Sports | World

April 16, 2005

Italy's Hooligan Problem

Out-of-control fans endanger players, refs, and their nation's storied soccer tradition. What can be done to stop them?

Pietro A.A. Canetta

For much of the past three decades, if you said the word "hooligan" to a European, it immediately would spark mental images of rabid English soccer fans, drunkenly cursing and chanting, vandalizing stadiums, and battling each other with fists, stones, bottles, or knives.

Markus Merk

Fans reacted violently when referee Markus Merk handed a yellow card to Inter's Esteban Cambiasso.

Today, the images are the same but the protagonists are different. Hooliganism is alive and well as always, but of late its center seems to have been booted out of England and towards the south and west. "Tifoso" is the generic Italian term for "fan," and Italian tifosi have recently been outdoing themselves in trying to claim the title of most atrocious fans in the soccer world. Their most recent feat in this quest took place this past Tuesday in the Champions League, the annual tournament of Europe's best professional soccer clubs. The setting: the quarterfinal match in Milan between the city's two powerful rival teams, FC Inter and AC Milan, at San Siro stadium. (Full disclosure: I'm a Milan native and lifelong fan of AC Milan.)

English-language reports of the heavily covered match can be found at the Guardian and the BBC. A quick summary: In the 30th minute, Milan striker Andriy Shevchenko scored on a tremendous left-footed shot from the corner of the area. With 20 minutes remaining, Inter still trailed 1-0 when its Argentinian midfielder Esteban Cambiasso headed in a ball for what looked to be a goal; however, German referee Markus Merk disallowed it and called a foul on another Inter player against Milan goalkeeper Nelson Dida (whether it was a good call or not is at this point moot). Cambiasso protested vehemently and vocally, earning himself a yellow card. His anger appeared to set off the Inter fan base located in the stands behind Milan's goal, and promptly some fans began sending a hail of objects upon the pitch, including water bottles and—most impressively and dangerously—lit smoke-flares. One flare struck Dida on the shoulder, burning and bruising him. Without a peaceful way to continue play, Merk was forced to call the game. (Sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport has a stunning photo gallery of the game's highlights and its ugly, premature ending.)

Reaction in Italy

A selection of comments about the Milan violence, from players, coaches, and fans. I translated from articles (here, here, and here) in La Gazzetta dello Sport.

"We players need to be intelligent. I spoke with Cambiasso and we agreed: I understand the stress and tension, especially when you're losing, but it is we the players who have to give an example. We have to help a referee even when he's mistaken, without being aggressive."
—Clarence Seedorf, Milan midfielder

"Someone started throwing flares and everyone followed. It's all because of the disallowed goal and the people's exasperation and we [fan-club leaders] weren't able to stop them ... the people were so exasperated that there was nothing to be done."
—Franco Carovita, Inter fan-club spokesman

"It's a problem of mentality; unfortunately here we show replay after replay [to scrutinize referee decisions] instead of analyzing what happened on the field technically. We have to change the culture."
—Carlo Ancelotti, Milan head coach

"When these things happen it's best to immediately turn the page and look only at the technical gestures and at the positive things."
—Alessandro Nesta, Milan defender

"We players have to behave ourselves on the field, we can't do any more than this."
—Andriy Shevchenko, Milan striker

"There were 83,000 people in the stadium, we couldn't control them all. But the security forces informed us that there weren't any problems either before or after the game, inside or outside the stadium."
—Giacinto Facchetti, Inter president

"The fans' rage is understandable when a regular goal gets disallowed, everyone gets heated and there was this form of protest. Obviously it's not good, but I can't say anything to the fans, they've always tried to help us even when we haven't been able to satisfy them."
—Inter defender Ivan Cordoba, who mockingly applauded referee Merk as he walked off the field upon ending the game.

Pattern of Violence

Italian teams have historically played a dominant role in European competitions. Recently, they have begun asserting their dominance of the negative as well. (Adapted from La Gazzetta.)

•In four of the last five games interrupted before the 90th minute, Italian teams were at fault: Milan-Inter (2005), Roma-Dynamo Kiev (2004), Perugia-Trabzonspor (1999), Fiorentina-Grasshopper (1998)

•In three of the last four games that resulted in an UEFA handing a team a stadium ban, Italian teams were at fault: Milan-Inter (2005), Lazio-Partizan (2004), Roma-Dynamo Kiev (2004)

•In three of the last seven games in which violence led to teams playing at neutral sites, Italian teams were at fault: Inter-Alaves (2001), Perugia-Trabzonspor (1999), Fiorentina-Barcelona (1997).

