Politics In Italian Football: Mussolini, Regionalism And Intercity Rivalries

Fascism came to power in Italy in 1922 promising to bring order to the country and football was a perfect way of showing this. The 1926 Carta di Viareggiomade made calcio what it is today. From a number of small, scattered local leagues emerged Serie A.

Benito Mussolini, invested enormously in football. The sport was a fundamental part of its attempt to distract the masses from their loss of civil liberties, to win their support and to prepare a fitter nation, capable of working hard, fighting and producing strong children.

The Fascist ‘era of stadiums’ saw some of Italy’s great sporting venues rise, filled with Fascist images and symbols. The “Mussolini” stadium in Turin, the “Littoriale” in Bologna, the Stadium “della Vittoria” in Bari, the “Berta” in Florence, the “Edda Ciano Mussolini” in Livorno, the “XXVIII Ottobre” in L’Aquila, and the “Citta dello Sport” in Rome.

These stadiums both asserted the industrial might of the regime and helped Italian football grow, not to mention the fact that they were an essential part of the regime’s push to host the 1934 World Cup.

Hosting the World Cup was Mussolini’s big chance to show off his nation’s merit through the organization of the event as well as Italy’s performance on the field. While the organization of the competition was something that he could control in advance, the Azzuri’s results were not in his hand.

But Mussolini made sure he had the ultimate say, in that aspect of the tournament as well.

Italy won their first two games by beating the USA (7-1) and Spain (2-1). In the semi-final, they faced Austria, then known as the Wunderteam and won 1-0. The rumour has it that Mussolini himself had dinner, the day before the match with the Swedish referee, Ivan Eklind. The only goal of the game was scored by Enrique Guaita and its build-up saw the Austrian goalkeeper being pushed blatantly.

Eklind was asked to look over the final; he was even invited to the VIP box before the match began. Italy won the trophy by beating Czechoslovakia 2-1. Italians won the cup on home terrain and Il Duce got what he wanted.

While Fascism was very clever in its use of sport to make politics and national identity, it failed to understand how turning football into a truly national game would intensify Italians’ attachment to their local teams and cities.

Deriving from the Italian word Campanile, (meaning bell tower) Campanilismo is a very specific phrase used to symbolise Italy’s proud local identities. In Italy, Campanilismo can often surpass national identity.

Italy remains a young nation; before the unification of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, the country was fragmented. During the Renaissance, states such as Florence, Venice and Milan battled for supremacy on the peninsula; Italy’s consciousness as a nation was non-existent.

These divisions remain somewhat to this day and are reified by political parties such as Lega Nord, a federalist, separatist, right-wing party which has attacked the idea of Italian unity by claiming that the South is a burden on the nation. Its political programme advocates greater regional autonomy and at times secession of the North, which they often refer to as ‘Padania’.

An unofficial Padania side was represented at the 2016 ConIfa World Cup – a tournament organized for states, minorities, stateless peoples and regions unaffiliated with FIFA.

Napoli vs Juventus

Juventus and Napoli fans possess distinct social identities which are tied to their geographical locations. The Bianconeri are the symbolic powerhouse of the North while the Partenopei are the proud representatives of the poorer South.

The Northern and Southern halves of Italy appear in social, cultural and economic terms to be two different countries. At its most simplistic, this discrepancy is based on prosperity, with the Northern regions generally more affluent than those in the South.

Traditionally, Napoli fans have been subjected to chants referring to crime, poverty and cholera outbreaks in the city.

Derby Della Capitale (Rome Derby)

The capital’s oldest team SS Lazio was founded in 1900. The club chose their colours (sky blue and white) as homage to the Greek flag and the Olympic ideals. The outstretched wings of the eagle on their crest signifies power, right back to the times of the Roman Empire and later when it became the symbol of fascism in Italy.

In the early years of the 20th century, Italy’s northern clubs dominated domestic success. AS Roma was founded in 1927 as an attempt by the fascist regime to challenge the footballing hegemony of the North and give the capital’s fans a source of pride.

Although, because of their rivalry with Lazio, Roma is often thought as a club founded on socialist ideals, this view is mistaken. The formation of the club was instigated by Italo Foschi, a secretary of the National Fascist Party; Roma played their games in the Stadio del Partito Nazionale Fascista for over a decade.

Unlike most intercity rivalries, the Derby della Capitale is not defined by a clear class divide, but by the perceived relationship of the clubs to the city.

Roma fans have always ridiculed Lazio’s choice of colours, or rather their choice not to adopt the city’s colours, despite being formed over a quarter of a century earlier. Romanisti are fervent in supporting the belief that they are the team that truly represents the capital. They carry the city’s name, colours and symbol. They claim that Lazio fans are ‘burini’ (peasants) – a derogatory term for agricultural folk not even from the capital itself, but from the villages and countryside in the outskirts.

Lazio, who took their name from the region in which Rome is located, drew the core of its support from Rome’s wealthier northern suburbs. This demographic association remains in place today and as such, their supporters continue to be cast as outsiders.

Historically, their differences have also been drawn along political lines, with Romanisti associated with the inner city left and Laziali with the suburban right.

However, contrary to popular belief it was the boys of AS Roma who were the first organised far-right ultras group in the city. Formed in 1972, the Boys were originally on the periphery due to their neo-fascist ideology. However, they gradually rose to prominence along with like-minded groups such as Opposta Fazione (Opposite Faction).

Lazio’s famous ultras group, the Irriducibili was formed in 1987. In a derby in the late ’90s, the Lazio fans brought a 160-foot banner to display to their crosstown rivals. It horrifically read: “Auschwitz is your town, the ovens are your houses.” Other banners read, “Squad of blacks, terrace of Jews.” The banner was a reference to Roma’s association with the Testaccio neighbourhood, which has a Jewish population.

Derby Della Madonnina (Milan Derby):

The Derby Della Madonnina takes its name from the golden Virgin Mary statue which overlooks the Piazza del Duomo in the city centre.

The Milan Football and Cricket Club, presently known as AC Milan, was founded in 1899. By 1908, a schism occurred that gave birth to the rivalry that still burns strongly today. A splinter group within the Milan club broke away and formed Internazionale Milano after a disagreement surrounding the use of foreign players. Internazionale was founded under the ethos of bringing foreign players to the club while AC retained a policy of fostering solely Italian-born footballers.

Inter quickly became the club of the Milanese bourgeoisie and wealthy industrialists whereas AC became the club of the working class.

Derby Della Mole (Turin Derby):

Named after the Mole Antonelliana, a major landmark in the city, the match between the two clubs represented until WWI the rivalry of two opposing social classes. Juventus, founded in 1897 by students of a prestigious high school in Turin, soon became connected to the bourgeoisie in the town especially after its bond with the Agnelli family.

With the mass migration to Turin, a major industrial centre of northern Italy, in the 1960s and 1970s, many fans of Juventus arrived from southern Italy and took up employment with the owners of FIAT.

Torino instead was born in 1906 from a division within Juventus. Dissidents who joined forces with another team from the city, Football Club Torinese, created the club that bears the city’s name. Torino would stand to represent the “original” spirit of Piedmont and to this day, it draws its supporters from a predominantly local fanbase, compared to Juventus which enjoys widespread support even outside of Italy.