Today on Football Italiano we take a closer look at fascism and its presence in Italian football throughout history and up to the current day.
In December 2005, following Paolo Di Canio’s infamous fascist salute to the Lazio ultras during a Serie A league match against Livorno, the enigmatic Italian merely stated to the media: “I will always salute as I did yesterday, because it gives me a sense of belonging to my people” .
Such an event would arguably not be witnessed outside of the culture of Italian football, yet Di Canio’s expression – both on the pitch during the match and off it afterwards – perfectly demonstrates just how deeply embedded fascism is in modern day Italian football, and has been ever since the post-war years when Benito Mussolini came to power in the 1920s and created the all-conquering Azzurri team of the 1930s. However, fascism was not only highly influential in the birth of the Italian game, but its legacy and influence live on in modern day Italian football, even at a national level.
Historically, football was very important for fascism and likewise the development of football in Italy owes a great deal to fascist involvement. Mussolini recognised the potential held by the emergence of football as an increasingly popular pastime, and one that could be institutionalised and exploited to develop a sense of Italian identity – a trait that can still be observed through the ultras that are still present in modern day domestic and international Italian football matches. Mussolini was always familiar with the use of popular culture in his desire to hold power and transform Italian society, and football became a key part of this strategy. Many agree that the prominent moment for fascism in football came in 1926, when the government created the Carta di Via Reggio, which restructured the game and its administration, crucially with appointments to football’s governing bodies falling into the remit of Mussolini. As a result fascists took control of the world of football within Italy in the mid-1920s and proceeded to revolutionise the game, building stadiums all over the peninsula, organising rallies around games and adding fascist symbols. In fact, Serie A owes it’s very creation to fascism as it was in 1930 that the singular national league that is the Italian top division was founded by the fascist government of Mussolini in order to create one unifying Italian identity.
It was this pragmatic drive for a national identity that resulted in the creation of a national team, which was to dominate the international game for four years, winning two World Cups and an Olympic gold medal along the way. Football became a tool that was exploited not only domestically in an attempt to develop a sense of Italian identity, but also internationally as a diplomatic tool to improve Italy’s standing in the global arena. As a result, the creation and historical backbone of modern day Italian football is formed from the ideology of fascist unity, and the Azzurri’s golden era of achievement in the 1930s is indebted to fascist pragmatism. It was during this time that Italy not only hosted and won the 1934 World Cup tournament but also retained the trophy four years later in France, whilst they added to their two World Cup victories by winning the soccer tournament at the 1936 Berlin Olympics with a team of university students. Italian fascism also fully exploited the opportunities football provided to shape public opinion, penetrate daily life, and reinforce conformity. By politicizing the game, fascism also sought to enhance the regime’s international prestige and instill nationalist values.
But while there is no doubt that fascism was strongly influential and a driving force behind football and its development, sport as a whole also most certainly played a philosophical role in fascism. More specifically, football provided the opportunity for Italy, especially on a national level, to heighten its profile throughout Europe and the propaganda opportunity that victory provided was indispensable to a country that was building a strong and united national image. Examples of this can be observed from the early years of the Azzurri, as initially in 1926, when the domestic game was restructured, a ban on foreign players was introduced. Yet, after the Olympic games in 1928 and the World Cup in 1930, where teams such as Argentina and Uruguay were seen to perform very well with players born from Italian emigrants, a very pragmatic approach was once again adopted in the pursuit of victory. Players such as these who were born from Italian emigrants were allowed to play as they were reclassified under the category of oriundo or rimpatriato, allowing them to be eligible to play for the Azzurri whilst simultaneously meaning that there was no need to admit defeat and get rid of old legislation on bans on foreign players. This has remained to the current day and can be seen through players such as Mauro Camoranesi who regularly appear in the Azzurri line up despite not directly holding Italian citizenship.