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Italian fans going too far
27.2 || Seamus

Vieri and Maldini have spoken out against the fans (Getty Images)02/26/2003. After the Italian national soccer team lost to South Korea the first time in World Cup 1966 in England, the fans "welcomed" players home by pelting them with rotten vegetables. And in 1994, disappointed Italian tifosi drew a chalk outline of Roberto Baggio in the street and spat on it after he sent a penalty kick sailing over the crossbar, guaranteeing Brazil a fourth World Cup. Those sorts of incidents might have been crude and degrading, but were fairly harmless. Both could simply be added to the laundry list of proof that Italians are full of passion -- especially for sport. One of the things I love most about my people is that we live and die by the goal. But now we've gone too far, and somebody has to stop us.

Last week, the Italian soccer league -- perhaps, the best in the world -- was again marred by violence when fans tried to raid the field at Stadio Delle Alpi in Torino as struggling Torino was down 3 to nil against highly ranked A.C. Milan. Since then, there has been lots of talk about who is to blame for such demonstrations. The answer? Us. We fans are to blame. And we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.

Italian League President Adriano Galliani suggested that the media is partially at fault for overanalyzing sport, thinking up conspiracy theories and inciting the masses. But the journalists are merely doing their jobs. They have access to insider information and should make the public aware if and when there is a referee giving preferential treatment, a coach with a conflict of Interests, a player who is hiding a substance abuse problem, etc. Sportscasters are the only way to keep an already politicized organization like the Italian soccer league in check. Besides, part of the joy of being a spectator is playing coach and debating what formation is best, who should be benched and who will be the next Maradona. Journalists give fans a forum for that kind of analysis. Without them, there is no fly on the locker room wall, and we are hopeless. In fact, sans sport's journalists, many people, especially Italians, would have little at all to talk about.

We are making the beautiful sport ugly by acting like savages. This season, we have wreaked havoc -- from an eruption of fan violence during a Como versus Udinese match to Napoli's poor Francesco Baldini, who ended up with a cut to the eye after fans chased him down in his car. Colombian Johnnier Montano of Piacenza's squad was forced to get police protection after fans hassled him on the street because he had missed practice. And these are just a few of the player's who were personally assaulted by their own fans this year.

More recently, some of Italian soccer's best players, including Paolo Maldini and Christian Vieri, have expressed disappointment after their own fans booed their teammates. Some commentators pooh-poohed these sentiments because hissing and jeering have always been a part of healthy competition, and players should be able to take the heat, especially when they're making millions of dollars. But I'm going to go out on a limb here and actually side with the players. The fact is that Maldini's Milan and Vieri's Inter are at the top of the scudetto in Serie A and are among the best teams in the world right now. There is absolutely no reason for their own fans to pick on them, especially when tension inside the stadium, in light of all this violence, is already high.

Frankly, we fans never have any business booing the stars who draw us to the stadium in the first place. We live vicariously through these player's accomplishments. Few, if any, of us have the talent to take the field and perform miracles even once, let alone every Sunday. And that's just what the Maldinis and Vieris of the world attempt to do (and these days they are asked to do it far more frequently than once a week). They are our oxygen, helping us to breathe with every goal and taking our breathe away with every missed opportunity. But take yourselves off their life support right now because, in reality, they are mere mortals -- imperfect men like the rest of us.

They too are bound to have good days and bad. And they don't live solely to serve our selfish needs. Maldini is a husband and father. Vieri is fidanzata and has plenty of family and friends. It's safe to guess that soccer is one of their top passions, but chances are that their lives include more than the game. We don't own them, and we certainly don't have the right to storm the field and potentially harm them simply if they kick the ball crooked one day -- no matter how much higher their salary is than our's.

There was a time when fans and players worked like yin and yang. We were practically part of the team. We lifted players' spirits -- with every roar, we made them stronger even against the toughest of opponents. Forza Italia! Ole! Ole! There was a time when fans were loyal through the wins and the losses. There was a time when our morality and mere etiquette would have prevented us from ripping seats off the bleachers, starting fires, throwing bottles and harassing innocent young men who happen to play soccer professionally. When did a team's own fans become their worst enemies? And why?

I am a big fan of Italian soccer (and my family comes from Napoli). So, I know suffering. I have watched my squads lose in penalties...in the last seconds...to unworthy oppenents...after downright lousy calls. For Pete's sake, Napoli is almost in Serie C and we all know Italy's sad 2002 World Cup fate. From the bleachers or my couch, I cried for -- and with -- those players. But I never, ever considered setting our sacred stadiums ablaze or inflicting bodily harm on anyone. In fact, after Baggio's miss in '94, my paesani and I shed a few tears, sipped some vino and then went outside to play our own game of calcio, a fitting way to mourn our loss and honor our fallen hero.

Now, I only hope I can serve my teams by making the players stronger with my support instead of scared of it. I dream of a day when the players -- rich and poor, from the north of Italy to the south -- will again find inspiration in their fans. When that day arrives, maybe, finally, we fans again will remember how to find inspiration in the players. E facciamo bravi.

SA Guest Editorial by Francesca Di Meglio





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