Racism acute in Italian soccer
ROME (AP) -- French defender Lilian Thuram has World Cup and European Championship titles to his name. His AC Parma teammate Patrick Mboma was recently voted Africa's best soccer player.
But when the two Italian league stars stepped onto the Stadio Olimpico turf this week, a section of Lazio fans was concerned only with the color of their skin.
Like other black players in Italy's Serie A, Thuram and Mboma faced the now all-too-common chorus of boos and insults nearly every time they touched the ball during Wednesday's game.
"I just try to shut my ears and concentrate on scoring a goal," Mboma, a Cameroon striker, said after the game in Rome. "We [black players] know that's the only revenge."
The Italian soccer league fined Lazio 35 million lire ($16,000) Thursday, citing an unrelated violent incident and the systematic booing as an "expression of racial discrimination."
Speaking in a calm voice after the game, Mboma pointed out that the treatment from the notorious Lazio fans is nothing compared to the verbal abuse he faces in the northern city of Verona.
"It's up to the league and the federation to do something," he said.
Racism, though hardly new to soccer or isolated to a single country, is today a particularly acute problem in Italy.
But what may be more troubling than the racist taunts from the stands is a phenomenon going on beyond the stadium walls, as Italian authorities investigate a rising connection between soccer fans and far-right wing politics and violence.
Italian parliament member Valter Bielli, who sits on the legislature's anti-terrorism committee, said the line is being blurred between fanatic allegiance to soccer teams and extremist politics.
Bielli, a member of Italy's current center-left ruling coalition, said the booing is not just "spontaneous," as some fans contend.
"There's someone behind them, directing it," he said. "The extreme right has found an environment in the stadiums that is open to their ideas and approach. We must be very alert to this."
Over the past 18 months, investigators have linked young fans of Lazio's crosstown rival AS Roma to a number of violent episodes with a political angle. These include the planting of a pair of bombs in Rome in late 1999 -- one at a museum honoring World War II anti-fascist resistance fighters and the second at a downtown movie theater screening a film about Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann.
In another incident, four Roma fans were charged last March with trying to set fire to the makeshift housing of Eastern European and African immigrants. The alleged incident occurred just six hours after the suspects attended a Roma match.
Meanwhile, most of Lazio's troubles have come inside the stadium, beginning two seasons ago when fans hung a banner during the intracity derby aimed at Roma supporters that read: "Auschwitz Is Your Homeland; The Ovens Are Your Homes."
Last season, police confiscated a banner from Lazio fans honoring the slain Serbian paramilitary leader, Arkan, whose real name was Zeljko Raznatovic. That incident led the Italian Parliament to pass a law that would allow officials to suspend soccer games if racist messages are displayed inside the stadiums.
Arkan himself was no stranger to the world of soccer, beginning his rise to "warlord" status by leading the fan club for Red Star Belgrade, the top club in the Yugoslav capital.
Back on the field this season, Lazio's Sinisa Mihajlovic, a Yugoslav, was suspended for racist taunting of Arsenal's black midfielder Patrick Vieira in a Champions League game.
When Mihajlovic made a public apology before a subsequent match at Stadio Olimpico, he was loudly booed by some of Lazio's fans.
The southern Rome office of the team-authorized Lazio fan club, the "Irriducibile," is adorned with Fascist-era Celtic crosses and photographs of Benito Mussolini.
When asked to discuss such incidents, a top fan club official refused to give an interview after accusing a bearded Associated Press photographer of "looking like a leftist."
Before the recent Lazio game, most fans described any connection between politics and soccer as bad for the sport. Several admitted to taking part in the taunting of black players, but didn't consider it racist.
Roberto Fiore, who heads the far-right wing party Forza Nuova, denied that he is leading a direct campaign to recruit at soccer stadiums.
"We are strong with the youth, and a lot of young people are soccer fans," said Fiore, who didn't deny that his party's pamphlets have been passed out at stadiums. "The fans" allegiance to teams and to the colors is a good thing. It's a breeding ground for patriotism and national identity."
And as for the booing of black players, Fiore called it "an element of humor" at the stadiums.
"There's nothing political in it," he said.