Italy acknowledging its problems at last

In the space of the last seven days, two high-profile matches in Italy have been suspended at the instigation of match officials.

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In the space of the last seven days, two high-profile matches in Italy have been suspended at the instigation of match officials.

The first involved the Italy national team, last Tuesday night in Genoa, the second: Inter Milan, the European and Serie A champions, at lunchtime on Sunday in Sardinia.

For its response to both incidents, Italian football has been eagerly congratulating itself.

The consequences of the crowd trouble that forced the suspension and then the abandonment of the Euro 2012 qualifier between Italy and Serbia will be decided by Uefa.

But the principal cause of the trouble was clearly the behaviour of visiting Serbia supporters, one of whom spent much of the tense preamble to the match straddling a high fence between the stands and the pitch, clad in a balaclava.

He and his fellow goons had incited violence before the game and several had attacked the bus ferrying the Serbia players to the stadium.

Vladimir Stojkovic, the Serbia goalkeeper whose recent switch to Partizan Belgrade had made him a particular target of anger from fans of Red Star Belgrade, for whom Stojkovic used to play, had sought refuge in the Italy dressing room before kick off.

"I spoke with him there and he was very scared," Giuseppe Rossi, the Italy striker, said.

Rossi then added, with extra emphasis, how "the Italian police dealt with it very well". This is the line being relayed loudly by the Italian Football Federation, who are concerned that investigations into the incidents should reveal any culpability on the part of the hosts of the game.

Clearly, a number of Serbs travelled looking for trouble, even intended to have the game called off, as it was after seven minutes when a flare thrown from the away section endangered Emilio Viviano, the Italy goalkeeper. Seventeen men were later arrested.

There are calls for Serbia to be excluded from the rest of the Euro 2012 campaign. But there are also some uncomfortable questions about how the Italian police and stewards dealt with the situation.

Should they have let the hooligans into the ground in the first place, having witnessed the scenes beforehand? Why did a group of schoolchildren, about to witness frightening scenes rather than thrill at seeing the Azzurri live for the first time, have their cold drinks confiscated on entering one part of the arena while Serbs merrily carried in various missiles and heavy-duty wire cutters?

Italy's ability to tackle problems of violence around football is inevitably under higher scrutiny than most other countries in western Europe because its recent record is poorer, and the reforms brought in since the death of a policeman in Sicily ahead of a derby there in 2007 are relatively new.

In the light of this anxiety to show a firm hand, to keep praising the official response to the Serbia trouble, we had Cagliari versus Inter on Sunday.

An irony here: the match had been scheduled for a time slot that is new to the Serie A calendar, just after midday Italian time. Fixtures at this hour, it is hoped, will attract larger broadcast audiences in the Far East because there they can be viewed at a civilised hour.

Three minutes into this one, Paolo Tagliavento, the referee, was alerted to something very uncivilised: grunting chants from some supporters whenever Samuel Eto'o, Inter's Cameroon striker, touched the ball. Tagliavento stopped the game, and an appeal came through the public address system to say that if there were further racist chants, the match would be abandoned, and Inter awarded victory.

The grunts ceased, Eto'o scored a superb winning goal, and Tagliavento was widely congratulated for taking a permitted, but unprecedented step. He was brave to do what he did, but perhaps even braver to acknowledge the existence of a problem that is too often denied.