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Damiano Tommasi and the perverse relationship of violence in Italian soccer

More than 60 percent of professional soccer players are subjected to violent attacks. Former Roma and national soccer player Damiano Tommasi, now head of the Italian soccer players’ union, speaks to il manifesto about the phenomenon.

In their first matches, Juve, Milan and Roma have already disappointed their fans, shattering their dreams of winning the league based on the summer transfers. Disillusioned supporters are clamoring, and some are even taking action.

In recent years we have seen crosses in the field, mortuary inscriptions with the names of players, threats written on homes, kicking and punching, people being forced to strip off their team’s shirt because they are “not worthy to wear it.” Their reason? Losing one or more games in a row, failing to live up to fans’ expectations, indulging in private leisure activities deemed inappropriate. In Italy there are few categories of workers subject to as much physical and psychological violence such as that of soccer players. Often fear, humiliation, isolation and loss of freedom take over.

Many players take it to be part of the job and suffer in silence. Few have the courage to speak out.

Damiano Tommasi, a former player for Roma and the national team, now head of the soccer players’ union, the AIC, accuses soccer of following the omertà code of silence when it comes to the perverse relationship between clubs and fans.

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Do soccer players lead privileged lives?

The public has a stereotyped idea of ​​the soccer players, especially those who play at the highest level. They are convinced they are people who live a life of comfort and privilege, starting with those of an economic nature. The reality is different. Not only is it not true that all soccer players earn astronomical sums, but there are over a million people who play soccer professionally or for fun at various levels, and these people can experience problematic situations that the general public often doesn’t know about, such as threats, intimidation, violence, discrimination suffered inside and outside the stadium, as individuals and as a team, both directly and indirectly, in the sense that this can also affect their families or their property.

Why do soccer players come under fire?

Soccer players need to be aware that it is not normal to risk their physical safety for the results of a match, or to suffer humiliation and psychological abuse just because the outcome wasn’t what the fans wanted. It shouldn’t be normal that supporters of the team you play for are engaging in this abnormal, out-of-place behavior. Soccer players come under fire as the target of threats, intimidation, physical violence and verbal and psychological abuse by individuals or organized groups of fans, if not mafia clans. The causes of this are mainly due to a lack of stadium security and a deep-rooted cultural deficiency, the cause and effect of poor education among fans. Many fans think they can give free rein to their most vulgar and violent instincts, and are convinced they can get away with it. It’s not easy to identify those who are responsible for committing very serious acts during games, and it is made even harder for the police forces and prosecutors because of the widespread culture of silence that has long permeated the world of soccer and the stands, along with an unhealthy relationship between soccer clubs and supporters.

What has the AIC done to protect players?

In early 2000, on several occasions the Associazione Italiana Calciatori (Italian Footballers Association) publicly denounced and condemned violence, threats and intimidation against players. Sergio Campana, then president of the association, gave voice to the players’ union through press releases and public speeches, and even went as far as asking the professional leagues to be stopped for six months, to reflect on how to address the violence that has always permeated the world of soccer, from the pitch to the stands and beyond the stadiums. On several occasions, Campana also denounced the negligence of some soccer clubs in relation to their ability to ensure certain levels of security and control inside and outside stadiums, as well as the unhealthy relationship and complicity between hooligan fringes and the presidents of the teams. In December 2002, the AIC implemented a unique and symbolic form of protest: The professional players went onto the pitch 15 minutes after the regular match start time, and the team captains read a message before kicking off the game. Despite these actions, which were intended to raise as much awareness as possible among the public and fans, violence and threats seem to continue without end.

Do the players inform the union of the violence they face, or do they suffer in silence? In which areas are they most “under threat”?

