Worth Reading: When the Beautiful Game Turns Ugly

Inter Ultras. Photo credit InvernoDreaming via Flickr Creative Commons

Italy is burning

You might have missed it because you’re not a sports fan generally.  Or you might have missed it because when you see headlines about soccer, your mind reads, “dflsjafdsahijfdsajldfsan.”  Regardless of the reason, there’s a good chance you missed Wright Thompson’s investigative article “When the Beautiful Game Turns Ugly: A Journey into the World of Italy’s Racist Soccer Thugs.” And that’s a shame.

As it turns out, soccer’s not much more than incidental to this piece; it just so happens that Italy’s soccer stadia offer particularly visible stages on which underlying social conflicts play out.  And these rifts run deep.  

Thompson’s article, which falls far more in the tradition of investigative social journalism than it does sportswriting, doesn’t just look at what (at least for American fans) are familiar, if challenging topics like immigration or race and sports.  Instead, Thompson delves into a surreal world of monkey chants, bananas thrown at players, and nausea-inducing echoes of the worst evils of 20th century fascism  To give only one example, Thompson recounts this grim encounter with one fan:

The Hooligan joins me, telling me his favorite chant, which, as a friend darkly will note later, manages the trick of both denying the Holocaust and taking credit for it: “The gas chambers didn’t exist, but if they did, they were painted blue and yellow [his club’s colors].”

What’s more, Thompson doesn’t stop at the gates of the stadium.  Sketch by sketch, image by image, he connects the dots to Italy’s politics, economy, and history. His probing work turns up deeply uncomfortable signs of festering racism everywhere, haunting us with the question, “Exactly what is going on here?”

Maybe the most important thing he accomplishes in this article is avoiding simple answers.  Is this the last gasp of old racist evils or the first harbinger of new ones?  Is this a loud but isolated anomaly or merely the most visible symptom of a much deeper and broader malignancy?  And, importantly, Thompson knows that he hasn’t penned the last word on the subject.  

Answering these kinds of questions will take a lot more than even Thompson’s lengthy article can manage, yet despite the article’s length and disturbing content, the questions he raises make the article too important to ignore.  

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