The paradoxical support of the tifosi

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No one can deny the passion of Italian football fans. The Italian ultras devote their heart and soul to calcio following their teams as if it were a religion. Their fervour is unrivalled and their love is absolute. Despite their ritualistic support, many blame them for the recent demise of Italy in Europe. With recent racist behaviour aimed at Mario Balotelli of Inter by the Juventus ultras, along with the killing of a police officer, Filippo Raciti, in Catania in February 2007, the fans have once again shown the ugly side of football worshipping.

Historically, Italy’s Serie A is the most successful football league in Europe. With Italian clubs having reached a record 25 European Cup finals and winning 11, they are beaten only by the Spanish La Liga whose teams have won 15 finals. Serie A plays host to some of the most prestigious clubs in the continent such as Milan and Juventus.

However recent failings have caused Serie A to slowly fall off the European radar and no longer hold the enormous control it once had over Europe. No Italian football club managed to reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League this year and Udinese, the only remaining Italian Side in the UEFA Cup, crashed out in the quarter-finals. Should these failings continue, Italy could see France take it’s third place ranking in UEFA which would mean that it will only be offered three places in future Champions League competitions.

With this is mind, Lega Calcio has finally agreed a split to allow the top flight to break away and effectively create a new elite league within Italy called Lega A, similar to the Premier League in England. This would mean that the top clubs will no longer be governed together with Serie B, will no longer donate any funds to leagues below them and will no longer require the consent of much smaller clubs to pass decisions. Essentially they are an entity within themselves that will pass their own rules and organise their own fixtures. This new league will be developed over the next 12 months in hopes of thrusting Serie A back into glory in Europe and return once more to seriously compete with both La Liga and the English Premier League.

So what are the reasons for Italy’s failings in Europe? Obviously lack of money is one of them. Without an abundance of cash, Italy is unable to contend with England and Spain in transfer campaigns, meaning all the stars of the beautiful game cannot be brought over to the peninsula. Despite the constrained wealth of the Italian giants, the other major aspects that have pushed Serie A further down the rankings are both a succession of match-fixing scandals, such as the Calciopoli of 2006, and the regular occurrences of fan violence – the latter being the main focus of this article.

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The most beautiful thing about calcio is the atmosphere on the pitch. The fans are die-hard and football is not just a game but a reason to exist. They live by the words of the Scottish footballer, Bill Shankly: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.” The Italian tifosi are not just fans who buy a season ticket and attend home games kitted out in the clubs’ merchandise, but rather ardent supporters who hold great control over their teams’ operations. Whilst there is much to admire them for, certain ultra groups are extremely dangerous with a single aim of seeing their team win – their enemies being not just the opposing team and fans but the police themselves.

The Italian police, much like Italian politics are still seen to be heavily corrupt with many of them reportedly striking illegal deals with the ultras to ‘handle’ the fans without their interference. With the great control that the ultras have and their supposed links to the Mafia, they operate a no fear policy to protect their ‘family.’ They will do all they can to deter the opposing team, they will chant, they will destroy and they will fight – safe in the knowledge that although they may get pummelled, they will not get arrested.

With lack of funding, Serie A outfits have less money to spend on security and prefer spending what little money they earn on the transfer markets or even just on keeping the club afloat. With highly powerful fans and limited security at old, decaying grounds, Italian football is on the decline. The absence of wealth is largely due to both council owned football stadiums and the sale of TV rights. In Serie A, as opposed to the English Premier League, all football stadiums are owned by the local councils rather than actual clubs. In effect, this means that all capital generated through ticket sales never wholly ends up in the individual teams’ accounts. This is in addition to the fact that in Serie A, teams sell their TV rights individually rather than collectively as a league. This translates into less money for smaller teams and more money for the bigger teams. If the new Lega A negotiates the same collective TV rights sales then we could see lucrative funding heading towards all Lega A teams to aid in building competitive European teams.

Furthermore, as stadiums are not club owned, they are not well maintained with most found to be in dreadful condition. Games are not properly monitored as there are no stewards, which allows for fans to smuggle in all types of home made weapons with the purpose of destroying the opposing team. There are still no guaranteed measures put in place to prevent the smuggling of hand-made bombs or measures in place to prevent racist chanting whilst punishments for such behaviour can be as small as a several-thousand-Euro fine. This was greatly demonstrated when Juventus appealed the decision to play the Sunday afternoon Lecce game behind closed doors. The appeal was granted and the decision postponed allowing them to play in front of their fans. Despite the public denials of racist chanting of the ultras by famed figureheads such as Marcello Lippi and Jose Mourinho, the fact that the fans behaved ignorantly should have been enough of a reason to penalise the team. These types of punishments will serve in ensuring that clubs spend more of their time and wealth on preventing this type of improper conduct.

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The institution of football always walked hand in hand with hooliganism. No country has suffered from it like England. English teams were banned from all European competitions for five years after the Heysel Stadium Disaster that saw Liverpool fans breach a railing to attack the Bianconeri fans in the 1985 European Cup Final leading to the deaths of 39 Juventus fans. This dreadful tragedy, along with the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989 forced the hand of the authorities into creating secure and well policed stadiums in England and has since closed a dreadful chapter of fan violence in English football. Unfortunately, at times such events need to occur to attract the necessary attention in order to resolve the problem and avoid future catastrophes. A perfect illustration of this is the Taylor Report, published after the Hillsborough tragedy in England that had a profound impact on stadium safety in England.

With the absence of hooliganism and fan violence in English stadiums, football has returned to being a family sport with a harmonious atmosphere found inside the pitch and fans rallying around their team to boost morale and increase motivation. This is in stark contrast to the atmosphere in Serie A matches. Former Inter defender, Giuseppe Bergomi, once noted in an interview that this type of peaceful environment does not exist in Italy. Fans expect a lot from their teams and at times the pressure they exert is enough to stifle their team’s ability to win. A clear example of this is when after a few dismal performances by Roma and Juventus, the fans’ outrageous reaction heavily contributed to the consequential collapse in the end of their respective campaigns.

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Many argue that supporting English teams is much like supporting a business. With millions of pounds in their accounts, clubs have bought scores of international football icons to the league and invested heavily in creating multi-million pound stadiums. And whilst the ambience may be friendly in these fantastic arenas, it can be said that home support for a Premier League club lacks real fervour. That is not to say that grounds across England are quiet, passionless places, but usually the best support in most Premier League grounds can be heard in the away section, where fans who travel to most games together have built up a back catalogue of chants and songs to get their team through another game. Old Trafford can be a place for great occasion and on European nights is a real cauldron of suspense, anticipation and all-round noise, but it is at the 19 other Premier League grounds that the Red Devils’ support is really heard in all it’s splendour and clarity, with the same applying to many of the other club’s supporters in that league.

Italy should follow the examples set by the English when it comes to patrolling stadiums and reducing violence and antisocial behaviour, but importantly for the Serie A sides, they must ensure that the supporters voices are not snuffed out when designated seating is introduced. Their ardour is what drove Serie A to be so tactically superior and their endless demands have ensured that their league is still in the top three. What the Italian authorities need to learn is that motivation can be generated through support even in desperate times. At times players need to feel their fans’ unconditional love for the squad to secure the results the team warrant. With their obsession of calcio coupled with the probable injection of wealth from Lega A, the Italian top flight could be on its way to reclaim its dominance of European football. Take this example below from Milan’s home game with Napoli earlier this season – no flares, no violence, the teams just warming up for the game, but the home fans in their thousands singing to the same chant, engulfing the San Siro in perfect noise.

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