More than 60 percent of professional soccer players are subjected to violence, but not everything that happens is reported, and to the best of our knowledge this is just a part of a widespread and troubling phenomenon. Individual players are “under threat” in 15 regions and 27 provinces in Italy, which show significant differences with the types of intimidation suffered, both in terms of quantity and quality. Adding up the data for the southern regions, where 44 percent of the cases were recorded, plus 8 percent from the islands, with a high prevalence of Sicily compared to Sardinia, we can say that the South is the riskiest area for playing soccer in Italy, particularly Campania, where 30 percent of the cases were reported, making it the region with the greatest number of acts of intimidation and threats against players. Our figures refer to the championship from 2013 to 2014.

What is the worst incident that has occurred?

On Nov. 10, 2013, on the occasion of the Salernitana-Nocerina derby, the Nocerina players were heavily threatened by a large number of fans who besieged them during their preparations at the hotel and before boarding the bus that would take them to the Arechi stadium. The Nocerina fans had been warned about attending the match for reasons of public order, so they “invited” players not to go onto the pitch, while the superintendent of Salerno urged them to play the game by the book. The story had a dramatic epilogue for the club and the players: Nocerina was excluded from the Lega Pro championship, five players were disqualified for over a year while the managers were disqualified for three years. In January 2014, the sole director of the team, Giovanni Citarella, was arrested on charges of tax evasion for issuing false invoices and paying the salaries of the players and club employees under the table. Still in Campania, the players under threat were mainly those from the Lega Pro [formerly known as Serie C] and the amateur leagues, not only in the Salerno area, but also in the province of Naples, Avellino and Benevento.

What happens in the lower divisions?

An example would be that of the five players of a student team who were kicked and punched in a bar in Mercato San Severino. In the province of Naples, particularly critical situations were recorded in Torre del Greek and Giugliano in March and April of 2014. The players of Turris, the team leading Serie D in Campania, were subjected to two episodes that were equally violent and intimidating. The first happened at the end of the match against Real Metaponto, and on that occasion, the players were forced to take off their shirts and hand them over to the fans, suffer, as well as be subjected to a series of insults and verbal threats by them. The second incident occurred in mid-April, when a group of people entered the training ground and started to beat up the players on the pitch, slapping and kicking them, and also hitting them with belts. Following these incidents, the team officials said they would leave the town of Torre del Greco. On March 23, at the end of the match between Virtus Volla and Giugliano played for the Campania Eccellenza championship, crazed aggression against the visiting team left them wounded and bruised. A Virtus Volla player was assaulted with a chair and had received a shocking cut to the head. After this, the president of Giugliano decided to withdraw the team from the championship. In 2009, the players of the team of Castellammare di Stabia who played in the Lega Pro returned after a defeat against Pistoiese, and were forced to take off their shirts and trousers and were left in their underwear. Some players burst out crying, as they experienced this gesture with a mixture of fear and humiliation. Later, funeral candles for the coach were found on the benches of the Juve Stabia stadium, together with mortuary inscriptions with the names and surnames of some of the players.

Is soccer in Campania nothing but kicks and punches?

No, there are also positive cases, such as that of Nuova Quarto Calcio, a team that the judges of the court of Naples found to be owned by a Camorra clan. After being seized, management of the team was assigned to a group of entrepreneurs who rebelled against paying mafia “protection money.” These entrepreneurs helped create a project that was not only relevant for sports, but also culture. The word legality was written on the shirts of the players and on some of the billboards in the Giarrusso di Quarto stadium. This allegiance made the team the subject of a series of acts of intimidation that culminated in damage to structures, offensive singing, and the theft of the sporting goods and trophies won in competitions and tournaments organized in the name of legality. The managers and players did not allow themselves to be frightened, despite repeated threats and intimidation, and in 2014 Nuova Quarto Calcio won the Eccellenza championship and received the visit from the Italian national team.

Are players in northern teams under threat?

