England manager Fabio Capello breezed into the school of excellence at Coverciano on Monday with the air of authority that comes from having won everything there is in the club game. He was there to give an inspirational speech to the school’s students who want to follow in his footsteps.
Instead, Capello launched an unexpected and scathing attack on the state of Italian football, telling the assembled audience that the game on the peninsula is now being held hostage by the Ultrás. “It’s impossible to stop the Ultrás running the game and no one has the courage to stand up to them. In England the grounds are always full.
“There is a real desire to go to a game and nothing ever happens because the stewards carry out a perfect role. It saddens me to see what is happening in Italy. The authorities and the clubs need to make some decisions and people would then return to the game and the grounds would be full again,” Capello explained.
His comments drew strong criticism from the likes of Giancarlo Abete, the President of the Italian FA, who said Capello was wrong and risked making a gross generalisation by blaming a minority for a problem that is far more wide-reaching than his comments suggest.
Gianni Petrucci, the President of the Italian Olympic Committee, also hit back, saying: “The English certainly can’t lecture us about the birth of a sporting culture. It is, after all, no coincidence that throughout the world violent fans are known as ‘hooligans’ – an English word.”
A day later, on the 30th anniversary of the death of Vincenzo Paparelli, the Lazio fan who was killed after being hit by a flare in the Rome derby, their arguments were left in tatters. Lazio Ultrás stormed the club’s training ground at Formello, disrupting a training session with a barrage of flares and insults so they could “ask” the players and the coaching staff why the Biancocelesti hadn’t won a game in Serie A since August 30.
Tommaso Rocchi was forced to grab a megaphone and apologise for Sunday’s 2-0 defeat away to newly promoted Bari. “It’s true, against Bari we made a bad impression that mustn’t be repeated. Sunday’s attitude was wrong.” Meanwhile, the coach, Davide Ballardini, explained why he had stood by Claudio Lotito’s decision to freeze Goran Pandev and Cristian Ledesma, the club’s two long-standing stars, out of the first team after they refused to sign new contracts in the summer.
If the Ultrás thought their actions would provoke a response in Wednesday evening’s clash at home to Cagliari, then they were deeply misguided. Lazio lost 1-0 after an understandably nervous Fernando Muslera spilled a Daniele Conti free-kick, allowing Alessandro Matri to collect the loose ball and slot it into the net, scoring the easiest goal of his career. The result leaves Lazio 15th in the table just a point above the drop zone.
To make matters worse, the Ultrás once again made their presence felt at the final whistle. According to La Gazzetta dello Sport, they congregated undisturbed in front of the exit of the tribuna d’onore and door-stopped Lotito and the players, who were leaving the Olimpico. “Lotito get lost!” the Ultrás shouted before calling the players “mercenaries”.
After the game, Ballardini was asked if he was considering locking his players in at the training ground until Sunday when the Biancocelesti travel to managerless Siena who are currently propping up the table. “We will evaluate this option and probably go to Norcia in Umbria. My players have never held back, but if we want to work with serenity, then this may be an option,” he said.
Ballardini’s comments are just what Capello was driving at in his speech, for if a team is forced to move away from its training ground just so it can prepare for the next game with a semblance of peace, isn’t that a shocking indictment of the state of the Italian game?
Roma boss Claudio Ranieri – whose side slipped to their third straight defeat against Udinese last night – gave Capello his backing, relating an anecdote from his time in Turin. “Last year Juventus wanted Dejan Stankovic, but we didn’t sign him because the fans didn’t want him,” Ranieri explained. His successor, Ciro Ferrara, disagreed, reminding Ranieri that Juventus signed Fabio Cannavaro in the summer, even though the fans protested during negotiations.
The debate is polarising Italy. There are those who see Ultrás as modern day romantics who bring colour and raw authentic passion to the support of their team, which, as anyone who has been to a game in Italy can attest, is a quality that has to a large extent been lost in England.
The Ultrás themselves feel under threat like never before even though, as some claim in their defence, violence has gradually decreased inside Italy’s football stadiums. The deaths of Filippo Raciti and Gabriele Sandri prompted the government into launching proposals for la tessera del tifoso, a kind of fan passport that, according to the Osservatorio Nazionale sulle Manifestazioni Sportive, would “allow the construction of a category of ‘official’ fans”.
Anyone with a Daspo, a sort of Italian sporting ASBO, would be forbidden from receiving la tessera, sparking a debate about privacy and discrimination. Nevertheless, public opinion has undoubtedly turned against the Ultrás. A poll on La Gazzetta dello Sport’s website on Tuesday revealed 88.1 per cent of readers agree with Capello.
It’s up to the authorities to grasp the nettle and deal with the minority while remaining sensitive enough to preserve the atmosphere that makes Italian grounds so distinct from others across the globe.
- Jean-Claude Blanc looked to persuade Juventus’ shareholders to confirm his presidency with a shrewd yet controversial piece of populism. Asked to describe the objectives of his administration, Blanc replied: “I told the shareholders that our primary objective is a third star.” Italian clubs are allowed to stitch a star on their shirts for every ten league titles they win. Juventus have won 29, but two were revoked after the Calciopoli scandal in 2006. The Bianconeri’s 5-1 victory over Sampdoria on Wednesday night takes his dream one step closer to reality.
- Newly promoted Parma are in the Champions League places after a 2-0 victory over Bari put them into fourth spot. Valeri Bojinov scored a cracking opener and dedicated it to the fans of former club Lecce, who are Bari’s fierce local rivals. Luca Antonelli poured cold water on celebrations, insisting Parma’s primary objective this season remains survival.
- Siena fired Marco Giampaolo after his side suffered a 2-1 defeat to Bologna, their seventh in ten games this season. Mario Beretta is the odds-on favourite to replace him, having already had two stints at the club, the most recent coming in 2008 when he saved the Robur from relegation. He’ll need to work another miracle this season, as Siena are bottom with just five points.
- Sampdoria midfielder Daniele Mannini has a reason to be sadder than his team-mates this morning following the Blucerchiati’s 5-1 defeat away to Juventus. Earlier this week, he revealed how he had picked himself for his own Fantasy Football team, which had until yesterday proven to be a very good decision. Mannini was the most valuable midfielder in La Gazzetta dello Sport’s ‘Magic Championship’ but last night’s performance has hampered his progress.