NICOLA “COCO” CAMPOLONGO WAS EXECUTED, shot through the head along with his grandfather and an acquaintance. Their bodies were later found in a burnt out Fiat Punto on the outskirts of the southern Italian city Cosenza in the province of Calabria.
All three were the suspected victims of an apparent mob hit, carried out by the infamous ‘Ndrangheta organisation. Coco’s grandfather, Giuseppe Iannicelli, was under house arrest at the time. Campolongo’s mother meanwhile, who was serving a prison sentence at the time, was not allowed to attend her son’s funeral due to fears of more attacks.
Nicola “Coco” Campolongo was only 3-years-old.
To the north-west of historic Naples lies the small town of Quarto. Home to just over 40,000 people, it is not unlike the thousands of other such towns and villages that make up the Italian landscape.
Yet, unlike many places up and down the peninsula, it is one that has felt the hand of oppression firmly pressing down upon it. That hand of control comes in the shape of the mafia. From March 2013, the town’s mayoral office was dissolved and a special commissioner put in place due to mafia infiltration.
However, it is not only the world of politics that has been infiltrated by influence of organised crime; Football has also fallen victim to its seedy charms. Up until February 2011 the local football team, La Nuova Quarto Calcio, was run by one Giuseppe Polverino.
What made Polverino different from all the other club presidents was the fact that he was a well-known Camorra (Naples mafia) kingpin; his drug of choice being hash rather than cocaine due to the fact that he was supposedly from an old school generation.
Polverino used the club as a mascot for mobsters and a means of gaining respectability from the local population. This all changed though in early 2011, however, when the anti-mafia police launched Operazione Polvere.
As a result Polverino, along with 39 others, was arrested and brought into custody. His assets were seized, one of which happened to be La Nuova Quarto Calcio (pictured). Four years on from that day the club is still struggling to overcome the effects of the events that unfolded. They still sleep with the lingering shadow of mafia rule cast over them.
After being taken over by the anti-mafia prosecutors following the arrests it looked like the club could start anew. However, those still loyal to Polverino saw the club’s determination to continue without its boss as a betrayal.
Ever since, Quarto’s facilities have been at the centre of countless arson attacks, thefts and vandalisms. One incident in particular saw the club broken into and all the trophies won after Polverino’s arrest stolen, while those won before were left untouched.
The club still continues to struggle with attendances at games, with local people fearing reprisals if they show support to a team that dumped its mafia overlord. Nevertheless, La Nuova Quarto continue to persevere and promote the game they love. It’s more than can be said for fellow southern club, Rosarno.
Similarly to La Nuova Quarto, Rosarno were taken over by the regional courts in 2010, who wrestled them from control of the Pesce clan, who in the past have also owned Cittanova Calcio. Unlike La Nuova, there would be no happy outcome.
The club was forced to dissolve when no potential buyers would step forward. This was mainly due to the fact that local businessmen and women were too afraid to sponsor the team and go up against the Pesce’s.
What may seem strange for an outsider looking in is the sheer obscurity of the clubs. Why, then, would so-called kingpins in the mafia bother themselves with clubs that are of little consequence? The answer is in fact pretty straight forward.
Camorra expert, Corrado De Rosa, gave his views on the mafia’s involvement in calcio:
“Ownership of the local football team adds considerably to the mobsters’ social status and influence in football mad Italy. In addition to possessing a powerful means of money laundering, being owners of a football team meant credibility and being respected: it also meant being able to influence votes in elections.”
In an interview with The Guardian, renowned anti-mafia writer Roberto Saviano spoke more on the matter:
“Their worst fear is to be under the spotlight. As one penitent former boss has said, the Camorristi want to be VIPLs: very important people at a local level. They want to be famous in their own territory, feared for their military power, but on a national or international level they want to be anonymous.”
While the problem of mafia influence in Italian football is a nationwide one it is particularly evident in the Mezzogiorno (the south). Back in 2012, then-Lecce chief prosecutor Cataldo Motta claimed that up to seven clubs in the Eccellenza (fifth Tier) Puglia were controlled by members of the Sacra Corona Unita.
When you take into account that most Eccellenza divisions have only 16 to 18 teams in them, it shows the frightening level of influence weaving its web. It is only when you look further into the matter that you discover the number of clubs that have had some connection to the mafia.
Giugliano FC were seized due to being under the ownership of the Camorra. A stash of weapons were found in the stadium of Boys Caivanese Calcio. Other teams that have been seized include Sapri and Interpiana. What makes matters worse is when people in positions of authority put fuel to the fire rather than try stamp it out. Back in 2009, then-Akragas president Gioacchino Sferrazza dedicated his side’s win to a close friend of his, Nicola Ribisi. Nothing wrong with that some might say, until you find out that the police believed Ribisi to be head of a powerful Cosa Nostra clan.
Stupidity like this shows why it is so difficult to rid the game of such corruptive influences, when people in positions of power are openly sharing there admiration for leading figures in the local Mafia.
Thankfully, though, for every idiot like Sferrazza there is someone like Pino Morinello. Back in 2005 whilst president of Gela Calcio, Morinello’s Fiat 600 was fired at twice while he went about his business. Morinello’s crime, as seen by those who fired the shots, was that he was a very vocal anti-mafia campaigner. Rather than back down to these threats Morinello and his club decided to make a stand. At the clubs next game the players came out onto the field wearing T-shirts that read: “I don’t pay protection money”.
At times, however, people’s best intention can come to little. In 2004 Paolo Zimmaro, a 20-year-old referee, was suspended by the Italian FA after ordering a minute silence before a match. Unbeknown to Zimmaro the silence was for a Carmine Arena, a mafia godfather who had been killed with a Bazooka in a war between rivals clans.
It is not just the lower levels of the game that have felt the hand of mafia influence creep upon them. Outside the world of professional football altogether they still manage to make their presence known.
In 1995 over 800 children between the ages of six and 14 played in a tournament named in honour of Fortunato Maurizio Audino, a convicted drug dealer and suspected of being a mafia capo. Indeed, in Naples, rival mafia clans are said to compete in a yearly football tournament, with the winners collecting drugs instead of a trophy.
A police informer by the name of Armando De Rosa has said that these matches have been happening since 2002 in the city’s notorious Scampia suburb. Clan bosses have even reportedly brought in semi-professional players to help their team get one over their rivals. De Rosa has further claimed that men with international arrest warrants often turn up to watch.
While one can look upon all this and say it only effects the lower levels of the game, another can look upon it and say that it effects the grassroots of calcio – and football without its grassroots is not a game at all.
Some comfort can be taken from the fact that all incidents cited above have taken place a few years into the past at this stage, and that perhaps the mafia’s influence is on the wane. To keep it that way we must continue to shine a light in the face of corruption, not just in Italy, but all around Europe and the world.
As Roberto Saviano said: “Their worst fear is to be under the spotlight.”
By Kevin Nolan. Follow @KevinNolan11