Posted by: 4initalia | October 8, 2009

Game On

Bologna Flags: As Cool As Foam Fingers?

At an Italian soccer game, (Bologna v. Genoa),  the Italian obsession with security made me a little insecure. It starts before you get into the stadium. On the way in, we passed a van full of carabinieri, Italian military police, who looked ready for a medium-sized war. Unlike the relatively wimpy Polizia Municipale, city cops, who look and dress like bus drivers, carabinieri are heavily armed. The jauntiness of their berets is offset by lethal weapons – machine guns and pistols. And their rigid faces convey  the reassuring warmth of oncoming tanks in Tiananmen Square.

But the van guards were just the vanguard. Most of the parking spots on the street along the stadium were taken by the vehicles of  polizie and carabinieri. It felt like we had a formal invitation to the end of the world.

Fans are permitted to enter the stadium through only one door: the one closest to your seat.  To enter, we handed our tickets to a smiling matron who slid the bar codes over a super-cool 007 glass panel. That released a high-tech revolving door, an iron pole studded with steel spikes. When the spikes swung shut,  we were sealed inside the stadium with Italian soccer fans, and military and city police, who were there to stop the fans from doing whatever it is cops expected the fans to do.

What fun?

The stadium holds 39,000 people. It’s slightly more modern than the Coliseum: the seats are molded plastic fanny rests glued onto gray concrete.

In addition to soccer, the stadium holds track and field events, so the soccer field sits inside a ring of running track. Positioned all along the track was a ring of security guys. They wore bright yellow vests and construction hats and sat on buckets to watch the crowd for signs of trouble. Security guys were also posted all the way up the stairs in all four quadrants of the stadium. Under the vests, they wore street clothes, so you got the feeling that next week, these same guys are still going to be looking for a fight, but from slightly more comfortable seats.

The game had already started, and because soccer is played in two forty-five minute halves with no chance to stop the clock, the game was actually going to end. Limiting the games to ninety minutes must save the Italians a fortune on overtime expenses for all those cops. Italians use the extra money to fund socialized medicine, so they can provide free medical care for guys who get hurt in fights as soon as the police leave. Soccer is very efficient.

Italian soccer is very different than American baseball. The most startling difference is the relative silence. American sports fans are bombarded by a constant wall of sound. There’s a booming announcer, a leering organ, pulses of music, calls to “MMMAAAAke SSOOOOOooommmme NNNOOOOOOIIIIIISSSSSE!!!!” Every time a baseball player passes gas, the Jumbotron blares with his lifetime stats and maudlin backstory. Vendors passing within feet of the fans cajole the crowd to buy food and drinks. American baseball fans are never left alone long enough to realize that they spent six hours and $130 to watch chunky guys pick at their clothing while nothing happens.

Soccer is quiet. In the soccer stadium, the only time the announcer spoke was when he announced a score or a penalty. Occasionally the score board chimed gently to announce a score from another game. But otherwise, the fans were left to their own devices.

With no sports-otainment, Bologna fans just watch the game. There are no mindless color-coded races of a sponsor’s product. “Which coooooolor Haaaaaarley will wiiiinnnn????” There are no roving cameras to catch fans watching themselves on the Jumbotron. There are no mascots, no naked beer-barrel guys, no huge foam fingers waving maniacally. No waaaaves. Or announcer-led song fests, or even half-time shows. Weirdly, Italians go to a soccer match to be entertained by…soccer.

And they don’t eat themselves into a stupor. We arrived twenty minutes into the first half, and when we sat down, I didn’t see anyone near us eating. Anything. I did see a few 16 oz. drink cups, but no one was drinking from them. In an American stadium, at any point in a game, about a third of the fans are walking to and from their seats, on a quest to consume or deconsume vats of food and drink. But in the soccer stadium, the whole time the players were on the field, people remained seated. At half-time, about 40% of the fans got up, to find a cop, or to visit the snack bar. But Italians are really only going to get a snack.

Our stadiums are ringed with restaurants that serve heart-stopping fast food of every description, but not Bologna’s. One stand served only Coke in paper cups, and had one of those clump o’ customers that make Americans wonder why Italians can’t form lines like regular people. Andy and the kids found another stand, with a real line, that sold Coke and a snack product called Stella Chips. Stella Chips are made from fried potatoes that are molded into a ruffled disc the size and shape of a crenallated Catholic Host. And that’s how they taste, but maybe those are the ones they sell on Sunday.

There was a family seated in front of me. At halftime, the dad braved the snack bar. He brought back food for himself, his wife, his parents, and his eight year old son. Five people shared: two sodas, a box of fried Host, and a small bag of pistachios. They finished the chips, ate half the pistachios, and re-sealed the bag. On my left, a two-burly-guy combo plowed through a drink each, a box of fried Hosts, and a small ice cream cone. Americans would starve at a Bologna soccer match.

So Bologna fans don’t watch themselves, or eat, they watch the game. The watch the game, and get mad. The Bologna fans were getting mad because they were losing, and clearly that was an affront to their civic pride and to their manhood. The Genovese were waving their manhood at the Bolognese. I don’t think the Bologna fans appreciated that.

Seated next to us was a squat man, whose face and scalp were a single roiling scab of boiled skin that unhinged at the jaw to let him scream. Sitting silently beside Signor Bollente was his teenage son, a studious-looking boy who wrapped his scarf around his face to protect himself from cigarette smoke, or maybe flying spittle, from his crazed father.

Signor Bollente followed every moment of the game, and was enraged by most of it. He yelled at the refs, the players, and the Genovese. At one point, he fell two rows into the seats below us, but he got right back up and started shouting again. He used all the swear words I had learned as a toddler, from my dad. In a lovely moment, a Bolognese fan in his twenties looked up to shake his head at the crazy man. We exchanged looks, and started laughing. “What’s up with that guy?” Italian soccer fans don’t boo when they’re mad, they whistle. There was a lot of whistling. But to me, their anger sounded like cheering. I so don’t understand sports.

Instead of foam fingers, the Italians waved flags. Big beautiful ones, red and blue for the Bolognese, a yellow shield on a blue background for the Genovese. The banners rippled gracefully across the stands. Beneath the fluttering flags, there was singing. These songs were mournfully lyrical, songs about home. The teams for both fans sounded like soldiers on their way to war. Deep voices joined and ready for battle seemed a little more dignified than the Bronco’s naked barrel guy belting out “Hey, Baby…I wanna knoooow, will you be my girl….”

Bologna was losing, Genova was gloating, and the game was coming to a close. I wondered about all those cops: Where were they, and why were they here? I saw that the Genoa fans were held in what could only be described as a cage: The visitor section was fenced in by iron mesh walls twenty feet high; a shoulder-high barrier was topped by steel spikes, and a line of security guys blocked access to the entrance.

And then I understood that all the precautions are meant for the moment when somebody loses and somebody wins, when the fans meet outside, and those beautiful city songs are still ringing in everyone’s ears. Unlike American sports fans, Italian soccer fans have met not just on the field of dreams, but on the field of battle. Italy has been unified only since 1861. For hundreds of years, Italian city-states were at war; for centuries, men from these same towns raped and pillaged and fought to the death. That’s why my name and passport number was printed on my ticket, that’s why the visiting team was caged, and that’s why the carabinieri were prepared for combat: they were ready for fans who forget it’s just a game.

As Signor Bollente and his studious son walked past the jeering Genovese, the teenager hurled his paper cup at the steel mesh wall. For his sake, I was glad that the carbinieri were outside.

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