2019 05 – News from Italy

Listening to Italy

by Orecchiette


Italy is not able to settle to plan anything on the political front until after 27 May when the results of a large number of local elections and the simultaneously held European elections become clear. The results are expected to force resolution within the current uncomfortable and discomforting coalition government. The electorate on mainland Italy have been making their prior judgements in a series of local elections in the last months, plus one in Sicily on 28 April. Relations between all parties are fractious and unpleasant. Legal investigations into various serving ministers have also added considerable proverbial fuel to the already raging fires of discord.

The five parties and leaders of significance are:

Matteo Salvini of The Lega, although a Deputy Premier alongside Luigi Di Maio of The Five Star Movement (M5S), he works with a sense of assurance, arrogance and authority as if he were The Premier himself. Premier Conte has expressed his annoyance at occasionally being treated as the enabler for Salvini’s policies; Salvini oversteps his position. Di Maio does not have the leadership qualities or the bravado of Salvini and Salvini capitalises on this whenever he can. Salvini is frequently reported to boast that Lega will win well in the elections and that HE will thereafter change the shape of the government.

La Repubblica (15 April) ran a headline ” ‘With regret’ the sinking of Fi – they throw B. into the sea” (The 82 year old Silvio Berlusconi is habitually referred to as B. ). The article listed many party members and sympathisers who were deserting the metaphorical ship of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia Party (Fi). One called it ‘exhausted’. Berlusconi never seems to give up and in January had announced his own Euro election candidature.

Fratelli D’Italia Fdi is a small but possibly increasingly significant right-wing part of the current centre-right coalition. It is run by Georgia Meloni, known as La Meloni. It is currently taking support away from Fi and can be seen openly agreeing with Matteo Salvini’s views, or to paraphrase La Repubblica, is cuddling up to him.

Last is Nicola Zingaretti, President of the Lazio region and the new leader of the Partito Democratico (Pd) in office since 17 March 2019. They are the largest group in the centre-left coalition.

25 April saw the annual commemoration of The Liberation from Italian fascism and the German Nazis. The President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella made an obviously anti-authoritarian speech, aimed pointedly at Salvini. “History, he said, teaches that when people trade their freedom in exchange for promises of order and protection it always takes a tragic and destructive turn”.  Everyone except Matteo Salvini was seen to mark this special day in the Italian calendar and the press questioned the reasons behind his absence. Something easily answered as Salvini has paraded his links with the extreme right parties in the European Parliament. Provocatively, he was canvassing in Sicily and refused to be drawn when asked to comment on the anniversary of the downfall of fascism. In an obvious side swipe at Di Maio he said “it would have been easier for me to wake up late in Milan or Rome, …. (but I am) here with the men and women …who risk their lives to free the country from mafia occupation”.

On the eve of Liberation Day, Italy was shocked by a group of Lazio football supporters flashing a banner proclaiming “Honour to Mussolini”. The link with the date was clear, as was its presence in Milan’s Piazza Loreto where Mussolini’s dead body had been displayed. This was also close to the spot where more than 40 partisans had been slaughtered by the Nazis. The Club issued statements opposing the demonstration from these fascist supporters or “Irriducibilli”. But it was also part of a wider, well-coordinated manifestation of fascist symbolism in other parts of Italy.

There is a strong and continuing actual and emotional link of football to fascism. The government of Mussolini was actually responsible for developing football in Italy. Football teams existed late in the nineteenth century. However, by the 1920s interest and enthusiasm had developed in the newly industrialised northern cities. The fascists had several different attempts to use massed groups to promote themselves but football became the most powerfully effective. Fascist theatre for example did not have the same appeal.

In 1925 Genova played Bologna in an unresolved game. There were contentious refereeing decisions and eventually five replays. This triggered crowd disorder and there were even gun shots. As a direct result the government restructured the game and its administration. It was called the Carta di Via Reggio and everything was tidied up under Mussolini Government control. The fascist-controlled Figc, Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio, or Italian Football Federation was then set up in 1928/9, which developed into the first single national league: Serie A in 1930.

The potential for using the game to give a sense of national identity was enabled by persuasion, combining the many small teams into larger units. Leandro Arpinati, originally a Bolognese fascist and now head of Figc, encouraged this and, for example, The Associazione Sportiva Roma, AS Roma, (which, for non-footballers, still exists) was one result. Although paradoxically the presence of a national league also encouraged regional affiliations and rivalries.

Mussolini’s regime also saw the potential of emphasising fitness and racial purity, echoing the similar philosophies of Nazi Germany. Arpinati said that “for the physical improvement of the race nothing is as useful as sport that teaches everybody an amount of discipline and moulds muscles with character”.

The fascist government and Mussolini fell. Football continued but by the 1990s there was a change. A fanatical type of fandom, that espoused more than a simple enthusiasm for the game had developed. The fans, called the “ultras”, were characterised by their hatred of difference, their adherence to fascist ideas, their violence. Shaved heads and black shirts became normal. Foreign players, such as  Kalidou Koulibaly, currently are now regularly and continuously racially abused during a match. No lead is given by Carlo Tavecchio, a former head of the Figc, who said the league was being swamped by “banana eaters”. This is paralleled in the political field by the frequent hatred and ridicule given to black former Minister Cécile Kyenge.

There are two further examples of the rise of interest in fascism. In October award winning Italian writer Paolo Giordano saw a Benito Mussolini calendar on sale at a news kiosk on Rome’s Termini station. He was shocked and wrote about it in Corriere della Sera. But it is still possible to see one for sale on Amazon although it is labelled as “not currently available”. Then hundreds of neo-fascists demonstrated in Predappio, Mussolini’s birthplace and ‘shrine’ on 28 April, the anniversary of his death. This is an annual event but it was bigger than ever this year. The importance of the exercise is obviously to mock the Liberation Day as Mussolini was actually born in July.

To refer finally to football, Salvini has exercised his killer instinct by repeatedly undermining Virginia Raggi the M5S mayor of Rome.  Rome is a mess, it must be admitted: rubbish piles up in the streets, seagulls swoop and three metro stations are out of use because escalators are unsafe. Raggi is also under investigation for abuse of office relevant to the building of a new football stadium. “Romans deserve better”, Salvini says. But he then blocked a budgetary increase to one of the most indebted Italian cities, saying that Italians shouldn’t have to pay for Rome.

Salvini is capitalising on sections of the electorate’s uncritical wish for positive leadership. Proof is that Lega have made gains in the 28 April Sicilian regional elections to the detriment of M5S. Meanwhile La Repubblica reports that Di Maio is convinced that history will hit and sink the Lega. Don’t hold your breath.