Italian authorities finally face up to problem

Euroscene: Twenty-six-year-old Matteo Saronni from the village of Isola di Fondra, in the valleys around Bergamo, is an Inter…

Euroscene: Twenty-six-year-old Matteo Saronni from the village of Isola di Fondra, in the valleys around Bergamo, is an Inter Milan fan - not just any old fan, however. He is one of those at the heart of the violent scenes that forced German referee Markus Merk to abandon last week's Champions League quarter-final between Inter and cross-town rivals AC Milan, writes Paddy Agnew

Nor was this a new experience for Saronni. Four years ago, during an Inter v Atalanta game, he pulled off a dangerous stunt. Before the match, he stole a moped belonging to an Atalanta fan. He then dragged the vehicle all the way to the top of the San Siro stand - for anyone who does not know the San Siro, this is no small achievement.

Then, after the final whistle, he threw the moped over the rails and down to the next level of the grandstand below. By the grace of God, the moped-missile, crashed on to the concrete steps without killing anyone. Although he was given a suspended 14-month sentence for that "stunt", Saronni did not seem to learn too much from the experience. One year later, during an Inter v Juventus game at the San Siro, he was again arrested, this time for throwing "objects" on to the pitch. He was given a five-month suspended sentence and banned from football stadiums for six months.

Yet again, the learning process appears to have bypassed Matteo because there he was again last Wednesday night at the heart of the "Viking" group of "Ultras" (hardline fans) making his contribution to the flares, bottles and much else besides that rained down both on the AC Milan goal and on goalkeeper Brazilian Dida.

Incidentally Dida appears to have suffered no lasting damage from the flare that struck him on the shoulder. On Sunday, he turned out for AC Milan in their surprise and somewhat unlucky 2-1 defeat away to relegation-battling Siena.

In the wake of the violent scenes at the San Siro last Wednesday, global attention was focused on a problem that is becoming a constant in Italian football: fan violence. In the last 18 months, we have seen the death of a fan following riots before the Avellino-Napoli derby of September 2003, the suspension of the Roma-Lazio derby last March and the suspension of Roma's Champions League tie with Dinamo Kiev in September 2004.

In the 2003-2004 season, 335 people were arrested as a result of 231 violent incidents in and around Italian stadiums. On Sunday week, 17 people were arrested and 85 policemen injured subsequent to riots at a variety of league matches.

All of this prompted Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu to threaten the closure of stadiums that are regularly the scene of violence, also calling on local police chiefs to use their powers to cancel matches that - before, during or after - witness violent or racist fan behaviour.

Significantly, too, Pisanu called on the Italian Football Federation and the clubs to clean up their own houses, so to speak, with regard to violence. So what does the federation answer? Speaking to the resident foreign press corps in Rome recently, federation president Franco Carraro conceded violence in Italy is on the increase, linking the phenomenon to four specific issues - the poor quality of Italian stadiums, problems over ticket distribution, the cosy relationship between some clubs and their hardline fans and, the "crime and punishment" debate.

It is here we turn to the case of Saronni. President Carraro argues that in England such a fan would have received much harsher treatment and that Italian fans are partly encouraged by "the lack of certainty over punishment".

Is it too draconian a measure to suggest someone who throws a moped off a grandstand should simply be banned from football grounds for life? Football violence in Italy, as elsewhere, is a complex issue, reflecting a variety of socio-economic problems. There is no one answer to the problem. Harsher legislation may (or may not) discourage the Matteo Saronnis of this world.

If anything good has come out of the shameful scenes at the San Siro last week, though, it is that at least Italian football and government authorities are beginning to look the problem in the eye.