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No place like home

While getting my weekly fix of the Premiership on Saturday, with first the north London derby then Portsmouth v Aston Villa, I made the mistake of switching to another Sky Sport (Italy) channel and I was immediately plunged into the football equivalent of the Dark Ages.

While a throbbing, passionate, vociferous Fratton Park was willing Pompey to victory - which ultimately did not come - a full Serie B programme, minus Genoa and Juventus plus another couple who will contest the Monday night football match, was going on in half-empty stadia, with an almost non-existent atmosphere.

The match that struck me the most was Verona v Bologna, which the visitors won, strengthening their challenge for promotion. But what a washout. Watching the game on the screen you could barely hear some background noise, you could just catch a glimpse of the lower rows of terracing and basically there was not a soul in sight.

The match was attended by some 8,600 in the 39,000-capacity Bentegodi, which, by the way does not attract many more when Chievo grind their way through their disappointing Serie A season, but even those few thousands were completely lost among the vast, empty spaces of the stadium.

It was like watching a different sport from the one being played at Fratton Park, or even the Emirates Stadium or later the Riverside Stadium.

We've probably got it wrong here for decades by papering over the cracks of our lack of structure, organisation and morality with the quality of the football, fistfuls of money thrown and a rhetorical mixture of clichés such as cappuccinos, sunshine, dolce vita, flash cars and glamour clothes which seemed appealing from the outside, as do - to the more naive observers - the fireworks, drums and smoke torches that provided a colourful if hollow background to it all.

Once the rest of the world caught up with us, not that Italy was always on top or way ahead of the pack, on the playing side, the differences - and flaws - in structure were magnified.

Stadia built or rebuilt for the 1990 World Cup were a huge mistake, most of them anyway. Turin's Delle Alpi and Bari's San Nicola look impressive as scale models in some architect's studio, but try sitting in them, with the athletics track making the pitch seem like a mile away; Verona's, too, has the dreaded, football-unfriendly athletics track, as do the Olimpico in Rome, Bologna's Dall'Ara, Udine's Friuli, Napoli's San Paolo.

Fans being such an important part of the atmosphere in football, watching a match without being able to see any of them and their reactions to the developments of play takes away a lot from the enjoyment, and the lack of background noise generated by their excessive distance from the pitch (or their absence: the local correspondent for daily Corriere dello Sport counted 43 spectators in the stands at kick-off of last week's Italian Cup match between Chievo and Reggina) makes for a depressing lack of gravitas and sense of occasion at all but the really huge matches, like local derbies.

The hardcore fans who believe they represent the spirit of real football and a barrier against the commercialisation of the sport, are becoming as much responsible for its demise as thosee selling out to TV networks

Paolo Rossi, the hero of the 1982 World Cup, remarked as much in a recent interview, and this harsh reality has been filtering through to discerning fans for a while: dozens of them are now contributing their share of carbon emissions by fleeing the country each week on a low-cost flight and taking in a game in England, Scotland and Spain, and you can't blame them.

Generally speaking, they'd sit or even stand in comfortable stadia built for football and not to fill some snobbish architect's ego, won't risk having their heads kicked in by opposing fans or even their own, if they complain about the noise and smoke bombs, and it is less likely that they'd be pancaked during a police baton charge, which have a habit of hitting anything that moves regardless of their involvement in any trouble.

Events during this past weekend were hardly encouraging, and a particularly damning picture of a Police car burning appeared on the front page of a few newspapers.

It happened in Florence when visiting Lazio fans tried to force their way past a Police barrier, but this was by no means the only piece of bad news of the weekend in which it became natural to associate the decaying status of our stadia with the ever present danger of football violence.

Giving a new meaning to the concept of getting an early start to their weekends, three busloads of Juventus fans travelling to Friday night's clash in Genoa were found in possession of sticks, knives and other weapons.

In Naples, the azzurri's home match against Frosinone was held up for six minutes as the fans threw missiles and firecrackers on to the athletics track and on the pitch, while Messina fans, celebrating in their own peculiar way the universality of the principle also known as 'what have you done lately for me?', forgot their side have been doing much better than anticipated with a mediocre squad after being readmitted to the top flight following Juve's relegation and reacted angrily at the 0-2 home defeat to Sampdoria. And finally in Rome, a bus carrying Atalanta fans was ambushed by locals on Saturday.

These people, especially the hardcore fans who in their grand sense of entitlement believe they and they only represent the spirit of real football and a barrier against the commercialisation of the sport, are becoming, in the pursuit of their own agendas of vendetta and petty rivalries, as much responsible for the demise of the sport as the selling out to TV networks and commercial considerations now driving the clubs' strategy.

In fact, they are giving the TV networks and the stay-at-home fans the perfect excuse to, well, stay at home, and by pushing their own behaviour more and more towards the edge are causing a backlash towards all things related to fandom, a convenient way for people to forget that those misbehaving are a minority, albeit a minority that is threatening to drag the rest of football down with them.

Not for the first time, just concentrating on events on the pitch made one forget about the horrible stuff happening off of it, or right outside the stadium.

Cagliari pushed Milan hard, who had to throw everything but the kitchen sink at the Sardinians in order to get an equaliser in the 2-2 draw, while Parma and Palermo, the match I attended, was an enjoyable albeit goalless affair. Palermo had lost two in a row in the Serie A, four overall if you add the Coppa Italia and the UEFA Cup, and what you heard last week outside, despite your double-glazed windows, was the sound of their bubble bursting.

Losing at home to Inter and being outplayed in the process did more damage to Palermo's confidence than their owner Maurizio Zamparini's regular outbursts against coach Francesco Guidolin.

Parma youngster Daniele Paponi's skills and hunger and veteran goalkeeper Luca Bucci's wonderful save from Andrea Caracciolo's last minute free-kick were two of the highlights of the match, but it was the picture of that Police car wasted by fire that grabbed the attention on Monday morning, another Black Monday for those who love this sport.

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