Football is big in this country. In fact, it rivals the Pope in its popularity, perhaps even going a step further in being the only thing that has the pull to galvanize its citizens into something approaching unity when the national team plays. Take a look at the sports pages - 12 on football, one or two on other sports. It permeates the entire fabric of society, from the teflon caricature prime minister (whose Rossi Neri have just won Serie A) all the way to every schoolyard in the most remote reaches of its borders.
Julius (or HRH as he has been referred to previously on this blog) plays for a local youth team, Corridonia. They're quite good, having won every league game in the pre-Christmas league, and challenged for the leadership in the next-level, post-New Year league. Until one fateful Sunday in March, that is ...
The previous weekend in an away game they had been bludgeoned to defeat in something of an upset against a mediocre team, with several of the Corridonia team needing more than casual medical attention as a result of the home team's 'robust' approach. The referee took no action against several blatant acts of aggression, and quite naturally incurred the ire of coaches and parents. After the game I stood by intrigued as they (the parents & coaches from both sides) went at it hammer and tongs (verbally) arguing about the home team's physical approach. I thought it was all quite passionate, albeit not without foundation, given the strong support these teams enjoy. However, it was nothing compared to the following weekend ...
Corridonia returned to their home ground faced with the prospect of having to beat the league leaders in order to still have a sniff at the winning the league and graduating to the next (regional) level competition. They had lost the away leg rather convincingly, 4-0, their first loss - and one of only two - of the season. The ground - a rather unatmospheric place bordered one one side by a concrete parking lot and on the other a steep, ungainly tiered bank leading up to the main road - was as packed as I've seen it in Julius' 2 years of playing there. Having recently returned from injury, he was left on the bench, coming on as a second-half substitute.
That weekend one of my longest-standing friends (John) was visiting from South Africa, and he came along. A sports lover himself, he had taken to watching schoolboy rugby in his home town of Cape Town, but had stopped going due to the aggressive and at times ugly behaviour of the teams' passionate parents. Ten minutes into the game, which Corridonia was bossing, I turned to him and said: "Thank heavens the referee is reasonable, unlike last week's paluka."
I should have known better. My comment was the kiss of death, sparking a Jekyll-Hyde metamorphosis in him, almost as if he (the referee) had heard me and felt like being otherwise. What had been up until then a competent performance on his part, transformed itself into a veritable mockery of the football arbiter's trade. Herewith a selection of his decisions that followed:
- the award of a free kick outside the area to Corridonia instead of a penalty for a rugby tackle-like foul that happened at least 1-2 metres inside the big box
- the turnover of at least 2 obvious free kicks for Corridonia, in which at first he indicated in favour of Corridonia, and then changed his decision, pointing in the other direction
- the award of a penalty to the opposition for a mild bump in a 50-50 challenge, where the opponent didn't even go to ground (thankfully it was missed)
- the issue of multiple yellow cards to Corridonia players and none to the opponents, even though the physicality and remonstrations were equally passionate on both sides of the ball, and resulting in Corridonia being reduced to 9 players by the end of the game
Bear in mind that this is just a selection. Worse was to follow, however, as in the last minute of the game, with Corridonia leading 1-0, the opponents launched an attack in the home team's area. The local goalkeeper game out to collect a routine ball, and was promptly taken out with a shoulder charge. What happened next is hard to believe - the referee blew the whistle before the ball entered the goal, indicating a free kick for Corridonia, and then changed it to the award of a goal for their opponents as the ball nestled into the back of the net.
Following all the other injustices he had already inflicted on the home team, it was all too much for all the locals - players, coaches, and supporters alike. The place erupted into a cacophony of indignation, so passionate and gesticulative that it lasted several minutes until he blew up for the end of the game without another ball being kicked. In the process, he issued a second red card to a player previously sent off, who had charged on to the field to register his displeasure with the referee's latest decision. He was surrounded and jostled by the home team as he tried to make his way back to the change rooms, but he never made it there. In the meantime, the crowd, now a furious, seething mass, had swarmed around to the entrance to the changeroom area, baying for the blood of the young referee, prompting the managerial staff of the two teams to extricate him from the clutches of the home team players and escort him to the relative safety of the centre of the pitch, the field being fenced in apparently for precisely such circumstances. The local police were eventually called in to ensure the ref's safe passage from the ground.
While all this was happening, John and I stood rooted and open-mouthed, the only two spectators left on the tiered stand, watching the events unfold in disbelief. Finally we dragged ourselves away, collected a disgruntled and despondent Julius - who I'm proud to say abstained from the type of remonstration his teammates were engaging in - and headed home.
When I asked John how the whole display compared with the scenes he'd witnessed at the schoolboy rugby games in Cape Town, he responded - with no small measure of understatement - that the Italian version was perhaps "a bit more emotional". On reflection, it's probably as accurate and succinct a verdict as one could conjure - I've seen the ugly outbursts amongst South African rugby fans, and the spontaneous vein-popping reactions of some sports fans in the US, with outcomes that can be unpredictable and at times violent. In Italy, however - or at least in our small corner of it - it was just as John said: emotional. Sure it was bubbling, red-hot even, but you can also encounter this kind of emotion when discussing the best ragù recipe for tagliatelle (albeit without the anger). Punches, fisticuffs? Close, but not in this case - the most extreme I've seen - and while there is certainly football hooliganism in Italy, in general this kind of episode will see voices rather than fists raised. Who knows, maybe the two coaches shared a plate of vincisgrassi for lunch, although my suspicion is the referee dined alone ...