LIKE IT OR LOATHE IT, football and politics are intrinsically linked. If you look to every corner of the globe where football is played, politics always has a role. Be it right at the forefront or sneakily hidden in the darkest reaches, it’s always there.
Ex-FIFA president Sepp Blatter has gone on record a number of times to say, “Football should never be used for political messages” but we would be kidding ourselves to say it’s not. Take Silvio Berlusconi, who used AC Milan to launch his political career and become prime minister of Italy.
More recently there has been the prominent role of Egyptian club Al Ahly’s ultras in their country’s Arab Spring uprising, as hundreds and thousands of the clubs hardcore fans took to the streets in an attempt to overthrow the government.
What about the drone that came onto the pitch during the recent Serbia–Albania match nearly causing a diplomatic incident between the two countries? The politics of football has even caused wars, like the ‘Football War’ between Honduras and El Salvador.
Rarely, though, has politics been as prevalent in football as during the controversial careers of Cristiano Lucarelli and Paolo Di Canio; two men who are defined by the political belief systems that they espouse. They are the communist and the fascist.
A theoretical economic system characterised by the collective ownership of property and by the organisation of labour for the common advantage of all members.
CRISTIANO LUCARELLI WAS BORN in October 1975 in the costal Tuscan town of Livorno. He was brought up in a working class neighbourhood known locally as ‘Shanghai’. As it does for so many who grew up in such neighbourhoods football provided a welcome relief from every day difficulties.
“I always spent my childhood in the streets with my brother Alessandro playing football from morning to night. We always went home out of breath and with torn clothes and shoes completely destroyed.”
The area of Livorno where he grew up, and indeed Livorno itself, is famed for its far-left political leanings. The Italian communist party was founded in the city, and even today it remains one of the last true bastions of socialism in Italy.
Naturally having been brought up in such an environment Lucarelli gravitated to that political belief system, with the likes of Che Guevara having immense influence over the young man: “I grew up in an environment inspired by Che Guevara.” Football, however, maintained its grip on him and in particular his local club AS Livorno.
A career in the game would take him far from home but his love and passion for his local club and its supporters never waned. He even sneaked off to watch the club whilst playing for Torino. After years wandering up and down the Italian peninsula and a short spell in Spain, Lucarelli’s dreams finally came true when he signed for his boyhood club in 2004.
On his arrival at the club Lucarelli stated: “Some football players pay a billion (Lire) for a Ferrari or a yacht, with that money I bought myself Livorno’s shirt, that’s all.” It is believed that he took a 50% pay cut just to sign with his dream club.
He quickly took the number 99 jersey in homage to the clubs B.A.L (Brigate Autonome Livornese) ultras. The group had been founded in 1999 and shared Lucarelli’s extreme political beliefs. Sometimes these political leanings were expressed in controversial circumstances. They are renowned for signing the communist anthem Red Flag throughout matches and have also been known to celebrate Joseph Stalin’s birthday. Their choreography is sometimes on the edge of what is considered decent.
One of their most infamous banners depicted a local female member of post fascist party Alleanza Nazionale with an Italian flag placed up her bottom. Like the group that sees him as their hero, Lucarelli is no stranger to controversy.
On his debut for the Italy under-21 side, coincidentally in Livorno, he celebrated scoring by ripping off his Italy jersey to reveal a Che Guevara top on underneath. Some say that it was this act of political defiance that stifled his progression at national level for years to come.
He regularly celebrated scoring by giving the straight arm fist closed salute synonymous with resistance and the left. He landed himself in hot water with a statement he made about referees that he was later forced to retract: “We (Livorno) get no favours from referees because we are communists.”
Like any good communist his mobile ring tone is said to be the Bandiera Rossa. In a move that cemented his popularity with Livorno fans, he reputedly paid for a bus to transport club fans home from a match in which they were accused of rioting.
His most eccentric act of all though was perhaps the time – once again playing for Livorno – when he removed his top after scoring laid it flat on the pitch and proceeded to perform a simulated sex act on it. Some players just kiss the badge, not Lucarelli.
It seemed a love affair between the two that would never end, but a falling out with the clubs top brass meant it did and he continued his career elsewhere, including another short spell abroad, this time in the Ukraine.
Before his career came to a close he would represent his hometown club once more, cementing his cult status from now till the end of time.
