The spectacle that took place outside and inside the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday was probably missed by most soccer fans. The lead-up to the Coppa Italia final was full of anticipation – both Fiorentina and Napoli play an open and exciting brand of soccer. And Rafa Benitez, with a win, could secure a trophy with his new club. The evening should have been about Napoli’s triumph and the foundation being set to challenge to Juventus in 2014-2015.
Instead, the story was one of chaos, confusion, and disgrace. While the entire story is still being worked out, here is what we know. Entering the stadium on Saturday, Napoli fans were attacked by Roma ultras who had gathered nearby. After punches and flares were exchanged, a Roma ultra shot a Napoli fan. Rumors spread that the fan was killed (he is in the hospital in critical condition). And as the fans entered the stadium they began to get violent. Fans threw flares at the police and acted disruptively in response to being attacked outside the stadium. The police tried to control the Napoli section of the crowd but they had to deal with flares being thrown at them. The fans continued to riot. Napoli captain Marek Hamsik and team officials approached the ultras section to talk with the leaders. TV viewers were treated to the bizarre scene of fans beckoning over representatives of the team to make their demands. Finally, after a 40 minute delay and assurances on the safety of their fans, the teams took the pitch and the game was played.
There was so much wrong with this situation that it is impossible to deconstruct it completely and do it justice. The issues started outside the stadium and illustrate issues with fan safety. Why Roma ultras were allowed near fans of the teams competing in this game is absurd. Police should have known that such a situation was possible and tried to prevent it. But maybe the numbers were too overwhelming. That does not excuse how Daniele De Santis was able to be involved in the fray. Why? De Santis is a well known Roma ultra who has a long history of involvement in fan violence. He was one of the ringleaders ten years ago who started a false rumor of a police officer killing a child prior to the Rome derby. Let me repeat this point – in addition to other crimes proven and suspected, the man was instrumental in purposefully inciting fan violence in a stadium to delay a soccer match. While you cannot expel De Santis from the city, he should either have been in jail for previous crimes or at least a known threat by the police.
Things were almost equally ugly inside the stadium. The image of team officials and players having to appease fans in order to play a match is unbelievable and shouldn’t be happening in a “first rate” soccer country. Except for the fact that it has happened in Genoa and at the same stadium two years ago. My argument is not that matches should be suspended when violence is present or fans feel threatened for whatever reason – far from it. But the spectacle of fans holding up a cup final until they are negotiated with, obscures the cup final and changes it from a spectacle to a farce.
There are too many negative stereotypes about Italian soccer that are prevalent in the media. However, it is incidents like this that tend to confirm the image of Serie A as an unruly and inferior product. The entertaining match that finished with Napoli 3-1 winners over Fiorentina will forever be tainted with images of fan violence. Drastic action needs to take place in order to reform the fan/player/club/police dynamic. If changes aren’t made Italian soccer will continue its slide into a second-tier league.