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Soccer hooligans force Italy on defensive

Season ticket holders must now undergo police background checks.

Soccer ultras
Football supporters claiming to be "ultras" (hard-core supporters) from various European countries stage a demonstration in Nice, southern France, on May 17, 2008, wearing T-shirts reading: "Freedom for the Ultras." (Stephane Danna/AFP/Getty Images)

ROME, Italy — It’s going to be a tough season for soccer hooligans in Italy.

In an attempt to crack down on stadium troublemakers, the Italian government is forcing all season ticket holders to also undergo police background checks.

From this month, soccer fans who want season tickets must also qualify for a “Soccer Fan Card.”

Issued by Italy soccer clubs, the cards — costing 15 euros — will give police an effective tool to identify and keep out supporters who cause trouble at stadiums. Those who have already been arrested for stadium-related crimes won’t qualify for the Soccer Fan Card and will be denied their season pass, while a fan who qualified for a season pass can still be banned from games if he or she commits a crime during the season.

With a swipe of the electronic card at the entrance of every game, officials will immediately know if a fan has a pending trial for riots, resistance to police officers or destruction of stadium property.

While many welcome the initiative in hope of greater safety inside stadiums, radicalized soccer fan groups — generally known as Ultras in Italy — have dubbed the Soccer Fan Card a revenue-raising effort and an unnecessary infringement of civil liberties.

“I refuse to go on file just because I want to support my team,” said Federico Innocenzi, a veteran supporter of A.S. Roma who has never been arrested for misconduct at a game. “I was born an Ultra because I was born free, and I won’t bend,” said Innocenzi, who sported a shirt reading, "Say No to the Soccer Fan Card!"

As of last week, more than 500,000 cards had been issued to soccer fans across the country. Half the cards were purchased in Milan, where soccer supporters seemed enticed by the card’s side privileges, like discounts and skipping long lines.

A.S. Roma supporters protested the card by boycotting the first 50 minutes of Rome’s opening game last Saturday, leaving 1,000 of the blue seats in Rome's Olympic Stadium, home to A.S. Roma supporters for almost 40 years, empty. It was the first time players kicked off an opening match to a half-empty arena.

“Last Saturday I had to fight to watch the game,” said Giorgio Morganti, a 39-year-old lawyer who was bullied into protesting alongside angry Ultras.

Morganti, who has been sharing the southern wing of the stadium with Ultras since 1993, happily subscribed to the Soccer Fan Card. “The Ultras protest against the card because, unfortunately, many of them have a criminal record,” said Morganti, “and are not eligible to buy this card.”

To avoid the electronic checks, Ultras are foregoing their season pass and instead buying their tickets at each individual game. In Naples, for example, supporters flooded the city’s stadium even though only 3,000 had obtained season passes.

“The program is an important and significant step forward in implementing security,” said Italy’s Minister of Interior, Roberto Maroni, at a recent press conference. A prominent member of the conservative Northern League Party, Maroni has promised zero tolerance inside soccer stadiums.

Ultras responded by showing Maroni their discontent. Only days before the soccer season kicked off, 500 Ultras from the northern city of Bergamo — a solid base of voters for Maroni’s party — infiltrated a convention and threw explosive objects at cars parked near the convention facility.

The battle between police and the Ultras began long before this year’s soccer season.

In 2007, the killing of police officer Filippo Raciti during a stadium scuffle in Sicily, gave rise to a law that offers prosecutors a 16-year jail sentence as punishment for such a crime.

Fans who introduce racist, anti-Semitic or xenophobic banners inside the stadium, face up to one year in prison under the same law.

By putting the backgrounds of season subscribers on file, Italy hopes to catch up with a European trend that aims at eliminating hooligan behavior at soccer games.

Belgium implemented a similar soccer fan card more than 10 years ago. The U.K. has been stiffening its stadium security for almost 20 years after bringing in stewards during soccer matches.

“We are far from the zero tolerance you see in the U.K.,” said head of Italian Police Antonio Manganelli, quoted in the Italian daily, La Repubblica. “Over there, whoever breaks the rules is put in a security cell at the stadium and sent out for trial the very next day,” he said.

But some fans see Italy’s initiative as too little too late.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/italy/100901/soccer-hooligans-force-italy-defense