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The warring factions of Italy’s political left and right will resume hostilities in Rome today, less than a week after Romano Prodi triumphed narrowly over Silvio Berlusconi in the bitterly contested national elections. However, this time, goals rather than votes will decide the outcome.

Lazio take on Livorno at the capital’s Stadio Olimpico in an encounter that is highly charged with political tension. Lazio fans, particularly the hardcore Irriducibili group, are notorious for their rightwing extremism, while in the heart of “Red” Tuscany Che Guevara flags and banners in praise of Stalin fill Livorno’s Picchi stadium every other weekend.

Such ideological as well as sporting rivalries are repeated elsewhere in Italian football, where many clubs have historical political allegiances in a country where polarities that have largely died out in other leading European nations continue unabated.

Recent clashes between Lazio and Livorno have been marred by controversy. Earlier in the season at the game in Tuscany, Paolo Di Canio, the veteran Lazio forward who is himself a former member of the Irriducibili, made his infamous fascist salute, sparking outrage across Italy. During last season’s fixture, Lazio fans unfurled swastikas at their end of the ground. The post-match disturbances that followed saw the arrest of 250 Livorno fans, who later claimed to have been victims of police brutality.

That both teams are currently battling in Italy’s Serie A league for the remaining Italian place in next season’s Uefa Cup tournament for European clubs, has only heightened the ill-feeling that exists between their supporters.

Although Fifa, soccer’s world governing body, has attempted to clamp down on racist abuse, rightwing extremists in Italy have increasingly used the stadiums as a fertile breeding ground for their ideas.

Black players are routinely booed, which led to Messina’s Ivorian defender, Marc Zoro, leaving the pitch in protest during November’s game against Inter Milan, while swastikas have also been displayed this season by Roma fans.

Riccardo Pacifici, the head of the Jewish community in Rome, feels that the time has come for more urgent measures to be taken.

“Enough is enough,” he said. “We are tired of the racist and anti-semitic abuse that has become the norm in Italy’s stadiums. Games need to be stopped by the referee so that people are made aware that this situation is not acceptable.

“Ultimately, it comes down to conquering the indifference of those fans who do not get involved in the racism but go to the stadium just to support their team.”

Claudio Lotito, Lazio’s owner, has said in the past that the problems are caused by a “very small minority”. However, for some, such explanations are not good enough.

Piero Terracina was one of only 16 Roman Jews to return from Auschwitz. He recently addressed players from both Lazio and Roma at the city hall, telling them that to dismiss the problem by blaming it on a small number of people misses the point.

“There are 50 cretins in the stadium?” Terracina asked the assembled players. “Nazism also started with 50 cretins.”

And yet Lazio’s extremists are not the only supporters concerning the Italian authorities. Formed in 1999, Livorno’s communist group of fans, the Autonomous Brigades of Livorno (BAL), have participated in demonstrations all over Italy, including the anti-globalisation protests of recent years that turned the cities of Genoa and Florence into battlegrounds. They even have their own extreme leftwing political party, CP 1921.

In an interview with the Italian magazine Senza Censura, an unidentified BAL spokesman explained why the heady mixture of politics and football was such an important part of the group’s identity.

“Football has always been central to the idea of the working-class weekend. For us, bringing politics into the stadium is what it is all about. It is what defines us. We are young, well-organised and determined and that is why the dominant classes in this country, those who are always used to having their way, are so afraid of us.”

The BAL believes its members have been on the end of the state’s repressive measures in a country that still bears the scars of extremist terrorism perpetrated by both leftwing and rightwing groups during the turbulent decades of the 60s, 70s and 80s.

“Although Italy is meant to be a democracy, the minute there are any protests, be it on the street or in the stadium, the police are given a free rein to crack down with violence.

“Our telephones are tapped and our website is continually monitored. They film us at games and at political demonstrations.”

The BAL also rejects the notion that its main aim is to cause violence in and around the stadium. “People label us as troublemakers out to smash things up. They don’t pay any attention to the funds we have collected for earthquakes and other disasters, or our campaign to increase literacy for those who have been left behind by the state. We even have stalls that sell books and newspapers as you enter the ground. In other stadiums they teach you to beat up black people.”

However, as at Lazio, Livorno officials are keen to distance the club from the more extreme elements of its fan base.

“The political allegiances of the supporters are of no consequence to this football club and have nothing to do with what happens on the pitch,” says Paolo Nacarlo, a club official. “Our only concern is with carrying on the team’s success this season as we aim for a Uefa Cup place.”

Unfortunately for both Lazio and Livorno, certain players do not seem to be following the clubs’ official line.

Cristiano Lucarelli, Livorno’s star centre-forward, dons the number 99 shirt in commemoration of the year that the BAL was founded. Lucarelli has been known to raise a clenched fist in solidarity with the communists among Livorno’s supporters and even paid for coaches to take those fans arrested at last year’s Lazio-Livorno game back to Tuscany.

Meanwhile at Lazio, Di Canio, who during his playing career in England received a lengthy suspension for angrily pushing a referee to the ground, repeated his fascist salute against Juventus, as well as dedicating last season’s derby win over Roma to all the Lazio fans who were banned from Italian stadiums.

At the recent city hall meeting with members of Rome’s Jewish community, Di Canio, who has described himself as a “fascist but not a racist”, also attempted to justify the actions of his club’s rightwing fans by pointing to the reprisal crimes committed by communist partisans in northern Italy during and after the second world war.

Despite the efforts of football authorities and community groups, it seems that Italy’s historical political divisions will continue to be played out in football stadiums as well as in conventional political arenas.

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