Apologists for the far right in the game are not 'characters', they're more dangerous than that
by Steven Wells
It's been an odd Euro 2008 soccerfest-watching experience here in horribly sticky heatwave-hammered Philadelphia. The distractions are many. Go outside, you die. Stay inside without air-conditioning, you die. Forget to Tivo a game for the wife, you die. Then there's the fact that the star player on the US women's Olympic basketball team has been called a "traitor" for defecting to the Russians and that our local Jewish centre has just been daubed with swastikas, with shards of broken glass hidden in the sand in the playground.
Thankfully for Euro 2008 viewers in the US, ESPN has dropped the crew of stat-spewing incompetents who so royally screwed up the World Cup coverage (referring to "Michael Beckham" and repeatedly confusing
Austria with Australia). Unfortunately they've retained Tommy Smyth, an incredibly annoying fellow who uses the phrase "bulges the ole onion bag" at least once every game. And, alas, both Smyth and the imported Andy Gray have obviously been pressured to have at least one broadcastable opinion per game about the NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and the LA Lakers.
This Lilliputian sporting sideshow is plugged during every soccer game - presumably as part of some clueless ESPN suit's power-point plugged plan to promote "cross-sports synergy" or some such bollocks. The resulting half-baked basketball banter has been embarrassing. Smyth refers to the Celtics as "Celtic". Gray makes some half-arsed joke about having to support the Lakers because, as a former Rangers player ... and you can fill in the rest yourself. If you can be bothered.
After several days going air-conditioned soccer-watching stir crazy, I decide to make a break for the gym. So I'm on the treadmill watching Germany v Croatia on the overhead TV (while hammering my superbly muscled 48-year-old body with a series of wind sprints so savage they'd make a 20-year-old US Navy SEAL puke up his own immune system) and I'm thinking to myself how marvellously civilised the US has become since the 1960s when soccer players were approached by slack jawed yokels who'd point at the lettering on their shirts and drawl: "So what's saucer?" (true story).
Then this fat bastard waddles up, takes one look at the TV, scowls and calls over a gym employee.
"Can we change this to something American?" he asks.
Click. On comes some college baseball. Fatty waddles off. I am appalled. I turn to the young woman on the treadmill on my right.
"Did he just change the channel and walk off?"
"I guess," she says, laughing.
I get the football turned back on.
"So what is this?" she asks.
"It's the European national soccer championship ... "
Her eyes widen. "Oh, Europe soccer? They're all crazy over there. Aren't they all like Nazis or something?"
Ah yes, football and fascism. The US is a confusing country. You can spend all week having football-literate conversations with strangers - and then be deluged by lazy, endlessly recycled late night chat show gags about how soccer is incredibly boring and all soccer fans are perma-rioting neo-Nazi drunks. Badum tish.
Which got me thinking. Have we - the liberal limey sport media massive - gone soft on existing footballing fascists?
Take FourFourTwo magazine's December 2006 one-on-one interview with Paolo Di Canio, where the Mussolini-worshipping, straight arm salute-throwing, self-described fascist was asked to answer questions sent in by readers. According to the version of the article published on the FourFourTwo website, not a single reader wanted Di Canio to explain his oft expressed affection for Benito Mussolini - the fascist dictator of Italy, whose support of Adolf Hitler led to the extermination of an estimated 8,000 Italian Jews.
Instead Di Canio was asked: "In your autobiography you talk about making the ultimate tiramisu. What's the secret?" (This is the same biography in which Di Canio described Mussolini as "basically a very principled, ethical individual" who was "deeply misunderstood").
Gone from the FourFourTwo website is the quote "Yes, I am fascist. So what? We are in 2006; the racial laws no longer exist, thanks to God. I do not see why the idea of a social radical right cannot be expressed in a democratic manner."
And on this very website a gushing Russell Brand wrote up a meeting with Di Canio that somehow failed to mention the footballer's oft-declared fascist sympathies, his two fascist tattoos, his on-pitch salutes and his coded Holocaust revisionism.
"I've listened to the stories but I still have my ideas," said Di Canio after meeting Italian Holocaust survivors in 2006. "My thoughts remain the same, but I don't want it to sound as if I believe in violence."
And most recently we've had Football Daily's Euro 2008 podcast, where the Croatia manager Slaven Bilic, talking to the Observer's Jamie Jackson, defended the human swastika forming and racist chant yellers among his country's support. Basically Bilic says it's no big deal because it's not "serious" and anyway there are way more racists and Nazis in England. "In many respects he's a lovely chap," added pod host James Richardson, " ... and not a bad football manager".
One can picture the press conference. The chairman of your fave Premier League club introduces Bilic with the words: "While it might be true that he was coach of the Croatian national team during a period when they regularly played a song by ultra nationalist band Thompson, whose fans turn up at shows wearing fascist uniforms and give salutes, he's a lovely chap and not a bad football manager." I for one can hardly wait.
This blog has been edited after it was first published