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Serie A heavyweights head-to-head

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Feb 2, 2012

Calcio closed after Catania riot

One of the most shameful nights in Italian football history occurred on February 2, 2007. Following the success of the national team just seven months earlier at the World Cup in Germany, domestic football in Serie A was halted after a policeman was killed during a riot at the Sicilian derby between Catania and Palermo. Fixtures were postponed, including Italy's match with Romania, and there were repercussions that would change the face of the Italian game forever.

As Fabio Cannavaro lifted the World Cup trophy above his head at Berlin's Olympiastadion in 2006, Italian football breathed a collective sigh of relief. Not only was it a return to the top of the international game for the Azzurri for the first time since 1982, but it was also a way to commit the unhappy events of the previous year to history.

The Calciopoli scandal, first uncovered in May, had brought disgrace to Serie A and (among other things that would take another whole feature to go into) resulted in Juventus being stripped of two titles and demoted a division. There was anger from Italian fans that some of their clubs had been engaged in such a practice and incidents of trouble were on the rise. Indeed, while the scandal did not prompt a violent reaction from fans in itself, the number of policemen injured at football games in Italy had increased by 42% over 12 months to 202, and there was no sign of the problems abating.

The recent history of Serie A, in this respect, did not make for good reading. The Sunday Express' Michael Knapp wrote: "Italian football has been beset by hooliganism for 25 years" and in 2001, a burning moped had been launched from a stand at Inter's San Siro, while four years later increased security could do nothing to stop flares and bottles being rained down upon players and the club were forced to play their Champions League games behind closed doors as punishment. That year, a piece of legislation was brought in to try to discourage 'Ultras' - harcore groups of fans - called the Decreto Pisanu (named after former Minister of the Interior Giuseppe Pisanu). It decreed that clubs would have to comply with stadium safety standards aimed at alienating hooliganism and insisted buyers' names be printed on tickets, although it was largely ignored by the majority.

Even one of the greatest moments in Italy's footballing history could not quell the outbreaks of violence and, by the start of the 2006-07 season, 445 'Ultra' groups boasted around 74,000 recognised members. Hooliganism was also on the rise in the amateur game and, in late January, official Ermano Licursi was kicked to death during a row that turned violent at non-league Sammartinese, sparking wide condemnation.

Following violent clashes in several cities involved in Serie A action at the turn of the year, Italian Football Federation chief Luca Pancalli threatened that one more incident would see matches halted. Not a great time, then, to hold one of the country's fiercest derby games - the Derby di Sicilia - between Palermo and Catania. The two underachieving clubs had spent the majority of their history clashing in Serie B away from the eyes of the general populace, however in 2007 both were challenging for prestigious spots in the Champions League.

Palermo had been top when the two rivals met in the season's first derby - a thrilling 5-3 win for the Rosanero at home - but now lay third, with Catania in fifth. Position mattered little though, as FIFA's official history reads: "Played out against the imposing backdrop of the 3,300-metre-high Mount Etna, the tallest and most active volcano in Europe, the Sicilian derby between Catania and Palermo has always been an explosive affair. And while the action is always heated on the pitch, the fixture is first and foremost an outlet for the burning rivalry between two cities which lie just over 200km apart."

Aware of the history and ill-feeling between the two - a banner at Palermo's training ground reminds visitors that a derby victory is every bit as important as winning the Scudetto - the Italian police drafted in 1,500 of their number to help keep the peace. Already under pressure, the police would not have been pleased to note that the game's kick-off time was moved. Traditionally, it is preferred that a controversial game is as early as possible to avoid the public order issues that come with evening matches, but in order to avoid clashing with the official St. Agatha (Catania's patron saint) celebrations, the game was moved from February 4 at 3pm to February 2 at 6pm.

Against a tense backdrop, the match began with a minute's silence in memory of Licursi. However, the Palermo supporters were nowhere to be seen. Reports suggested that they had been held up by travel issues (although some suggested it was a ploy designed to quell security concerns) and were angry by the time they arrived inside the Stadio Massimino (formerly known as the Cibali) around ten minutes into the second half. Already, there had been fighting outside the ground and, although they had not missed much as it was a fairly uneventful 0-0 first-half, when Andrea Caracciolo scored after being teed up by Australia international Mark Bresciano, all hell broke loose.

The BBC's match report read: "The match was suspended after an hour when tear gas, used by police to break up the fighting outside the ground, drifted onto the field. The fighting, reported ANSA news agency, was because Palermo fans could not get into Catania's Stadio Massimino until the second half. The two teams fled the pitch for the dressing-room, with the game suspended for 30 minutes."

