’s stance in 2015.

AS Roma v SPAL - Serie A Photo by Silvia Lore/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Romantic sentiment went the way of the ultras, seen as the die-hard supporters of a club being carved up by Americans owners who weren’t in touch with the “right” way to handle matters. How different the picture now looks now. At the moment, you can’t afford to disagree with Pallotta’s stance otherwise Roma’s social media team has moral license to run roughshod over you, too.

I’ve personally only ever agreed with Pallotta and the club’s stance 100% back then and today. But my point is: let’s not be in a rush to pick sides where there are none. No matter what stance you take on this, remember that you’re a part of witnessing people’s lives ending for good. There are no good guys here. There’s the pain of inevitable change that has been a long time coming.

The End of the Extreme Ultra Influence as We Know It

It was said James Pallotta’s actions were out of touch with the Italian way of doing things.

Thank goodness that’s 100% accurate.

Sometimes it takes an outsider with no allegiances, no loyalty and no sense of duty to the established order to bring the true agent of change. Italian football is living out one of those times as we speak.

AS Roma v AC Milan - Italian Serie A Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In the last 15 years, Italian football has descended from a sport that you could happily boast about on the streets of Turin, Milan or Napoli with your girlfriend, to one where you’d be embarrassed to bring your family to the stadium. We covered as much when we reacted to Pallotta’s Big Interview last year with our own background:

‘Back in 2009, despite Calciopoli and major law changes to matchdays because of riots in Sicily that saw both police officers and fans killed two years earlier, over half the country (56%) considered themselves a football fan, casual or otherwise, extrapolated from a Demos-Coop survey. The same observatory send out the same survery in 2013, and football following in Italy had fallen to barely over one third (36%).

A Findomestic-Doxa survey in the autumn of 2018 claimed just 5.5% of Italy-based football fans surveyed had intentions of kicking off this campaign as a season-ticket holder with their club, and a further 29% were happy to subscribe to pay-TV; watching the game at home or a friend’s house.’

Racism had a part in that descent, mixed into a wider cocktail of violent threat that convinced 11% of fans surveyed, last summer, to stay away from attending football matches altogether. Is that threat legitimate? We’re about to find out in a big way, as Italian clubs ramp it up to the next level of confrontation with their own fans. We do know the threat of violence has been legitimized by the passive acceptance of Serie A clubs for decades.

One of the original reasons Pallotta made enemies in Rome was his refusal to continue going along with the club’s unofficial policy of handing out season-ticket discounts to ultra fans under the table. There was a retail price for fans to pay, and another discounted price that some ultras bought in bulk. The main reason Serie A clubs have been doing this, since the late 1970s where both Italian football commerce and ultra existence spread nationwide, is to placate the extremist ultras’ continued threat of violence from within the community. This kind of bargaining for peace and football isn’t unique to Roma.

The under-the-table deals happen all around Serie A and lower leagues. When it affected the very summit of Serie A, there was finally enough glamour in the story for journalists to write openly on the issue. That glamour story was Juventus owner Andrea Agnelli caught between a rock and a hard place in the summer of 2017.

Atletico Madrid v Juventus: Group D - UEFA Champions League Photo by Daniele Badolato - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

Agnelli first went Pallotta’s way, choosing to break away from Juventus ultras’ into a free, open market for ticket sales. But Agnelli would second-guess himself and try to meet the Juventus ultra extremists halfway (James Pallotta has never done this in Rome). Agnelli would immediately regret his half-measures, however, as stories came out making him look like the “ticket touter” to fans in 2017. Suddenly, the story came across as if this was all Agnelli’s idea to skim money off the side of his own family business. He was was caught, fined and banned from attending Juve games for one year by the FIGC.

Learning from his mistakes through indecision, Agnelli has since found the resolve to speak out about it openly in 2019. There are still no good guys and bad guys though; only shades of grey throughout this whole affair.

We’re not here to feel sorry for any of the parties involved, but we can acknowledge the reality of it. Italian football stands have been the playground for the middle class Italian male to live out his weekend Peter Pan fantasies of being a weekend gangster and political leader, and football supporter rolled into one. This kind of fantasy land holds real consequences when the frustration boils over. Less fanciful calcio fans, who just want to watch the sport and then go home, can wind up beaten, stabbed or worse. This can happen on any given matchday and has been a part of Italian football for decades now. Though it is worth pointing out that the pre-cautionary policing around Italian football matches, as a result, is often more active than other football leagues who don’t expect to manage this level of repression.

AS Roma v SS Lazio - Serie A Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Repression within a society that, frankly, is seen as doing a poor job when it comes to upholding justice in general. When I first moved to Italy, my girlfriend spoke to me about a recent court ruling that set an odd legal precedent: from that day, if you attacked, assaulted or physically harmed someone in your household - no matter the circumstances of their entry - then you were still liable to be doing jail time for it. To put it another way: someone can break into your home and you can’t touch them. I have no idea if this is actually true, but it was a big enough story at the time to show Italian society’s perception of who the law really favours in Italy. We’re not talking about the mafia here, but the far more ominous presence of the clans caught halfway between the shadows of Italian society and TV glamour.

