Jim Pallotta is worried, writes David Shonfield.
Roma’s American president has presided over the club’s best season for years. They have reached the last-four in the Champions League and are on the brink of qualifying for next season’s competition. But his control of the club is still contested by a number of fans, and Roma’s great season could unravel tonight.
Overhauling Liverpool’s three-goal advantage is challenge enough, but there is the fear of another violent incident of the sort that left Sean Cox in a coma last Tuesday.
The day after the game, Pallotta compared it to the 1993 mafia bomb attack in Florence, which he narrowly escaped while on a visit to the city.
That might seem exaggerated — five people were killed and another 48 were injured, that day in May, 25 years ago — but Pallotta is concerned that Italian football in general, and Roma in particular, is still plagued by the violence of thugs who attach themselves to the main body of fans.
Pallotta and others continue to speak of this thuggish fringe “betraying our history and our heritage”, whereas, unfortunately, it is part of that history.
The Ultras — the organised groups of fans, thousands strong, who form the backbone of support at Roma and other clubs — date back to the 1970s, and have set a pattern of behaviour right across Europe.
They are responsible for the choreographed displays on the terraces everywhere from Athens to Zagreb; it is a more coordinated, regimented form of support than in England, but it adds to the spectacle.
Sadly, in Italy it has been infiltrated by criminals and manipulated by shadowy political forces.
In Rome, the criminal element predates the Ultras: They were there in October, 1965, when the coach carrying Tommy Docherty’s young Chelsea side was attacked with a hail of bricks and lumps of concrete, outside the Stadio Flaminio.
There have been similar incidents, and worse, at intervals ever since — notoriously, when Roma played Liverpool at the Olimpico in the 1984 final, then again in 2000 and 2001, and most recently in February, 2015, when Roma and Feyenoord fans fought running battles with each other and the police.
On that occasion, the main aggressors were the Dutch, who vandalised parts of the city centre before the first leg, and it would be wrong to identify Roma fans as the sole troublemakers.
There was a horrific attack on a group of visiting Tottenham fans, when they played Lazio, in November, 2012.
The incident was a pre-planned assault by men armed with knives, baseball bats, and other weapons, at The Drunken Ship, an American bar in the Campo dei Fiori.
Both Lazio and Roma fans were involved, despite their usual enmity.
The square is a notorious trouble spot — in 2006, three Middlesbrough fans were targeted in a knife attack — and is one of the areas that Liverpool supporters ought to avoid today and this evening.
Other well-known flashpoints are the two bridges across the river Tiber that are closest to the stadium, the Ponte D’Aosta and the ancient Ponte Milvio, which is closed to traffic and is, therefore, a favoured spot for an ambush.
Reports have linked the individuals allegedly responsible for the Anfield attack to Roma’s oldest Ultra group, the Fedayn, formed in 1975. But it is simplistic to pin the blame on one Ultra group, or Ultras as a whole, for the endemic violence in Italian football.
There are many different groups, accounting for almost 40,000 fans across the country, according to official estimates, some with political affiliations — mostly to the far-right, as with the two Roman clubs, but also to the left.
Some of them have become fully affiliated with their clubs, or with particular board members, and that can be part of the problem. Patronage — and Ultra control of ticket distribution and club merchandise — leads to corruption, which is when the criminals move in, either to control the group, or to take a cut of the profits. Stewarding at most clubs is rudimentary, which means that Ultra stewards gain a semi-official status, with the clubs and also with the police.
Those involved in the most extreme violence — for example, the gun attack by Roma fan, Daniele de Santis, on Napoli fans en route to the Olimpico in May, 2014 — use the cover of Ultra membership for criminal activity. The notorious Napoli Ultra, Gennaro de Tommaso, known as Genny ‘a Carogna, is another example, a drug-trafficker linked to one of the factions of the Camorra in Naples.
Usually, the leaders are not young tearaways. They are often men in their 40s, born into criminal families, just like their counterparts in countries such as Serbia, Croatia, Poland, and Russia.
They are often not that bothered about the football. Being in the stadium and directing their troops is the big motivation. ‘We don’t give a toss about the match’ (A noi della partita non ce ne frega un cazzo) is a chant you can hear at stadiums up and down Italy.
The worry, ahead of the World Cup, is whether this criminal element will be allowed to repeat the mayhem they caused in France during the European finals two years ago.
Reports suggest that the Russian security service, the FSB, have now clamped down on their domestic Ultras, who were previously tolerated and possibly even encouraged. The government wants a peaceful tournament. But there are some potential flashpoints, which should concern Fifa, especially the likelihood of racist attacks.
It does not take very many people to start a fight, as we have just seen, and there is a lurking possibility of ‘false flag’ attacks, which is a danger in Rome, tonight, as well.
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