A system of government marked by centralisation of authority under a dictator, a capitalist economy subject to stringent governmental controls, violent suppression of opposition and typically a policy of ardent nationalism.
BORN IN A WORKING CLASS AREA OF ROME in July 1968, Paolo Di Canio somehow gravitated towards supporting Lazio despite Roma being the dominant team in his neighbourhood. A mischievous young boy, more often than not Di Canio was in trouble.
As a 12-year-old he sold his brother’s bike and pocketed the cash all for himself. And a decent sum he got for it too: 12,000 lire or around €200 today. Far from an athletic young man, he was addicted to Coca-Cola, though he managed to overcome his discrepancies to join the ranks of his beloved Lazio.
It was around this time that we would see the makings of the man he became. Despite being defied by the club from attending away matches with Lazio’s ultras, Di Canio did it anyway knowing it may end his burgeoning career. It was at these away games that he developed his relationship with the notorious Irriducibili ultra group. He has described being on away trips in which he had bricks thrown at him, been tear gassed and beaten by the police.
In his autobiography he writes of the time he saw the Bergamo chief of police getting stabbed in front of him. Even with all these off field antics his career continued apace. His time at Lazio, however, was short and he was soon off to Juventus.
Although his talent was clear for all to see he never fully settled in Turin and went on loan to Napoli, before being sold once again, this time to AC Milan. For whatever reason things did not work out and in 1996 he moved to Britain to start what would be a memorable adventure.
Ask any Premier league fan about Di Canio and the thing they’ll probably all recall is the push on referee Paul Alcock. Di Canio’s career in England amounted to so much more as he became a cult hero at West Ham. However Lazio was what his heart truly desired and, in 2004, his dream became a reality. Di Canio was heading home. In his autobiography Di Canio speaks of his emotions on his return.
“The pounding of my heart tormented me. I felt unable to control my thoughts or my actions. I lost the power of speech. I kept crying like a baby.”
As is seemingly inevitable with Di Canio, controversy wasn’t long in finding him. This time he’d take things to an extreme level. Celebrating a win over Roma in the derby, Di Canio gave a none-too-subtle fascist salute towards the Curva Nord, where Lazio’s hardcore congregate. It was the first time many had seen Di Canio express such political views, but for the man himself it had been something he believed in for a long time. In a 2006 interview with FourFourTwo magazine he was asked about the salute … this was his response:
“I made it to salute certain people with whom I share certain thoughts and social ideas.”
These certain people were perhaps the most infamous ultra group in all of Italy, the Irriducibili. The group’s extreme right wing leanings had long been known about and they weren’t afraid to show it. During derby matches against Roma they unveiled some of the most rascist banners ever seen inside a football ground. The two most live long in the memory: “Team of Blacks, Crowd of Jews” and “Auschwitz is your homeland, the ovens are your homes.”
Further on in his interview with FourFourTwo he was asked straight out if he was a fascist.
“It’s 2006. Racial laws don’t exist, extermination doesn’t exist, thank God. So why can’t the social idea of a radical right wing be expressed democratically? The Communists do it. Yes I am a Fascist, so what? I’m not racist. Why can’t I say I’m right wing.”
Di Canio would go on to have a falling out with the Lazio ownership and leave the club before finishing his playing career at lowly Cisco Roma. In similar vein to Lucarelli he has now turned his hand to management with varying results. Despite trying to distant himself from his political leanings while in charge of Premier League side Sunderland the Fascist inside remains, as evidenced by the tattoos that ink his body. Benito Mussolini may long be dead but Lazio’s is still alive and kicking.
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FOR TWO MEN whose political belief systems are so diametrically opposed Cristiano Lucarelli and Paolo Di Canio have lived remarkably similar lives. Both come from tough working class backgrounds, and each has a burning passion for the clubs that they love and the people they represent. No matter where they go controversy seems to follow. They have travelled far and wide to pursue the game that they love.
Most importantly of all they were two extremely talented footballers, grossly underappreciated in their time. Di Canio was a man capable of sublime skill and stunning goals. Lucarelli was a predator of the highest order, won the capocannoniere title while at Livorno, and a leader of men.
Politics should not play a role in football, but without it these two would have been just two more generic faces. It has made them what they are. The communist and the fascist; so different, yet very much the same.
By Kevin Nolan. Follow @KevinNolan11