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By ESPN Staff

Violence a matter of national importance

There is no easy way out of the conundrum facing Italian authorities after yet another bloody and chaotic Sunday for Italian football.

The facts, first: a 26-year old Lazio fan, Gabriele Sandri - who by all accounts who did not belong to any of the violent groups that have frequently soiled the Roman club's reputation - was shot dead on Sunday morning by a Police patrol officer in a service station along the A1 motorway. All reports seem to agree on a few sure facts: there had been a scuffle involving Lazio fans travelling to their team's match at Inter Milan and the Juve fans headed for Parma.

Officers in a Police patrol car stationed in the service station on the other side of the highway, four lanes away, noticed the commotion and one of them, a 31-year old whose name was not released, fired two shots, one of them hitting Sandri in the neck while he was sitting in the back of the car he was travelling in. The officer did not follow the corp's guidelines, which state that after a warning shot is fired in the air, the gun must be put away. According to reports, he instead started running along the barrier and that's when the shot that killed Sandri was fired.

Reports in Monday's Corriere della Sera indicate that the Police officer, in tears at the thought of "having destroyed two families, the fan's and mine", explained that highway patrols often have to run after drug smugglers, bank-robbers and fugitives in the woods and fields along the road and that was the reason he did not comply with the department's guidelines. A witness, who was in the same service station as the victim, told of how he heard someone shout to him to "write down" the licence plate of the car where the victim was sitting, which was apparently leaving the area after the scuffle was over.

It appears then that the police officers were trying to prevent those involved in the confrontation from leaving without being identified.

When news of the tragedy spread, fans at an early tip-off basketball match in Milan retired their banners in protest, and supporters heading for football matches around the country unified in a fierce and violent rage against the Police. The fans' ire intensified when it was decided only Inter-Lazio would be postponed; their point was that the complete Serie A program had been cancelled last February after a Police officer, Filippo Raciti, was murdered in pre-match riots in Catania, while the same decision had not been taken now that it was a fan that had been killed.

It must be said that the circumstances were completely different, and that the February incident had happened on a Friday evening, allowing the authorities much more time to make a decision. However, it did not seem to matter to those who caused the postponement of Atalanta-Milan, put Police and Carabinieri's barracks under siege and broke into the headquarters of CONI, which is not only Italy's Olympic Committee but also the top authority in Italian sports, which oversees even the FIGC, Italian Football Federation.

What can we make of this? What exactly is the enigma Italian authorities are being asked to solve, not for the first time?

There are different levels of reading into the matter. First of all, the service station incident was a tragic mistake for which the Police agent will pay a price, as he's already been charged with manslaughter.

But this will obviously not placate those who have long objected to the Police's quick-trigger finger - hardly so, in fact - and heavy-handed tactics in all instances of public disorder, as Manchester United fans who were subjected to a baton charge last April in Rome can attest to.

On the other hand, as the deputy chief of Police in Arezzo, the closest city to the crime scene, remarked today, the officer had no idea soccer had been a trigger for the punch-up. The accident took on soccer-related significance, of course, once it became known that a Lazio fan had been killed and the scuffle had involved soccer fans, but as far as the Police officer was concerned it could have been just any other instance.

Italians are constantly looking for an outlet for their frustrations, and soccer is often one of them, perhaps even the favourite one.

This makes Sunday's tragic events even more difficult to frame: the riots that flared up throughout Italy, targeting the Police, have deep roots in the intense hatred, that ultras groups (and in fact most groups of young people) have in Italy towards security forces and all kinds of authority in general.

You may remember the March 2004 Roman derby between Roma and Lazio was postponed when a rumour spread about the death of a kid run over by a Police car. The rumour turned out to be false, but the wave of hostility toward the Police had been so strong that authorities, among them then-League chairman Adriano Galliani, had agreed to call the match off on the grounds of public safety.

So should this be treated as a football, or social emergency?

Forgive me for throwing bucketfuls of cheap sociological analysis your way, but Italy is a country full of angry, frustrated people. Nothing in everyday life, least of all developments in politics, gives us any assurance that our future will be better, and the constant bickering, trading of insults and disrespect between politicians, sometimes even those belonging to the same party, hardly reassures people that they should trust authorities, many of whom have proved too corrupt and inept - or both - to be trusted.

Italians, at least too many of them, are no better than the politicians they elect, but turn on them and all figures of authority and in fact many delight in breaking the rules as a sort of revenge towards the 'evil' Government.

Call this political agnosticism if you like, even on my part, but this is what I feel is the situation in Italy, and it's not like I need to investigate much to get a feeling of what's going on.

So unless you belong to the group of starry-eyed foreigners who snap up holiday homes in Tuscany and are tricked by their idyllic relationships with neighbours and smiling, thick-chested bricklayers into believing in the old myth of Italy as a happy place - then write books about it - you know that Italians are constantly looking for an outlet for their frustrations, and soccer is often one of them, perhaps even the favourite one.

So, again, should the problem be tackled by football authorities, or the Government? The answer is both, obviously. Football chiefs could do worse than ban away fan travel, a sad measure that has already been taken this year, mostly to prevent the notorious Napoli fans from wrecking service stations - an all too common instance in Italy - and rushing the gates. Ultra groups, despite the implementation of stricter measures since last February, still play too strong a role in the politics of football clubs: after Sampdoria lost 5-0 at home to Milan, Ultras stormed the gates of Doria's training ground and confronted the players.

Generally speaking the ultra groups have developed an over-inflated sense of themselves as flag-bearers of the true values of football, as opposed to the commercialization and the perceived surrender to TV money, so anyone who dares criticize their behaviour is subject to the same abuse and hatred as the Police.

Which may explain why the mobs in Milan attacked a building which houses a local branch of RAI, the State television, and beat up two cameramen.

This again, has less to do with football, which is only a means to channel anger and frustration, than with the deteriorating state of Italian life, where a good portion of the people have lost all perception of individual responsibility, preferring instead to live and act within a mob, literally and figuratively, and where someone will always find an excuse to justify those who break the rules.

Banning away fans may work for a while on the soccer front, but any improvement in the much more important matter of everyday life would take decades of better education at home and in schools, an increased sense of individual responsibility towards the next person, a renewed pride in doing the right thing instead of taking shortcuts or resorting to threats and blackmail. Unfortunately there's little football can do about this.

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