Earlier this year, the racist abuse that Moise Kean was subjected to whilst playing for Juventus at Cagliari, once again brought Italian football’s fascistic and racist tendencies into sharp focus.
The incident was indicative of a wider recent trend, whereby fascism is experiencing somewhat of a resurgence among football supporters in the country. Stylistically, ultras across Italy have embraced the wearing of black shirts, whilst a number of supporter groups’ headquarters proudly display huge images of Benito Mussolini.
Whilst the relationship between football and fascism may have received a spike in attention recently, they have always been historically linked. After coming to power in 1922 following the March on Rome, the Fascist Regime ruled in Italy until 1943, with football coming to represent one of the state’s most potent propaganda tools. By examining Fascist Italy through the lens of Calcio, some of the central tenants of the regime’s propaganda can be discerned.
In the preliminary years of the Fascist regime, Mussolini had minimal interest in Italian football. The early 1920s were an uncertain time for the PNF (The Italian Fascist Party), with Il Duce’s attention being consumed by the suppression of political opposition and the establishment of his political power.
These two processes came to a climax in 1924, when prominent critic of the regime: Giacomo Matteotti, was murdered by a group of Fascists. In protest of this barbaric act, the Fascist opposition walked out of parliament in an attempt to force Mussolini from power. The event would become known as the Aventine Secession.
This symbolic rejection of Fascist rule proved to be a horrific misstep, with Mussolini exploiting the lack of dissent within parliament to consolidate his rule, and lay the foundations of an autocracy that would rule Italy for twenty years.
With his power now assured, Mussolini turned his attention to the ‘fascistisation’ of the Italian people. The PNF desired a united, fascist national community, in which regional identities were superseded by the perceived notion of superior Italian nationality. Leisure organisations such as the ONB, similar to the Hitler Youth, and the OND, were set up in an attempt to indoctrinate the Italian people into subscribing to this hyper-nationalist ideal.
Soon after the advent of these organisations, Mussolini recognised the potential that football possessed in conveying fascist ideology to the Italian people. Calcio was the most popular sport in the country and its propagandistic potential was far too enticing for Mussolini to ignore any longer.
Italian club football, however, was in a dire state by the time that the Fascists intervened in the sport. Matches were fraught with violence, with this aggression often dramatically affecting the result of games. Fascist scholar Simon Martin has highlighted one match between Bologna and Genoa as a particularly horrific instance of this occurring. During the game, the local fascist militia in Bologna stormed onto the pitch wielding guns, following a contentious refereeing decision.
Unsurprisingly this led to the official reversing his call, and Bologna went on to secure a narrow win that confirmed their promotion. Occasions such as this led to a refereeing strike in 1926, which was only resolved by Fascist intervention in the same year.
The regime sought to reimagine Calcio to reflect their ‘revolutionary concept of government’, whilst also bringing crowd disorder under control. The FIGC (Federazione Italiana Giuco del Calcio) was set up, replacing the existing football governing body. This new Fascist controlled body was afforded complete autonomy over all footballing matters, with its power stemming directly from Mussolini himself. The authoritarian nature of the FIGC replaced the former system in which each club was afforded a vote on matters of football governance. The new organisation reflected the Fascist rejection of bourgeois deliberation and democracy and encouragement of unquestioning obedience to a strong leader.
The FIGC set out their footballing vision in a document called the Carta di Viareggio. The league structure itself one of the key aspects to be changed by the Carta. These changes were conducted according to Fascist principles. Over a three year period that culminated in 1929, the FIGC created the Lega Nazionale (National League).
This put an end to the regionalism of the Italian league system and ensured that all of the best clubs in the country competed in one nationalised league structure. This was a tool that the regime hoped would create a strong, fascist national community across the entire country, and bring an end to the localism that was threatening Mussolini’s influence.. Napoli, whose fans are traditionally associated with having a strong Neapolitan cultural identity, were brought into the national set up in a committed attempt to erode these regional differences. Palermo and Catania were also forced into competing in this national league in order to weaken their supporters’ Sicilian identities.
In spite of these attempts, the regime’s hopes to promote a uniform, Fascist Italian identity, were in the most part hindered rather than helped by the restructuring of club football. Football disorder remained common during this time, with Martin attributing this partly to the continued existence of localised rivalries.
