Stop Italy’s Soccer Hooligans (New York Times)

I love soccer in general, and the Nerazzurri of Inter Milan in particular. Our bright blue and black jersey mirrors the heavens, while our crosstown rivals, Silvio Berlusconi’s A.C. Milan, wear a more infernal red and black.

Inter Milan is often overshadowed by Mr. Berlusconi’s team, but we don’t care. In 2010 we won the “triplete” — the Italian League, the Italian Cup and the European Champions League — and this year they trail us in Serie A, Italy’s top league.

On April 26, minutes before an Inter Milan-Napoli game kicked off at Milan’s San Siro stadium, Inter supporters unfurled a large banner. “Reading opens your mind,” it said. Then came another, even bigger banner in the shape of an antique book. “Television ignores us,” it said. “But without our passion, there is no soccer.”

As I was mentally congratulating them, the local fans started chanting hate slogans at the visitors from Naples. The kindest of these was, “Do your stuff, Vesuvius!” I wrote in a Twitter post from San Siro: How can the same people be so imaginative yet so stupid?

I received plenty of replies, but the most convincing one arrived a week later, at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. The crowd was waiting for the Coppa Italia final between Napoli and Fiorentina to get underway. The game was delayed, inexplicably. A powerless prime minister, a passive leader of the Senate and an embarrassed president of the International Olympic Committee looked on as a delegation of police officers walked over to a flabby, tattooed hulk perched on a security fence. It was up to him, apparently, whether the match would start.

The hulk’s name is Gennaro de Tommaso, alias “Genny a’ carogna,” or Genny the Swine. He’s the boss of the hard-core Napoli supporters and is suspected of ties with the Camorra organized crime ring. Apparently, if the game began without his permission, violence would follow.

In fact, even as the stadium waited for his nod, the scene was turning bloody. Fans were throwing flares onto the field. A firefighter was injured by a smoke bomb. The crowd booed during the national anthem. Outside the stadium, a man was being treated for gunshot wounds to his spinal cord.

Can we call this sport? Obviously not. It’s madness, and it’s been going on for 30 years. In 1985, just before the beginning of the European Cup final between Italy’s Juventus and Britain’s Liverpool at the Heysel stadium in Belgium, 39 fans were crushed to death during a stampede. In 1989, 93 fans were killed at Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield, England. The British government decided it was time to step in with seating-only stadiums and zero tolerance for hooligans. It worked, and the Premier League is now a major money-spinning machine watched all over the world.

Regretfully, Italy has yet to learn this lesson. Over here, hard-core fans are known as “ultras,” which means “beyond” in Latin. And beyond is where they go. Beyond decency. Beyond common sense. Beyond criminal law. At every match, in every Italian stadium, even if nobody gets hurt, the ultras fill the air with insults, racist chants and smoke bombs. They spit and swear at their police escort as they swagger from stadium to train station, where they proceed to smash up the trains, or get into their buses and fight one another at gas stations along the autostrada.

New regulations were introduced during the 2009-10 season to put an end to the violence, including “tessera del tifoso,” a card that identifies fans as supporters of a specific team and that authorities can use to separate trouble makers. Legislation hasn’t stopped the thugs: 5,000 people have been specifically barred from stadiums, but they cause havoc nearby instead (last year, hooligan attacks on the police increased by 85 percent).

The violence has persuaded many people to stay away from stadiums, which are often painfully empty. Italian soccer is losing a million attendees a year, down to 12.3 million tickets sold in 2012-13 from 13.2 million in 2011-12. Serie B and lower leagues suffer more than Serie A, the main national league. With declining audiences, there is no way soccer teams can sort out their financial mess. The collective debt of Serie A’s 30 clubs is close to 3 billion euros.

Filmmakers, writers and journalists have given hooliganism in Italy and elsewhere a lot of attention. Soccer violence is, after all, spectacular. But it’s also a burden. The Azzurri, as the Italian national team is known, have won four World Cups, most recently in 2006, by playing elegant soccer. Their country has a reputation for flair and style. Mindless aggression is un-Italian.

How do we prevent the hooligans from destroying Italian soccer? Simple. Scrap all military-style paraphernalia, including riot police officers, barbed wire, cage-like stands. Then call a crime a crime wherever one is committed. Offensive language. Threatening behavior. Assault. Zero tolerance worked in Britain; it can work here.

Italy’s penal code covers all that, so there is no need for any more legislation. It is simply a matter of enforcement. Soccer stadiums are not on some planet of their own. They are on Italian soil. They belong to the people who love the sport.

If Matteo Renzi, our 39-year-old prime minister, wants to leave a cost-free mark quickly, this is his chance. He’ll then be able to take his three children to see their beloved Fiorentina play Inter Milan. As usual, the Nerazzurri will win. But that won’t matter.

Beppe Severgnini is a columnist at Corriere della Sera and the author of “La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind.”