Viewpoint—Italian soccer can learn lesson from English to rid game of thugs

By Josh Clipperton

The riot at an Italian soccer match that claimed the life of a police officer in early February is yet another black eye on the “beautiful game” in that country.

A match-fixing scandal was uncovered last year. marring the joy of winning the World Cup. Violence has increased in recent years in and around stadiums, culminating in this incident, which has shaken the game to its core.

Government officials moved quickly to implement safety regulations after the most recent riot, but until boorish fan groups – known as ultras – are outlawed, this sort of behaviour in the Italian game will continue.

Ultras represent a small percentage of support for teams but are often overtly racist, anti-Semitic and brutally violent.

While one can only speculate that this most recent riot involved ultra members, details surrounding the incident point to a well-organized and co-ordinated attack, a staple of these thuggish groups.

These fascist ultras seem to operate above the law. Their stadium sections at games often boast racist banners, Nazi flags and are off limits to outsiders, including police.

Many Italian stadiums do not meet even basic safety standards, such as closed circuit television cameras and seating in all sections. This makes controlling these militant fans extremely difficult.

These issues – culminating in the death of the police officer – leave Italian soccer at a crossroads. For guidance, they should look to an on-field rival.

England suffered through similar soccer violence in the 1970s and 1980s when their hooligans rampaged across Europe fighting rival fans and police.

It took two disasters, both involving Liverpool, before the English began to look at fan violence and stadium safety, the two issues Italy must now fix.

The first incident happened in May 1985 in Belgium against the Italian team Juventus. English fans charged the Italian section inside the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, scattering fans and resulting in a collapsed wall and 39 deaths.

A second incident occurred in an English FA Cup semi-final in April 1989. Ninety-six Liverpool fans were crushed to death against fences as crowds poured inside the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield.

English authorities immediately instituted sweeping changes to stadiums across the country.

In Italy, even though legislation is on the books regarding stadium safety, only six met these basic requirements before this most recent incident.

In the wake of the riot – which occurred outside the stadium – Italian politicians and sports officials pathetically called for “drastic measures,” including the ‘bold’ move of implementing stadium regulations that should have already been in place.

Many stadiums were finally deemed unsafe with some Italian teams being forced to play behind closed doors.

But the Italian record for dealing with previous problems in the sport does not bode well for fixing this one.

Quite frankly, stadium upgrades are not enough.

There must be a move to rid Italian soccer of these brutish thugs. There is no point improving safety and having cameras watching crowds inside stadiums if officials refuse to enter the ultra areas or ban known offenders.

England faced similar problems and took action. Individuals arrested in soccer-related violence are now barred from stadiums.

After the national team was nearly kicked out of Euro 2000 because of fan violence, the British government started listing thousands of known hooligans. They must turn in their passports when the team plays abroad.

There still exists a hooligan culture in England, but new laws coupled with stadium upgrades have had a significant impact.

Italy must do the same.

The violent – and perhaps more alarmingly – well-organized nature of the bigoted ultras makes the task for officials difficult.

These fans are more complex than any English hooligan group, but the model to prevent their unruly behaviour exists.

Until the Italian government institutes stronger anti-hooligan laws and teams ban ultras, no amount of stadium upgrades will curb the violence. The end result will only be more blood spilled for what is supposed to be a beautiful game.