Serie A strangled by violence and corruption

February 7, 2013, 12:00 PM

By John Molinaro and Jamie Doyle

Kevin-Prince Boateng had had enough.

Just 25 minutes into a friendly against Pro Patria, the racist chanting from the cheap seats finally got to the AC Milan attacker of Ghanaian descent. Right before launching a cross, Boateng picked up the ball, spun sharply and booted it into the stands — straight at his tormentors. Then, with his head held high, and applauding the better-behaved fans, the 25-year-old strode off the field. Both teams followed. Afterwards, on Twitter, Boateng lamented: "Shame that these things still happen."

Shame indeed, and a shame Italian soccer bears heavily. Worse, racism, like that at the Stadio Carlo Speroni in early January, is not the only ugly mark on the beautiful game in Italy. Calcio — Italian for soccer — is in crisis, tarnished by racism and violence, and dogged by corruption. These problems plague Italian soccer from lowly fourth-division teams like Pro Patria, to the very heights of Serie A where Milan sits. That Serie A has failed to solve its biggest problems only highlights the downward spiral of one of soccer’s great leagues. The fans are disappearing, the money is vanishing, and the once-sterling reputation may be gone for good.

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The problems aren’t Italy’s alone, of course. Match-fixing has a hand everywhere, and it’s near impossible to stop in a world with online betting. Meanwhile, racism haunts leagues across Eastern Europe, and violence flares up wherever impassioned fans mingle with rivals and alcohol. But this is Italy. This is Serie A. This is a country where soccer is life, and the league that, until the mid-’90s, was the best on Earth — the home of Maradona, van Basten, Zidane and Baggio. The tragedy of Serie A being laid low is that it was once so high.

Where it was once a showpiece of great soccer, Serie A has recently become an emblem for corruption in sports. Italian teams taking a crooked road to success has been an open dirty secret for decades, from Inter’s "Golden Fix" era in the ’60s to the 1980 Totonero corruption scandal. But the league thrived regardless, the on-field brilliance outshining the darkness of match-fixing. By the 2000s, though, things had changed. The English Premier League and La Liga in Spain had become richer and more popular, and Serie A’s reputation was no longer guaranteed. Hence the pain of Calciopoli, a wide-ranging 2006 corruption scandal in which club managers and the referees’ association were found to be arranging favourable officiating. Turin-based Juventus was at the centre, its directors recorded on the phone with league officials influencing the appointment of referees. The 28-time Italian champions — a century-old institution — were stripped of two titles and demoted to Serie B for the first time. AC Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina had points docked and endured closed-door matches and suspensions from competition.

It could have been a turning point, a chance to clean up the game. But over the past two years, dozens of players and team officials have been arrested for alleged roles in a new scandal -Scommessopoli — involving betting and the fixing of matches in Italy’s lower divisions. Last May, just ahead of Euro 2012, police descended on the Italian national team’s training camp as part of an ongoing investigation. In the end, arrests, fines, point deductions and demotions were handed out across Serie A and Serie B, and a long list of players were banned. Juventus was again implicated — manager Antonio Conte, who managed Siena at the time in question, was banned for 10 months (later reduced to four). In December, two Napoli players — including captain Paolo Cannavaro — were banned after an investigation into their involvement in match-fixing. Napoli was also slapped with a two-point deduction in the standings. "Italy has such a rich history of soccer," said former AC Milan star Andriy Shevchenko last summer, "but with all these scandals, it loses a lot."

Prime Minister Mario Monti suggested shutting Italian soccer down for three years to get its house in order. If only it were that easy. Paolo Bandini, who covers Serie A for the Guardian, says the persistence of corruption has roots in Italy’s own legal failings. "You have a lot of big, headline-making suspensions and point penalties," he says. "Over time, things get mitigated and overturned on appeal." The convoluted legal processes take years, preventing cases from being heard within the statute of limitations. The guilty go unpunished, the punished feel unfairly targeted for what everyone does, and the culture of corruption lives on.

The endurance of match-fixing may also have a link to Italy’s wider struggles with corruption. Hit hard by Europe’s financial and debt crisis, the country ranked 72nd in Transparency International’s 2012 corruption index, among the lowest in Europe and behind even Cuba. Perhaps it’s telling, then, that former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi — dogged by corruption throughout his time in office, and sentenced in October to four years for tax fraud — is also the long-time owner and president of AC Milan, one of the clubs hit hardest by the Calciopoli scandal.

While corruption taints the game behind the scenes, racism and violence are upfront nightmares. The standard line, of course, is that blame for bad behaviour rests with a tiny minority. With Serie A, that line is less clear. "There’s long been a culture in Italy of finding the most offensive thing that can be said," says Bandini. Racist chants are taken up in part by those who may not necessarily believe in what they’re saying, but do so just "to disrupt a player." When former Inter star Mario Balotelli spoke out against racist banners targeting him, the invective intensified. Balotelli went to Manchester City in 2010, partly to escape the abuse.

European Football Weekly: FAN 590′s Dan Riccio, Derrick Brandao and Gord Brunt take an in-depth look at the beautiful game on the European Football Weekly podcast. For more details and to listen to past shows, CLICK HERE

Balotelli has emerged as a symbol of another racism-related problem: Italy’s festering issues with immigration and multiculturalism. Children born in Italy to immigrant parents — as Balotelli was — are not automatically Italian citizens. Born in Palermo and raised by Italian parents, Balotelli could only apply for citizenship at 18. This fuels the xenophobia behind a chant Juventus fans aimed at Balotelli: "A negro cannot be an Italian."

