Paddy Agnew’s Notes From Italy: Bad End To 2018 For Italian Football

2018 could hardly have ended on a worse note for Italian football than that of the  violent and racist events surrounding Inter’s 1-0 home win against Napoli on December 26th. During violent pre-match scuffles, one Inter fan was killed whilst the subsequent match itself was marred by ugly racist chants aimed at Napoli’s accomplished Senegalese defender, Kalidou Koulibaly.
Perhaps, after all, it was not such a good idea for Italy’s Serie A to play football on Boxing Day. For ever and a day, Italian football has taken a winter break that began before Christmas and usually saw the fixture programme resume on the Epiphany, Jan. 6. For the first time ever this year, Serie A ran a full Boxing Day programme with the “Big Match” being the evening Inter v Napoli clash at the San Siro.
The problems here began an hour and a half before kick-off when a group of Napoli fans, travelling to the game in a convoy of mini-buses, were “ambushed” in the traffic congested streets close to the San Siro. Police investigations subsequently confirmed that hardline “ultra” fans not just from Inter but also from nearby lower division club Varese and from the French Ligue 1 club, OGC Nice, had organised a “rendez-vous” with a view to attacking the Napoli fans.
When the Napoli fans found themselves surrounded by approximately 100 opposing fans, they quickly got out of their mini-buses and became involved in a seven or eight minute long street fight which saw the fans attack one another with sledge hammers, machetes, crowbars as well as smoke bombs and sound petards. In the confusion, however, and in an incident that has still to be fully explained, one Inter fan, Daniele Belardinelli, was run over and killed. In the following days, three Inter fans were arrested in relation to the incident.
At this stage, neither the killer car nor its driver have been identified. All lines of enquiry remain open. It could have been a tragic accident caused by a spooked driver trying to get out of the fighting as fast as he could. Alternatively, it could have been a deliberate attack on Belardinelli by Napoli fans, furious that he was blocking their path as they tried to get away from the “ambush”.
What seems striking about this incident of fan violence is its organised and clearly premeditated nature. Not only had “ultras” from three different clubs come together to attack the Napoli fans but they had also picked their precise spot. Local residents reported how, just some minutes before the fighting began, a convoy of Inter fans who had been gathered at the Cartoons Pub in Via Filiberto not far from the San Siro suddenly left, getting into a convoy of 20 cars, four or five at a time.
This convoy made its way to a small park in Via Fratelli Zoia close to where the eventual “attack” took place. Here they found two large plastic bags full of “weapons” waiting for them. Armed with these, they waited for the Napoli fans.
There is nothing new about alliances and agreements between ultra fans who, whilst they support different clubs, either share a particular political viewpoint or are happy to unite against a common enemy. Such a motivation saw Roma and Lazio fans come together in an apparently anti-semitic attack on Tottenham fans at Rome’s Campo di Fiori on the eve of a November 2012 Europa League game between Lazio and  Tottenham.
Daniele Belardinelli, the dead ultra, belonged to a group of Varese fans who call themselves, Blood and Honour. When the group “presented” itself to the fans at the  Serie C club some years ago, it did so with an editorial dedicated to the notorious Nazi, Rudolf Hess. Such fans find a kindred spirit not only amongst some of the ultra groups – Irriducibili, Vikings, Boys et al – on Inter’s Curiva Nord but also amongst elements on the Populaire Sud in Nice, reportedly inspired by Marine Le Pen’s extreme right Rassemblement National.
39-year-old Belardinelli was well known to police authorities, not only in his leadership role at “Blood and Honour” but also because he had already twice been served with a “DASPO”, a stadium ban, following violent incidents in 2007 and 2012. On the web, his memory was recalled by neo-Nazi sympathisers as that of “a warrior, who had led of a life of combat”.
The climate surrounding his death (he died in hospital in the early hours of the morning after the Inter-Napoli game) was hardly helped by the match itself, which ended in a 1-0 win for Inter. The watershed moment in the game came in the 80th minute, with the score still 0-0, when Napoli’s accomplished central defender, Kalidou Koulibaly, was sent off.
For almost the entire game, Koulibaly had been the object of foul, abusive racist chants aimed at him by a section of Inter fans on the Curva Nord. So much so that Napoli coach, Carlo Ancelotti, had appealed in vain to the match officials to have the game suspended if the racist abuse did not stop.
In the 80th minute, when Inter’s talented winger, Matteo Politano, got away from Koulibaly, the Senegalese defender instinctively hauled him back with his hand in a sacrosanct yellow card offence. As referee Paolo Mazzoleni pulled out the card, Koulibaly applauded sarcastically in an act of frustration that, according to Ancelotti, had been engendered by his night of racist abuse.
The yellow card became red and Koublibaly had to walk. Rounding off a miserable night for Napoli, Inter then scored an injury-time winner through Argentine striker Lautaro Martinez to take all three points.
For the next few days, public and political debate raged, essentially about two issues. Firstly, by way of reaction to Belardinelli’s death, should Italian football suspend the final day’s action of the year, three days later on December 29th? Secondly, in the face of sustained racist behaviour, would it not be appropriate to suspend the game, as Ancelotti had urged?
The answer to those two questions was “No” and “No”.   The logic of the “Show-Must-Go-On” and “Do-Not-Give-In-To-The-Thugs” prevailed in relation to the fixture list, so the December 29th programme went ahead as planned. As for the suspension of a particular match, referees and senior football officials pointed out that, under Italian law, only the senior police officer present at a game has the power to stop the match.
The events of the following day’s action, however, further underlined just how far Italian football still has to go to defeat its recurrent violence problem.   In different parts of the country, far right ultras expressed their appreciation of  “Dede” Belardinelli. Fans gathered outside Parma’s Tardini stadium honoured him with a Fascist salute and a “Caio Dede”.   
At the Lazio v Torino game in Rome, the Lazio fans refused to take their place on the Curva Nord for the entire first half because the authorities had forbidden the display of a banner which read, “An Ultra Never Dies, Daniele Always With Us”. On the entrance gate to the Curva Nord in Varese, someone had spray painted, “Rest in Peace, Brother Dede”. 
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Inevitably, the Belardinelli death became a political issue too. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte called for a “pause for reflection” on violence and racism, appearing to favour a suspension. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister For the Interior, Matteo Salvini, however, disagreed, saying:
“To close the stadia, to ban away fans from travelling, is a mistaken response and is merely a punishment for those genuine fans who must always be distinguished from the delinquents…”
Salvini’s comments, though, attracted plenty of criticism from opposition forces, with former Italian Prime  Minister Matteo Renzi choosing to recall that just a few weeks back, Italian media had carried pictures of AC Milan fan, Minister Salvini talking amicably to Luca Lucci, a well known Milan ultra, at a recent Milan festa.   
The point about Lucci, however, is that he is a convicted criminal who has not only been imprisoned for drug trafficking but has also been convicted for a violent assault on an Inter fan. Inevitably, minister Salvini defended himself by saying that he takes selfies and photos with a lot of people and he cannot always know who or what these people are.
What remains is the sensation that the Italian problem of recurring, football linked violence is far from resolved. Rather it is an issue occasionally highlighted by tragic events such as this – Napoli fan Ciro Esposito in June 2014, Lazio fan Gabriel Sandri in November 2007, police inspector Filippo Raciti in February 2007 are just the three most recent such deaths.
Early this month, Minister Salvini intends to bring together all the “stakeholders” – Football Federation officials, club owners, club directors, referees, coaches, players and others – for a brainstorming session on the whole issue. Here is wishing him and Italian football, “Buon Lavoro” (May the work go well).
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