Has the bella game gone brutta?

A crisis in Italian football? Don't believe the British hype.

Dominic Standish

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Europeans love to lament the decline of Italy’s beautiful game (‘la bella partita’). But has Italian football really gone bad?

For some commentators, AC Milan’s seven-minute collapse and loss against Liverpool in the European Champions League Final illustrated the crisis of Italian football. Barbara McMahon, writing in the UK Guardian, titled her report on the reaction to the final: ‘Italy stunned into silence as national pride takes a beating.’ McMahon’s article reported Milan’s collapse as a humiliation for all Italians. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Italian national newspapers did report the shame of the defeat. La Stampa called it ‘a night of humiliation; an incredible and bitter epilogue for Milan.’ ‘What a disappointment’, stated Corriere della Sera, as ‘mad Milan gave away the cup to Liverpool’. But, as these reports indicate, the humiliation was for Milan, not every Italian football fan. At the end of the final, joyous fans from Milan’s rival teams, Juventus and Inter Milan, drove cars around the town where I live in Italy cheering, beeping their horns and waving flags out of the windows.

This has been a poor season for Milan, having won nothing with an expensive team of individual stars. But even Milan fans can’t be too upset with the team’s performance in the European Champions League over the past few years. Milan collapsed in the European Champions League final this year and the quarterfinal last year (when they won the Italian Championship, Lo Scudetto). But they won the European Champions League two years ago against their archrivals Juventus. No other European team can match that record in the competition over the past four years.

Furthermore, Milan having a poor season is not the same as a crisis for Italian football. The Italian national team has done very well in their World Cup qualifying matches. Italy leads Group Five by four points, with only Ukraine having a greater lead in the European qualifying groups at present. The national team is looking much stronger than after the early exit from the World Cup three years ago.

Others have claimed that there is a crisis off the pitch with Italian hooliganism. After the European Champions League quarter final between Milan and Inter Milan was abandoned due to crowd trouble, Italian football has apparently become ‘infected’ with hooliganism. On 14 April 2005, Glenn Moore from the UK’s Independent newspaper wrote about ‘the continuing failure of Italians to comprehend the seriousness of the hooliganism that has infected their football’.

But this crisis is also not what it seems. Hooliganism has been a long-standing feature of Italian football and it is true that the Italian authorities have paid it relatively little attention in the past. Despite Milan’s goalkeeper, Dida, being hit by a flare during the abandoned match between Milan and Inter Milan, the players were not traumatised. ‘It isn’t right what the fans did but you can understand it’, said Juan Sebastian Veron, one of the Inter Milan players, after his team had been controversially disallowed a goal by the referee. Footballers in Italy have become accustomed to fire crackers and interrupted matches.

But the European media and football authorities will no longer tolerate such behaviour. Now that the problem of hooliganism has largely died out in countries like the UK, they have turned their attention to Italy. In April 2005, the Italian government announced ‘zero-tolerance’ measures to deal with hooliganism. This came after numerous episodes of violence. On Sunday 10 April, games in Rome, Palermo, Udine, Cava dei Tirreni and Perugia turned violent, with visiting fans battling police at some railway stations as they were led away from stadiums. Seventeen fans were arrested and 259 were later identified and charged over the violence.

Following the new measures, police will be told to stop matches before kick-off if there is violence inside or outside the stadium, or if they spot fans with offensive banners. In addition, police will abandon matches if objects are thrown on to the pitch, with the team whose fans throw the objects presented with an automatic 3-0 loss.

Of course, hooliganism is unpleasant and anti-social, and the Italian game would be even more beautiful without it. But just as Milan’s poor season does not represent a crisis of Italian football on the pitch, nor do this season’s violent incidents indicate a crisis in the stands. The European media and football authorities have largely constructed both crises. Milan may be able to resurrect the reputation of Italian football on the pitch next season, but it’s unlikely that the new ‘zero-tolerance’ measures will solve the problem of hooliganism.

Indeed, these measures could make matters worse. For example, if I were not such a decent, law-abiding citizen, I might be tempted to sit among the fans of my team’s opponents and throw something on to the pitch, so that my team would be awarded a 3-0 win. But that’s another story….

Dominic Standish supports Queens Park Rangers in England and Internazionale (Inter Milan) in Italy (dstandish@europe.com).

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