If those are the roots of racism in Serie A, the razor-sharp edge is its Ultras culture, steeped in neo-fascism. Seven people were injured — one nearly killed — in November as knife-wielding Roma Ultras swarmed Tottenham fans before a Europa League match, shouting "Jew" as they attacked, referencing the London club’s large Jewish fan base.

Among the worst are Lazio Ultras, who regularly brandish swastikas and hurl bananas at black players — even their own. In 1999, an ever-escalating feud with Roma Ultras culminated in the displaying of a 50-metre banner reading, "Auschwitz is your town, the ovens are your houses." It prompted a debate in Italian Parliament on anti-racism measures in stadiums that remained unresolved two years later when Lazio fans produced another banner, this one in honour of a recently killed Serbian war criminal.

Such beyond-the-pale behaviour is all but unthinkable in other elite European leagues. But in Italy the power the Ultra groups wield puts them all but above the law. "It’s the Ultras who are in command in Italy," said former Milan, Roma and Juventus manager Fabio Capello in 2009. "The laws are there, but they are not applied."

While stewards in Italian stadiums have little control, and fan misbehaviour tends to be punished via fines to the club, elsewhere fans are held personally to account. The EPL in particular bristles at — and investigates — any hint of racism in English stadiums, regularly banning individual fans. "In Spain they have great respect for families who take their children to matches: It’s another world," Capello said. "In England the grounds are full… and the stewards do an excellent job."

AC Milan managing director Adriano Galliani’s response to Capello’s statements about the Ultras speaks volumes about efforts to address the problems: "I don’t feel that there’s any problem at the moment."

The numbers are in Capello’s favour. Last July, Marco Valeri, an Italian sociologist, identified 59 "racial incidents" in Italian soccer in the previous year, incurring over €400,000 in fines. "Even though measures have been implemented," he told the New York Times, "the fact racism persists should make you think."

Violence, though, is one area where improvement has been made — the attacks in Rome in November, and stabbings of supporters of English clubs in the Italian capital in 2006, 2007 and 2009, and in Naples in 2010, were all away from the stadiums. "There’s a lot less violence in Italian football stadiums than there has been," Bandini says.

In part, that’s a function of the huge amount of violence surrounding Italian soccer a decade ago, which was finally clamped down on after a 2007 riot involving fans of Sicilian rivals Catania and Palermo. In the fray, more than 100 homemade bombs were thrown at police, injuring 200 and killing a police officer. The Italian government threatened to halt football altogether and legislated drastic changes: All but four Serie A stadiums were closed to fans pending safety upgrades, forcing teams to play behind closed doors; and a fan ID card system was introduced to identify troublemakers.

European Football Weekly: FAN 590′s Dan Riccio, Derrick Brandao and Gord Brunt take an in-depth look at the beautiful game on the European Football Weekly podcast. For more details and to listen to past shows, CLICK HERE

The problem? While the cards are "supposed to limit the bad elements in the stands, the net effect has been fewer people in the stands — full stop," says Bandini. The average fan objects to the hassle and invasion of privacy, and lashed out against it. All this to get into old, often crumbling stadiums bereft of amenities. In 2009, when Juventus broke ground on their new home, the average age of a Serie A stadium was 63. And unlike elsewhere in Europe, most Serie A stadiums are publicly owned, so funds for their upkeep are scarce.

The confluence of Serie A’s problems has resulted in the emptying of those stadiums: Between 2009-12, attendance was 26 per cent lower for the three most popular clubs compared to 2001-04. It’s a staggering decline in a society that holds soccer so close to its heart — imagine a quarter of Canada’s NHL teams playing to half-empty arenas. "There’s so much wrong with the game-day experience in Italy," Bandini says. "The stadiums are terrible — if you’re a casual fan, do you want to take your family to a match where you might hear racist chants? Where there’s some risk of violence?"

As gate receipts fall, so does purchasing power, leaving the league suddenly bereft of stars. Superstars like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Kaka and Samuel Eto’o recently left Serie A for bigger contracts, and have not been replaced by players of similar calibre. Add to that the players driven out by the consequences of scandal: Juventus’s relegation after Calciopoli prompted stars Emerson, Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram and Gianluca Zambrotta to leave Serie A altogether.

The talent drain has taken a toll. For six years in a row in the ’90s, an Italian team reached every Champions League final — in the past five seasons only one has advanced beyond the quarters. Recently, Serie A’s loss of stature has been formalized: Two years ago, Germany overtook Italy in the UEFA rankings, handing the Bundesliga a fourth Champions League spot, leaving Serie A with three. The cost: tens of millions in lost revenues.

And it’s only going to get worse. UEFA’s incoming Financial Fair Play rules will prevent teams from spending beyond their revenues. So keeping up with wealthy English, Spanish and German clubs will only get harder. "There’s a spiralling effect," Bandini says.

In the meantime, Boateng’s stand at Pro Patria has made him a symbol of resistance to racism. But even he feels things may be too far gone. "We will have to see if it’s worth carrying on in Italy," he told Germany’s Bild newspaper.

As the once-great league slowly sinks under the weight of long-standing problems, soccer fans — and stars like Boateng — are simply walking away.


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