Remember that mom who always went back on her word? The one whose kid would fail his classes, get suspended from school, and then be allowed to go out the next weekend after you thought he’d never see the light of day again. The mom who threatened to ground her kid for the next two months but always caved and never held firm. Well that mom is exactly like the Italian Football Federation (FIGC), an organization whose menacing threats are undermined by a severe lack of enforcement. Specifically, as territorial discrimination by fans in Serie A continues to escalate, the FIGC’s lackadaisical approach hinders the hope of any indelible progress being made.
Despite the increased media attention it has gained over the past year, the issue of territorial discrimination in Italy is by no means a recent problem. Rather, it was simply overshadowed by the racism and fan violence characteristic of Italian football fans. Yet while this issue was placed on the backburner in regard to enforcement, the prevalence of this discrimination is almost immediately evident when one visits the Northern and Southern areas of the country. Stemming from the time when Italy used to be made up of city-states, the North has always generally been more affluent and thriving, while the poorer South of Italy was often hindered by organized crime, such as the Costa Nostra in Sicily or the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria. Consequently, Northerners have expressed contempt for Southerners in so far as the reputation the country has gained, and this has manifested itself in racist chants between fans of Northern and Southern football teams. In fact, Umberto Bossi formed the Lega Nord federalist and regionalist political party in 1991, which has actually advocated secession of the North to form a country called Padania. And while the North’s resentment of the South is often publicly demonstrated, many of the Southern people are actually loyal supporters of Northern teams. Football teams from Northern Italy, including AC Milan, Inter Milan, and Juventus have been the most historically successful teams in Italy and throughout Europe, yet this Southern support does not merely stem from these teams’ reputations. In 1899, Giovanni Agnelli formed the company FIAT which gave many jobs to poor Southern Italians. In addition to controlling FIAT, numerous members of the Angelli family have served as president of the successful Juventus football club. In fact, Andrea Agnelli, great grandson of Giovanni, is the current president of Juventus. Thus, these FIAT jobs facilitated a mass immigration of Southerners to the more prosperous North while at the same time creating thousands of new Juventus FC fans. Yet even this increased support has not assuaged Northerners, especially when it comes to football matches. And there still exists an animosity of Northern teams by Southern clubs; for example, one of the famous chants at the Napoli matches is “Che non salta Juventino è! (Whoever doesn’t jump is a Juve fan)” – Juan Zuñiga, Napoli winger and member of the Colombian national team, actually jumped during the chant while on the pitch!
The most marked cases of territorial discrimination, however, have been directed at fans of the Napoli football team. AC Milan was punished with a partial stadium ban for shouting anti-Neopolitan chants that “express[ed] discrimination based on territorial origin” during a home game against Napoli on September 22, yet since then, the FIGC has begun to impose more flexible sanctions on territorial discrimination. Discipline is now decreed proportional to the number of supporters involved in racist or discriminatory chanting instead of issuing full closure of certain sections. Moreover, in a home game against Genoa, Juventus supporters recited discriminatory chants against Napoli (who they weren’t even playing) and were handed a 2 game ban of the Curva Sud. During a 2-0 domination of Genoa, Juve ultras could be heard chanting “Wash them [Napoli] with fire, Vesuvius wash them with fire!” and “What a smell, even the dogs run away when the Neopolitans arrive. Oh victims of cholera and earthquakes, you never wash yourselves.” Despite these offenses, however, the FIGC suspended this ban for an entire year as long as the Juventus faithful did not reoffend other territories. In essence, the FIGC recognized its own weakness in enforcement and handed out an empty threat on the condition that Juventus fans simply pinky-swear to behave.
Similar bluffs have already been handed to Inter Milan, Roma, Torino, and AC Milanwho also chanted about Neopolitans and Italian Southerners while playing a Northern club. The FIGC’s sanctions have been too flexible, and fans have taken advantage of their abominable discriminatory freedoms. In early October, Inter Milan Ultras in the Curva Nord began a campaign to break all the rules simultaneously just to have a weekend where all matches were behind closed doors. Clearly the fans are not taking the rules seriously, but when the governing administration of Serie A does nothing to stop it, the situation will only continue to intensify. Fans are not afraid to challenge something they do not believe in, and currently, collective transgression can overcome the FIGC’s lethargic “rules.”
On November 11, football giants Napoli and Juventus clashed in Juventus stadium for an all-important first meeting. Yet the 3-0 rout of Napoli was hardly the subject of discussion the following day, as Juventus Ultras once again aimed discriminatory chants against Napoli, despite having their 2-game ban lifted for a year. As the game proceeded, Juve fans neglected the FIGC rules more than the Napoli defense neglected the likes of Llorente, Pirlo, and Pogba. A large banner of Mount Vesuvius was displayed with a cut-out through which a smoke bomb portrayed an eruption surrounded by pleas for the volcano to wash Napoli with fire. Napoli fans have been no stranger to these harmful displays, as notable chants such as “It takes a bar of soap to wash a dirty Southerner” have echoed throughout the stadium since the time of Diego Maradona. Yet while watching the game, these chants seemed different. It was as though Juventus fans were actually calling out the FIGC rather than the Partenopei (Napoli supporters). Chants continued almost in a protest of the absurdity of the need for “rules” against territorial discrimination, as it was something that had always existed and could never be truly expunged. By asking Vesuvius to destroy their rivals, Juve Ultras were trying to show that we should “laugh at ourselves,” a plea to which even Southern fans applauded.
