By Michael Ottolenghi
Before turning to events on the pitch, we unfortunately have to start this week’s column with racist goings on off of it.
It is an all too familiar story in Serie A, but this latest incident is perhaps the most troubling for what it says about the pervasive inability of clubs and footballing authorities in Italy to confront violence and racism in Italian football, in contrast with the situation elsewhere in Europe. We discussed the incident last week in these pages, but the story rumbles on, growing worse by the day and involving more people.
To recap, two weeks ago a segment of Lazio fans left stickers in the Stadio Olimpico portraying Anne Frank dressed in a Roma shirt, which was intended as an insult to Roma fans. As reported last week, the initial reaction by the police, footballing authorities and Lazio appeared promising, with some of those allegedly responsible under police investigation, readings from Anne Frank’s diary before every game last week and Lazio owner Claudio Lotito apologetically visiting Rome’s synagogue.
But if that seemed like an unusually prompt and harsh reaction, it was, and the story soon unravelled. A recording emerged of Lotito saying the synagogue visit was a “performance”, while the Anne Frank reading was booed at various stadiums across Italy, with “ultras” groups instead taking the opportunity to intone fascist songs. There is of course no news about the police investigation, and the Lazio ultras have, perversely, managed to portray themselves as the victims of media and police persecution.
We have reported on these issues many times over the years, and little progress has been made. One very clear reason for that is the cover that clubs give organised ultra groups, which is very evident in the case of Lotito, but is not confined to Lazio.
Juventus president Andrea Agnelli was earlier this year fined and banned from footballing activities for a year after having been convicted of selling tickets to Juve ultras with mafia links, but he continues in his role as if nothing had happened. This stands in stark contrast with how violent thugs are treated elsewhere in European football.
In England this week Spurs gave lifetime bans to fans found on CCTV to have thrown bottles of urine at West Ham supporters.
Defenders of the ultras will point to their constant attendance at games, the atmosphere they create and choreographies that all fans celebrate. But without wanting to sound like a law and order politician, crime is crime and the experiences of other European countries (think England and Germany) illustrate how clubs can clamp down on the criminal element within their fanbase without sacrificing the stadium experience. It shouldn’t be so hard to choose between violent and racist terraces and peaceful tolerant ones.
Turning to events on the pitch, with nearly a third of the season now played, last weekend’s games confirmed that there is a mini-league among the top five teams (Napoli, Inter, Juve, Lazio and Roma) who have made record starts to the season. Those clubs have collectively lost only 6 points against other teams in Serie A this season, and fifth placed Roma have a four point lead over sixth placed Sampdoria with a game in hand, while Fiorentina and Milan languish in seventh and eighth place in the table, both 8 points behind Roma and 12 from Champions league qualification. The top 5 regularly win by big margins, and last weekend was no exception, with Lazio beating Benevento 5-1 and Napoli 3-1 winners against Sassuolo.
All of this has led to questions about the strength of the league and whether Serie A should lose a couple of teams to make the competition more interesting. In the meantime this weekend will see more clashes between the top 5 and opponents they should all beat, with Napoli away to Chievo, Juve facing Benevento, Roma travelling to Fiorentina, Lazio hosting Udinese and Inter playing Torino at San Siro.
The record pace at the top means that any minor slip up could be extremely costly, particularly as there are only 4 Champions League qualification places. With key direct clashes between the top 5 on the agenda after the international break, all will feel the pressure to win this weekend.