Twenty-nine percent of the episodes were recorded in Northern Italy with regard to Serie A, in particular in the cities of Milan, Turin, Parma and Udine, and Padua for Serie B and the provinces of Vicenza and Verbano-Cusio-Ossola for the Serie D and Promozione championships. In Milan, on Nov. 23, 2013, banners were displayed in the stands of the San Siro stadium bearing offensive and intimidating slogans against the Milan players, who were accused of not living up to expectations of the championship and the challenges of the international cups. At the end of the game, about 400 fans attacked the team, forcing the players to remain locked up in the changing room for some time. On Feb. 23, 2014, during the derby in Turin between the city’s two city teams, two banners were displayed in the Juventus stand against Torino, mocking the Superga tragedy of 1949, in which the entire Torino football team died tragically in a plane crash. In relation to previous years, we should not forget that in Turin, in January 2010, four Torino players were hit and punched in front of their children while they were having dinner with their families at a restaurant to celebrate their captain’s birthday. In Alessandria, in September of 2010, the Gubbio goalkeeper and his parents were assaulted as they passed in front of a bar after the Lega Pro match played against the home team. As for Serie B, the greatest incidents of violence that occurred were against the players on the Padova team. Their difficult situation in the league meant that the players were targeted by fans with threatening slogans at the stadium, the training center and in the vicinity of the hotel where the team stays, as well as offensive chants during games. In addition, in February this year, after the match against Latina, fans forced the Padova players to take off their shirts and hand them over before entering the locker room.

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Do the threats affect the players as a team or as individuals, and at what times of the championship are they most pronounced?

In 65 percent of cases it is the entire team or a significant group of players, and 35 percent of the time an individual is threatened. Looking at the situation in terms of time, if we divide up the episodes surveyed from July 2013 to May 2014, we can say that 70 percent of the acts of intimidation and threats are mainly concentrated in the first five months of the year, with two particularly significant peaks, one in March with 23 percent of the total and the other in April with 18 percent of the total. In 2013, however, the peak of intimidation and threats was registered in November, with 14 percent of the total. Individual players are victims of violence and threats in Serie A, Lega Pro, Prima categoria and Primavera, while the threats and violence toward teams, either in whole or in part, occur in Serie B, Serie D, Promozione, and Student Championships.

Who are the perpetrators of the threats and what are the reasons that trigger them?

In one case out of two, threats to players come from their supporters. These are people who regard the players as their employees, and think that paying to enter the stadium automatically grants them the right to be insulting, humiliating and violent. The causes triggering their use of violence can often be traced back to the team’s bad position, defeat in several consecutive games, a performance that fell short of the fans’ expectations, a player who to wants to change team, a greeting to former fans or a failure to salute their own.

Do the players suffer physical violence only or also psychological violence?

The formula used most to intimidate the players is physical violence, which happens in 35 percent of cases. The stadium can become a land of conquest and threats even when a game is not being played, as happened two years ago in Ascoli when the team was playing in the Serie B championship and was running the risk of relegation to Lega Pro. During the night some unidentified people planted crosses in the middle of the pitch and attached two banners bearing this inscription: “11.05.13, when the team lets go the city roars.” In recent times, there have been several incidents in which fringe groups of “ultras” have forced the players to take off and hand over their shirts, as an act of humiliation and submission, emulating what happened in Genoa on April 22, 2012, on the occasion of the Genoa-Siena match. During the 2013–14 season, these kind of occurrences happened to players from Agropoli, Monopoli, Turris and Padova.

A part of the world of soccer, including some sports papers, consider this violence to be occasional, and perpetuated by just a few rowdy fans.

It is not possible to continue to face the phenomenon of threats, intimidation and discrimination against soccer players sporadically. It is symptomatic that thus far there has been no investigation of “soccer players under threat” in Italy, although the situation is more common than is thought and than what has emerged so far. Not everything that happens is reported by players, either for fear of complicity and connivance, and this is because various soccer players and operators within the world of soccer consider it “normal” for certain things to happen. There is nothing normal about being beaten and threatened.