"... Historically, football was very important for fascism and likewise the development of football in Italy owes a great deal to fascist involvement. Mussolini recognised the potential held by the emergence of football as an increasingly popular pastime, and one that could be institutionalised and exploited to develop a sense of Italian identity – a trait that can still be observed through the ultras that are still present in modern day domestic and international Italian football matches. ..."
By James Pearson
In December 2005, following Paolo Di Canio’s infamous fascist salute to the Lazio ultras during a Serie A league match against Livorno, the enigmatic Italian merely stated to the media: “I will always salute as I did yesterday, because it gives me a sense of belonging to my people” .
Such an event would arguably not be witnessed outside of the culture of Italian football, yet Di Canio’s expression - both on the pitch during the match and off it afterwards – perfectly demonstrates just how deeply embedded fascism is in modern day Italian football, and has been ever since the post-war years when Benito Mussolini came to power in the 1920s and created the all-conquering Azzurri team of the 1930s. However, fascism was not only highly influential in the birth of the Italian game, but its legacy and influence live on in modern day Italian football, even at a national level.
Historically, football was very important for fascism and likewise the development of football in Italy owes a great deal to fascist involvement. Mussolini recognised the potential held by the emergence of football as an increasingly popular pastime, and one that could be institutionalised and exploited to develop a sense of Italian identity – a trait that can still be observed through the ultras that are still present in modern day domestic and international Italian football matches. Mussolini was always familiar with the use of popular culture in his desire to hold power and transform Italian society, and football became a key part of this strategy. Many agree that the prominent moment for fascism in football came in 1926, when the government created the Carta di Via Reggio, which restructured the game and its administration, crucially with appointments to football's governing bodies falling into the remit of Mussolini. As a result fascists took control of the world of football within Italy in the mid-1920s and proceeded to revolutionise the game, building stadiums all over the peninsula, organising rallies around games and adding fascist symbols. In fact, Serie A owes it’s very creation to fascism as it was in 1930 that the singular national league that is the Italian top division was founded by the fascist government of Mussolini in order to create one unifying Italian identity.
It was this pragmatic drive for a national identity that resulted in the creation of a national team, which was to dominate the international game for four years, winning two World Cups and an Olympic gold medal along the way. Football became a tool that was exploited not only domestically in an attempt to develop a sense of Italian identity, but also internationally as a diplomatic tool to improve Italy's standing in the global arena. As a result, the creation and historical backbone of modern day Italian football is formed from the ideology of fascist unity, and the Azzurri’s golden era of achievement in the 1930s is indebted to fascist pragmatism. It was during this time that Italy not only hosted and won the 1934 World Cup tournament but also retained the trophy four years later in France, whilst they added to their two World Cup victories by winning the soccer tournament at the 1936 Berlin Olympics with a team of university students. Italian fascism also fully exploited the opportunities football provided to shape public opinion, penetrate daily life, and reinforce conformity. By politicizing the game, fascism also sought to enhance the regime's international prestige and instill nationalist values.
But while there is no doubt that fascism was strongly influential and a driving force behind football and its development, sport as a whole also most certainly played a philosophical role in fascism. More specifically, football provided the opportunity for Italy, especially on a national level, to heighten its profile throughout Europe and the propaganda opportunity that victory provided was indispensable to a country that was building a strong and united national image. Examples of this can be observed from the early years of the Azzurri, as initially in 1926, when the domestic game was restructured, a ban on foreign players was introduced. Yet, after the Olympic games in 1928 and the World Cup in 1930, where teams such as Argentina and Uruguay were seen to perform very well with players born from Italian emigrants, a very pragmatic approach was once again adopted in the pursuit of victory. Players such as these who were born from Italian emigrants were allowed to play as they were reclassified under the category of oriundo or rimpatriato, allowing them to be eligible to play for the Azzurri whilst simultaneously meaning that there was no need to admit defeat and get rid of old legislation on bans on foreign players. This has remained to the current day and can be seen through players such as Mauro Camoranesi who regularly appear in the Azzurri line up despite not directly holding Italian citizenship.
The Azzurri was not only used as a means of propaganda and a vessel for Italy to unite through, it was also symbolic as it represented Italy as a country and the regime which was shaping it. Naturally the regime's close identification with the Italian football game as a whole meant that Italian clubs and the national team especially were perceived to be fascists. This was most evident when the national team played abroad, as during the 1930s disruptions and protests greeted the Azzurri whenever they travelled. In France for example during the 1938 World Cup, there have been suggestions that there were large-scale anti-fascist protests in cities such as Marseille, with protesters being held back by horse-back police as not only Italians but those outside of Italy saw the Azzurri as very much representative of the regime. To this day stereotypes follow the Azzurri whenever they travel, both in the media and in the terraces of the stadiums in which they play. Indeed in October of 2008, Italy’s game against Bulgaria was marred by pre-match clashes, flag-burning, fascist chanting and displays of neo-Nazi banners. Whilst inside the ground, Italian fans sang the fascist anthem ‘Faccetta Nera’ (Little Black Face) and chanted ‘Duce’ choruses in honour of the dictator Benito Mussolini. Furthermore, missiles were hurled and three Italians were arrested after a Bulgarian flag was set alight during the home team’s national anthem. As a result of all of this, Giancarlo Abete, the president of the Italian FA, decided against selling tickets for the national team’s away games for the foreseeable future.
This is not to say however that all modern associations with Italian football and fascism are negative. While it is certainly true that there has been much coverage of crowd disturbances and violent clashes with police within domestic football in Italy, other instances of fascist displays are not meant as provocative or insulting outbursts, but merely the historical culture of Italian football coming through. Going back to the example of Paolo Di Canio’s infamous salute in Part I of this feature, it must be noted that this was not the first time he had made it, as prior to the Livorno game he had made the same gesture in the Rome derby. However, he only received a 10,000 € fine on this occasion while not even the Italian Prime Minister condemned his behaviour, remarking only that Di Canio was merely an exhibitionist. Fascist influences have shown continuity through to the modern day, yet whilst it is true though that Di Canio is a self-declared fascist, it must be noted that he is not a racist, which is where the problem of fascism in football has brought us today. Such scenes as described earlier at Azzurri football games are not limited to international matches though, as racism has long been a problem that still remains at large within Italian football as a whole. In 1999, when Lazio played Roma - a team widely supported by Rome’s Jewish population - Lazio’s ultras unfurled a 50-metre anti-Semitic banner across their half of the stadium, while more recently in 2005, Ivory Coast defender Marc Zoro was reduced to tears and threatened to leave the pitch after Inter fans racially taunted him.
It is clear then that fascism has left a lasting legacy on Italian football both domestically and nationally, firstly in a positive fashion through a national identity that has shaped not only Italian football but also Italy itself as a country, yet it has also affected the country negatively through modern day racism. However, It could well be argued that the successes experienced by the Azzurri – both in the golden period of the 1930s and as the current world champions - would not have been achieved without the mentality which is historically entwined throughout all Italian football courtesy of its fascist roots.