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Insider's guide: Italian football violence

  • Story Highlights
  • Death of fan shot by police sparked violence across the country on Sunday
  • Persistent problem of violence from hardcore 'ultras' fans against rivals and police
  • Harsh measure to deal with hooligans not met by change in Italy's football culture
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By Dean Irvine
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- What has happened?

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Some of the worst violence on Sunday was between hooligans and police in Rome.

The Italian national football team may have qualified for Euro 2008, but the country's domestic game and national passion is under a dark cloud.

Violence erupted across the country last Sunday after Gabriele Sandri, a fan of Roman team Lazio, was accidentally shot dead by a policeman at a service station in Tuscany. The police had been trying to break up fighting between rival fans from Lazio and Turin club Juventus.

Some of the violence was especially fierce in Bergamo at the match between Atalanta and AC Milan which led to the game being suspended after seven minutes. In Rome, angry fans attacked a police barracks outside the Olympic Stadium, injuring 40 police officers and causing havoc and destruction into the night. Some commentators have likened it to the urban terrorism of the 1970s.

Many fans were angered with what they viewed as the half-hearted reaction of police and Italy's football association to the death of Sandri, as only some games were cancelled in the country's top division, Serie A.

After the death of policeman, Filipo Raciti, during a match in Catania, Sicily in February, all matches were suspended for a week. The government reaction has been stronger with calls from the sports minister, Giovanna Melandri, for all football matches to be suspended for the next few weeks.

Giancarlo Abete, president of the country's football federation (FIGC), announced the suspension of Serie B and C matches at the weekend, but international matches are taking place this week with no top-flight matches taking place, which has led to some commentators critical of such a weak reaction.

It doesn't sound like just a scuffle; does Italy have a problem with violence at football matches?

Unfortunately yes, and while football related violence is by no means exclusive to Italy, the problem there has been persistent, with violence and mayhem inside stadia an unwanted feature of Italian football in recent years. In 1995 a Genoa fan was stabbed to death before a home game against AC Milan; a supporter was killed by a homemade bomb during the Sicilian derby in 2001 and Napoli was forced to play five matches behind closed doors in 2003 after a match where 30 police officers were injured an a fan fell from the terraces. Matters seemed to have come to a head nine months ago with the death of Raciti.

Did they try and stamp down on violence after that?

Yes, new measures to try and curb violence inside stadia were introduced including the banning of offensive banners at matches, numbered ticketing, extensive searches of fans entering grounds and bans placed on known violent supporters. The violence at the weekend might seem to fly in the face of a report released last month that violent incidents in football grounds were down 80 percent on last year.

Who is causing all the trouble?

There are huge partisan rivalries between some Italian clubs, in Rome and Sicily, for example but all teams have a hardcore of fanatical supporters called "ultras" all of who are united by a seething hatred of the police. They are often highly organized groups with spokesmen and even radio stations who believe they embody the spirit of the clubs they are devoted to.

Many ultras have extreme right-wing and often racist views and see football matches as a means to recruit disaffected youth in a country that is suffering from social decay, job insecurities and growing hostility towards immigrants. Until the measures brought in this March these groups have often been indulged by teams' managements and have been left to do as they please in the stadium. Not all fans who call themselves ultras are violent. John Foot, author of "Calcio: A History of Italian Football" suggests that there are around 100,000 fans who would call themselves an "ultra" but only 5,000 to 10,000 would be given to violence.

"They see themselves as the guardians of the game, in fact they see themselves as football itself, and have an extremely strong sense of identity," he told CNN.

What was different about the violence on Sunday?

The ferocity and wide-spread nature of the violence was shocking as many thought that the measures to curb violence had been working. However others believe it had been brewing for some time and that violence might have decreased at matches, but it hadn't really gone away.

"In some respects it is a measure of the success of the laws brought in after the Catania incident," says Foot.

"All these measure are hated by the ultras who have a huge rejection of modern football, its ties to big business, TV and the media. There have been battles between the ultras and police for quite some time and this death was the spark that set off the violence. Some of the violence on Sunday, like attacking a police station, was almost of like guerrilla warfare."

Players too have voiced their exasperation at the damage being done to the game in Italy by hooligans. AC Milan player, Clarence Seedorf, the most successful footballer still playing expressed his anger at the situation in an interview with Sky television after the suspended match in Bergamo.

"Sunday had nothing to do with football, the problem is a society problem. The government has to do something. It's like civil war here, and we are in the middle of it even if we don't have any responsibility. Their goal was to suspend the game and they succeeded at that. Their protest wasn't against the players, it was against the carabinieri."

Will the situation improve?

Opinion is divided. The Italian government has indicated that it is willing to indefinitely suspend football in Italy and continue their hard line against hooliganism. But while the death of Raciti so sicken the public and enabled the government to take the initiative in clamping down on hardcore violent fans, some don't believe that harsh measure alone are enough.

"There is a misplaced idea that just by clamping down on violence solved the hooligan problem in the UK, but nothing has been done in Italy to educate or change the culture of football, update the decrepit stadia or make them places where families would want to go," says Foot.

"Really the authorities are paying the price for not really tackling the problem for over 20 years. It's a long term problem that can be tackled, but I'm not optimistic about it in the short-term." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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