Domestic incidence

Not all the action was on the pitch. Richard Mason reflects on the reputation of the England supporters after they left Rome

The week that began on Sunday, 5th October and ended on Saturday, 11th October saw the re-emergence in all its complexity of the problem of football violence in Italy. First it was the home-grown variety, in connection with the Serie A fixture between Atalanta and Brescia, and then, of course, the much-reported – but perhaps less-understood – incidents which surrounded the Italy v England World Cup Qualifier at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.

Atalanta v Brescia is considered one of the two most ‘high risk’ games in the Serie A calendar (the other is probably Juventus v Fiorentina). Why? Firstly because, historically, the two neighbouring provinces of Bergamo and Brescia have never got on very well, to put it mildly, and a match between their two most representative teams provides a perfect platform for the settling of old scores.

Then there is the fact that the two sets of supporters have a reputation for violence that is second to none in Italy – despite the fact that the two cities are relatively tranquil places to live in. The last time they had met in May 1993 in Brescia, the match resulted in their two stadia being closed for a combined total of five matches. The incidents that happened then had not been forgotten, and if anything the long period without an Atalanta v Brescia match increased the desire of the ultras for revenge. Finally – and perhaps this is a more marginal influence – both Bergamo and Brescia are hotbeds of the separatist Lega Lombarda, whose leader Umberto Bossi often uses the inflammatory language of the ultras, some of whom are part of his movement.

In the current climate, it is virtually impossible to imagine any match between Atalanta and Brescia taking place in other than a high state of tension, with the host city virtually under siege for the day of the match. It is possible to prevent incidents occurring inside the stadium, and in fact this was the case on 5th October. However, the locales of the two stadia, densely-populated areas of their respective cities with side streets like rabbit warrens, are perfect for the perpetrators of acts of violence to match up. Again, this is what happened on 5th October – sporadic violence in the two hours before the match, and organized attacks on the police for two hours after by Atalanta fans trying to get at the Brescia fans who, meanwhile, confined inside the stadium, were destroying the toilets and bars in the sector reserved for them.

In the week that followed there was the usual wringing of hands, the usual pleas from the clubs that they were powerless, the usual knee-jerk political reactions, including that of the football-hating mayor, who proposed the closure of the stadium for a month “to make the hot-heads see sense”(!). There were also renewed demands for a new stadium to be built outside the city, something which people have been asking for ever since I came here.

In the end the only concrete result was that the Italian Cup match with Bologna due to be played on Wednesday evening was brought forward to the afternoon. 50 Bologna supporters were guarded by 200 carabinieri, the station after the game also swarmed with police – all totally unnecessary, because you could have taken your grandmother to the game and she would not have found anything amiss, as anyone who knows anything about these things knew perfectly well.

In castigating the behaviour of some English fans in Rome, the Italians must never forget that they still have a very big problem of their own. But there is a difference. They do not export it. I cannot imagine an away game of the Azzurri being marred by the violence of Italian fans.

No doubt innocent England fans were attacked, and they have my full sympathy, but the English must start to look at the problem through the eyes of their hosts. It is just not good enough to pin all the blame on them as many of the English newspapers appear to be doing, and it was especially depressing to hear both David Mellor and Tony Blair, two trained lawyers, doing so before the facts had been fully investigated. Mellor’s appeal to the Italian authorities more than a week before the game not to treat English fans as “animals” was particularly tasteless and inopportune.

So what was the reaction in the Italian media to the rantings of Mellor et al? Surprisingly calm, if you consider how the tabloids would have reacted had the roles been reversed and if the 39 victims of Brussels had been English. Mainly they could be summarized as a failure to comprehend how a host country can be blamed when some its ‘guests’ decide to behave badly. It is true that La Gazzetta dello Sport did use a colourful phrase to describe the worst elements, but it also pointed out, in a thoughtful editorial, the paradox in the fact that while the English have apparently solved most of the problems of football- related violence at home, they are unable or unwilling to stop troublemakers from travelling abroad despite the fact that the police know who they are and where they live. It was suggested that part of the punishment when convicted could be the obligation to report to a local police station for a certain number of days before and after every England – or even English club – match abroad.

This hardly seems a gross infringement of civil liberties, which do not include the right to inconvenience the innocent citizens of foreign capitals. The media here were particularly struck by the announcement, in effect, that their country was about to host 700 potentially violent English males, and that it would be up to their police to distinguish between these and the remaining, peaceful, English supporters.

If there is a link between what happened in Bergamo and Rome, I think that it is to be found in the irrational hatred which seems to lurk inside certain English supporters for virtually all non-English people, and certain Italian supporters for particular opposing teams. Here in Bergamo, if it is too late with this generation, a start could be made with the next by inviting groups of primary school children from the two provinces to watch the return match together in the stand. If we can’t save today, we could try to save tomorrow.

As for England, it would help if the blame was laid where it really belongs, and if there was some soul-searching by those in authority as to why England is virtually the only country – to my knowledge – which has this problem.

From WSC 130 December 1997. What was happening this month