Semantics | Are fascist footballers also racists?

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Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni. Link to ANSA article.Rome | Paolo Di Canio and Lazio teammates abided yesterday by the request of Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni to meet with Nazi death-camp survivors. Three survivors addressed the players at Michelangelo‘s Piazza del Campidoglio; afterward, Di Canio sounded contrite, saying “we heard the stories of people who went through something terrible.” Although still attached to right-wing ideas that saw him lead a group of Lazio ultrí s as a youth, Di Canio says he opposes violence.

According to the Guardian, players for AS Roma had met on Feb 9 with 17 survivors, who advised them to stop playing whenever the players see Nazi symbols in the crowd. Such symbols were prominent at the Jan 29 fixture at Stadio Olimpico between Roma and Livorno: it was not the first time that ultrí s had unfurled banners to recall horrors of the Holocaust. “Gott mit uns” read one banner, duplicating the inscription on the belt buckles of Nazi soldiers. Another banner said, “Lazio-Livorno, stessa iniziale, stesso forno” (“Lazio-Livorno, same initial, same oven”).

Roma players heard Alberto Sed, 77, Auschwitz survivor and Roma fan, break down as he read a letter he had written to the club as a youth. Hungarian writer Edith Bruck, author of the memoir Who Loves You Like This, described the importance of individuals who helped save her from the camps. “She was reported to have said that a single footballer who stopped playing could restore dignity to the game,” The Guardian writes.

Such attitudes contrast with historical tenets of fascism. Benito Mussolini himself in The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism pointed to a fascist century that would be a collective century, following the 1800s, seen to be dominated by individualism. Lazio’s Di Canio, who has made the Fascist salute to supporters, in violation of Italian law, has defended himself by saying, “I am a fascist, not a racist.” He has since sworn off the salutes. But given the Italian and German examples, in which elevation of the collective had a chilling racist component, his distinction lacks real meaning.

AS Roma fan magazine Il Romanista has offered, in the spirit of broad-mindedness, to give fans DVDs of La vita e bella (Life is beautiful), itself a controversial comedic probe of Holocaust sensibilities. Perhaps a better choice might be Vittorio De Sica‘s Garden of the Finzi-Continis, about the gradual indignities and persecution used to traumatize Jews in a small northeastern Italian town before the Second World War. The suspicions and symbolic wounds preceded much harsher treatment. Veltroni has reminded the political right of Rome’s complicity in persecution of the Jews. Rome is also, he said, “the city of the Fosse Ardeatine,” where on 24 March 1944 Nazi occupation forces murdered 335 political prisoners and Jews in retaliation for an attack by Italian partisans. Hence Veltroni’s insistence that rogue football symbolisms be extinguished: “The word ‘game’ and ‘swastika’ have no place together.”

Links: For a less than flattering picture of the Lazio players before and after the meeting with Holocaust survivors—the article portrays Di Canio’s mates as concerned with their hair and yapping on portable phones—see the report in the international version of Der Spiegel. The players met Shlomo Venezia, an Auschwitz Sonderkommando, one of the prisoners forced to work at the gas chambers. The players “made us a promise,” said Venezia, before ruins of Il Foro. “The next time [swastikas] appear, they’ll interrupt the game.” 

Update: Pope Benedict XVI chose a friendly with Germany on 1 March, at Artemio Franchi Stadium in Florence, to announce his support for anti-racism initiatives in football. The text of the message, according to Catholic-oriented news agency Zenit:

The Supreme Pontiff addresses a cordial greeting to the authorities, organizers, leaders, athletes and those who have gathered in the Franchi Stadium of Florence on the occasion of the Italy-Germany friendly soccer match, and expresses his appreciation for the initiatives organized in this context against racial discrimination, promoted to reinforce awareness of the educational function of sports, at the service of solidarity and peace.

His Holiness encourages the common effort to promote the civilization of love through patient and respectful reciprocal dialogue in all realms of society. Invoking divine assistance on all these intentions and projects, with pleasure he sends his apostolic blessing to those present in this significant event.

The Italian side might hope for future papal statements. In its first match in Florence in 13 years, it achieved its best result, 4–1, against Germany since 1939.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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