Sunday, 4 February 2007

Friday night, Catania-Palermo, some background

So here, to the best of my ability is some background to Friday's tragic events, with some details on what actually then happened in another post.

This weekend is the annual festival of St. Agatha, the 3rd century martyr born in Catania and who has been the town's patron saint ever since. The 2 day festivities, which attract up to a million visitors, are of unusual religious and folkloric significance, revolving around processions, traditional costumes, firework displays and celebration, and are listed by UNESCO as a cultural heritage 'event.' The town itself is the second city of Sicily, site of the island's oldest university and was the earliest advanced industrial centre in all of southern Italy: a wealthy, elegant town of artistic and historical interest. And also home to Club Calcio Catania, who play in red and blue stripes and have a cute elephant on their club crest.

The rivalry between Catania and Palermo has always been fierce, as you'd expect between the two main cities of Sicily, and more important than the rivalry of either with Messina: it's known as the derby di Sicilia, and Palermo has had substantially the better of the 64 encounters between the two clubs to date. But the fixture is known more for the trouble which invariably accompanies it than for footballing finesse. The first meeting of the two clubs this season, 20 September 2006, was as it turned out a cracking game, won by the rosanero 5-3, but violence largely outside the stadium led to some 50 people needed medical treatment and a handful of arrests. The long awaited return of Catania to Serie A for the first time since 1984, after years in B, C1 and even a time in C2, was always going to provoke great excitement amongst the club's fans: witness the extraordinary number of fans, around 8000, that they brought to Rome for their 7-0 tonking in November. Add to that the respective league positions of the two clubs - Catania unexpectedly equal 4th on points with Lazio and in real contention for a European spot, and Palermo comfortably 3rd, having an excellent season near the top of the table - and you can see that the stage is set for a derby of more than usually high emotions. And when is it scheduled, according to the whimsical hand of the fixture devisers? why none other than the weekend of the festival of Sant'Agata.

Now, both sets of fans have reputations for trouble. Not only in their first derby of the season but on numerous other occasions. Many West Ham and Newcastle fans who travelled to Palermo this season for their UEFA Cup games were shocked by the violence they encoutered. And since this fixture is nearly always accompanied by trouble, and the drinking and partying of Sant'Agata was liable to make the whole thing much worse, it was decided to bring the game forward from Sunday: not just to Saturday night, highlight of the 'secular' parts of the weekend's celebrations, but to Friday. And to further limit the possibility of drunken chaos or overexcited revelling, the game was brought forward to 18.30. When most fans would only just be finishing work.

The police made other dispositions too: 1500 officers from the various forces (carabineri, police, guardia di finanzia etc) were mobilised. Arriving Palermo fans were to be carefully searched and their arrival at the stadium managed with due care and attention. The two groups of fans were to be kept carefully apart throughout. Well, that part of the plan worked ok. Trouble is, it wasn't the Palermo fans the Catanesi were after, but the police...

And not for the first time. Earlier this season, Catania ultras inside their Curva Nord sent for help, a couple of lads running to ask a policeman to come quickly, a young fan was having some sort of fit... as the solitary policeman entered the stand found the boy in question having some sort of convulsions... which suddenly and mysteriously stopped. The policeman thus lured in was subject to a serious mass assault, the object of this entire exercise.

Hatred of the police is not, of course, limited to Catania supporters. Most curve across Italy - including the Roma curva, I should add - are united an a loathing of the "fdo" - forze d'ordine. (The use of this generic term, incidentally, is becuase it encompasses all the different branches of Italy's structurally complex and fragmented police forces). Songs are sung every week about hating the police, about how carabineiri are all bastards, about how only a man who was a shit would choose such a shit job. Graffiti across the country echo these sentiments. When, as frequently happens, the Fd'O in the away fans' section start beating up the away fans, the Curva Sud - though many of them might well themselves be quite up for a ruck with the away fans - will sing chants of anti-police solidarity.

This last might give you one clue as to why the Fd'O are so hated. I'm not the first person to note that for "forces of order" they don't half create a lot of disorder. This is something else many visiting English fans have commented on with shock, when here for European games, for internationals, for the '84 or '90 Euro & World championships, or simply as visitors to Italian games. All too often, police have stood idly by turning a blind eye to violence or have actively provoked it through their own heavy-handedness. But this is a matter for another post, another time, I think.

St. Agatha was, according to legend, brutally tortured to death by the Roman governor of the town for refusing to accede to his sexual demands. As part of the torture, she had her breasts cut off (and so is often weirdly depicted in medieval paintings with her breasts on a platter, for all the world as if she was handing round hors d'oeuvre at a cocktail party). Consequently she is the patron saint and protector of breast cancer sufferers and victims of sexual assault. She also protects Catania and its province from the eruptions of Mount Etna. I think this weekend not just Catania but all of Italy can do with whatever protection she might feel disposed to give us. We can only hope that her saintly patience has not been tried beyond all endurance, as ours assuredly has.

1 comment:

patrick said...

sorry to hear about all this.

there's also been some trouble between Croats and Serbs down in Oz at the tennis, but that's more tribal than police hatred.

sounds like they need Rudi Giuliani to sort it all out :)