Italian professional soccer is built along the principles of one major league, the A league; then, a minor league, the B league; then, the very minor leagues, the C1 and C2 league. Each league has 18 teams; at the end of each season, the last 4 teams in the A league are "sent down" to the B league, and the top four in the B league move up. Similarly, the bottom four in the B league exchange places with the top four in the C1 league, and so forth with C2. In theory, then, even a small-town team can win its way up from the bottom of the minors through the B league and into the A league, where it, too, will then have a shot at the national title. That seldom happens, but the hope of being just such a "Cinderella" team keeps soccer in small towns going. Conversely, a big-city, once high-and-mighty team such as Naples can lose its way down and out of the A league and into the B league. That happened in the late 1990s to Naples. They struggled back up to the A league for a season and then went down again to the B league.
The salad days of Neapolitan soccer were in the 1980s and early 90s, a period in which Argentine superstar, Diego Maradona, led Naples to two national championships. In those days, streets on a Sunday afternoon after a home game were either full of flag-waving, horn-tooting celebrations of victory or glum fans wandering slowly home, wondering just what had gone wrong. Fan involvement was intense.
Things have gone very wrong in the last few years, and any sort of soccer emotion at all is noticeably absent. There are few victories to speak of, and no one seems to care about the defeats. Only a few thousand diehard fans even bothered to show up at the giant San Paolo stadium yesterday to watch Naples play Lecce. It was just as well—it was a 1-1 tie. That draw added one measly point to Naples' total in the league standings (a victory counts 3 points) and left them still mired fourth from the bottom in what is called the "demotion zone". BUT—it is the demotion zone of the B league! Naples is at the gates of true soccer obscurity—the C league, as minor as you can get in Italian professional soccer.
If Naples goes down to the C
league, it will be the first time that has
happened since the league system was set up in
its current form back in the 1920s. This morning
at the local coffee-bar, cynics were joking
about being in the C league next season, where
they might be able to win a game or two—maybe
against that powerhouse team from the island of
Ischia. They can play on the beach where the few
remaining fans will be able to watch in comfort
from the roadside. The certainly won't need San
Paolo stadium (photo, above) anymore.
entry Dec. 2002
Those who have listened to sporting events on radio know just how good announcers are at letting you know what's going on down on the field. In soccer:
"...Rossi takes the pass ... dribbles across midfield... long cross into Bernardi ... in the center ... 20 meters out.....past a defender... 15 meters out.... into the penalty area.... he loses it to Symien ... Symienkie... the Polish defender .... long boot back upfield .... headed back by Renaldo ... foul on Renaldo for pushing off on Stakov ... ridiculous... he didn't touch him! ...oh well... ball back in play at midfield..."
It's generally an efficient and steady--almost breathless-- stream of patter with very little "dead" air-time. You can almost see it. That's the point, obviously --if you can't see the field, you want to know what's going on, and there are still radio-trained sportscasters who are good at telling you. Unfortunately, younger announcers, who have grown into their professions as TV broadcasters, are short on the gift of gab. So what, you say? You have the TV screen? Not necessarily. Naples home-games are blacked out, but a local TV station holds a TV panel discussion during the game. The current debates are all about what's wrong with the team— they can't win any games! (Naples tied Palermo at home, the other day. Another disaster.)
Every few minutes, the panel stops raging and ruminating long enough to switch to the stadium for an update. Since they are not permitted to broadcast any of the actual game, you see no field, no players—just pan shots of the fans—and then shots of two announcers giving their blow-by-blow:
"...oh ... look at that.... that was close .....oops....c'mon!... hey, you know, I remember a game in 1998 where ... say, Mario, look at those fans over there... they seem to be setting fire to the stadium... well, back to the studio..."
not only cannot almost see it; you can't even
almost hear it! You are watching others
watch the game! In such situations, throwing a
chair through a TV screen is no longer the
satisfying experience it once was.
The term “Hooligan” apparently derives from an English music hall song of the 1890s describing a rowdy Irish family. It may be a variant spelling of the family name, “Hoolihan” or “Houlihan”. It is not clear if Mark Twain, in The Gilded Age (published in 1873), was using it in a pejorative sense in a reference in that book to a fictitious novel he invented called The Hooligans of Hackensack. In any case, by 1898, the word was used in the British press in its current, generic meaning of “rowdy”. The word got a good work-out in the form of “hooliganism” in the Soviet Union to describe general anti-social, anti-Soviet behavior, such as loafing on street corners and making snide comments about the next 5-year plan. The word has been taken up into Italian (from the English use of “football hooligans”) as a synonym for those roughnecks who show up at soccer matches just to fight and cause trouble. It is more than a bit hypocritical of Italians to choose a foreign term; it’s as if they are saying, “We’re so well-behaved at sporting events that we haven’t even got a word to describe that kind of behavior; therefore, we cannot behave like that.” The linguistic determinism underlying that is dubious. Belay that—it’s wrong, but don’t get me started on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.
