Lazio’s banners

Is Rome's SS Lazio really the race-hate capital of football? Dominic Standish reports from Italy.

Dominic Standish

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Sergio Cragnotti, the president of Rome’s football club SS Lazio, is suffering the consequences of jumping on the anti-racist bandwagon.

As his team is finishing the season in close competition for lo scudetto (the championship), their defence of the title they won last season has been hampered by the restrictions imposed on them for the racist behaviour of their fans.

Lazio received a 60million lire fine and a one-match ban from playing at home, as a result of their fans’ behaviour at the game on 29 April 2001 against AS Roma, who are likely to win lo scudetto from their arch rivals on Sunday 17 June. Some fans held up a banner stating ‘team of blacks, stand of Jews’, targeting Roma’s players and fans. Apparently, there were also racist chants against Roma’s black players. Two weeks beforehand, Lazio were also given a fine of 35million lire for their fans’ racist chants against Parma.

Cragnotti and the Lazio team undoubtedly felt hard done by after efforts to cleanse their right-wing reputation. Historically, Lazio have had ties with the National Alliance, the former fascist party, which still commands around 35 percent of the vote in Rome. Since the formation of ‘Ultra’ supporter groups in the 1960s, Lazio’s Ultras displayed banners linked to the far right, while their rivals Roma’s Ultras displayed banners representing left-wing views.

Now the political landscape has been transformed, and Lazio have attempted to demonstrate their anti-racist credentials by eating kosher meals in Jewish restaurants and wearing anti-racist T-shirts. Club officials have attempted to remove banners they felt were racist during games. Lazio’s Yugoslav defender Sinisa Mihajlovic apologised over the public address system before a match for calling Arsenal’s Patrick Vieira a ‘nigger’ during a previous Champions League game. Many international journalists picked this up, although some failed to mention that Mihajlovic also said Vieira called him a ‘gypsy’ (1).

This incident led to European-wide condemnation of Mihajlovic in particular, and Italian football in general, as racist (2). Then the English Football Association piled scorn on the racism of Italian fans after England’s black player Emile Heskey was repeatedly booed during a friendly match against Italy, as if English fans have never acted in this way.

Dino Zoff, Lazio’s coach and former national player and coach, believes that this was just part of the name-calling that goes on all the time in football: ‘I don’t know whether you could really call that racism’, he said. ‘It’s more a question of people making fun. Fans pick on someone tall, short, grey-haired.’

Matteo Ferrari, a black player for Internazionale, would not identify an abusive opponent, shrugging off the problem. ‘It was all finished after 90 minutes’, he said. ‘The player in question asked for my forgiveness.’ His black team-mate, Clarence Seedorf, was similarly blasé: ‘When these things happen I don’t feel offended. I think with sadness of those people, of their education, which must be very low.’

Players at my local club, Treviso, have shown they are capable of imaginative anti-racist stunts. On 3 June 2001 Treviso players lined up with blacked-out faces to show support for their racially-abused Nigerian team-mate Oluwashegun Omolade.

Previously, Treviso fans had displayed a banner declaring: ‘We don’t want a black player on our team’, and many left the stadium shortly after Omolade was fielded. But the Treviso mayor Giancarlo Gentilini, who is also a member of the Northern League party, merely said: ‘The faces painted black? Maybe it’s the colour of shame for being relegated’ (Treviso have been relegated to Serie C this season).

While name-calling and racist banners are undoubtedly unpleasant, should they really be taken so seriously that they result in bans and fines for clubs? There have been many instances of violence during this Italian season, with attacks on players and fans fighting with the police. But it is difficult to find evidence of violence linked to racism.

A 22-year old arrested for racially abusing and threatening a 12-year old from Sri Lanka was linked to Lazio by his eagle tattoo, the Lazio emblem (3). But this does not prove a connection between the Lazio club and racist violence. The incident occurred in a public park away from football, and the tattoo may have been coincidental. With little evidence of racial violence, the banner ban is part of a campaign by football authorities, the media and politicians to claim the moral authority associated with liberal anti-racism.

