An Italian soccer club’s anti-Semitic display isn’t an aberration, it’s business as usual

A shocking incident this week only highlights the far-right leanings of many club supporters.

FILE - In this Nov. 29, 1998 file photo, Lazio fans display banners from the stands reading "Auschwitz is Your Homeland. The Ovens are Your Homes" during a Serie A match between Lazio and AS Roma, at Rome's Olympic stadium. Lazio fans have a long history of racism and anti-Semitism. (AP Photo/Plinio Lepri, files)
FILE - In this Nov. 29, 1998 file photo, Lazio fans display banners from the stands reading "Auschwitz is Your Homeland. The Ovens are Your Homes" during a Serie A match between Lazio and AS Roma, at Rome's Olympic stadium. Lazio fans have a long history of racism and anti-Semitism. (AP Photo/Plinio Lepri, files)

Fans of the Italian soccer team Lazio should be happy. Their main striker, Ciro Immobile, is in red-hot form. They’re currently fourth in their league table, Serie A, level with last year’s champions Juventus and just three points behind league leaders Napoli. If they keep their form up, the Rome-based team might be able to clinch a spot in the Champions League, Europe’s most prestigious soccer competition.

And yet, their headlines over the course of the last week have less to do with their on-field performance and more to do with a vile anti-Semitic episode that is overshadowing the team’s success — a type of incident that is depressingly common in Italy’s premier soccer league. On Sunday, Lazio fans decorated their Stadium with stickers depicting Anne Frank dressed in a uniform of their rivals, A.S. Roma. Anti-semitic messages accompanied them.

The episode was widely condemned. Italian president Sergio Mattarella called the episode “inhumane” and “alarming”. Lazio’s club president, Claudio Lotito, promised a new annual initiative to take 200 young fans to Auschwitz to learn about the Holocaust. Police in Rome said they’ve identified 20 soccer fans, some as young as 13, who they believe posted the stickers. On Wednesday, players across Italy observed a minute’s silence, with a passage of Anne Frank’s diary being read out over loudspeakers.

But if the condemnation was supposed to spur Italian soccer fans towards self-reflection and better behavior, it hasn’t worked. During Wednesday’s game against Bologna, some Lazio fans sang the fascist song “Me ne frego” (“I don’t care”). In Turin, some Juventus fans turned their backs and sang the Italian national anthem during the minute’s silence to remember the Holocaust, while Roma fans drowned out the diary reading with team chants. Lazio’s hardcore fans, known as “Ultras”, dismissed the readings as “media theatrics”, and even the attitude of the club’s president was called into question when leaked audio revealed him saying “let’s get on with this charade” ahead of a visit to a Roman synagogue.

All of Europe’s top soccer leagues have had troubling experiences with racism, anti-Semitism  and hooliganism in the past. But while leagues in England, Spain and Germany have largely stamped out this culture, it remains deeply rooted in Italian soccer. At a time when the sport is increasingly globalized, and broadcast deals are valued in the billions, Ultras’ racist and anti-Semitic chants aren’t just vile, they’re also a massive PR problem for a league which wants to market itself more overseas.

“This has uncovered a problem that has been building up for a long time,” author Adam Smulevich, told the New York Times. “But if we concentrate only on this one episode, we fail to see this is a much larger problem than just Lazio. It’s an issue for all of Italian society.”

Part of the explanation for the Lazio fans’ anti-Semitic behavior lies in the deeply ingrained relationship Italian soccer has with Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator who ruled Italy from 1922 until his death in 1943. Mussolini saw how soccer could be used as a vehicle through which to project national strength, so he re-organized the Italian soccer federation and had Italy host the World Cup in 1934. The national team, nicknamed the Azzuri (the blues) won that World Cup, as they did again in 1938. Mussolini’s image was partially rehabilitated under Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who in 2013 infamously remarked — on Holocaust Memorial Day — that aside from passing anti-Jewish laws, Mussolini had been a good leader. The dictator’s granddaughter, Alessandra Mussolini, is currently a politician in the European Parliament.

In no Italian club is Mussolini’s fascist influence more overt then in Lazio. The Italian dictator was a massive fan, and built its current stadium, the Stadio Olimpico. One of Lazio’s most revered players, Paolo DiCanio, said that Mussolini was “basically a very principled individual” who was “deeply misunderstood”. In a 1998 match against Roma, Lazio fans unfurled a banner towards rivals that read “Auschwitz is your town, the ovens your houses”. Even the team’s full name, S.S. Lazio, and logo, a militaristic-looking eagle, can be seen to have fascist connotations.

On Friday, the Italian Gazetto dello Sport reported that 13 Lazio fans had banned from the stadium for their role in the Anne Frank incident. Other fans have also previously been banned for anti-Semitism and violence, but the punishments handed out are often selective and loosely enforced. In contrast, at England’s new stadiums, increased policing and lifetime bans for racism, violence, and anti-Semitism have contributed to a steep decline in hooliganism since it’s heyday in the 1980s. It also doesn’t help matters that the president of the Italian soccer association, Carlo Tavvechio, has been recorded making racist and anti-Semitic remarks.

“There is a tendency to trivialize these kinds of incidents,” Ugo Tassinari, an expert on extremist right-wing movements, told Haaretz. “For a moment the [soccer] federation tried taking a tougher stance, but in the last few years, economic interests prevailed. The result is that there is a contradictory approach: Sometimes [racism and anti-Semitism are] punished, sometimes [they are] not.”