Mussolini's Team 

The stadium scene.
Sept. 11 2001 3:00 AM

Mussolini's Team 

The Shalom Cup, held last week, was the most unlikely soccer tournament in the world. Not because it showcased Jewish soccer players, including Maccabi Haifa, one of the few stellar Israeli sides. What made the Shalom Cup truly unlikely was its host: the Roman club S.S. Lazio.

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Although the S.S. stands for societá sportiva, Lazio merits the abbreviation's worst connotations. Of all the clubs in Europe, each with its own goon squad of skinhead supporters, Lazio fans are easily the most racist, anti-Semitic, pro-fascist, and despicable of the bunch. The management of Lazio intended the Shalom Cup to be both an act of reparations and public relations. But even in the club's moment of contrition, Lazio's fans couldn't suppress their hate. Four days before the tournament, the team's anti-Semitic fan clubs (called ultras) announced they would boycott the pro-Semitic cup. When a relatively mediocre Ivory Coast club beat mighty Lazio to hoist the Shalom trophy, a pathetic crowd of 10,000 fans bothered to show up.

Lazio has always had unsavory connections and a spot on the brownshirts' end of the political spectrum. Mussolini adored the team, frequently appearing in the stands. Il Duce even built Lazio's current stadium, replacing the old Stadio del Partito Nazionale Fascista. In part, Mussolini was drawn to Silvio Piola, the team's unstoppable striker. But the fascists had a deeper attraction to the club. Founded in 1900 by Italian army officers, the club shrouded itself in a martial ethos. The team's logo, a strident-looking eagle, looks as if it could have been ripped off of one of Mussolini's caps. And with its north Rome fan base, Lazio attracted the conservative shopkeepers and bumpkins who constituted fascism's rank and file.

As the memory of Mussolini has grown distant, Lazio's affection for fascism has increased. Rightist parties like the old Alleanza Nazionale treated the team's stadium as their recruiting grounds. In the '80s, the ultras' politics acquired a racist, xenophobic bent as Italy attracted immigrants and Italian soccer attracted Brazilian and African players. New venomous slogans and banners began appearing in the Curva Nord, the ultra section of Lazio's stadium. Before one game last year, police seized 60 different racist and anti-Semitic banners but missed several large ones, including a 50-meter-long banner that taunted fans from a cross-town rival by declaring that they had a "Black Squad, Jewish Home End." At another match against Roma, the opponents were greeted with a sign that told them, "Auschwitz is your town, the ovens your houses." The ultras have been known to appropriate the Nazi font when spelling the "S.S." in S.S. Lazio. And when watching Lazio's matches on the Fox Sports World cable network, you can still catch glimpses of Mussolini's visage adoringly displayed by the crowd.

The ultras aren't merely making political statements. They like to put their slogans into action. During the previous two seasons, police tied Lazio's ultras to several acts of domestic terrorism. One planted a bomb at a museum dedicated to Italy's World War II resistance. Rome police also defused a Lazio bomb at a theater showing a documentary on Adolf Eichmann. On other occasions, Lazio fans have desecrated Jewish cemeteries and beaten players from opposing teams. Even by the appalling standards of European soccer, Lazio fans are object lessons in amorality.

Remarkably, Lazio reflects its fans' sentiments. Unlike Roma or almost every other team in the Series A, Lazio's roster is devoid of black players. When it once imported one, Dutchman Aron Winter, he quickly left after the team's fans hounded him with chants of "nigger Jew." Rather suspiciously, nearly all of Lazio's current foreign imports hail from countries with fascist pasts—Chile, Argentina, and Serbia. The team's defender, Sinisa Mihajlovic, unabashedly trumpets his devotion to Slobodan Milosevic and his friendship with the Serbian paramilitary leader Arkan, whose band of thugs raped and pillaged their way across Bosnia. When Arkan was killed, Mihajlovic placed a wistful memorial notice in a Belgrade daily.

If that didn't convince Lazio's management to distance themselves from Mihajlovic—or, better yet, ship him back to Belgrade—his behavior on the field should have. Last season, a player of Senegalese descent accused Mihajlovic of calling him a "fucking black monkey." (Asked about the allegations, he replied: "I called him black shit. I didn't call him black monkey.") Alas, Lazio's punishment of Mihajlovic amounted to little more than a forced public apology. His coach even defended him: "I don't know whether you can call it racism. It's just making fun of someone." And moments after Mihajlovic made the apology, at a home game, fans began making monkey noises every time a Nigerian player touched the ball.

For a time, the embarrassment of Lazio could be hidden. The team wallowed in the middle of the Italian table. But in the late '90s it emerged as a European powerhouse, winning the UEFA Cup and lo scudetto, the national championship. Lazio's rise has come at the expense of the league's health, and the club's ethos has infected the entire culture of Italian soccer. Some of Italy's best players, including Zinedine Zidane, have fled to the better behaved, higher quality Spanish league. Others, like the magnificent Brazilian Cafu, have bemoaned the racism and openly considered leaving Italy behind. Even Lazio's President Sergio Cragnotti talks about his club in tones of disgust, calling its fans "imbeciles," and frequently threatens resignation. After handing the Africans the Shalom cup, however, he briefly cheered up and even described the moment as a "sign of civilization." It was Lazio's first.

Franklin Foer is editor at large of the New Republic. He is the author of How Soccer Explains the World.