Friday, February 09, 2007

Silence in the San Siro

When the Serie A scandal erupted last spring in Italy, it seemed for a few weeks as though the fat cats at the heart of some of the worst match fixing--and if what I've read elsewhere is to be believed, match-fixing is almost endemic at all levels of the Italian game--might finally be punished, and soccer might flourish anew. After a great deal of sound and fury that ultimately amounted to very little, the real losers ended up being the fans, and top-level players like Gianluigi Buffon and Pavel Nedved who made the difficult decision to remain with Juventus despite its relegation to Serie B.

Only this season have I begun to nurture an appreciation for il calcio, for the quintessentially Italian take on the game, complete with all of the theatre and much of the corruption one might expect. I hoped that the bad old days might be left behind, despite the fact that most of the punishments meted out amounted to wrist slaps. But the news that has trickled out of Italy this past week has gone from bad to worse, from a story about an official murdered at an amateur match to the death of policeman Filippo Raciti in the rioting outside the stadium during a game between the Sicilian cities of Catania and Palermo, reported first as though it occurred in the course of the melee and only later describing him as specifically targeted by a group of Ultras for having testified against them.

Italy's immediate cancellation of all matches must have been devastating for the fans, but it also seemed a sign that the country might finally be taking its problems with soccer violence seriously. This weekend teams throughout the country will play again, but with only six stadiums meeting newly announced standards, most--including Ronaldo on his AC Milan debut--will play before silent, empty seats. I am a novice when it comes to matters of Italian football, but I'm not convinced this and other measures will put an end to the violence. Part of the problem, of course, is age-old hatreds, grudges that long predate the arrival of il calcio, but there is also the problem of the Ultras. Not all of the Ultras, of course--as always, the peaceful supporters end up tarred with the same brush as the troublemakers. But can the measures put in place succeed as long as the Ultras continue to command the power they do over the clubs? This Guardian writer thinks it's a step in the right direction; I am somewhat less optimistic, because I'm simply not convinced that the powers-that-be mean it this time.

My other concern is the fact that empty stadiums, or stadiums packed with only home crowds, will not prevent "fans" from battling it out in the streets, which was the problem at the match in Sicily.

During the World Cup we swiped a bit of shorthand from both the football anthology My Favorite Year--in which Tim Parks describes his Italian father-in-law's needs for long, solitary walks when his team lost--and from the opening pages of Joe McGinniss's The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, in which the Major he meets at a train station goes out for a walk following a match and . . . well, you'll just have to read the book yourself to find out what happens. But these walks, they became our shorthand for moments when the pain of a defeat was too great, when we no longer felt like knocking back another pint and arguing about formations and bad calls but simply needed to be alone for a while to contemplate the existential pain of being a football fan. I am thinking of football fans across Italy who will not be allowed in their stadiums this weekend, the tumultous times that doubtless still lay ahead, and I am imagining that, win or lose, there might be more than the usual number of long, contemplative walks ahead for the lovers of the game.


Sporty said...

That kind of violence in football (soccer) is totally unacceptable. People should learn to behave and find other ways to show their frustration.

Lynda said...

Yes, Sporty, I agree with you. And I don't envy those who have the task of stopping it--I think it will be more complicated than the hooligan problem in England.

Apparently the San Siro did emergency work to upgrade the stadium for the game this weekend. I just now watched Ronaldo enter the game. He looks reasonably fit; I really hope he does well at AC Milan.