The Battle of Catania – Archive

Editor’s Note

It has been more than five years since we published this article on the aftermath of violence in Italian football. We remain concerned that the warning signs were missed and that the issue of policing outside stadiums still has not been fully resolved.

Derek Miller

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar January 20th 2009

Prophetic

It is almost two years since Inspector Filippo Raciti was killed during a riot that disgraced Italian football during the season of 2006-07, which was a very important one for Sicilian football. It was the first time that the island had three clubs in Serie A.

Calcio Catania had waited almost a quarter of a century to return to the top flight and they owed a large part of their success to the generosity of dynamic young President Antonio Pulvirenti who had bought the club, invested in it and rescued it from obscurity, but Catania would have a difficult time maintaining that status for non-footballing reasons.

In December 2006 we visited Sicily and managed to see both Catania and Palermo play, but not against each other. Both matches were loud and passionate. The atmosphere was fantastic. “Catania’s ultras are not racist,” says Catania-based journalist Paolo (not his real name). “They are right-wing and they like to fight other fans, especially those of Palermo, or the police, but they are not racist.” His words proved to be prophetic six weeks later.

Fateful Derby

The fateful derby of Sicily – Catania versus Palermo – was not originally scheduled to be played on Friday February 2nd 2007. The previous week had seen further problems with violence of so-called football fans at several grounds. Luca Pancali – the Commissioner of the Italian FA (Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio, FIGC) – pointedly warned all clubs that any violent incidents at football matches that weekend would result in severe sanctions, including the suspension of all football.

Calcio Catania paid attention. Pulvirenti feared that there would be trouble and requested the fixture be postponed. Catania and its President acted responsibly, but the FIGC did not. Historically it was a highly charged fixture, whose ultras genuinely hated each other.

Sicilian history is peppered with the fallout from the city-state rivalries of the past. This was no different. Residents of the two cities carried that hatred through to the present day. It is at its worst with football matches, which became the new battleground to act out that historic rivalry. The Derby of Sicily could not have come at a worse time. It should have been postponed in order to ensure that security measures were up to standard.

Irresponsible

Sadly the FIGC refused Catania’s request to postpone the fixture and moved it to the Friday evening, rather than the afternoon that would have prevented most of Palermo’s fans from travelling. It might also have made it difficult for Catania’s ultras to organise the reception they planned for Palermo’s supporters.

The coaches bringing Palermo fans to the ground arrived late. There was no trouble in the first half. Palermo’s supporters arrived for the second half. Pulvirenti blamed Palermo fans for causing the trouble that caused the match to be suspended for half an hour with almost an hour gone. The use of tear-gas restored order briefly.

Then Palermo coach Francesco Guidolin said at the time “We had to go back to changing room because we couldn’t breathe. If we cannot get into our heads that football is a sport, we cannot live in the world of football.”

Idiotic supporters of both clubs inflamed the situation. Palermo won the match 2-1, but the result was irrelevant. About one-hundred people were injured and that was before an ugly situation escalated further outside of the Angelo Massimino Stadium.

Ugly

Catania’s ultras lay in wait for Palermo’s supporters. The organisation of the departure of Palermo fans from the city was catastrophic. The football club ensured that the supporters left at different times. They kept them apart inside the Angelo Massimino Stadium and ensured the Palermo fans left the stadium safely, but that was far from enough.

Catania’s ultras were spoiling for a fight and had the time and opportunity to plan the ambush of the departing Palermo fans. A riot broke out on the streets of Catania – an historic city that has felt the wrath of the nearby volcano Mount Ætna as well as earthquakes previously.

During the course of the riot it was claimed that an explosive device was thrown, which exploded close to policeman, Filippo Raciti. He was taken to hospital, but succumbed to his injuries aged just 38. It later emerged that Raciti had died from liver damage caused by blunt force trauma.

He had been off active duty prior to the match as he had been a witness in a case against one of the leaders of Catania’s ultras, who was released by the court and laughed in his face. Italian law allowed them to make a mockery of football. In March 2008 a football stadium in Quarrata was named in his honour. Catania’s ultras may not be racist, but they are dangerous.

