It's three o'clock on Thursday afternoon in Calimera, the idyllic location of Lecce's training ground. Gigi De Canio is looking for calm. It's just 48 hours since he opted to stay at the club following the turbulent events of Sunday evening when he handed in a letter of resignation after a sixth defeat in seven games. The team is in dire need of a confidence boost in light of their place in the relegation zone. But then the unthinkable happens.
Around 30 Lecce ultras walk through the training ground gate, which incidentally was left wide open, and they descend on the pitch, singling out Souleymane Diamoutene for abuse. The 27-year-old Mali international defender at first expressed a willingness to talk to the hooligans as long as things didn't turn violent. But inevitably he ended up having to be protected by his Lecce teammates Gianni Munari, Giuseppe Vives and the towering figure of Javier Chevanton. It was a disgrace.
Initial reports indicated that the abuse was based on the colour of his skin. But as Fabiano led Diamoutene to the dressing room, the chants overheard were as follows: "Leave Lecce, you dirty Barese." This was ostensibly a case of what Italians call campanilismo, the term used to describe an exaggerated attachment to the customs and traditions of one's own town.
Diamoutene's spell on loan at fierce local rivals Bari last season was considered as nothing short of a betrayal, even though he made only three appearances for the Galletti. It also appears that De Canio's decision to give him the armband against Udinese in the Coppa Italia on November 24 was seen as inflammatory.
"The supporters have never forgiven me for that adventure in white and red, and an interview in which I described Bari as a great place," Diamoutene said. "If it were down to me, I wouldn't leave Lecce but I will reflect on my future together with the club in January. I have a contract until 2012. If I were in De Canio's place, I wouldn't let myself be influenced by the ultras and I would only judge Diamoutene on what he does in training."
He later stressed that race had nothing to do with the affair. But the Italian media didn't share Diamoutene's opinion this morning. "A racist is someone who doesn't judge a person on their behaviour, or on their faults and their merits, but on their belonging to a group," wrote Luigi Garlando in La Gazzetta dello Sport.
"This is how someone comes to be considered wrong for the simple fact of being black instead of white, of speaking one language instead of another, of praying to one God instead of another, of being left-wing instead of right-wing and of playing for Bari instead of Lecce. Let's call these things by their [real] name: racism."
To their credit, Lecce showed no hesitation in issuing a "firm condemnation" of the attack and were joined in doing so by the city's mayor, Paolo Perrone, as well as the head of the Italian Footballers' Association Sergio Campana. However, this isn't the first time such an incident has besmirched the club's reputation nor that of Serie A in general.
A group of Lecce ultras notoriously door-stepped Cristian Ledesma in Mondodoro di Squinzano on November 11, 2005, to ask that he relinquish the captaincy and give it to Lorenzo Stovini because in their eyes he wasn't performing well enough to honour the club's name. Unsurprisingly, the recently capped Italy international left for Lazio the following summer.
The former Juventus midfielder Antonio Conte was also the victim of a deplorable attack on August 17, 2008, while holidaying on one of the region's beautiful beaches. He was supposedly 'guilty' of coaching Bari despite being born and bred in Lecce. A gang reportedly carrying sticks chased Conte home. He received a punch on the nose.
Of course, the actions of a few imbeciles aren't representative of all Lecce supporters. It's enough to remember how they idolised Michele Lo Russo, the defender born in Bari, who made no fewer than 418 appearances for Lecce before a car accident tragically cut short his life in 1983. Football violence in general has also been in decline in Italy in recent years, but action still needs to be taken, as campanilismo is evidently a well-rooted cultural problem.
Interviewed in this morning's Il Corriere del Mezzogiorno, one of the few players in history to come through the ranks at Lecce to then captain Bari, Luigi Garzya said: "Campanilismo is the essence of football. It's right that it's there, but within the limits of civility."
Lest we forget, England manager Fabio Capello sparked controversy in October last year when he was brave enough to question Italy's attitude towards hooliganism. "The ultras are in command," he said. "Unfortunately they can do anything they want. They can insult anyone and anything at the game. Instead in Spain there is greater respect and families go to the games with their kids. It's a different world."
Gianni Petrucci, the President of the Italian Olympic Committee, accused Capello of "talking from on high" as if he were looking down on Italy from his ivory tower in Soho Square. But he had a point. Diamoutene's case merely reinforces the belief that the culture around football in Italy needs to change and, if possible, without losing the positives that the ultras bring to the game like when their passion is channeled towards creating a vibrant rather than a violent atmosphere. Whether anything happens at all remains to be seen.
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