Cautious ultras

Following the security problems during Italy’s abandoned international fixture against Serbia, Vanda Wilcox discusses how crowd safety and hooliganism is still a problem for the Italians

Before anyone in Italy knew his name or had even seen his face, Ivan Bogdanov had made himself instantly recognisable. Continuous TV footage and acres of newsprint were immediately dedicated to Bogdanov and his fellow hooligans, responsible for the violent disruption of Italy’s European Championship qualifier against Serbia in Genoa on October 12.

The enduring image from the night was that of the “man in black”: clad in a black balaclava and sporting a range of tattoos including nationalist emblems, he had carefully cut through the safety netting around the away end with a pair of orange wire cutters, enabling Serbian ultras to throw flares and other material onto the pitch. By the time he was arrested – identified by his tattoos – Bogdanov was already front-page news, appearing in full colour performing a fascist salute on the cover of the next day’s Gazzetta dello Sport under the headline The Beasts.

Explaining the actions of the Serbs and their complex political context proved more of a challenge for the Italian media. Match commentators on RAI, the Italian state TV channel, struggled to account for the unfolding scenes to viewers. A particular low came as they discussed the three-fingered gesture made by Serbian players in front of the hooligans. Apparently unaware of the political (and nationalist) significance of this salute, the pundits explained that the players “were indicating that Serbia would lose the game 3-0 by default”. Over the next few days some hastily cribbed Balkan history lessons enabled the media to offer a variety of debatable hypotheses, such as Serbian anger over Italian participation in NATO bombing during the Kosovo war.

Among Italian ultras reactions have been mixed. A few were unrestrainedly enthusiastic about their Serbian counterparts’ activities, but most have been more critical. Nikola, 22, a Serb ultra living in Italy, argues: “What happened in Genoa goes well beyond a football game. It wasn’t an ultras action as many have defined it but rather a purely political action.”

Others have focused on the deficiencies and inequalities in the Italian security system which the evening’s events highlighted. Roberto Maroni, the minister of the interior, has put a lot of emphasis on tackling football violence, introducing controversial measures like the fans’ ID card (tessera del tifoso), which is intended to reduce violence but instead appears only to have reduced season-ticket sales. Many ultras feel in some sense vindicated, after months spent decrying the new regulations as ineffective and pointless. Just as well, they argue, that Italy wasn’t awarded the Euro 2016 finals.

The Ultras Tito Cucchiaroni, Sampdoria’s main group, made this point very clearly at their home game against Fiorentina on October 17. Announcing that they had “a surprise in store for minister Maroni”, they displayed a life-size puppet of Ivan along with an ironic commentary on stadium security regulations – while megaphones and drums, traditional features of Italian fan culture, are “not authorised”, a large pair of wire cutters is instead “authorised” for entry.

Though most agree that the police did well on the night of the game to avoid aggravating an already fraught situation, criticism of Maroni’s security measures has spread in the mainstream media since the game. The satirical news and variety show Striscia La Notizia, which airs on the Berlusconi-owned Canale 5, ran a feature highlighting the inadequacy of ticket or security checks at the turnstiles at Serie A matches in Rome, Naples and Palermo. It has been widely reported that police in Genoa confiscated bottled fruit juice from children even as they allowed Serb ultras to take flares and metal batons into the ground, raising serious questions about security management.

Accusations of inadequate policing, intelligence and stewarding have also arrived from Serbia, but Maroni has declared these claims to be “laughable”. Instead he has blamed a lack of advance warning from Serbian police and brazenly suggested that if his anti-violence measures, including the fans’ card, were extended across Europe then football hooliganism would be defeated. UEFA’s disciplinary sanctions have placed the blame firmly on Serbia, imposing only a suspended sentence and a fine on Italy.

Though most fans are satisfied with the 3-0 default victory, the idea that the return fixture in 2011 should be played with no restrictions is cause for some consternation. In any case the aftermath is likely to rumble on for some time: whoever is to blame for the events in Genoa, it’s clear that Italian football still hasn’t dealt with its hooliganism problems.

From WSC 286 December 2010