This is Sicily: football, culture and history on the island

This is Sicily: football, culture and history on the island

The air is warm and the sky is blue. Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano, broods on the horizon, looming menacingly over the city. The smell of fresh fish combines with the energetic cries of market vendors to create a thrilling buzz, a sense of hurried excitement. Nearby on Via Etnea, independent cafés sit next to trendy bars, the transition into a pedestrian-only zone at the bottom of the street barely noticeable above the sounds of clattering feet and animated chatter. Men in suits talk loudly into their mobile phones, overtaking groups of teenage girls gazing wistfully into chic gioiellerie. This is Catania. This is Sicily.

Graffiti covers decrepit facades and rubbish spills out from damp passageways onto the street. Tourists are warned to be vigilant of snatch thieves on motorcycles who have been known to target handbags and wallets as they race between neighbourhoods. Shabby logos hang loosely above shops and businesses, a handful of whose owners still pay the pizzo to the mafia, protection money that allows them to quietly make a living without the threat of confrontation, harassment or arson. The air is warm and the sky is blue. This is Catania. This is Sicily.

Identity is a complex and dynamic concept. There is often a temptation to conceive of it as monolithic and one-dimensional, to attach a definitive label for convenience, exemplified by the ‘so, where are you from?’ enquiry. Yet the reality is seldom so simple. Identities are pluralistic, a concoction of distinct and often conflicting elements. Even leaving aside issues of race, religion and gender, the question of nationality is elaborate and multifaceted. Where was I born? What is my heritage? Where do I live? And, most importantly, where do I belong?

Modern Italy has been a unified state for just 154 years. Prior to that, the peninsula was divided into various kingdoms governed by different monarchs; Italy was, according to the Austrian Prince Klemens von Metternich, ‘merely a geographical expression’.

In many ways, the legacy of that division lives on today. Cultural decentralisation persists, each region retaining its own unique dialect, customs, cuisine and history. Just four years ago, Lega Nord – a political party declaring independence of the Italian north as its final goal – achieved its best ever election results in Piedmont, Veneto, Liguria, Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna. Driven by the commercial and industrial hubs of Milan, Turin and Genoa, these regions have historically propped up the relatively impoverished south, much to the frustration of many Padanian locals (not least Umberto Bossi, Lega’s former leader, who has openly labelled Southerners ‘thieves’ and ‘pigs’).

It may not always be conveyed so provocatively, but Northern frustration at the corruption, inertia and perceived lack of work ethic in the provinces beneath Rome is commonplace. Sicily, with its geographic separation, mafia links and Greek, Arab and Spanish influences, often bears the brunt of it.

“I am Sicilian, not Italian,” Alessandro Bassini, a devout Catania fan, tells me ahead of the Elefanti’s Serie B clash with Bari. This distinction is not uncommon: Sicily, the birthplace of multiculturalism, has its own story to tell. Control of the island has been passed between many greater powers – Greek, Roman, Arab, Norman, Islamic, Spaniard – each one leaving behind reminders of their habitation. Greek temples, Arab castles, Moorish cathedrals: Sicily is Europe, Africa and Asia rolled into one.

“Don’t believe the stereotypes,” Alessandro says forcefully as we head to take advantage of 888Sport Free Bets. “We may generally be poorer, but we are real, salt of the earth. Sicilians are the kindest people you’ll ever meet.”

It is hard to disagree with Alessandro’s assertion: there is a strong sense of community here, a collective pride in their island. There are explanations, too, for the sharp north-south divide, reasons that go far beyond the clichés of laziness and larceny. When Italy was unified – against the wishes of many Sicilians, who felt that they were thoughtlessly lumped in with the rest because of geographic proximity – the South, which has always been heavily built around the farming industry, suffered from a lack of land reform and the removal of protectionist tariffs on agricultural goods. Little attempt was made to industrialise these parts and, with crippling unemployment, rising food prices and an inefficient agrarian economy, crime syndicates secured a hold that they have yet to fully relinquish.

Even today, Sicily is plagued by premature school-leaving, chronic joblessness and substandard infrastructure. According to OECD figures on wellbeing, Sicily ranks in Italy’s bottom three regions for education, health, wages and civic engagement; its employment rate, meanwhile, is bettered by ninety-eight per cent of OECD’s entire database, which spans Europe, North America, Asia and Oceania. Average household disposable income stands at under £7000, significantly less than the northern regions of Lombardy (£11,000), Bolzano (£12000) and Emilia-Romagna (£11,500), and, perhaps most startlingly of all in the modern age, less than half of homes benefit from access to broadband. Sicily is identified on a map as the ball being kicked by the mainland’s boot, and the islanders assert that this serves as the perfect metaphor.

The game kicks off at half-past midday under the ferocious sun, and by twenty-five to one, Bari lead, Francesco Caputo nodding in Marco Romizi’s cross from close-range. Catania respond in the twentieth minute, Alessandro Rosina – a socks-down diminutive playmaker who slows the game down to his own pace but still evades every opposition challenge – converting a spot-kick after the Brazilian Raphael Martinho was checked in the box. Alessandro kicks and heads every ball next to me in the Curva Nord, anxiously leaning forward and biting his nails whenever Bari work the ball into dangerous areas. When the Galletti go 2-1 in front twelve minutes before the interval, he is one of many Catania fans to groan and curse. It has not been a good start to the afternoon.

