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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 February 2007, 13:20 GMT
The politics of football in Italy
By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Italy

Many of Italy's top football games will be played behind closed doors this weekend as the death of a policeman prompts the authorities to finally tackle a nation-wide problem with hooligans.

Flares thrown on the pitch at the San Siro stadium
A Milan derby in 2005 was suspended after flares were thrown

We were late. Running towards the Olympic stadium, tickets in hand.

It was the Rome derby, always a spiky affair - a fixture with fierce rivalry.

We had crossed the River Tiber out of breath, desperate to make the kick-off, when all at once, we were trapped. Nowhere to go.

Behind us Lazio fans - several hundred. In front, in military formation, the Carabinieri.

They banged their batons against their plastic shields and waited. And then from over our heads came the bombs.

Bottles filled with petrol spiralling through the air, the heavy fumes accompanied by the screams of the balaclava-ed fans behind.

For these thugs the enemy were not the rival supporters, their targets were the police.

The pictures from Catania last weekend brought to mind football matches in Britain in the 1970s.

Fans goading police, cars vandalised and set on fire, rival fans kicking and punching.

It is not wise, I know, for an Englishman to pitch his tent too high up the moral high ground.

But for all of us here the death of 38-year-old officer Filippo Raciti, was the predictable result of the continuing failure of the Italian authorities to comprehend the seriousness of the problem.

Wake-up call

The feeling seems to have been: as long as the teams are successful on the pitch, as Milan and Juventus have been, then what is the problem?

Italian Soccer League President Antonio Matarrese is mobbed by reporters upon his arrival at a Rome Fiumicino airport hotel for a meeting with soccer league officials
This is among Italy's most important industries and it needs to continue
Antonio Matarrese, Italian Football League
It was summed up this week by the president of the Italian football league, Antonio Matarrese, who represents the financial interests of the clubs.

He tried to tell us that the deaths were "just part of this huge football movement".

"This is among Italy's most important industries," he said, "and it needs to continue. The show must go on."

And so it will this weekend, though it has been decided that Ascoli, Verona, Bergamo, Udinese and Catania will all play behind closed doors.

They had all agreed to improve security at stadiums over a year ago - but the improvements never happened.

Now, though, the government seems to be waking up.

The interior minister is adamant that stadiums, which fall below required standards, will be closed. There will be more CCTV cameras, stewards and tighter checks at the turnstiles.

There are, it is true, some checks already in place: and umbrellas, flasks, even coins are often confiscated by police on the way into the ground.

But how is it that every time I go to a game here I see fans lighting flares, throwing bangers and waving offensive banners?

'Guerrilla war'

A few years ago, in the most notorious example of this incompetent policing, a motorbike was ridden up the spiral walkway to the upper tiers of Milan's San Siro stadium - from where it was thrown onto opposing fans below.

The truth is that it is the hardcore fans, known as the "ultras" and not the police, who control access in some stadiums.

And the clubs tolerate it because their teams need the support.

The ultras get free match tickets, travel concessions to away matches, sometimes they even run their own merchandising rackets.

The fighting which led to the Catania killing was described by Prime Minister Romano Prodi as guerrilla war.

The pre match banter turns, not to marking or to team formation, but to revolutions and dictators
But for some here in Italy football violence is political.

Take Livorno for example - known as the communist club.

Its fans do not take scarves to games - they go wrapped in Che Guevara. His face, emblazoned on banners and t-shirts.

When its supporters travel to right wing Lazio, the pre match banter turns, not to marking or to team formation, but to revolutions and dictators.

And that inevitably translates to the terraces.

Last season behind the Lazio goal in the cheap seats of the so-called Curva Nord, the hard-core fans unfurled flags bearing fascist symbols and Nazi flags with swastikas.

And on the pitch, there was Paolo DiCanio, formerly of West Ham and Charlton, his arm extended in a fascist salute.

Two years ago the police here carried out their own survey on the politics of Italian football.

Of 128 professional clubs, 42 had deep political orientations, 27 were described as fascist, 15 communist.

And many of them in the first division, the Serie A.

Turning point?

The head of the players association, Sergio Campana, admits it has been a dreadful year for Italian football.

For him, the violence, not to mention the earlier match fixing scandal affecting several of the top clubs, has taken the shine from Italy's World Cup trophy.

"There is an evil streak running through our game," he said.

"I think it's time we faced it, football should stop for a year - so we can change our whole approach to the sport."

The enforced stoppage last Sunday was very costly for the big clubs and no-one was surprised to hear that matches would be allowed to resume this weekend.

There is much to admire in Italian football, the passion of the fans, and the sheer quality of the players.

And while this has been a sad week for everyone connected with the game, there are many hoping that the violence in Catania, like Hillsborough, Heysel and other football tragedies before it, can prove a turning point - and that this time the opportunity will not be wasted.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 8 February, 2007 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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