Sunday, May 11, 2008

guest blog: the city that doesn't care. much.

Sofie is a semiotician from Denmark currently working with Rouleur, the cycling magazine of note. She spent the year following Italy's World Cup victory in Bologna, as part of her graduate study. The culture and intellectual traditions of that great city have nothing to do with the fact that, in her own words: "I see small children in Meeelahn shirts at the enormous Tesco down the street occasionally. I am nearly overcome with this urge to hug them. Their parents probably wouldn't approve."

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.


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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?


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[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.]

34 comments:

Abby said...

Fascinating analysis/history lesson, Sofie. (And I'm totally jealous of your thesis.) I spent about a week in Bologna a few years ago while my cousin was studying there, and it was great.

Interestingly enough, my Berlin-resident tandem partner told me that Berliners don't care about football- they like basketball.

Sofie said...

Thank you - I'm glad you enjoyed reading it. Bologna is indeed a very delightful place, and I do find myself missing it quite a bit. To the point of actively seeking out Serie B matches.

I know very little about football in Berlin, aside from what Simon Kuper tells me in Football Against the Enemy, but it's interesting that they should have this fascination with basketball as well, as Germans do tend to love their football in my experience. Any ideas why this would be?

Abby said...

I wonder if basketball in parts of Europe serves the same purpose that football/soccer serves in parts of the US? An alternative to mainstream culture that still provides the emotions and atmosphere of being into sports? Seattle, where I live, is known as a somewhat-alternative city in the US and has developed an interesting new football obsession (14,000 season-ticket deposits for the new MLS team). Perhaps Berlin sees that same sort of alternative in basketball? It's not that more people go to basketball games instead of football games in Berlin if you look at the numbers, and certainly Seahawks ticket sales will dwarf Sounders FC ticket sales...but the perception will be that Seattle is interested in football and Berlin in basketball. (And ice hockey.)

Or it may be because Hertha are perennially mismanaged, both on the field and financially, and more often than not just not very good, while ALBA wins things and does quite well. Unless noble losing is considered to be part of the team's identity (Chicago Cubs, for example), a city tends to lean towards a winning team rather than a losing or mediocre one.

ursus arctos said...

Abby has got it in one, I think.

roswitha said...

Everything I know about basketball in Europe I learnt from Under The Frog. Can you entirely rule out a historical support base built up thanks to close links to the great industrial teams of red Eastern Europe? Of course, the Hungary of the 'fifties, which is the setting of UtF, was also the time of the great football team of Ferenc Puskas, so I don't imagine the East itself tried to choose between the two sports.

ursus arctos said...

That works for ice hockey in Berlin, but not for basketball. Berlin Eisbaren (the current German champions and most popular team in the country) are the direct descendants of the club that dominated the DDR (and about to move from their historic home in the former east to a "state of the art" Anschutz-funded arena they will share with Alba).

Basketball in places like Berlin (and much of Italy) is just what abby suggested, a "trendy/cool" alternative to traditional sports that has the added advantage of being grounded in American culture (which is still capable of moving much more merchandise than any alternative).

Basketball's roots in Bologna (and places like Milan, Varese and Cantu) go back further (for the most part, to the immediate post-war period), but that dynamic was present even then (as illustrated by the massive success in post-war Italy of "Brooklyn" chewing gum). The touchstone cultural references now are much more to hip hop and "urban" dress, but they are still American, and still closely associated with basketball.

Another factor in "basket"'s hold on Bologna is that it provides a context for local rivalry. Bologna has only one football team, but two long-established and well-funded basketball teams (Virtus and Fortitudo) that contest what is probably the "biggest" basketball "local derby" in Western Europe (potential challengers tend to be in countries like Greece, Turkey, Israel and the former Yugoslavia, as well as Barcelona-Real Madrid (basket)). What I haven't been able to figure out, however, is what the basis for club identification is in Bologna; it doesn't seem to be class based, and I wonder if it is as "random" as the Milan/Inter split here. I'd be very interested to hear Sophie's views on that.

ursus arctos said...

Bologna won promotion to Serie A on Sunday by beating Pisa at the del'Ara.

Bentornato Rossoblu; it wasn't really the same without you.

roswitha said...

Sofie was celebrating that just this weekend, Ursus! I'm anticipating that Albinoleffe, who caught my interest and half the world's this season with their general lack of size [talk about pocket rockets], will falter in the playoffs. I'm not even sure if they'd be able to survive if they made it to Serie A.

ursus arctos said...

To be frank, I don't think Albinoleffe will make it out of the first round. Their form has deserted them over the last month.

Which is very sad for me, as I really have taken a liking to them. I even bought a season ticket, because they responded to the latest wave of anti-immigrant violence in Bergamo by offering family season tickets to stranieri for 100 euro.

We never made it to a match, but I don't regret a cent of my investment.

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