Path to Change

Lest I be accused of simple and unconstructive criticism, here are some suggestions for improving the situation in Italian stadiums:

1. Dedicated security cameras trained on the curva (seating area for hard-core fans, near the goals). The troublemakers are concentrated there, so why not ensure that they'll be easily identified and prosecuted if they act up?

2. Long-term bans for offenders. The three-year ban slapped this week on one of the flare-throwers identified by camera footage at the Milan-Inter game is a good start, but even longer bans are justified.

3. My favorite: Instead of stadium bans involving everyone, why not just ban all males over the age of 16? Virtually all the dangerous ultras belong to this demographic, so excluding them both punishes them and ensures the stadium's safety. Furthermore, since tickets can be still be sold to children and their mothers (or adult female fans), the clubs don't necessarily lose money but instead have extra incentive to cater to youth—with a stadium full of kids safety is paramount, but then also players feel extra pressure to act civilly towards each other and the ref, and the emphasis gets placed on entertaining, delighting, and indulging in the magic of the game.

Reactions across Italy were immediate and unanimous (contrary to some claims, like this article in England's Independent): The press, politicians, players, and club presidents widely condemned the events as horrid, shocking and—above all—shameful. (The Italian word vergogna, meaning shame or disgrace, figured prominently in headlines from Il Corriere, La Stampa, and La Gazzetta dello Sport, among others.) All decried the state of the game and the hardcore fans' mentality. Many highlighted the point that, with Italy attempting to make a bid to host the 2012 European Championships—the quadrennial tournament between Europe's national teams—this disgraced Milan derby could cost the country dearly. (See more reaction from players, coaches, and fans translated from the Italian press, at left.)

Might one expect, in the face of such universal condemnation, the more rabid tifosi to take a step back, reflect a bit on how far things have gone, and decide to tone it down for a little while? Hardly—the very next day, during another Champions League game, fans of Juventus sparred and skirmished with supporters of visiting Liverpool both inside and outside the club's Turin stadium. (Guardian)

This pattern has been repeating itself for too long in Italy. (See sidebar at left.) For the past several years, and with seemingly increasing frequency, the following cycle has repeated itself: Episodes of fan violence have prompted harsh condemnations across the board, but teams and soccer authorities have done little constructive to staunch the trend. Ask who is at fault and you'll hear a range of unsatisfying answers: The players blame the refs, for corruption and bias; the refs blames the politicians, for inadequate security or enforcement; politicians blame the teams, for laxity in corralling their hate-mongering fan clubs; the teams blame the "handful of bad apples" ruining it for the real fans. Everyone agrees that change is needed, no one makes changes, and next Sunday rolls around and the episodes begin again. Repeat ad nauseam.

Or not. This week's events may have finally goaded clubs and politicians into taking some concrete steps to stem the tide of hooliganism sweeping through Italian soccer. For some months now, the idea of removing from the stands the barriers that serve to separate and concentrate visiting teams' fans has been bandied about—the idea being that if you remove the implication of a cage, fans will stop acting like animals—and the conversation has intensified in light of this week's events. Even before the Milan game—in reaction to multiple episodes of violence and vandalism surrounding the prior weekend's league matches, with 259 people charged, 17 arrested, and 85 police officers wounded—minister of the interior Giuseppe Pisanu threatened that he may begin closing the stadiums that host the worst offenders. On Wednesday, Franco Carraro, head of the Italian soccer federation, declared the establishment of new norms for halting games due to stadium violence. Thanks to these rule changes, effective this week a game will be ended if at any point before or during play an object is thrown towards the field, and the team whose fans are responsible will suffer a 0-3 loss on the books. (An interesting possible scenario: If both teams' fans are involved, both teams are charged with a 0-3 loss.)

It is too early to ask if any of these measures will work, because first it remains to be seen if any will be implemented fully. Already we hear complaints from club presidents that Carraro's new rules and Pisanu's threats, by penalizing teams, effectively punish the victim. Maurizio Zamparini, president of Palermo, states that "[Carraro's new norms] make a clear path to the impunity of delinquents who are the ones who should be punished, and not the clubs who are the victims. Carraro has made a hasty decision just to show that he's doing something." Others have retreated to the old comfort of minimization, like Fiorentina president Diego Della Valle: "What happened in Milan is an upsetting episode that involved a small group of very agitated people." Della Valle may be right, but downplaying the situation to avoid reform is what has gotten calcio to where it is now. As every American knows, the first step is admitting you have a problem.

