Last weekend, several soccer games in Italy were played in empty stadiums, to prevent a repeat of the fan violence that caused the death of a policeman in Sicily on Feb. 2. Mission accomplished: No one died. But that doesn’t mean all is well in Italia. “Italian football died last night,” read the front page of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, in the aftermath of the Sicilian riot. That’s a bit of an overstatement. Italian football didn’t die that night—but perhaps it should have.
The policeman’s murder two weeks ago capped off a shocking series of events. The most infamous was the match-fixing scandal that forced the top club, Juventus, to be dropped into Italian soccer’s second division. Several seamy byproducts of the investigation called the integrity of the sport into serious question. Players were found to have gambled massive sums on matches. Italy’s nominated referee for the 2006 World Cup had to be withdrawn. Juventus was found to have conspired with Aldo Biscardi, host of a popular Italian TV program, to praise the team when analyzing highlights (imagine Jerry Jones paying off Chris Berman to favor the Cowboys—actually, that’s not that far-fetched). In other words, Italian football stinks like a whorehouse at low tide.
English football had deteriorated to similar depths in the 1980s. Hooliganism crippled the sport domestically and embarrassed the country when the brawlers traveled to Europe. The nadir was 1985’s Heysel disaster, when 39 fans (ironically, mostly Juventus supporters) were crushed and trampled after marauding Liverpool supporters knocked down a retaining wall. English clubs were banned from European competition for five years. Four years later, more than 90 Liverpool fans were crushed to death after being thrown up against a fence by a surging crowd. (In response, all British stadiums converted to seats-only. Up to that point, odd as it may seem to Americans, most fans could only stand at matches.)
English football rose from the ashes, thanks to a huge increase in television rights fees and a surprisingly strong performance by the national team in the 1990 World Cup. The Premier League was formed to keep top teams from selling television rights individually (as is the case in Italy) and to create a brand that would induce top foreign talent to play in England. The increase in funds allowed the clubs to class up the game, which drew in top sponsors and priced out the riffraff that caused much of the trouble. The air of sophisticated middle-class propriety that hovers over English football would dizzy a fan from 20 years ago. There has been sporadic grumbling about “prawn sandwich-eating” crowds, but most find a bit of snobbery preferable to anarchy in the stands.
Could a similar rebirth happen in Italy? I doubt it. The Azzurri’s World Cup title run barely slowed the sport’s descent into madness, and television rights fees have peaked. Meanwhile, a corrupt wink-and-nod culture suffuses Italian football. The original penalties issued in the match-fixing scandal were harsh, but after repeated appeals, AC Milan, Fiorentina, and Lazio got off lightly and, unlike Juventus, weren’t sent to the second division. It’s not a question of money—there is no will to improve matters.
There’s also a fundamental difference between the hooliganism in Italy and England. The U.K. version is essentially gang warfare—where you are from and the colors you’re wearing are all-important. English violence is fighting for the sake of fighting, not for any particular cause other than pub glory and bragging rights.
The Italian ultras (the catch-all phrase for rowdy fan groups) are politically motivated. They’re often aligned with a particular movement, be it communist, fascist, or center-right. The political parties and the clubs are commingled to the extent that it’s difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends—since most Italian teams are publicly held and traded, the ultras often literally own the clubs. Even players get caught up in the sloganeering. The most famous instance involves Paolo di Canio, who gave the Nazi salute to fascist, swastika-brandishing ultras when he played for Lazio. Many other stars give tacit, if less blatant, support to whatever movement their fans and club represent.
Increased policing has steadily decreased hooligans’ stranglehold on English soccer. Similar tactics are unlikely to have an effect in Italy, where the offenders have much deeper ties to football culture. Italian riots are an orchestrated mass demonstration of defiance and anger aimed at entrenched rivals. This is not a situation where the marauding Other needs to be separated from the peaceful masses. There is no Other in Italian soccer—except blacks and Jews, steady targets of abuse in Italian stadiums.
Soccer is as important a part of Italian culture as espresso or opera, so it’s hard to imagine the fat lady singing for the sport of Zoff, Maldini, and Cannavaro. But an extraordinary intervention is needed. The domestic leagues should be shut down for at least the rest of this year, and Italian clubs should be banned from European competition. The clubs should be punished for the criminal actions of ultras representing them. There also needs to be a cleaving between politics and sport. Private ownership should be encouraged, foreign if necessary, so that the decision-making and direction of the clubs don’t go through layers of people with nonsoccer agendas. Mostly, the Italian Football Association needs to understand how farcical their sport appears to outside eyes. Only then can Italy’s favorite game restore some of its former luster. Or at least climb out of the gutter to the level of, say, Major League Soccer.