“I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”
There was a somber atmosphere in Italian stadiums on Wednesday evening during a minute of silence, followed by those excerpts of Holocaust victim Anne Frank’s diary being read through loudspeakers before all major soccer matches. Players wore T-shirts with the slogan “No to anti-Semitism,” with a picture of Anne Frank printed on them, as copies of her diary were distributed to fans in the stadium.
Intended as a clear stand against anti-Semitism, the idea turned into a bit of a debacle in the city of Turin’s stadium where ultras, hardcore (and sometimes fanatic) fan groups in soccer, protested the initiative and sang the Italian national anthem with their backs to the pitch, according to the BBC and Italian media.
The disruption further escalated the Italian soccer league’s dilemma over how to deal with anti-Semitism among some fans. At least 15 supporters of the Lazio soccer club — some of them still underage — were identified by police this week after producing and disseminating images of Anne Frank wearing a rival team’s jersey, alongside anti-Semitic banners. If they are found guilty of racial hatred charges, the suspects could face up to four years in jail.
The team’s ultras had previously gained a reputation for associating themselves with fascist ideology. Their target, Germany-born Anne Frank, escaped the Nazis to Amsterdam in the Netherlands during World War II where she hid in a room, but was later discovered and deported. She died at the age of 15 in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, but her diary later emerged as the perhaps most widely read account of Jews’ suffering at the time.
Stickers showing Anne Frank, with slogans that read “Roma fans are Jews” and featuring other anti-Semitic content, were found in Rome’s Olympic Stadium on Sunday, and prompted an immediate investigation.
A photo of the stickers quickly spread on social media after Ruth Dureghello, the head of Rome’s Jewish community, posted it on Twitter on Monday. “This is not soccer, this is not sport. Anti-Semites out of the stadiums,” Dureghello wrote.
Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella voiced anger and disappointment, saying the incident was “alarming.” The soccer club's president, Claudio Lotito, responded to the incident by visiting a synagogue laying down flowers in commemoration of the Holocaust victims. He also announced that the club would from now on organize visits to the site of the former Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland for 200 fans annually.
Although officials portrayed the case as being isolated, there are concerns that anti-Semitism in Italian sports may extend far beyond the most recent incident. A judge refused to convict Lazio fans earlier this year who used the word “Jewish” to verbally attack rivals. On social media, users also responded with photos allegedly showing other anti-Semitic slogans, connected to the Lazio soccer club, and sprayed on walls in previous years.
For their part, Lazio’s ultras fan club has shown little remorse for the whole affair. It urged its supporters to refrain from attending Wednesday's match and stood by the anti-Semitic stickers. They were the result of “a few lads joking around,” the fan club argued, according to news site the Local.
Italy's Lazio club may have a particular reputation for anti-Semitic hatred among some of its ultra fans within Italy, but such attacks are not limited to that country. Elsewhere in Europe, soccer clubs have dealt with similar incidents.
In one of the most widely reported cases, British fans became the victims of verbal and physical anti-Semitic attacks following a 2013 match in Lyon, France. The victims were associated with Britain’s Tottenham Hotspur club, which has attracted a large number of Jewish fans. Other clubs with similar Jewish support bases, like the Dutch Ajax club or German Bayern Munich, have also frequently faced anti-Semitic attacks in the past and have struggled to find a solution.
Some sports clubs or national leagues are systematically trying to exclude perpetrators from future matches, but cases often go unreported or those responsible are impossible to track down.