The violence is almost always related to the behavior of fans. They show up in masks so police cameras can’t identify them, carry tire-irons, throw bombs onto the field, and are so prone to violence in the stands that police units have to be stationed strategically to keep opposing rooting sections apart. International soccer events can be particularly egregious, as if the fans were acting on some bizarre paraphrase of Clausewitz: “Sports is the continuation of war by other means.” (“Maybe we can’t invade you anymore, but just wait till I get you out in the parking lot!”) Anyone who has ever been to a soccer match in Naples knows that the stadium is always on the verge of boiling over into violent behavior. Just a few weeks ago, a member of a visiting team was stabbed by a fan in the parking lot outside the stadium after the game. True, individual players on the field may fly off the handle sometimes—maybe push, shove, throw a punch, make obscene gestures to each other or even to the crowd, but that is generated by the heat of the moment and is uncommon.
More to the point, here, is that I don’t know of an episode of collective hooliganism on the part of a team, itself, directed against the other team, the fans, or, say, the referees. Maybe it just goes without saying that adult professional players couldn’t get away with that kind of behavior on the field. The players would certainly be expelled from the game, and—if it really were a case of a whole team being involved—the team could then be banned from the league.
Kids, on the other hand, can get away with it. There are in Naples, as elsewhere in the world, junior leagues for the young to hone their skills in a variety of sports. There is an active youth soccer league in Naples for 11–and 12–year–olds. The teams bear the names of local neighborhoods in the area, and the game last week was between Bagnolese and Virgilio. The game was apparently heading towards a 3-3 tie, when, in the closing minutes, the referee saw what he judged to be a penalty in the area of the goal. He blew his whistle and awarded a free kick on goal. These are a gift and almost always score.
these leagues also serve to train the sports
officials of the future, the referee of the game
was, himself, only 15. When he called the
penalty in favor of the home team, the members
of the other team resorted to a typical
12–year–old solution: they swarmed over and beat
him up! He had to be rescued by adult bystanders
and taken home by his mother. One adult
spectator attributed this new kind of
“hooliganism” to the tendency of the media to
dwell on violence in sports rather than on the
game, itself. Kids watch a lot of tv.
There are any number of things that will cause popular discontent, civil unrest, and marauding bands of pitchfork-bearing peasants to start overturning the king's coaches on the highways. Hunger is one, as is taxation without representation, but in Naples, getting flim-flammed out of your rightful place in the football leagues will do the trick quite nicely. If what happened the other day had happened at any other time of the year, there might have been real trouble. It is no accident that the news broke in the middle of August, when the whole city is somewhere else on vacation, and the few stay-at-homes are sweltering in the worst heat-wave in decades.
Another entry [top of this page] explains, roughly, how the Italian football leagues are set up. At the end of last season, a couple of months ago, Naples pulled out a couple of victories to finish near the bottom of the "B" football league. True, that is a long, long way from the glories of the 1980s and 90s when the team actually won the "A" league championship twice and was a competitor in most other years, but playing in the "B" league is a lot better than demotion to the "C" league, which is one step above the semi-pro and amateur leagues. That would have happened had Naples not won those few games at the end of last season. So, generally speaking, Naples football fans were, if not happy, at least relieved.
Now comes the news that the team is to be relegated to the "C" league for next reason due not to anything that happened on the playing field, but to a decision by a judge that the team's "papers" are not in order. In order to take part in the season every year, teams are required to pay a fee. That payment is backed by a third-person guarantor. A judge has determined that, in the case of Naples, the document attesting to the guarantee is invalid due to an invalid signature.
Such documents are not mere formalities in Italian sports, and there have been cases of entire teams being punished for irregularities. The punishment, in this case, is that Naples is sent down to the "C" league. The open slot in the "B" league will be filled by Catania, the Sicilian team that was contending with Naples last season in the league standings to keep out of last place to avoid being sent down to the "C" league. Naples made it; Catania didn't. Those results have now been reversed by the recent decision. Naples has a very short time—a few days—to appeal the decision, because the playing season is about to start. The crux of the appeal will be, one, that there was nothing wrong with the guarantor's papers and, two, that the judge who ruled against Naples is from Catania.
judge in question anticipated some of that in
this morning's paper. "It is irrelevant that I
am from Catania," he says. "I'm not a sports
fan. The last time I set foot in a stadium was
in 1974. I'm a judge. I apply the law."
Since I last mentioned the topic, someone has managed to patch up the disastrous situation in the Italian soccer leagues. Naples was on the verge of being relegated to the C-League on the basis of a legal decision about the validity of a signature on a document. That decision was appealed and overturned, which left some people happy, others unhappy, and almost everyone confused. No one seemed to know which teams would go down to the C League and which would be promoted to the B League. As a result of that confusion, several of the B League teams refused to play their opening matches two weeks ago.
The situation was resolved by trying
to make everyone happy; that is, no one would
go down to the C League—the B League would
just be expanded to include all the
would-have-been demotees. So far, so good.
Alas, the teams that didn't play the first
week have started out somewhat in the hole in
the league standings. The scoring rules give a
team 3 points for a victory, 1 for a draw and
0 for a loss. The fine print also reads "loss
of a point for a forfeit"—that is, refusing to
play in the first place. Thus, some teams
started out this season with a minus 1. So
maybe not everyone was happy, but I did say,
long nightmare is over. No, not the
problem with garbage pick-up, but rather
something much more important than public
health: I hear by the infernal racket of
cheering fans outside on the streets that
Naples has finally fought its way back up into
the Football A-League. This, after a number of
years in the B-League and almost the C-League
(which is about as minor league as you can get
without wrapping newspaper in tape to use as a
ball while you play in a parking lot).