It would require full time attention to English language media to keep up with all the controversy surrounding Donald Trump’s attacks on NFL players. My heart is warmed to see players from America’s most popular game standing up against the Trumpster and in support of justice not only for African-Americans but all those being abused and left behind. It was heartening to see some white players finally speak out. Meanwhile Colin Kapernick remains on the “blacklist” for his courageous acts. I decided that it was time to find out a little of the political history of sports resistance to Mussolini in Italia. Italy’s biggest sport of course is “Calcio”, what the world calls Futbol and we call soccer.
I rode my bike on September 29 to the neighborhood of Coverciano where the Italian national team has its lavish training center. In the same location there is the National Calcio Museum dedicated to the history of Italian soccer and particularly Italian triumphs in the World Cup – 4 in all. I parked my bike outside the gate and pressed the doorbell as instructed. I was buzzed into a small ticket office where an elderly gentleman in a three-piece suit sold me a ticket and then led me into the museum. I was the only customer, and he spent time with me explaining what was in the museum and how to find different exhibits on its three floors. Turns out this gentleman is Dottor Fino Fini and he was the national team physician from 1962-82. Of course 1982 was the first World Cup post WW II and post fascism. I made the mistake of asking Dottor Fini his name, and I think he was truly offended to think that a calcio fan visiting that museum would not know who he was.
The museum was very extensive with historical exhibits tracing the game’s origins back to the 19th century when Brits brought the game to the seaport of Genova. The early Italian teams were in the industrial north and were often linked to manufacturers like the giant FIAT automobile plant, which sponsored and later owned the Club Team Juventus. (Juventus is a bit like the NY Yankees having won 33 “scudetti” or championships.)
Mussolini and the Fascist party took power in 1922 and realized the potential of calcio as a national unifying force. In fact Italy’s premier league, Serie A, was created under Mussolini’s reign. Italy’s first two world championships, in 1934 at home in Italy against Czechoslovakia, and in 1938 in France with a victory against Hungary. The museum has a grainy photo of Mussolini welcoming the whole team to Rome in 1938 dressed in military uniforms.
I am not sure that this tradition of political leaders welcoming teams to the capital began with Mussolini, but it has certainly become a point of controversy in he United States as a focal point for protest against administration policies. There is the famous case of Craig Hodges, a journeyman member of the NBA champion Chicago Bulls, who went to the White House of President George HW Bush in 1992 wearing a dashiki. He presented the President with a statement asking him to do more to end discrimination against African Americans and was subsequently blacklisted ala Kapernick. He never again played in the NBA. During the twenty plus years of fascism in Italy there were many examples of political courage and protest by athletes, principally in Italy’s most popular sport of “calcio”. One of the best examples of athletic courage and principle were the defiant acts, and the ultimate sacrifice to the Partisan cause, of one Bruno Neri. This midfielder, who played from 1929-1936 on the squadra la Fiorentina, made a statement ala Kapernick when the new stadium in Florence was inaugurated in 1931 with a friendly between Fiorentina and Admiral from Vienna. Before the opening whistle it was the custom for the players to salute the dignitaries seated in the “tribuna” with “il saluto Romano” the fascist salute. Neri did not raise his arm. He was not the only player to refuse to salute, but he was unusual in that he later went on to become a Vice Commander of the Battalion Ravenna of the Italian Resistance.
“Berni” (his nom di guerre) was killed by a German bayonet in 1944. In Italy modern on field protests have mainly taken the form of solidarity with African players who reactionary, racist, and fascist fans have pelted with bananas. Games have been stopped and players from the home teams have made direct appeals to their own home fans to knock it off.
I closed out my visit to Coverciano with a stop as at the exhibit case that celebrated Italy’s amazing World Cup 4 overtime win in the semi-finals against West Germany, in Mexico. That was in 1970 and I happened to be in Italy for the first time that summer, and I have never seen such a sports mad country. Every fountain in every public square in Italy was filled with fans carrying the Tri-Colore in the aftermath of the dramatic semi-final. For the final against Pele and Brazil it seemed like a neutron bomb had hit; all of Italy was indoors watching and cheering on “Gli Azzurri” (the Blues, the color of the Italian team jersey). Italy succumbed in the final 4-1.
I finished my tour of the Museo del Calcio and closed the door behind me. I walked to the “biglieterria” and said goodbye to Dottore Fini and pedaled home.
On Monday, October 23, the politics of racism and anti-Semitism took a bizarre and alarming twist in Italy. Sixteen super fans, or “Ultras”, of the Roman squad Lazio were caught on tape affixing stickers onto the South Curve of the Olympic Stadium that bore a picture of Anne Frank photo-shopped wearing a jersey of their arch rivals, AS Roma. This along with other stickers that said “Romanista Ebreo” was a sick and twisted way of slamming the fans of the other major team from the capital city; a team long associated with the left. The reaction of Serie A, the league, was swift, and a passage of the Diary of Anne Frank was read aloud before the opening of all subsequent matches throughout Italy. Many teams wore jerseys inscribed with “Noi siamo tutti Anna Frank”, “We are all Anne Frank”. I have often vigorously argued that you can’t understand politics or connect with a people, especially the male species without understanding their sports. I must admit however that I was confounded by this incident and had to read the Italian newspapers over and over again to figure out what the Diary of Anne Frank had to do with Serie A. Many of the “Ultras” have long been associated throughout Europe with right-wing, proto fascist politics, but I was pretty stunned by the evil “creativity” of the Lazio fans.