Shooting of Napoli fan turns world's glare on power of Italy's ultras
Published 05/05/2014 | 02:30
Antonella Leardi wrapped up three homemade casatielli, the stuffed bread snacks typical of a Neapolitan Easter, handed them to her son, Ciro Esposito, and waved him off. "Be careful," she said. "It can get dangerous."
But it was not her son's first road trip as a Napoli fan and he was heading for Rome in the company of friends and a cousin, all hopeful of seeing their club win the Coppa Italia final against Fiorentina.
They set off in good time for the two-and-a-half-hour journey to the Italian capital, parked in an area designated for Napoli followers and began the long-ish walk towards the Stadio Olimpico.
After about a mile, as they reached the Tor di Quinto district, according to Esposito's family members, the group were "ambushed".
Ciro Esposito (30) never made it to the stadium and yesterday underwent surgery on spinal and chest injuries caused by a bullet.
In the same hospital where Esposito had initially been admitted was 48-year-old Daniele di Santis, under arrest for attempted murder.
Italian police accounts suggest Di Santis, a Roma supporter already known to police, had hurled smoke bombs at the group of Napoli followers as they passed and, when they retaliated, had shot at them.
"These were the actions of a single person," said a police statement. A semi-automatic pistol was found near to an unconscious, badly beaten Di Santis.
So much for the showpiece final, ushering in the climax of an Italian season which was already at risk of being remembered more for repeated confrontations between supporters and authorities than achievements on the pitch.
Even at the end of a weekend when both domestic prizes were settled – Napoli won the cup and Juventus the scudetto, thanks to Roma's defeat yesterday at Catania – the dominant story is Saturday's violence, the fierce debates now all about the power and muscle-flexing of ultras, or hardcore fans.
The Coppa Italia final went ahead under tense, eerie circumstances.
By early evening news of the shooting had reached the stadium, along with reports of separate fighting between Napoli fans and police. Kick-off was delayed and a meeting took place between ultras from Fiorentina and Napoli within the Olimpico precinct.
The Napoli captain, Marek Hamsik, was then told by officials from the Italian league to leave the dressing-room and talk directly with a delegation of Napoli ultras, including one Gennaro de Tomasso, head of the so-called 'Mastiffs'.
Only then was it announced the match would begin, 45 minutes later than scheduled.
Hamsik had been instructed, it emerged, to pass on a message to the ultras, to tell them rumours that Esposito had died were not true, nor was a false story circulating that a child had also been shot.
The Italian league is sensitive to any implication it fell hostage to the threat of further violence from the ultras gathered at the Olimpico, but was equally concerned with precedents.
Ten years ago, a Rome derby was abandoned after a small of group of fans from Roma and Lazio marched on to the Olimpico pitch, mid-match, and told Francesco Totti, the Roma captain, to stop the game because they had heard a child had been shot by police.
The story turned out to be false, but a decision was taken to halt the match. De Santis, the alleged gunman on Saturday, had been among the ultras 'negotiating' with Totti that night.
"It did remind me of that," said Giancarlo Abete, president of the Italian league, organisers of the Coppa Italia. "We had conflicting news coming in, and a potentially emotional situation."
Abete acknowledged some consultations had taken place with fan leaders, adding: "Ultras sometimes use stadiums to demonstrate their power, and in some cases they have unacceptable roles." De Tommaso, the main 'Mastiff', was dressed unacceptably: he wore a black T-shirt, with yellow letters spelling out 'Speziale Libero', Free Speziale, when he spoke to Hamsik.
The reference would be clear to tens of millions of Italians: Antonino Speziale is the Catania fan in jail for killing a policeman, Filippo Raciti, ahead of a Sicily derby in 2007.
In their statement yesterday, the Italian police insisted they had "not negotiated" with De Tommaso and his cadre about whether and when the final should kick off.
Television cameras identified De Tommaso as a key figure, nonetheless.
As they focused on him in the game, picking out the 'Free Speziale' message on his T-shirt, the widow of the policeman Speziale killed took a call from a friend to warn her.
"It was humiliating," said Marisa Raciti. "I saw a man wearing the name of a murderer on his shirt and the weak authorities letting him lay down the law." (© Daily Telegraph, London)