“I am relieved that both my sons have never stepped foot inside an Italian stadium,” wrote the Chief Press Officer of one of Italy’s top soccer clubs in a private email sent to me last week. He was commenting on the Anne Frank scandal that has shot Rome’s Lazio team into the headlines. What he had to say was telling, as it is his job to pack the stands with supporters.
Hard-core fans from Lazio had caused a furore when they plastered Rome’s Olimpico stadium ahead of a match with Cagliari, with stickers showing Anne Frank, the young Jewish diarist who died in Bergen-Belsen, wearing a shirt of arch rival Roma. When questioned on the issue, the press officer, who asked to remain nameless, told me, “I am grateful I don’t have to explain to my children why shameless hooligans continuously insult our institutions and attack other human beings simply because of the colour of their skin or their religion.” And it wasn’t, he added, just the hooligans who made him sick: “Every week,” he said, “I find the cowardly indifference of all the other supporters, who are not involved in the anti-Semitic abuse, simply outrageous.”
Racism in Italian football is so endemic, that some of the worst offenders no longer understand what the fuss is about. The “Irriducibili”, for example, one the most fascistic hooligan groups in Italy, issued a statement on the fan website “Lazio Press” expressing their surprise over the outcry that the stickers had prompted. “We are surprised our stickers raised so much media attention, as there are many other cases like this,” the statement reads. “The supporters of our enemy teams often target us with the same stickers, putting them up in our curva [the stand where Lazio’s hard-core supporters normally sit] and we certainly don’t whine like chickens and make a big fuss about it.”
Less than a week after the Anne Frank stickers sparked outrage in Italy, football fans in Germany picked up on the idea. Pictures of Anne Frank wearing a FC Schalke 04 shirt appeared on the walls in Dusseldorf, a city of over 600,000. The finger was pointed at Borussia Dortmund hooligans, who are renowned for their far-right political sympathies and their rivalry with Schalke. To date, no one has been charged for the act, but those responsible risk being persecuted heavily. Laws on anti-Semitism are strict in Germany, and Holocaust denial is considered a crime. Supporters of other teams—notably Lokomotive Leipzig—soon followed suit posting Anne Frank stickers adapted to local city rivalries on social networks. Officers from both teams released harsh-worded press-statements condemning the behaviour. Borussia Dortmund’s spokespeople told the Rheinische Post, “These stickers can barely be surpassed in their tastelessness; we distance ourselves from this action in the extreme.”
In both Italy and Germany, it is not uncommon to hear regular fans condoning hate-speech at soccer stadiums. They make the argument that it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. “This is the realm of freedom and irrationality,” an ultra fan once told me in Milan, as he made his way to the stadium. “I chant anti-Semitic slogans too, but just because group-leaders tell me to. I don’t mean it,” he added.
But while the idea of the soccer stadium as a joyfully anarchic arena where all speech is permitted can be enticing, it may also have an alienating effect. As an Italian football fan and a Jew, I have a long history of advocacy against anti-Semitism within my team Inter Milan’s support base. As a teenager, I spoke to both the President and the captain of the club I still love, asking them to do something to put a stop to it. They condemned it but sidestepped the issue, and to this day I have never heard them promise of taking concrete steps to tackle their fans anti-Semitism head on.
Jewish Lazio fans have felt a similar disappointment this week. Lazio’s president Claudio Lotito reacted to the rash of Anne Frank stickers by appearing at Rome’s Great Synagogue with a wreath of white and blue flowers, the team’s colours. The Italian Federation of Football (FIGC) ordered that passages from Anne Frank’s famous diary would be read ahead of last week’s matches in the Italian Serie A league. Captains would give copies of the book to each other. Lotito promised that he would take 200 of his ultras on a trip to Auschwitz every year but his promises were revealed as hot air when he was overheard calling his own apologies to the Jewish community in Rome “just a charade”.
“These gestures are idiotic, they will not solve anything, we need tough measures”, said Clemente Mimun, a prominent journalist who is a lifelong Lazio fan and a Jew, referring to measures taken by the FIGC. “I’m heart-broken to see fans from my own team behave like this. My pain is three-fold: I suffer because I’m Jewish, because I am a Lazio supporter, and because I made great efforts to stop anti-Semitism among Lazio fans, clearly in vain”.
Davide Lerner is an Italian freelance journalist reporting on the Middle East and Turkey for Haaretz English and the Italian La Stampa. His coverage of the March 2016 terrorist attacks in Brussels earned him a prize from the Italian Higher Chamber of Deputies. He can found on Twitter: @DavideLerner.