Italy’s passion for football wanes

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It was a typical evening of Italian football, writes Simon Kuper. Roma and Juventus fans tossed firecrackers over ranks of helmeted policemen on to each other’s heads, while officialdom’s warnings against such practices flitted across the electronic screens. Meanwhile Juventus won – an outcome so inevitable the match was unnecessary – thumping the hosts 1-4. Afterwards it took nearly an hour in the freezing night to find a bus home.

A tradition has been destroyed. Italy used to teach the rest of us how to watch football. The world’s best footballers, playing on sunny Sunday afternoons in stadiums as peaceful as family restaurants, drew Europe’s largest crowds: an average of nearly 40,000 a game in the mid-1980s.

This season the average Italian attendance is 22,000, less than in England, Spain or Germany. Last year the great Juventus drew fewer spectators than Wolverhampton Wanderers, who weren’t even in the English Premiership. Italy’s increasingly obese children are deserting football for wrestling, or the cult of the motorcyclist Valentino Rossi. “The national team’s matches are no longer a collective social event,” the country’s leading advertising man, Marco Testo, told La Gazzetta dello Sport, which was the country’s leading daily before it lost nearly a third of its readers in a decade.

Debating la fuga dagli stadi – the flight from the stadiums – has become a national hobby, rather like football itself used to be. Many people blame high ticket prices. There are some tickets for less than €20 but for that price you stand behind the goal dodging firecrackers. A good seat usually costs €70 or more.

Others grumble that the league is predictable. With the other pretenders now out of cash, only Juventus and prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s team, Milan, can win it. Their one challenger this season is Fiorentina, who were clever enough to go bankrupt and get banished to the fourth division three years ago, thus getting that over with early. To make sure enough opponents survive to get hammered, Berlusconi forgives them unpaid taxes. However, Italian clubs still owe the state about €600m. Football has become, in effect, a nationalised industry.

Briefly, Roma-Juve seemed to offer a glimmer of a solution: after Juventus went 0-4 up, they had a man sent off and Roma got a penalty. Why not make Juve and Milan play every game with 10 men? Unfortunately, the remaining half hour showed this wouldn’t fly: 10 Juve players outclassed Roma’s 11. Perhaps they could try seven instead.

The other deterrent to going to the stadium is that you can now watch almost every game live on TV. In this country, Berlusconi voters and Berlusconi haters watch Berlusconi’s team thump teams subsidised by Berlusconi’s government on Berlusconi’s pay channels, in a league run by Berlusconi’s right-hand man, Adriano Galliani, before watching the highlights on Berlusconi’s free channel. The only thing Berlusconi doesn’t do is carry out his government’s laws for making stadiums safer.

Perhaps the ultimate symbol of Berlusconismo is the decoder now invading Italian homes. It’s needed to receive Berlusconi’s pay channels. Unfortunately, few people initially bothered buying one and so each purchaser now gets a nice tax rebate from Berlusconi’s government.

All this helps explain la fuga dagli stadi. However, in England too, tickets are expensive, the league is predictable, and everything is on TV, yet there the stadiums are full. English fretting over a 2 per cent decline in attendances this season baffles Italians: their decline is 13 per cent. Italy has problems that England had 20 years ago.

When Italy bid to host the Euro 2012 championships, Franco Carraro, president of their football federation, boasted: “All we lack is decent stadiums.” The current batch are rendered lifeless by athletics tracks around the pitch. “It has become more convenient to watch matches on TV than in obsolete stadiums,” says Galliani himself. But if this is a strategy to deter hooligans, it has failed. Italian grounds are increasingly young men’s territory. On the bus to Roma-Strasbourg on Thursday night I felt the tinge of fear reminiscent of English games of the 1980s. Even Roma’s chief executive, Rosella Sensi, stayed at home that night.

Perhaps it’s sissy to worry about hooligans. To quote Giuseppe Papadopulo, one of Lazio’s latest coaches: “Whether the fans wave, bananas or swastikas, I don’t care.” However, the government claims to care, and even to have taken measures. The firework display at Roma-Juve was watched not only by the policemen but by Roma’s new video-surveillance team. One hopes they enjoyed the show.

Thanks to Berlusconi’s new laws against hooligans, each ticket must now carry the spectator’s name. This means that going to a game with friends entails collecting their full names and birthdates in advance. If someone then drops out, changing the ticket is almost impossible. Normal people therefore increasingly don’t bother but the hooligans do. Italian football is leaving the public sphere and moving into the home.

Meanwhile Berlusconi is set to become Italy’s first post-war prime minister to serve his full term and may even be re-elected on April 9, with a party named after a football chant.

simonkuper@ftnetwork.com

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