UEFA—the governing body of European soccer competition, including the Champions League— has determinedly not minimized the situation. Yesterday UEFA passed judgment on Inter, serving the club with a fine of 300,000 Swiss francs ($250,000 US) and ordering it to play its next four home matches in European competition behind closed doors. The stadium ban will be extended to at least two more matches if there are any further offenses during a probationary period that will last three years. Inter has three days to appeal. (It probably won't: As the Independent notes, the punishment could be stiffened if an appeal fails.) The punishment could have been much worse, as many pundits had predicted up to a year-long ban from all European competition for Inter. Not an unreasonable expectation, if one considers that the flare that struck Dida, with only a slight change in its trajectory, might have easily blinded or even killed the man. Still, it is far from a slap on the wrist; as pointed out by UEFA spokesman William Gaillard, "This is the largest fine in UEFA's history. The loss of four home games amounts to seven or eight million euros [$9 million to $10 million]. It is a hefty punishment compared to anything that has been done for over five years." (BBC)

Still, I wonder: Will it be enough? There is much that can be done to improve the situation inside and outside the Italian stadiums. Good ideas abound (I have some of my own recommendations, at left), but it will take a serious and united movement among city officials, clubs, players, and fans to make real headway. They will have to avoid the roadblocks that have impeded progress thus far: placing blame, minimizing the problem, and letting stinginess or greed overwhelm good ideas.

Change will come eventually, because the current situation is unsustainable. True fans of the Italian game can only hope that it comes before "hooligan" has been replaced by "tifoso" in our common lexicon.

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- Sports
- posted on Apr 18, 05
Tim Butt

Interesting to hear a bit more about the Italian troubles. I get the feeling that you're not the only ones though.
Your three suggestions sound good and the third one particularly so. One serious concern with it is the possibility of youths ending up in trouble. Often it's the way that young people copy the behaviour of those older than them or get involved to 'prove' themselves. I wonder whether your suggestion might actually end up helping to develop a new generation of idiots who want to fight at the football?

- Sports
- posted on Apr 19, 05

I share your concern that kids might act up, but I would hope the age limit and presence of adult women would mitigate that. There's no denying that it would be an experiment.

My other concern, however, is that UEFA's policy of forcing games to be played in empty stadiums will turn kids (and other fans) away from the game altogether. It's unpleasant and unnerving to see what's supposed to be an important game with nobody cheering (ask a Roma fan.)

Look at some American sports venues (e.g. minor league baseball), and you'll often see stadiums full of children with a few adults supervising. The teams cater to children by having special halftime shows and prizes, and it's generally a great experience for the young.

- Sports
- posted on Apr 22, 05

Football hooliganism is a complex problem. Anyone wanting to deal with it should really look to England. Here is what they do in England.
1. Cameras in all stadiums for identifying trouble makers.
2. Lifetime banning orders for trouble makers. There is no second chance so anyone that considers running on the pitch or throwing something has to consider that this may be his last visit to the stadium. Britain has special laws that support this. Banning one flare thrower for 3 years is a joke.
3. Extensive use of supporters clubs. Tickets are sold through supporters clubs. Members are vetted before being allowed to join supporters clubs. Anyone with a history of football trouble isn't allowed to join.
4. Police intelligence - British police work like a counter terrorism force and place public banning orders on known trouble makers from attending matches.
5. It has taken many years but in England now hooligans are real outcasts and outsiders. People claim that football is middle class now in England. Maybe so but it is reasonable safe. As a teenager I was terrified at most away games I went to.

Italy is light years away from solving this problem. Reading the reports from the Inter players shows they are in complete denial. It's obvious they fear challenging the Ultras. Often you hear football officials say hooligans are not football fans but it's not true. Many are loyal fans and to get rid of them you have to risk alienating your most loyal fans.

In England you will never ever hear a football official give any mitigating excuse for football violence because of a referee decision.

On the point of the stadium bans hurting the club when they are not really responsible. I feel this is a load of rubbish. Here is why punishing the club works. When the club hurts financially they will do anything take action to protect their interests. This means they have to deal with their own security in the stadium, their relationship with the fans, and also they have to ask for political help.

I think it's ironic that Inter officials say that the ban hurts them and not the trouble makers but at the same time they make excuses for the trouble makers. To claim they are not part of the solution is a lie.

The turn around in England came after almost 100 died at Hillsborough. I am afraid that Italy hasnít felt enough pain yet to be driven to action. And as for UEFA. They are a disgrace. Their spokesperson said that in the end no one was seriously hurt. What an idiot, someone could have been killed or seriously hurt so one should do everything possible to prevent it in the future.

Article by Pietro A.A. Canetta

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