Italian football must do more than read Anne Frank to tackle fascism problem

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The racism and anti-semitism highlighted by Lazio’s fans and owner runs deeper than one club in Italy and all too often flourishes inside stadiums

27 October ~ With 25 points from their first ten games, Lazio have made a superb start to the season. Unfortunately, they may be derailed by events off the field. They have long been notorious for having a fanbase that contains a significant number who are openly nostalgic for fascism. Though they are probably the worst offenders, they share this tendency with several other clubs, most notably Serie B Ascoli, but also Verona and to some extent Inter.

Following racial insults aimed at a Sassuolo player, the Curva Nord of the Stadio Olimpico, the home of Lazio’s ultras, was closed for the match against Cagliari on October 22. In an attempt to get round this, the club decided to open the Curva Sud, where Roma’s ultras congregate and which remains closed when Lazio play at home. In order to overcome various restrictions, they invented an imaginary “second match” against Cagliari kicking off at 8.46 and not 8.45 and allowed the season ticket holders of Curva Nord to transfer to Curva Sud for the symbolic price of one euro.

This clear attempt to subvert the ban rebounded on Lazio and their controversial president Claudio Lotito the day after the match when stickers were found on the Curva Sud portraying Anne Frank in a Roma jersey, a clear and incontrovertible case of anti-semitism. At least 15 of those responsible, including some minors, have been identified. The reaction was instantaneous, with condemnation from almost all sides, though Lazio’s most intransigent ultras, the Irriducibili, claimed that it was just part of the normal exchanges between fans of bitter rivals.

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Lotito and a group of his players laid a wreath at Rome’s main synagogue, though as they had not been invited, their gesture was not met with any warmth. The Italian federation (FIGC) ordered that at all the midweek Serie A and B games an extract from Anne Frank’s diary should be read. There was also a minute’s silence for reflection, and a copy of Anne Frank’s diary (or If This Is A Man by Primo Levi – there are different versions of the story) was presented to each of the children, some of them five or six years old, who accompanied the teams on to the pitch.

Predictably some fan groups reacted negatively. Lazio’s Irriducibili didn’t travel to Bologna in protest, while Ascoli’s ultras entered the stadium only after the reading and the pause for reflection. In other stadiums fans either turned their backs or failed to respect the silence, though at the majority of grounds it was respected.

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However, the worst was not over from Lotito. The Rome newspaper Il Messaggero published the transcript of a conversation he had on a plane flying from Milan to Rome. In it he made disparaging comments about rabbis, especially those from Rome, and he also made it clear that the laying of the wreath was pure theatre and done without any sincerity. He compounded things by denying what he had said on the plane despite Il Messaggero also putting the soundtrack online.

The upshot of all this is that Lazio face possible sanctions, which could include one or more matches behind closed doors, a heavy fine and even, though this is unlikely, a points deduction. Lotito in person could be charged by the football authorities in connection with the transfer of the fans from Curva Nord to Curva Sud, and for what he said on the plane. He is notoriously thin-skinned, so it will be interesting to see what his defence is.

This whole story illustrates something about Italy that goes way beyond football. There are still hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of apologists for fascism, and they find fertile territory for the propagation of their beliefs in the stadium. This problem will not be resolved overnight, and certainly not by the kneejerk reaction of the FIGC, which was dictated more by fear of what the rest of the world might think if they appeared to do nothing than by logic. The one positive is that a lot of people now know who Anne Frank was, including Torino coach Sinisa Mihajlovic, who claimed he had never heard of her. Richard Mason