Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Italian Policing of Football Matches – a Charlton Perspective

It was quite horrendous to watch the scenes involving Italian police a few weeks back during the Champions League game between Roma and Manchester United, and my thoughts turned to my own trip to watch Charlton play in Italy in 1993.

Now this was the Anglo-Italian Cup, and not the Champions League, so there has to be some perspective drawn, but the comparisons are valid.

Charlton were to play Ancona, a sleepy east coast town half-way down the right hand side of Italy. This was the second adventure to Italy that year for Charlton and their fans (I hadn’t been able to make the first trip to Brescia), but the first where we would score a goal!

I remember the day very well; Early in the morning, I walked from my parents house to the New Eltham training ground, where the coach to Gatwick was meeting us. It was November, and quite cold, but a spooky mist sat on the football pitches there, and you could look down and see the top of the fog from inside the coach. We set off in jovial mood, and the check in and flight went quite well.

We flew over the Alps, and on past Rome to Ancona – the team we were playing that night. The local airport is an Air Force base converted to take commercial flights (as well as still remaining an Air Force post). We had a great view of the town as we circled overhead (see top pic), and eventually landed. The airport was quite small, and they really didn’t seem to be ready for a hundred or so football fans (or even tourists) to arrive from abroad; I think they usually only had Piper Cherokees landing with the odd-business person aboard.

Having completed formalities, we boarded a couple of coaches and headed into town. Arriving into town at midday, on a lovely late summers day, most fans headed for a bar.

I chose though to venture off and walk around the town. I remember taking photos of nice buildings, and trekking up the large hill in the centre of town; I guess most people were at work as it was very quiet everywhere. Even the docks down below seemed almost shut…

Having wandered to the highest point of the area, I sauntered down to the main square again (where the buses were parked) and tried to get some lunch. I wasn’t too adventurous and mainly through pointing and smiling bought a cheese sandwich or similar (How many Lire???).

I then fancied a beer, so found a nice looking bar to sit in, and found that a few Charlton fans had made it their home since arriving. All three were a little worse for wear already, and getting noisier, so after one beer, I left and found somewhere else a little quieter.

The coaches were picking us up around 4pm as a trip along the coast had been arranged, but departure was delayed as news seeped out that the three noisy fans in the bar had been arrested. Rumours had it that they had got rather loud in their singing, and a glass had been broken (possibly accidentally...). In turn, the bar owner called the police and they had been carted off to the local nick with no messing.

I think there were some sort of negotiations going on between the police and the Supporters Club representatives which held our departure up, but eventually off we went down the coast.

Late afternoon on the Aegean coast was quite fun. We drove down for about an hour, and stopped at a small bay, underneath some cliffs. We all just hung around for the best part of an hour watching a shaggy black dog getting wet in the sea, then got back on the coach to drive back into Ancona. There was nothing else to see or do (it was too cold by now to go swimming...).

Back in town, we headed back into the central square again, had another quick beer, then back on the coaches, drove off under police escort to the stadium.

Bearing in mind it was an 8pm kick-off, we arrived at the ground about right, just after 7pm. The bad news was that the police insisted we stay on the coaches until just before kick-off. I was actually the second fan off the coach and the first through the turnstile – my bladder almost bursting! I ran into the stadium and shouted at a steward to tell me where the loo was! Soon after practically the whole coach load was relieving themselves in the small toilet area; after a few hours drinking, then an hour sitting going nowhere, this wasn’t the best policy for the police to adopt. You can imagine what might happen if a coach load off Man Utd fans were treated similarly!

After the balmy afternoon (where I’d actually been sunburnt), the evening turned quite cold.

The ground was a bit surreal, and not very full! I think only 1500 fans bothered to come along, so we were not exactly hemmed in by local fans, even if we were by the towering fences (see below). There was some banter though, all pretty good-natured - one hilarious sight was an apparent arrangement whereby a Charlton fan and an Italian counterpart would exchange shirts. Much hand waving and international gesturing seemed to confirm the deal, but when the Charlton shirt went over the fence, nothing came back apart from wry smiles!

Charlton fell behind after a goalkeeping error (not picking up back-passes was still pretty new), but then equalised when Carl Leaburn strode onto a pass and stroked home. The game finished all square, our Anglo-Italian Cup adventure over for another year, and we headed back to the coaches.

Here, security seemed to break down a little, as Italian fans clambered aboard to shake hands and to make friends with their new best mates, and maybe pick up the odd additional shirt as a souvenir! No police seemed to be around or involved in controlling this, which was strange…again, imagine that happening to Man U fans! Thankfully, it was all good natured and there was no trouble.

We eventually got back to the airport, where we were herded into line, and the atmosphere suddenly changed for the worse. Now very much under police control, but off the coaches, you could sense that it wouldn’t take much to break the ice and get a whack as a leaving present from the Carabinieri. As we stood waiting, a side-door was opened and out came the three middle-aged guys who had been arrested at the bar earlier that afternoon. Not only had they missed the match, but they had obviously had a complete and thorough beating for their trouble. All had cuts and bad bruises to the face, and bloody lips and noses. They huddled back into the group but nobody really spoke in case the police decided to make an example of someone else.

We eventually got back on board the plane, and flew home. The players also flew home with the fans, but didn’t endear themselves too much as they spent much of the flight buying up all the duty free goods, and thereby stopping everyone else from stocking up on booze/fags.

The coaches had been delayed getting to Gatwick, so we had another wait, and I think we got back to New Eltham about 3.30am.

I believe that the three who were arrested were later banned for life from the club, but this ban was lifted when the full story of why they were nicked, and their beating came out.

You can therefore understand why, some years later, it’s not unusual for the police in Italy to still enjoy bruising a few heads, getting boozed up fans defenceless in locked rooms and beating them up. I’m just surprised people are still amazed that it happens.

As a fan, I’d love Charlton to be playing in European competition, but having experienced the grief, and seen even worse on TV recently, I’m not sure if we would actually take too many fans abroad these days. It’s just not worth the bother…

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