MORE OF THE SAME IN ITALY
It is more than twenty years ago that Ken Bates had come up with the idea of installing an electric fence around the Stamford Bridge playing area to keep fans out after a pitch invasion following a League Cup semi final match against Sunderland. Looking back it now, it was probably nothing more than Ken’s showmanship that led to the suggestion and a desire to be seen to be doing something about the hooligan problem that plagued English football at the time.Since then a lot of water has passed under the bridge (no pun intended). English stadiums have been transformed from pre-war style arenas into comfortable, safe venues where parents feel it is safe enough to take young kids to watch a football match. As a foreign fan I looked at the initial efforts to solve the problem with no little scepticism. All ticket matches, CCTV, all seater stadiums, club membership, what could they possibly contribute when large numbers of fans turned up to cause trouble rather than watch a football match? But work they did. Government, the police, and most importantly, the clubs themselves saw to it that the troublemakers were weeded out and within a relatively short space of time it was once again a pleasure to watch a football match in an English stadium. At the height of the hooliganism problem no country looked down on the state of English football more than the Italians did. While English clubs were banned from Europe, the Italians were at their peak, attracting the biggest stars in World football. Stadiums in Italy were full to the brim while attendances in England dropped year after year. The criticism of the state of English football reached its peak in the run up to the 1990 World Cup held in Italy, where every small drunken brawl involving England fans was reported on national television as if it were a full scale riot. By the early nineties the wheel started turning. The implementation of the Taylor report saw millions of pounds spent and every ground in England upgraded to what they are now today. Unfortunately the opposite was happening in Italy. Millions were spent on new stadiums and refurbishing existing ones for the 1990 World Cup but it is now generally recognised that it was mostly money down the drain (or straight into the mafia’s pockets). Refurbishment consisted of sticking a roof over the odd derelict terracing and sticking in a few plastic seats. The new stadiums built, the Stadio delle Alpi in Turin and the Stadio San Nicola in Bari, were white elephants. Both stadiums had terraces far removed from the playing surface, giving poor visibility of the playing surface. Although covered, the architects let style prevail over substance. The Turin stadium is cold, miles away from the city and open to the elements. The Bari stadium is totally open to the strong winds that come in from the sea, often making decent football impossible. Instead of experiencing a boom, the 1990 World Cup sowed the seeds of Italian hooliganism, culminating in this weekends incidents which saw two games postponed and one abandoned after 8 minutes because of crowd trouble. A fan was shot dead at a motorway services by the police after a huge fight broke out at these services between Lazio fans going north to Milan to watch their team play Inter, and Juve fans on their way south to watch their team play Parma. To comprehend what led to all this, one has to understand how Italian fans are organised. The core of Italian teams’ support is made up of the so called Ultras. When gates started falling in the early nineties clubs (14 teams out of 20 in Serie A now average well under 20,000) turned to these Ultras to stem the tide. These are not your run of the mill supporters whose equivalent would be those who populate the Stretford End, the Matthew Harding stand, the Kop or the Holte End. These are organised groups backed by the clubs themselves in a desperate and pathetic attempt to drum up support for the team. These fans are let into the stadium for free on the pretext of setting up their flags and banners to create an atmosphere in the stadium. For away travel, free coaches are laid on and most away clubs ticket allocation is handed out free to these so called fans. The scheme backfired badly because these Ultras are now made up of criminals who have infiltrated these groups who hold clubs to ransom, often threatening club officials with physical violence. What’s in it for them one might ask? Quite simply the answer is money. The Ultras’s leaders are given hundreds of free tickets to both home and away, which they duly sell on to their “mates”, albeit at reduced rates. The scam involves not only the Ultras, but ground staff too. This emerged after the investigation that took place when a motor bike was thrown off the third tier of the San Siro during an Inter match a few years ago. Is there any light at the end of the tunnel? Not unless the whole Italian political body is swept away. And that might not do the trick anyway. After the political scandals of the early nineties the Italian political landscape experienced an earthquake but many of the old faces have re-emerged to join equally corrupt ones who are now in power. The result is a lot of talk and very little action because vested interests rule the roost, where it is often more convenient to turn a blind eye rather than act. After the motorbike incident a new set of laws was passed whereby all stadiums had to have CCTV installed and turnstiles were to be monitored closely. After the death of a policeman during the Sicilian derby between Catania and Palermo last year, an audit revealed that only one stadium (ironically the San Siro) was compliant. The other 19 stadiums were shut down and clubs forced to play their matches behind closed doors. That is until Silvio Berlusconi, the leader of the opposition and owner of AC Milan, started going on about the Italian public being deprived of its football. One by one the stadiums reopened with very few of the works carried out. Yesterday morning’s Italian papers could very well be photocopies of those of a year ago after the Sicily incident, and like those of the day after the motorbike coming off the San Siro upper tier. As well we those of ten years ago when Roma fans fired a flare across the stadium towards Lazio fans, instantly killing one of them during a Rome derby. These incidents, apart from the motorway fight which led to the Inter – Lazio match being postponed, also included major rioting outside Rome’s Olympic Stadium during which the offices of the Italian Olympic committee and three police stations were ransacked, leading to the postponement of the Roma – Cagliari match. If that were not enough, the Atalanta – Milan match was abandoned after just 8 minutes because the Atalanta fans broke down the perspex dividing the stands from the playing surface. Total arrests made in riots involving hundreds of “fans” in three separate locations – three. What price the same headlines next season?