But Cragnotti and Lazio have suffered from embracing this anti-racist crusade, after the previous Democratic Left-led government introduced a ban on racist banners. This was galvanised by a match between Lazio and Bari on 30 January 2000, which seemed like a fairly ordinary Serie A game. There were the usual kinds of rivalries between the fans, but no significant reports of violence.

However, there was uproar within the government, media and football worlds in response to two banners displayed by Lazio fans. One proclaimed ‘Honour to Tiger Arkan’, referring to the slain Serbian war crime suspect. The other was a portrait of the former fascist leader of Italy, Benito Mussolini.

Despite the fact that neither banner provoked a violent reaction at the game, the previous government issued a decree that matches should be stopped to remove racist or threatening banners. This law is highly subjective and entirely impractical, as was illustrated the week after the banner ban was brought into law. Some fans had a banner confiscated by police that was merely a tribute to a friend of theirs who had recently died. Indeed, if I was a Roma fan, I might have been tempted to encourage the recent restrictions on Lazio, by attending their matches to display banners with dubious slogans.

But Lazio initially responded enthusiastically to the banner ban. When its introduction was discussed, president Cragnotti stated: ‘Our club will offer maximum collaboration with the forces of order’, and ‘We have to stop football grounds becoming a breeding ground for extremist political groups’.

Lazio certainly do not seem to support the restrictions on foreigners coming into Italy for work. Cragnotti was recently referred to a disciplinary committee for allegedly collaborating in the falsification of a passport for their talented Argentinian player, Juan Sebastian Veron. Indeed, Italian football as a whole appears to be becoming more relaxed about foreign players. The Italian Soccer Federation ruled in early May 2001 that the rules permitting only three non-EU players on the pitch for a team and only five on their books would be scrapped. Even though these rule changes may not be motivated by anti-racism, the consequences will benefit foreign players wishing to come and play here.

This reduction of restrictions on foreigners within Italian football is in direct contrast to the actions of the politicians who claim to be anti-racist. The Democratic Left, which pioneered the banner ban, was part of the Olive coalition that lost in the general election of 13 May 2001. Yet it campaigned on a platform that supported more restrictions on immigrants trying to enter Italy. Under the Democratic left-led administration, police frequently harassed immigrant communities, as during the police raid of 19 October 2000. Ninety people were repatriated and over 200 detained.

A remarkably large number of foreigners are accused of crimes in Italy relative to the numbers actually arrested, indicating a high level of unjustified police harassment. In 1999, according to the Justice Ministry, 93,596 foreigners were accused of a crime, 28,067 were arrested and 14,050 were in jail (4). Now the election-winning Freedom coalition, led by Silvio Berlusconi, has also promised to clamp down on illegal immigration.

The media loves to focus on Italian football and Ultra groups of fans as a breeding ground for far-right groups. The Italian police forces harass more immigrants than the small far-right groups can. In addition, with the mainstream parties vowing to reduce illegal immigration, what political role can such groups have?

In fact, the more overtly anti-immigrant political parties all did badly in the 2001 general election. Compared with the 1996 general election, the former fascists, the National Alliance, lost three percent of its vote, the Northern League vote more than halved and a small far right Sicilian party, Tricolour Flame Movement, received less than half a percent of the vote.

Why concentrate on name-calling, chants and banners in football, which can easily be ignored or challenged (as the footballers above illustrate)? Real anti-racists should focus their attention on the politicians in the leading coalitions.

The focus on football fans merely allows the very same authorities to present themselves as anti-racists through their campaign against football racism. And as Cragnotti and Lazio have discovered, jumping on the anti-racist bandwagon can mean learning some hard lessons.

Dominic Standish writes comment articles for the Italy Daily section of the International Herald Tribune and runs Progress Consultancy in the Veneto region of Italy (dstandish@europe.com)

(1) ‘Racist. Violent. Corrupt. Welcome to Serie A’, Rory Carroll, Observer 6 May 2001

(2) The ugly face of Italian football, by Ivan Speck, 19 October 2000; and Is Italy tackling the racist problem?, by Paul Grech, 8 May 2001

(3) ‘Six Rome Youth Charged With Harassing Sri Lankan Child’, Mencia Manso de Zuniga, Italy Daily, International Herald Tribune, 18 May 2001

(4) Il Sole 24 Ore, 20 April 2001

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