In the world of soccer, marred by outrageous profits, dramatically inflated budgets, phantom properties and clubs that make it a habit to go bankrupt once in a while, we find ourselves at one of those cyclical moments of catharsis and wiping the slate clean: the ultras are finally being held to account.
“Evil, pure and simple, without any possible justification or motivation”—this is how Valerio Marchi famously summed up of the concept of “folk devils” from British soccer fan sociology. On Monday, following a lengthy investigation by the Turin Prosecutor’s office, coordinated by municipal prosecutor Chiara Maina and assistant prosecutor Patricia Caputo, DIGOS has executed warrants for several precautionary measures—including arrests, house arrests, bans from attending sporting events and forced residence—for 12 people belonging to historical groups of Juventus fans, such as the “Drughi,” “Tradizione,” “Viking” (from Milan), “Nucleo 1985” and “Quelli… di via Philadelphia.”
The law enforcement operation, codenamed “Last Banner,” targeting an additional 40 “persons of interest” living in different regions of Northern Italy, began last year after a denunciation filed by the Juventus Football Club, and is based on over 200,000 instances of wiretapping and surveillance. It is completely separate from the “Alto Piemonte” investigation, which focuses on the infiltration by organized crime gangs of the complex economic profit system of professional soccer, and which involves high-level organized crime and suspicious suicides—however, it comes as a direct consequence of that inquiry.
It was as a result of that investigation that the relationship between the Juventus soccer club and some of its fans soured, and the club finally decided to report the harassment to which it was being subjected to the authorities. The resulting indictments go all the way from criminal conspiracy to aggravated extortion and from self-laundering to domestic violence, and the criminal activity found was not far from rising to the level which would have justified invoking Article 416bis criminalizing mafia associations, as the head prosecutor explained in a press conference. The offenses concern, for the most part, the black market resale of tickets, trafficking in official team paraphernalia, invitations to company parties and vouchers for the bar located inside the club’s stadium.
Browsing through the 112 pages of the charging document, one finds accusations of crimes that are certainly reprehensible, such as a number of incidents involving violence, but which remain far enough removed from the Mafia-style logic which controls the overall economic process that regulates the system.
There are accounts of strikes by supporters, offensive chants and banners, and even a discussion of Cristiano Ronaldo’s absence on the pitch at the Juventus exhibition game in Villar Perosa in July 2018. While the authorities are quick to emphasize that the soccer club itself reported the irregularities to the authorities, the charging document paints a picture in which fraudulent advantages were obtained sometimes via complicit retailers, but sometimes from Juventus itself, “because they [the ultras] are able to create problems for the team.”
And, while among the 12 people targeted by precautionary measures we find well-known leaders of the ultras, some already convicted of murders and ties with organized crime, and all of them belonging to the world of neo-fascism, one can safely say that this series of arrests has the ultimate effect of purging the club’s reputation of older ties which are no longer convenient for it to maintain, because of the aforementioned organized crime investigation.
Every now and then, we need catharsis and a clean slate. At other times, however, we get the very opposite: see, for instance, Inter Milan, which just last week backed the utterly risible statement from the Curva Nord ultras in which they purported to “explain” the racist boos directed against the team’s newly acquired player Lukaku (who is black) as a “gesture of respect.” Or Hellas Verona, which on Monday excused its fans’ racist chants against AC Milan’s Franck Kessie as supposedly “inevitable.”
Soccer clubs tend to defend even the most despicable actions of a certain type of ultras who are “on their side.” And later on, they scrupulously distance themselves the very moment when the latter are no longer useful.
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