The Curva Nord extremists are backing Paolo Di Canio’s right to be a fascist but, as Matthew Barker reports, some Laziali are up in arms. What will the chairman do?

Lazio must have the worst PR in world football. The continuing fallout following Paolo Di Canio’s Roman salutes is the latest in a long line of far-right associations that have plagued the club over the past 25 years. Di Canio, who saluted the travelling support twice in the volatile atmosphere of a game at Livorno and then repeated the trick a week later during a home match against Juventus, seems determined to take on both the Italian FA and now FIFA, as he prepares to contest charges of inciting racial hatred and violating the governing body of international football’s code of ethics. And, for the time being at least, the club seem happy enough to back him.

Interviewed after the Livorno game, he warned: “I expect my president to defend me, just like presidents do at other clubs, otherwise I’m going to be really pissed off.” Claudio Lotito, Lazio’s president, duly stood by his man, saying he was free to do as he wished. The club issued a statement, stopping short of criticising the player, but insisting they reject “any form of racism and the politicisation of football, both on and off the field”.

Meanwhile, team-mate Ousamane Dabo told newspaper France Soir that he’d “had it with these fascists”. However, Dabo then claimed he had been misquoted and suggested there was an anti-Lazio agenda in the international press. Having earlier presented Di Canio with a bouquet of roses, the Curva Nord (home to the most vocal – and notorious – of the club’s support) greeted their French midfielder at the start of the Juve game with a banner that read: “Dabo we return your honour, a true man without colour.”

The FA announced an inquiry into the events in Tuscany and Di Canio was fined €10,000 (£6,900) and handed a one-match ban for his antics against Juventus – the same punishment he received after a similar incident in a Rome derby a year ago. The player’s argument, that the gesture dates back to ancient Rome and has no political connotations, now goes to an appeal hearing, where he will be defended by right-wing lawyer Gabriele Bordoni. “I am a fascist, not a racist,” Paolo explained.

For Lotito, the player is becoming a serious liability. Now 37, Di Canio remains the club bandiera (literally, flag), capable of some wonderful football, despite managing just one goal before the Christmas break and rarely completing a full 90 minutes. Di Canio could well have another season left in him; a year that’s going to be crucial for Lotito and the club. The president, keen to be seen as the man who revives Lazio, finds himself criticised for refusing to condemn the striker, while plenty still doubt his motives for taking over the club in July 2004, following the collapse of long-term benefactors the Cirio food group. He inherited a bill for €157 million (£109m) in unpaid taxes.

Plans for a move away from the Olimpico, to a “city of sport”, complete with branded restaurants, hotels and shops, are at an advanced stage, with a site already identified. But this proposed relocation out of the city met with strong opposition. Lotito’s vision is of Premiership-style consumerism, with supporters of an altogether more passive nature. Fiorentina, at least before recent crowd disturbances, are seen as the model to follow, cleaning up their act after bankruptcy and now pushing for a Champions League spot.

Away from the Celtic crosses and extremist posturing, Lazio are just as much a club of the Roman middle classes, with a support base in the posher suburbs and prim satellite towns. It was this aristocratic air that attracted Mussolini’s men to the biancocelesti, despite the regime having merged three existing clubs in the capital to form AS Roma. The latter had been set up in direct competition to the dominant Bologna, to create a new footballing power base in the capital. However, upwardly mobile local party members preferred to be seen rubbing shoulders with the moneyed Laziali, despite the club’s mid-table anonymity.

The idea that Lazio have far-right connections really took hold in the 1970s, with the formation of new ultrà groups. In such a highly politicised decade it was a short step from the fireworks, flag-waving and sloganeering of street demonstrations to match-day spectacle. If music and fashion were key elements in defining British terrace culture, politics were very much the dynamic behind its Italian counterpart. With Lazio, right-wing groups filled the void left following the break-up of their apolitical predecessors – and have remained there ever since.

The highly politicised nature of curva culture may bemuse most outsiders but, with a general election just months away and prime minister Silvio Berlusconi chipping in with some typically unhelpful comments about the Di Canio affair, both player and club are now at the centre of a very public and potentially very damaging controversy that has already seen share prices stuttering; FIFA president Sepp Blatter has hinted at points deductions, too.

Di Canio’s actions have stirred some real anger among the more level-headed of the club’s support. Webzine happily appears to speak for many: “[He] may think he’s saluting his people, but that does not include us. We are not part of the ‘fascist Lazio’ equation; it’s an historical and cultural farce. We will not accept the oldest club in the capital being associated with the darkest page in our country’s history. Don’t mess with our Lazio.” Whether they can now really stand up to the bully boys of the Curva Nord depends very much on their president.

From WSC 228 February 2006. What was happening this month

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