Nevertheless, the FIGC was not sharp enough to catch this, and Juventus fans were handed a ban and fined for their discriminatory actions. A statement from Lega Serie A proclaimed “Juventus have been fined 50,000 euros and will have to play one game without any fans in the Curva Sud (south stand) and Curva Nord (north stand) section of the stadium for territorially discriminating chants…The Lega Serie A also revokes the suspended sentence and orders the execution of the ban handed on October 28, 2013 with respect to the game between Juventus and Genoa.” Thus, the Curva Nord and Curva Sud will be closed for the December 1st game against Udinese, and the Curva Sud will be closed for the home game against Sassuolo. However, Juventus fans were not the only ones at fault, as Napoli fans were observed throwing hazardous objects at Juventus supporters. In addition, 74 seats were destroyed, and “Four Juventus supporters were injured as a result of said acts and required medical treatment. Furthermore, a girl was hit in the head by a handle, probably torn off one of the doors in the visitors’ section.”
When asked about the chants during the Juventus match, Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis shrugged off the implications, merely suggesting that “To see people insulting another group of people is not disgusting…When I hear that [Mount] Vesuvius should wash us away, then it just makes me laugh. It’s satirical. It’s just a provocation to a city which needs to wake up.” Other Napoli and Juventus management, however, did not take this discrimination as lightly. Angelo Pisani, president of the Italian consumer rights’ group and solicitor to Diego Maradona (who was a former Napoli player) issued the following statement:
“They were unjustifiable and shameful insults, chants, and banners of a discriminatory and racist nature, illegal actions, gratuitous and prejudicial violence toward Neopolitan citizens from parts of the Juventus Stadium; unsporting behavior with an objective responsibility of the Bianconero club…They are going to have to respond adequately in court to the unspeakable gestures and shameful actions of their supporters. For this, the citizens of Naples are demanding compensation for all of the damage to persons, the image, the existence and the good name of Napoli fans, calculating in an equitable way 1000 euros for each Partenopeo offended and hurt by the unspeakable actions of the Bianconero fans.”
Yeah, keep dreaming Angelo.
Juventus coach Antonio Conte proclaimed these chants “self-harming,” and general manager Beppe Marotta said, “I would really like it if fans would chant in favor of their own side rather than offending the opposition…It is something that we have got to try to eliminate together.” Yet even from this statement, the immediacy of the problem of territorial discrimination is not quite conveyed. Rather, it seems that everyone is merely admitting the problem without doing anything about it. Except the FIGC, which finally (FINALLY) followed through with their ban, right? Not quite.
After hearing the ruling of the FIGC, president of the Italian National Olympic Committee, Giovanni Malago, had different ideas. He proposed that the stadium (specifically the Curva Nord and Curva Sud) be filled with children, citing the success of the Turkish sports club Fenerbahçe when they let only women and children into a league game with Manisapor in 2011 after a pitch evasion. In his proposal, Malago sought to ban only those that had actually caused the trouble and claimed that it would “…be like when we confiscated assets from the Mafia.” Perhaps this was another unintentional blight at the Southern Italians, who once again fell short as the penalty for the injustice they incurred was again rescinded upon acceptance of Malago’s plan. In fact, the game time for the Juventus-Udinese match has been moved up from 20:45 to 18:30 (2:45 to 12:30 Eastern time) to better accommodate the children. Tickets were administered free of charge to schools, and children from football schools and academies will occupy Curva Sud, while elementary and secondary school pupils will occupy Curva Nord.
While this is an exciting opportunity and a great way for Juventus FC to make lifelong memories for young fans, I still would not look at this as a victory for the FIGC. Sure, they were able to boot the Ultras for one game, but I can hardly imagine that the fans are that angry at giving up their seats to children for a game against a team who is not competing for the Scudetto. In fact, I would say this is a victory for the fans and for the persistence of territorial discrimination, as once again, the ruling of the FIGC has been undermined. If the FIGC truly wants to take a firm stand against this problem, it needs to start taking itself seriously, which may mean looking for alternative solutions rather than simply banning fans and playing matches in deserted stadiums. Such bans also do harm to innocent, non-violent fans that are punished at the expense of the masses.
Fans are a huge part of soccer games. They are why scoring a goal in an opposing stadium is so difficult and thus counts more than a goal scored at home. And in the case of territorial discrimination in Italy, the fans definitely have the upper hand. After the ruling against the Juventus Ultras, they threatened to go on strike by sitting in silence for the Champions League fixture against FC Copenhagen this past Wednesday (which did not actually happen). Such a statement shows that the fans would rather hurl discriminatory chants toward opposing teams, players, and regions of the country than enjoy themselves at a match.
To overcome this problem, the FIGC needs to be strict and firm in its rules and declarations and perhaps start to impose heavier monetary fines to supporters and their respective clubs. It will be interesting to watch the Juventus match against Udinese on December 1st and to see what impact the children will have. Yet, regardless of this spectacle, stringent disciplinary actions must be taken to ensure that these young children are not being groomed to turn into the radical Ultras the FIGC is trying to fight against.