There’s the ‘Ndrangheta, and the Gomorrah now have their own TV drama series named after them. Oddly enough, despite a lot of clan activity being tied to the southern region of Campania, that’s also the place where - inside of football - there has been a surreal push for social equality among newly founded clubs like Afro Napoli United and youth team Sanita’ Calcio in the very same area of the country. As always, when one extreme rises then there is often its extreme counterpart rising to meet it.

These are grass-roots amateur football clubs that show your local Italian hairdresser or shopkeeper, far from being a passive racist waiting in the wings to blame you for injustice he feels he’s been through, still acts to support his community; and that’s no matter how much the face of that community changes over the years. It can also be an acknowledgement that the mini-mafiosi Peter Pan fantasies that once seduced extremist ultras are failing. And people recognise it is failing.

It has been 30 years since the Daspo was first set up as the authority to handle the violence inside Italian football. It’s barely been a further 20 years before that since the first Italian ultra movements began to rise around the country, promising political involvement and a voice to be heard. But no one has gotten rich or famous from rolling with the ultras in all this time. And even if your local Italian hairdresser was a racist, he can hardly rely on solidarity from the guys in power who may share his limiting ideology in lip service only, but ultimately leave him in the dust when it counts.

We’re only two years removed from the Italian deputy PM Matteo Salvini - himself gone on several ignorant and racist tirades against gypsies and the Roma since he’s been in office - granting increased power and authority to the Daspo in 2017, giving them further license to stamp extremist fans out of Italian football stadia. It’s not entirely accurate that Italian football is “passively” accepting racism and anti-social behaviour in the stadia. It’s just that Italian bureacracy is guilty of wrapping the issue up with a lot of red tape. But what’s new?

Media outlets cover this issue as though the Lega Serie A is responsible for direct intervention (or lack thereof), and maybe that should be the case. But it isn’t. It’d be straightforward if calcio could cut out the Daspo’s authority over policing the Lega, just like it’d be straightforward if clubs could cut out local council in managing their own stadium. But that’s Italy for you: The power to act gets spread out among many parties, for fear of one party having too much say. As a result, no one ever acts in time. Yet the Daspo are acting to prosecute matchday fans with greater measures all the same.

It’s a lonely life for the bigoted extremist football fan, and it’s only getting lonelier as far as how you’re remembered in the game. Look no further than Lazio’s most infamous ultra meeting his literal end this past summer.

FC Internazionale fans show a banner in honour of SS Lazio... Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

Diabolik, as he was known after the Italian fumetti of the same name, was gunned down before this Serie A season kicked off. And yet he was not written or spoken about in the media as an important, ominous or even shadowy figure. None of that glamour for him. No TV biopic is going to be made of Diabolik wearing a mask like in the comics.

Instead, Diabolik is remembered in the papers (of what little coverage was given to his murder) as an average, run-of-the-mill man who’d simply run out of options. He’d reportedly painted himself into a corner through years of drug-dealing come home to roost. And the size and scale of the deals weren’t even reportedly that big. Wherever the truth lay in the details of why he was killed, my point is that ultra dream of rising to power and influence is over.

It’s over. And it’s living out a tame, protracted death. While some extremists focused on feeling disenfranchised and yearned for a nostalgic barrier of “us and them” around Italian history, real life happened in the meantime. And the modern Italian wears the face of someone you cannot deny.

Less Focus on Controversy, More Focus on Answers

Italy v Poland: Group A - 2019 UEFA U-21 Championship Photo by Emmanuele Ciancaglini/NurPhoto via Getty Images

What we do with those losses around us speaks to character and, while no one here will end up the good guy by the time the Italian fanbase is “cleaned up”, the best actions are akin to Moise Kean away at Cagliari last year. Kean’s example went beyond people just saying the right things, or trying to explain to others how best to live. Instead it boiled down to just being the living proof of change.

A young, black Italian teenager looking like the most composed of everyone in that Cagliari vs Juve storm, while opposition fans try to provoke him. While his older, more experienced teammate Leonardo Bonucci exposed his character limitations for all to see.

Roma v Genoa - Serie A Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images

But losses will be there. Because we want the Daspo to drive their knife home, we want Salvini to keep giving them the power to cleanup. We want clubs to own their own stadia, we want decisive action from the league. Many people’s way of living in Italy will be over for this to happen.

Anyone brushing over those losses is not going to be there to mop up the price paid. But once I see people of all backgrounds living out their success among Italian society - whether Kean, Juan Jesus or a hopefully wiser Bonucci today - it makes it worthwhile.