When it resumed, Fabio Caserta levelled the scores almost immediately but David Di Michele netted with seven minutes to go to give Palermo a controversial win. But that was not the end of the violence.

James Richardson wrote in his Guardian column of a planned, co-ordinated attack: "What happened was an authentic ambush. When the police arrived escorting the visiting Palermo fans, the Ultras attacked using some of the close to 100 homemade bombs they'd amassed in the stadium, apparently with the help of a sympathetic caretaker. Broken sinks, pipes and a scooter were also hurled at the officers. One policeman narrowly escaped with his life; another was not so fortunate."

Indeed, policeman Filippo Raciti, 38, was attacked by a group of youths and was seemingly struck by a sink torn out of the stadium toilets. Continuing to try and quell the rioters, he collapsed soon after as a firecracker was thrown and exploded near him. A colleague of his told The Sunday Express: "There was a tremendous explosion. I rushed to help him and he told me not to worry, but to take him to hospital. Then he went silent, turned black and fainted."

Raciti was taken to hospital but died of his injuries, with the cause of death later revealed as liver damage caused by blunt object trauma. The Guardian's Tom Kington observed: "'Don't worry, it's nothing, but take me to the hospital. I don't feel well,' were the 38-year-old policeman's last words as the baroque streets of Catania filled with smoke, and helicopters swooped to disperse mobs of masked teenagers to let ambulances reach him. As his despairing wife and two young children joined the throngs of injured at Catania's hospital, after what should have been a celebration of Sicily's return to footballing prominence, Raciti lost his fight to live, leaving Italy asking if its national game, already hit by match-rigging scandals and falling attendances, is also dying."

The frontpage of newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport read on February 3: Poliziotto Ucciso, Il Calcio Chiude (Policeman murdered, football closes). With millions of euros worth of damage, over 200 injured and one dead, in total, there were 38 arrests in and around Catania's stadium, although no one was implicated in Raciti's murder.

His widow, Marisa, spoke on television about her husband's concerns about violence in the game. "When he came home, he would always say, 'Do you know who I have been dealing with at the stadiums? They were children … they were children.'" Now left with his two children, aged 15 and nine, she added: "Everyone must face up to their responsibility."

Action from the Italian authorities was swift as games were halted. Italy's football chief Pancalli said: "What we're witnessing has nothing to do with soccer, so Italian soccer is stopping. One day is not sufficient. Without drastic measures, we cannot play again. We will immediately set up a commission to discuss the situation between sport and politics. It's not possible to carry on like this."

Catania club executive Pietro Lo Monaco reacted to news of the officer's death by announcing he would leave football (although he later opted to stay on in his role). "I've heard that a policeman has died," he said. "To speak of football right now seems useless. For me this is the end. I will leave the football world. I don't recognise myself in this world anymore. I have loved football intensely but after this right now it seems absurd."

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi also issued a statement. "After the serious incidents that occurred tonight in Catania, my first thought is for the people that have been affected and for their families," he said. "I feel a duty to say that we need a strong and clear signal to avoid the degeneration of this sport which we are seeing more dramatically and more often."

Although games returned the following week, condemnation from all corners saw radical changes. Teams whose grounds were not up to code (all but Rome's Olympic Stadium, Palermo's Barbera Stadium, Turin's Olympic Stadium and the Artemio Franchi stadium in Siena, which included CCTV surveillance, numbered seating and electronic turnstiles) were forced to play "behind closed doors". There was also a ban on the block sale of tickets to away fans, tougher prison sentences for hooliganism and a ban on financial relationships between clubs and fan associations.

The Stadio Massimino did not open its doors to the public again until September 2, 2007 when it hosted a game between Catania and Genoa after undergoing the necessary work to fulfil the newly-introduced safety regulations. Raciti's widow attended the game and a minute's silence was held before kick-off. However, if Raciti had been alive, it is doubtful he would have watched the game, as a former colleague of commented: "Filippo no longer loved football because these bastards [the hooligans] had destroyed all the enthusiasm he had."

What happened next? Following the events of February, Palermo won only three games all season and dropped to sixth place in the Serie A table; Catania won two of their 16 games and fell to 13th. Towns in Tuscany and Reggio Calabria named football grounds after Raciti, and in 2009 a long-distance race was organised between the stadium in Catania and the one in Palermo in his memory. By the start of 2007-08, all grounds in the top flight were up to code and football in Italy returned to normal. However, November 2007 saw another major incident in the country when a police officer was accused of accidentally shooting a twenty six-year old Lazio fan, Gabriele Sandri.

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