This is hardly surprising. Regardless of the quality of Fascist propaganda, manufacturing consent to the regime in the midst of the cesspit of tribalism that was football in the 1930s was bound to be nigh on impossible. A Juventus fan’s first thought when Napoli score a last-minute winner was far more likely to be: ‘Not again, I hate those Southern degenerates!’, than the desired ‘Woah! What a sporting spectacle, up the Fascists and up Il Duce! Italia forever!’
Despite these failures, the Fascists continued to shape Calcio in line with its grotesque principles. Fascist xenophobia reared its ugly head in 1927 when all foreign players were banned from competing in the newly formed national league system. This rule was celebrated by Mussolini as having been instrumental in ensuring the development of Italy’s World Cup-winning squads of 1934 and 1938.
The truth is more complicated. Although foreign players had been banned, a significant amount of Italy’s championship-winning teams were in fact first-generation Italian immigrants, demonstrating the limits to Mussolini’s claims that the victory was proof of Italian’s biological superiority.
The Fascists also attempted to alter popular language in order to emphasise the strictly ‘Italian’ nature of football. Propaganda rejected the English origins of the sport and claimed that it was derived from an ancient Italian game instead. The language used during the game was also given Italian alternatives. Terms such as ‘goal kick’, ‘corner’ and ‘handball’, were all rejected for their non-Italian origins and were translated to be more suitable. These translations were clunky and cumbersome. They could only be popularised through the regime’s extensive investment in radio commentary. Unsurprisingly, the changes did not survive the regime’s downfall in 1943.
One legacy that Fascism did leave behind was the regime’s commitment to the construction of football stadia. Bologna’s Stadio Littoriale, Fiorentina’s Stadio Artemio Franchi and Torino’s Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino, were all constructed under the reign of Mussolini and remain in operation to this day. Although this spike in stadia building is partly explained by the requirements for Italy to host the 1934 World Cup, the arenas were also hoped to serve a potent propaganda purpose during the club season.
In 1928, the Fascist government set out a series of guidelines in which they committed themselves to constructing large, but cheap stadia in each of the major Italian cities. These stadiums would form the sites of the regime’s attempts to further coordinate the Italian people’s leisure time. Crowds were bombarded with hyper-nationalist propaganda prior to the match, as the Fascists’ continued to target football as a vessel for its ideology. Each game was prefaced with significant Fascist liturgy. Salute? Check. Fascist anthem? Of course. Flags? Absolutely. At some fixtures, Il Duce even appeared himself, serenading the capacity crowds with his xenophobic bile.
Therefore, by creating an abundance of football stadiums, the regime aimed to create the ideal space with which to circulate their propaganda and ‘fascistise’ the Italian people’s leisure time. The stadia themselves also performed a far more subtle role in the regime’s propaganda. Architecturally, the arenas were specifically designed to reflect the Fascist ideology. A rejection of the bourgeois exclusivity of the theatre that Mussolini despised, the stadia were deliberately open and expansive, in order to encourage mass attendance and maximise the spectacle of speeches and other liturgical practices.
The architecture also reflected the regime’s attempts to promote the idea of Italian historical superiority. Stadia specifically made allusions to Ancient Rome in their design. For instance, through the use of white materials which resembled classical marble, albeit a far cheaper alternative. The idea of the glories of Rome reflecting Italian superiority was a recurrent theme in Mussolini’s speeches, and the Fascist’s control over football spectating was an extension of this important trope.
The continued use of these stadiums represents a permanent reminder of the Fascist regime for Italy’s modern-day football audience. Officially, fascist control of football ceased in 1943. However, incidents such as those involving Moise Kean, combined with a fringe of supporters’ sustained admiration for Il Duce, suggests that Calcio’s relationship with fascism continues to run far deeper than the stadia in which it is played. It is time for Italian football to come to terms with its fascistic past and seek to create a more hopeful future. A future in which allusions to xenophobia, racism and fascism are confined to the history books.
Latza Nadeau, Barbie. ‘Fascism and Football: Death and Hatred in the Soccer Stadium’. Daily Beast, 29 December, 2018
Jones, Tobias. ‘Fascism is Thriving Again in Italy.’ The Guardian, 29 December, 2018.
Martin, Simon. Football and Fascism: The National Game Under Mussolini (Oxford: Berg, 2004).