Since then, Baker acknowledged, Italian soccer has lost some of its charm. After 39 spectators—most of them Italians—died in a riot at Belgium's Heysel Stadium during the 1985 European Cup championship, many fans stopped going to games, and the crowd in the Curva Sud and its counterparts in other stadiums got much rougher. Attendance at Italian soccer matches has been declining for six years. Halfway through the 1989-90 season, the crowds at first-division games were down by half a million compared with those of the previous year, and gate receipts were off by $4.6 million. Although the plethora of soccer on TV has kept some people home, a nationwide survey showed that for 74% of those questioned, fear of violence was discouraging them from attending matches.
Nevertheless, Baker remains unshaken. In his view, the excesses of the fans have less to do with the sport than with larger problems in Italian society. "To be with the CUCS," he said, "is to refuse to accept the blandness of modern life. Calcio gives pepper to life."
After lunch on that Sunday, I set out for the derby and along the way came across several groups of men discussing their bets. Like soccer, gambling is big business. Italians wager an estimated $12 billion annually on legal and illegal games of chance. Totocalcio, a weekly national lottery in which bettors predict the outcome of matches, generates $2 billion in wagers a year. A parallel, clandestine lottery, dubbed Totonero, attracts at least as much action. The advantage of Totonero is that it offers better odds and secret payoffs. The disadvantage is that it's run by hoodlums with no qualms about corrupting the game.
Midway through the 1979-80 season, police arrested the president of AC Milan and key players around the league and accused them of accepting bribes to fix games. Two disgruntled bettors in an illegal gambling syndicate in Rome had filed a complaint alleging that certain players had taken money but not fulfilled their part of the bargain. In December 1980 a Rome tribunal acquitted all but one of the defendants because of insufficient evidence. But an Italian Soccer Federation disciplinary board was not as lenient. It conducted a hearing of its own and levied penalties based on suspicion of "sporting illegality." A few players were banned, and others were suspended for periods ranging from three months to six years. It surprised nobody, however, when many of the penalties were reduced. The suspension of the Azzurri's best striker, Paolo Rossi, was cut from three years to two, and it ended three weeks before the start of the 1982 World Cup finals. When the Azzurri, led by Rossi's six goals in the last three games, won the title that year, the country indulged in what Ferrarotti characterizes as "a moment of total national reconciliation." All kinds of scandals—soccer-related and otherwise—were hurled into history's rubbish bin.
Because the Stadio Olimpico was being renovated for the World Cup, the derby had been moved to the Stadio Flaminio, a smaller arena. Feelings ran so high over the match that 1,500 policemen and carabinieri on horseback were dispatched to control the crowd of 23,000 fans. Both the Irriducibili and the CUCS arrived early, rolled out their banners and began chanting insults at each other. Roma fans also orchestrated elaborate cheers to the tune of I've Been Working on the Railroad, the triumphal march from Aida, and the Coke jingle that goes, "I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony." But mayhem, not harmony, was the mood of the day.
To keep out troublemakers, admission to the press box was carefully controlled. I had to stop at an office outside the stadium to show my ID, have my name checked off a list and collect a pass for an assigned seat. Then I proceeded to a gate a good distance from the stadium, where my ID and pass were scrutinized by armed guards. At the entrance to the press box, there was yet another control point, where guards demanded IDs and passes and checked each reporter's name against a master list.
If this system had worked, it would have been a reassuring augury for security at the World Cup. But inside the stadium the charade broke down. In the press box, exits and aisles were choked, and assigned seats were taken up by friends, wives and children of Italian reporters. Worse, the area was tangled with TV cables and radio wires. In an emergency, we would all have been snarled like helpless butterflies in a spiderweb.
Helmeted guards patrolled the ranks of the CUCS and the Diehards, but few other safety procedures were observed. Spectators lounged in aisles and exits or shouldered their way into standing-room-only areas. Every time a firecracker exploded, the crowd recoiled and people got mashed against barricades.
Around the field, a few feet from the playing area, ran an unbroken row of knee-high billboards canted to catch the eye of spectators as well as TV viewers. Sponsors pay teams millions of dollars to plug their products, and players take the field wearing commercial logos rather than the team's name. Instead of ROMA, INTER, BARI or NAPOLI on their shirts you see BARILLA (pasta), MISURA (food products), SUD LEASING (finance) or MARS (candy). Still, few teams have been reduced to the abject level of the minor league Brindisi squad that was sponsored a few years ago by a coffin company and had to wear the slogan FURNITURE FOR ALL ETERNITY.
If advertising is the engine nudging soccer nearer the line where sport and entertainment intersect, then television is the fuel, and money—billions of dollars—is the ignition. Italy, a nation previously known better for its dolce vita than its vita industriale, has grown very rich in the past decade, and recently it boasted that its gross domestic product had surpassed that of Great Britain. Typically, this was accomplished in a bizarre fashion. For years, Italy, a third of whose work force is self-employed, has had the Western world's most robust "submerged economy." So in 1987 the government factored in estimates of illegal employment and income, and the GDP jumped 18%.