Riots may lead to Italian soccer ban

Move would hurt Mediaset, Rai, Sky Italia

ROME — Italian government officials have scheduled an emergency meeting for Monday to discuss the unthinkable: canceling the national sport indefinitely after rioting soccer hooligans in the Sicilian city of Catania killed a policeman and injured 70 fans Friday night.

A prolonged ban on professional soccer games — what would amount to a crippling scenario for broadcasters Mediaset, Rai and Sky Italia — seemed increasingly likely on Sunday after Italian soccer authorities took the unusual step of canceling all weekend matches after the melee, plunging the sport into its second scandal in less than a year. As of Sunday evening, 29 fans had been arrested for starting the deadly riot.

For the first time in memory, there were no games on Italian TV or the radio over the weekend. Even soccer talkshows were canceled.

The Italian soccer federation also canceled an international match scheduled for Wednesday and is considering suspending league games for next weekend.

The Romano Prodi government is vowing to draft “a zero tolerance” law this week to crack down on increased stadium violence. Including Friday’s deadly riot, there have been two deaths and scores of injuries at stadiums over the past few weeks.

Politicians want to zero in on insufficient stadium security and break up the many politically motivated gangs — large contingents of fans of most pro clubs have organized into hardcore hooligan mobs with either a left- or right-leaning political bent — to rid the sport of its recent bloody violence.

Talk of a ban comes at a particularly difficult time for Italy’s “calcio.” Italian professional soccer leagues had been slowly recovering from a damaging match-fixing scandal last summer that involved some of the nation’s top clubs. At the outset of the Serie A season, fans stayed away in masse from stadiums and TV ratings sunk.

Last week, the Silvio Berlusconi-controlled Mediaset sued the soccer federation, saying the value of TV rights has devalued greatly since the match-fixing scandal — dubbed “Calciopoli” — broke.

Mediaset cited a 17.5% drop in Serie A stadium season ticket sales and a corresponding 15% drop in pay TV rights value in the lawsuit. Mediaset is believed to have paid Italy’s Federazione Italiana Gioco Calcio soccer league $80 million for the terrestrial rights for a large portion of matches for the current 2006-07 season.

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