Lazio fans have (again) disgraced Italian soccer with their blatant anti-Semitism - but the reality is that no one cares.
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Last week, the team’s ultra hooligan supporters, went around Rome’s Olimpico stadium ahead of the match putting up stickers illustrated with a picture of Anne Frank wearing a Roma shirt, intended as an insult. Roma are Lazio’s arch rivals.
For the last two weeks, the northern end of the Stadio Olimpico, where Lazio’s 'ultra' fans normally sit, has been closed, due to the boos against black players from the Sassuolo club earlier in the month. Thus, the Lazio hooligans were watching the match from the southern end of the shared stadium, the accustomed ‘home’ for opposition Roma’s hard-core fans.
The Anne Frank stickers produced an unexpected outcry, prompting Lazio’s President Claudio Lotito to promise that he would personally take 200 of his ultra fans on an educational trip to Auschwitz every year from now on. Before this week’s matches in the Italian Serie A league, an extract of Anne Frank’s famous diary will be read aloud, and referees will give a copy of the book, alongside Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved, to the captains of the teams, who will in turn give it to the kids who traditionally walk them to the pitch.
Even though the anti-Semitism expressed by Italy’s soccer fans has hit the headlines, the reality is that the Anne Frank stickers raised few eyebrows in Italy, as it is nothing new.
Anti-Semitism is deeply ingrained in the country’s soccer culture.
In May 2004, I was just twelve years old, and I was making my way back from Milan’s San Siro soccer stadium, a place I once called "my home" in a school essay. The match had been a triumph for my team, Inter Milan. Inter’s rising Brazilian star ‘Adriano’ had secured a place in the Champions League qualifiers after knocking out Parma with a terrific free kick. But as my friend’s father drove us home, tears ran down my cheeks.
Inter Milan’s ultras had celebrated victory by chanting "Rossoneri Ebrei!", "The Red and Blacks are Jews!" one of the most popular slogans in the northern stand where they always sit.
The "Rossoneri" are the archenemy - supporters of AC Milan, my hometown’s second team. Calling them "Jews" is still the ultras’ favourite insult.
I had fooled myself into believing I had misheard the chant but as Adriano scored I heard it loud and clear: the fan sitting next to me bellowed it out. I was gutted. How could I be proud of being a Jew and a fan of Inter Milan?
My friend’s father asked what was wrong but I refused to explain. No one else in the stadium had batted an eyelid at the slogan.
Sadly, Lazio’s Nazi hooligans have a gemellaggio, or twinship, with Inter Milan’s most right-wing ultra groups, notably the 'Irriducibili', 'Vikings' and parts of the 'Boys San'. When Lazio and Inter play together in the Serie A, the respective hooligans salute each other chanting "Duce, Duce", hailing Mussolini, Italy’s fascist dictator, and chanting all sorts of disparaging anti-Semitic slogans against their enemy teams.
Lazio’s ultras made their name in 1998 hoisting a banner that read "Auschwitz Is Your Country; the Ovens Are Your Homes". Inter-Milan’s ultras regularly unfurl a banner that proclaims "Adolfo Presente", "Adolf is still with us". The slogan is normally topped off with a Nazi-Germany flag. When the club’s high-echelons half-heartedly asked them to remove it, the hooligans transparently lied, claiming it referred to another "Adolfo" who had nothing to do with the more famous Adolf Hitler.
Not long after the banner made its first appearance, a 78 year old fan, Silvano Finzi, whose father had died in the Mauthausen concentraton camp after a death march from Auschwitz, wrote to the then President of Inter-Milan Massimo Moratti to complain and handed back his season ticket in protest. Moratti did not reply to the veteran supporter. He later claimed that the letter had got lost in the post.
Italian soccer is rotten to the core. The Anne Frank case is just the tip of the iceberg which made it into this week’s news: suffice it to say that the stickers in question existed long before last week’ scandal.
Anti-Semitic slogans are typical of Lazio’s and Inter’s hard-core supporters, but also of Roma’s and Juventus’, let alone smaller Verona or Ascoli, whose hooligans have already said they won’t take part in the Anne Frank ceremony before their team’s match.
No one much cares about the ultras’ anti-Semitism and the slogans they chant. But there are 30,000 Jews in Italy, and many of them are ardent fans like me. Most ignore the anti-Semitic chanting that roars out from the ultras’ terraces, but after Adriano’s 2004 winning goal I decided to take a stand.
Shortly after turning 13, the same age as the youngest Lazio fan involved in the Anne Frank stickers case, I met Moratti at a public event at the Milan charity Casa della Carità. Like Finzi, I challenged him, asking why he allowed Inter Milan’s scarves, hats and gadgets with fascist symbols on them to be sold outside the stadium in San Siro. I was lucky enough to get a reply, as I was standing right in front of him.
He said that it was outside his jurisdiction, as they were privately produced by the hooligans and were not part of Inter’s official merchandising. I then asked him why the hooligans sang fascist songs like "Faccetta Nera", Little Black Face, but changed the lyrics so they went "We warn the Jews we will not betray our flag", he shook his head and apologized saying, "I’m really sorry, but there is nothing I can do."
Undaunted, I wrote to my hero, then-Inter Milan captain Javier Zanetti, sending the letter to the fan club magazine. He is more than a soccer idol for me: during my childhood Inter-Milan was punching well below its weight, but despite the little successes Zanetti never left, and was always doing his best on the pitch. When the team finally had a successful season in 2010, he cried, recalling the long years of frustrating struggle: to me, he was a role model. I remember running to the corner shop every morning asking if the latest print edition of Inter had arrived. Finally, after a long week, it did. I flicked quickly to the letters page.
My joy that Zanetti had replied to my letter in the section dedicated to the "Posta del capitano", the captain’s post, was dashed when I read his answer.
"Dear Davide, we hear everything from the pitch. I personally condemn all forms of discrimination, but there is little else I can do".
When I spoke directly to a fervent Inter-Milan fan as we made our way to a match on the subway, he gave this ‘following orders’ excuse: "We don’t mean to be anti-Semitic, we just chant what group leaders tell us to, without putting much thought to it".
The ultras wield such power in Italian soccer that management shrinks from confronting them. It is not helped by the fact that Italian Soccer Federation is headed by Carlo Tavecchio, who before he was elected President, notoriously referred to black players as "people who used to eat bananas before coming to Italy."
It is time for fans with a moral compass to make their voices heard and pressure the federation into bringing a full stadium ban on Lazio, whose ultras are arguably the worst in the country.
Decades of Italian soccer’s complicity with anti-Semitism must end. It’s time to shout out from the terraces: We are all Anne Frank.