VERONA, Italy – Right up until he started quoting Hitler and dropping N-bombs, my new friend was a great dude. I’ll call him The Hooligan. A more generous host would be hard to find. Soon after we met, he made sure we stopped at the one place in town that served Campari correctly. He speaks eight languages, and seemed nothing like the Hellas Verona fans I’d read about, the neo-fascist, neo-Nazi, racist thugs. The Hooligan insisted the Veronese just have a dark sense of humor and refuse to wear the yoke of modern political correctness.
Now we are headed toward the terraces of the stadium. Soon I’ll be packed in with the hard-core fans, three people for every seat, chest to back, eyes burning from smoke bombs. Near the entrance to the stands, I ask The Hooligan to translate any chants hurled down at the players. He is an old-school soccer thug, not on a first-name basis with impulse control. His eyes are slate blue, and his face has darkened with intensity as kickoff approaches. His voice is a sharp blade.
“How about, ‘You’re a f—ing n-----’?” he says, and we walk inside.
Lost in the Pontine Marshes
This story is about a red motorcycle.
The ghost of Mussolini rides through the swampland he turned into farms, the sound of his bike’s engine going tom-tom-tom in the dark. Some locals swear it’s real. A famous Italian novelist, Antonio Pennacchi, saw the ghost when he was a child. Many still love Mussolini in Latina, one of the towns the dictator built south of Rome after draining the marshes. The old cab driver remembers not having to lock your door when Il Duce ran the country. The municipal building is still shaped like an M, in his honor, a reminder of a past that cannot be seen unless you fly high over the confusion below.
Pennacchi lectures me that American democracy is not morally superior. What Mussolini did in Africa, we did to the Indians. What Mussolini did to the Jews, we did to the African-Americans. He barks when I ask him to put the nostalgia for fascism in context with the epidemic of racist chants in soccer stadiums, especially the slurs against black AC Milan stars Kevin-Prince Boateng and Mario Balotelli.
“You are simplifying!” he says.
He stands up, imitating the way Balotelli appeals for a foul to the officials, moving around like he’s been shot, the curse words flying in Italian.
“Balotelli is an asshole,” he says. “No matter his color, he’s an asshole.”
The steam runs out.
“We are all assholes,” he says. “Man is a beast.”
Pennacchi goes outside and sinks into a plastic chair, lighting a Marlboro. He exhales a big cloud of smoke, inhaling back through his nose, quoting a philosopher I don’t know.
“The Hitler inside every one of us,” he says. “The good and the bad are mixed inside.”
He ashes his cigarette.
“The road to civilization is very long,” he says.
Dispatch from the madness
I’ve given up hope of ever fully understanding the fractured things I saw while chasing the Serie A soccer circus around Italy. Let me be honest. I got sent to write about racism, which I found in staggering amounts. But Italy isn’t like America, and racism there is tied into a thousand years of feuds, and hatred of anyone different, even if they’re from only a few miles away, and fascism, and the recent wave of immigration. That’s all in here, but it’s unfair to hide my predicament, which became clear after only a day or two. I’d fallen into a parallel universe of contradictions.
The rabbit hole opened when Boateng walked off the pitch during a match in Busto Arsizio. It was Jan. 3, in a small mountain town in the north of the country, a picture postcard of bell towers and winding streets. Serie A, the top division of Italian soccer, was in its mid-season break, so Milan had scheduled a friendly against a small local club, Pro Patria. When Boateng touched the ball for the first time, a small part of the crowd made monkey noises: Oo – oo – oo – oo.