In an email conversation, I asked her to tell me about Bologna and her experience with football among the students of the Universita; this is what she said.
Bologna is a place that prides itself on being different from all the rest of Italy. Perhaps not less corrupt, but definitely cleaner and smarter and generally nicer. This is, I expect, what you get when half of a city's population are students, and the other half is somehow engaged in the tough business of catering to the manifold needs of said students. Although it is the site of the most recent political murder in Italy – Marco Biagi, a Bolognese professor of economics, was shot and killed in 2002 – and, lest we forget, the Strage di Bologna, crimes committed by the extreme right and the extreme left respectively, Bologna has maintained a self-image of being the friendliest shade of red you'll ever meet. This image may or may not be entirely accurate, but it certainly has its place: in the years since the downfall of fascism and the end of World War II, Bologna has indeed been a bastion for the more left-thinking folk in a country otherwise heavily dominated by Christian Democrats. These left-thinking folk have not always been equally friendly to dissenters, it is true, and the atmosphere in the politically tense 1970's was, I hear tell from those who would know, bordering on what might be called 'slightly explosive'.
And Bologna is different. The Nettuno fountain to be found in the main piazza of the city is positively pornographic, but as the Pope said, "For Bologna, it's ok." The clergy might still make the occasional extremely ill-advised comment about homosexuality, but most of the city's other dignitaries [that is to say, the whole army of highly illustrious professors and lecturers on subjects wide and fascinating] will be rushing to denounce the bishop's foolishness. It can't be helped, I suppose, what with Emilia-Romagna being the most "godless region in all of Italy" and all – a quote which supposedly can be attributed to the late John Paul II. And being different, it can come as no surprise that the sporting obsessions of the Bolognese are just a little bit off as well. They like basketball, you see.
That's not to say that Bologna doesn't have a football team. It does; Bologna Football Club 1909, the rossoblù. It's just that Bologna also has two basketball teams, and they tend to get most of the attention, if not exactly all of it. This is strange, is it not, in a country otherwise so reliably obsessed with calcio? Why should Bologna, of all places, like its football but love its basketball? One tentative guess might be Bologna's recent history in Serie B [at the time of writing, they are placed fourth in Serie B and are heading into the play-offs], but this would seem uncharacteristic of tifosi behaviour: the chants might not necessarily be kind, but a stint in Serie B does not mean that you abandon your club in favour of basketball, delightful game that it is. And things have certainly improved since the 1980's and early 1990's where the team was relegated as far down as Serie C1. Granted, things are not likely to be returning to the stellar heights of 2004 any time soon – but seeing as Hidetoshi Nakata has retired from international football, his return would possibly be too much to hope for [the same, incidentally, could be said of Baggio and the even more stellar heights of the 1997-8 season]. All things considered, they're doing all right. Fans should be rallying under their banners instead of going to see basketball.
Having spent a year looking at Italians with big, blue eyes and making remarks like, "... Going to a football game might also be nice?" you'd think that I'd had some success in that department. I confess that I haven't. And being a coward, I took their advice when they told me that, "And you're not going on your own either, bionda!" [In my defence, only three Italians can get away with calling me "bionda" without having their heads unceremoniously bitten off.] I tried this strategy on many Italians, all of whom were unfortunately very nice young men who were far too nice [and well-educated, if you ask them at the wrong time] to get down and dirty with the unwashed masses at a football match. Football is an activity for those who have already been brainwashed into mindless obedience by Zio Silvio [I use the term with no love whatsoever] and his minions, and they were having none of it. Without having done the empirical, quantitive research I'm sure is necessary to make sweeping statements like this, it seemed that Bologna, the students' city, was taking a stance against the rest of post-war Italy and their silly football obsession.
Football is a good place to start if you want to take a stance against something. It spells things out in very small, but conveniently capitalised words, if you want it to. And Bologna's seeming rejection of football in general and their club in particular does go against the tide in Italy, just as much as Bologna would want to go against the tide in a country that just reelected Zio Silvio. I doubt that this is all there is to it, however, because like all football clubs Bologna F.C. has a history, and it is not entirely pleasant.
Bologna F.C. have won lo Scudetto seven times, by no means bad going for a plucky Serie B side. The last time they won it was in 1964, and this was after a drought that lasted 23 years. Most likely, it'll be another 23 years before Bologna win the Italian league again, if ever, but that's beside the point. The point is that once upon a time, Bologna were a big team. Between 1925 and 1941, Bologna won the league six times. They were one of the richest, most successful clubs in Italy. And they owed much of that success to one man: Leandro Arpinati. A Fascist leader with strong ties to Mussolini, Arpinati was a big fan of football and he wanted his team, Bologna F.C., to do well. His methods relied heavily on simply pouring money into the business of Bolognese football, though he would occasionally try other means if that was not enough to ensure victory – means which even the recently less than Lucky Luciano would probably shy away from. And lo, Bologna won. Bologna even dominated for a while there. And it was all thanks to fascism. [Arpinati was also President of FIGC, the Italian football federation, and among the forces who moved for the creation of the league system still in place today.]
Like most European countries, Italy has its own more or less effective strategies for dealing with the less than nice aspects of its past, and when it comes to fascism one strategy that has gained a lot of popularity over the years is the charmingly simple one of just ignoring it. An understandable strategy [and one that I find more sympathetic that my own country's longstanding tradition of making ourselves out to be nicer than we were], if not a particularly good one in many ways. And Red Bologna which was so heavily under fascist influence and administration – which actually flourished during these years – would hardly want to be reminded of their past by celebrating the fading glory of a football team who were only really awesome when Leandro Arpinati made sure that they were. So Bologna turned to basketball, a game that seems safely unpolitical by comparision, though even such a choice is highly politicised when seen in the right light. In such a context, then, the comfortably centre-left leanings of current Bologna do occasionally look a little bit more like a bad case of denial. Though it could just be that the good people of Bologna just don't like football all that much – so unlikely an explanation that it must be rejected out of hand, of course. Right?
[Ros: I find this fascinating. I first thought that it has some parallels with the way India's communist states, Kerala and West Bengal, are known for their comparative interest in football, but it actually really only means that they spend a little less time obsessing over cricket than everybody else. I assume they sleep less to accommodate both passions. We have no figure of the stature of Umberto Eco to spearhead an intellectual opposition to either sport.]