Scandals

Italian football was in the dock again so soon after the Calciopoli scandal. The riot disgraced football and arrests were made quickly. Palermo’s President Mauricio Zamparini said, “These people are not fans but are delinquents that in other countries like England would have been arrested and seriously punished. We need more severe laws.”

Pancali quickly carried out his threat and suspended football in Italy indefinitely. “Without drastic measures, we cannot play again,” he said. He established a commission to deal with the problem.

Then England coach Steve McClaren called on the Italian authorities to learn from England’s experiences of hooliganism and follow their lead. In fact, they tried. Legislation was introduced previously that required the names of ticket-holders to be printed on the tickets and video-surveillance to be installed in all stadiums that hold more than ten-thousand people.

Despite that two year-old law, the measures were not implemented in many stadiums. Italian efforts to confront the hooligan culture that had overtaken their football had failed, so drastic solutions were required. Police quickly made several arrests, including their prime suspect – a 17 year-old-boy, Both Italian football and the government were determined that serious change would follow the tragedy, but why had it taken so long?

The Cassandra Effect

Just a week before an official of lower league club Sammartinese was killed trying to stop a fight between fans. Ironically, the Derby of Sicily began with a minute’s silence for him. There have been over 50 football related killings of Italians since 1973. The 17 year-old-boy was arrested and charged with Raciti’s murder. He was seen throwing a metal bar.

Scientific evidence suggested that Raciti may have died from blunt force trauma rather than injuries caused by an explosion. Raciti’s death is a tragedy, but why had it taken so long to act decisively against hooliganism? He was not the first or last Italian to die as a result of football-related violence.

Almost exactly twelve years before Raciti lost his life 24 year-old Vincenzo Spagnolo wanted to see his Genoa team play against the great AC Milan side, but never lived to see that match. Sunday January 30th 1995 would become a day Italian football would forget too soon. Eighteen year-old Simone Barbaglia was quickly arrested.

Barbaglia claimed that he was surrounded by Genoa fans and brandished the butterfly knife that an even younger boy had given him in self-defence and that in the mêlée Spagnolo was pushed onto the knife. It was an absurd claim, as Spagnolo had been stabbed five times, including once in his heart.

The match at Genoa’s Luigi Ferrara Stadium, which it shares with local rivals Sampdoria, began with Genoa’s fans blissfully unaware of what had happened. By half time they knew and angrily chanted ‘Assassins!’ at Milan’s supporters and hurled anything they could get their hands on onto the pitch.

The match was called off at half time. The rival sets of fans were kept apart – just. Having taken their time to demonstrate their presence, the police gained control of the Luigi Ferrara Stadium and streets of Genoa. They held the Milan fans in the stadium for six hours and ensured that they did not leave until armed guards arrived to escort them from the stadium and city. They left safely.

Arrests were made during the night in Milan. If only such methods had been deployed in Catania on February 2nd 2007 the tragedy may have been averted.

The Response

As with the death of Filippo Raciti the murder of Vincenzo Spagnolo occurred at a time when football-related violence was on the increase. The following weekend all matches in Italy were suspended. And a week before Spagnolo lost his life hooliganism was rife.

Fiorentina visited the San Siro to play against Milan. A pitched battle ensued between the hardcore supporters of both teams, which resulted in 16 fans and two policemen being injured and in European football, Milan was forced to play its matches behind closed doors because the goalkeeper of the Austrian team Salzburg was hit by a bottle and knocked unconscious.

Spagnolo’s subsequent death offered Italian football the chance to end the violence. Sadly the opportunity was wasted. A similar opportunity presented itself when Raciti lost his life.

Although tougher laws were enacted and Catania was severely punished, the violence didn’t stop – it simply moved outside of football stadiums and this is the major problem facing Italian football. Should football clubs be held responsible for violence that so-called supporters cause outside of their stadiums?

 

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