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The season has not begun well either, the Rossazzurri sitting nineteenth in the 22-team Serie B with just a single win to their name despite being among the favourites for promotion. Maurizio Pellegrino was sacked after four winless games and replaced by former Watford coach Beppe Sannino but, as of yet, there has been no turnaround in fortune. A nervy 2-1 victory over Pescara in Catania’s previous home game saw the Sicilians finally get off the mark, but that result was followed up with a 1-0 defeat away at high-flying Frosinone the following weekend.

Notwithstanding relegation into Italy’s second tier last term following their best ever campaign in 2012/13, Catania have still come a long way from the dark days of the 1990s when, as Serie A was enjoying its position as the undisputed greatest league in the world, the club was liquidated because of financial irregularities. Reinstalled in the sixth tier of Italian football, Catania admirably climbed back to the top table in 2006, and their eighth place finish of two seasons ago was an outstanding, if somewhat anomalous, achievement. Such a resurrection was symptomatic of the almost congenital resilience of Catania and its people, a trait likely brought about by the vulnerability that comes with living at the constant mercy of Mount Etna, whose looming presence serves as a permanent warning of its destructive capabilities.

Nevertheless, this is a side that has spent the majority of its history in the lower divisions, and the feeling of ignominy that accompanied Catania’s bankruptcy in 1993 is, unfortunately, a far too regular happening for Sicilian football. Palermo – back in Serie A this year – went bust in 1939, “long before it became fashionable in the Italian game,” as Simon Kuper so eloquently put it. Messina, the island’s third team, were expelled from football’s professional ranks in the early 1990s after racking up huge debts, while over on the west coast, Trapani were found guilty of match fixing in 2007.

Sicilian football’s darkest day also occurred that year when, in early February, Palermo travelled to Catania for the Derby di Sicilia. There is something curious about the rivalry between the two sets of fans, so full of animosity and venom: these two have more in common than they would like to admit. Both, after all, fly the flag of Sicily, and both have grievances with the mainland. Both clubs’ matches witness supporters trading insults with their counterparts from the north, an example of the territorial discrimination chants that the Italian authorities are so determined to clamp down on, and both share a distinct history and way of life. Yet while Palermo harbour a strong dislike for Bari and Fiorentina, and Catania include Reggina and Roma among their rivals, there is nothing quite like the rancour felt between the island’s principal outfits. In February 2007, that acrimony, that bitterness, had extremely tragic consequences.

The second half was ten minutes old when Palermo supporters were finally admitted into Catania’s Angelo Massimino stadium, their team defending a 1-0 lead. Their entrance was met with fireworks and smoke bombs thrown by the Cantanese ultras, and the match was soon suspended. After a long delay, play eventually continued and Palermo secured a 2-1 win, but the trouble was far from over: angry Catania fans attacked members of the police force outside the ground, and Filippo Raciti, a forty year-old officer, died from severe liver injuries. Across the country and at all levels, football was cancelled.

Such episodes of violence – along with the aforementioned incidents of corruption and financial mismanagement – do little to help the island’s profile, instead reinforcing the image of a primitive and crime-ridden society. Something similar had happened just fifteen yeas previously, when Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellini, a pair of magistrates who dedicated much of their lives to ridding Sicily of the Mafia’s rotten influence, were murdered by the organisation. The event sent shockwaves through the whole of Italy and beyond. Amidst the mourning, the mainland looked down at the island and shook its head.

Raciti’s death is, for many, the defining moment of Sicilian calcio. Italy, four-time world champions, has a rich footballing heritage, but Sicily has contributed little: notwithstanding Mario Balotelli, born in Palermo but living in Brescia by the age of two, the last Sicilian to play for the national team was Giuseppe Mascara, who won his only cap against Northern Ireland in 2009.

This disjunction is evident on the mainland too: only four of Italy’s 23-man 2014 World Cup squad originate from the Italian sud, and Napoli, Palermo and Cagliari are the only southern representatives in this year’s Serie A. The Italian top-flight has missed just six seasons since its founding in 1898 and, in that time, clubs from outside the north have won it on only ten occasions, with Cagliari’s 1970 victory and Napoli’s Diego Maradona-inspired triumphs of 1987 and 1990 the only times a southern team has lifted the scudetto. Football, it seems, mirrors Italy’s wider socioeconomic north-south divide.

Ciao!” I call to Alessandro in standard Italian as we exit the stadium and head our separate ways. Catania lost the game 3-2, the Elefanti unable to find an equaliser after another Rosina penalty had cut Bari’s 3-1 lead back to a single goal.

“Ni veremu!” he responds, “see you” in the island’s tongue, a dialect with Greek, Arab, Spanish and Norman undertones that reflects Sicily’s complicated past. It may just have been a personal habit as the phrase is certainly not widely used, but a part of me felt that this was Alessandro’s way of gently reminding me that, while the island shares many common features with mainland Italy, it also has its own identity, its own history, its own culture.

Back in the city centre, you could be forgiven for not realising that the match had ever taken place, the sound of fans dissecting the relative merits of coach Sannino’s 4-3-3 now completely replaced by the footfall of shoppers and the rattling of A-boards being lifted into position by waiters advertising seafood specials in anticipation of the evening trade that will begin in a few hours’ time. Backpacked tourists can be seen snapping pictures of the balcony-laden boulevards, while over in the baroque Piazza del Duomo, Catania’s main square, a crowd gathers to watch a pair of street performers as children run around the famous elephant fountain, giggling endearingly as they splash one another with water. The air is warm and the sky is blue. This is Sicily.

By Greg Lea @GregLeaFootball