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Feb 5, 2007

Italy need English approach

With two football related deaths in Italy in little over a week, its not hard to see why 'Calcio', normally more a national obsession than a sport, isn't being held in the same high regard it usually would be.

'You have to excuse us, but it seems really absurd writing about football at this time' reads the front page of Catania's official website.

The appalling scenes during and after their Sicilian derby match against Palermo, that ultimately resulted in the tragic death of a policeman, followed on from a number of violent incidents the previous weekend. An official from the amateur club Sammartinese was killed after he was attacked trying to stop fighting between rival fans and players.

On the same day, a Livorno supporter needed 20 stitches after being attacked by Fiorentina fans while police in Bergamo fought running battles with over a hundred Atalanta hooligans. In a Serie D game, a drum was even thrown from the stands, hitting a linesman during a Genzano Normanna game.

Italian football president Luca Pancalli warned troublemakers last week that the country was on 'high alert' following these scenes. Within days of this announcement, police officer Filippo Raciti was killed in Catania on Friday night.

Football hooliganism has traditionally been spoken about as being an 'English disease', yet it seems the UK is leading the way on combating such problems. England has effectively introduced wide-ranging measures that have turned Premiership and Football League grounds into safe environments for spectators.

When I visited Catania's Stadio Massimino to watch a game against Fiorentina a few years ago I was amazed by the contrast in the quality of facilities compared to the English stadia I experience on a weekly basis.

The most obvious difference was the high fencing and terracing, which has become a thing of the past in the UK. More worryingly were the flares and fireworks that fans had smuggled into the ground - which required a presence from the local fire brigade to control. Can you imagine that at Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge?

During the game, fans lit a large fire on the terraces while they bombarded the pitch with flares and flag poles. This kind of behaviour seemed to be normal practice at Catania. When I read the match report in the Gazzetta Dello Sport the next day, there was no mention of the trouble, which confirmed my belief that it was acceptable.

English football learned during the 70s and 80s that there is not a quick-fix solution to the blight of hooliganism. However, the basic breeches of safety I experienced in Catania must be addressed and acted upon by the Italian government and the appropriate authorities.

Stop and search procedures need to be implemented at the turnstiles and a list of forbidden items drawn up and strictly prohibited. Most crucially, investment must be made in the country's ageing stadia, which has clearly exacerbated the trouble that has occurred. All-seater grounds, installment of CCTV, the removal of fencing and effective ticketing, stewarding and policing were all issues raised by the Taylor Report in England following the Hillsborough disaster.

The trouble of recent weeks comes at a time when the Italian national football federation is bidding to become the host nation of Euro 2012. Along with problems with hooliganism, the game is still reeling from the revelations of corruption amongst some of its top clubs, including Juventus and Milan, last summer.

'Crisis' might not be too strong a word to describe the sport that Italy became World Champions of just six months ago. Now its up to Prime Minister Romano Prodi to call for an enquiry into the safety of the game and to implement wholesale changes for the good of football and the millions of Italians that love it.


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