On Wednesday 7 May, an unusual game of football took place at the Arena Civica di Milano – a historic stadium dating back to the Napoleonic regime, which used to host Milan and Inter games, and is now a municipal sports ground. Billed as an international game, the “Trophy for the Freedom of Peoples” was a friendly match held under the auspices of the New Federation Board for unrepresented nations.
This organisation, sometimes known as the “Non-Fifa Board”, is a body led by the famous former lawyer of Jean-Marc Bosman, which works with FIFA in the hope that it and its 22 members are merely in a temporary situation prior to some kind of full recognition.
The NF Board includes sides such as Wallonia and Chechnya, along with Monaco, Northern Cyprus, Occitania and the Romani nation in Europe. Further afield, there’s Somaliland, Zanzibar, West Papua, and Tibet. These are nations or peoples who for one reason or another are not represented and recognised by FIFA: either for political reasons (Chechnya, Northern Cyprus, Tibet) or for even thornier issues of definition – what constitutes a nation, in the case of the Roma people or of the Occitans?
Tibet’s status as a nation is less controversial, at least to most of the West. This week’s football game was an opportunity for Tibet to garner further attention and capitalise on the Olympic flame protests in a new sporting context, by playing… Padania.
Those readers who have wisely chosen to eschew the doomed and futile endeavour of trying to understand Italian politics may not know what Padania is. Padania is a politically-loaded term for northern Italy, in which a right-wing separatist movement called the Lega Nord (Northern League) sprang up in the 1990s. The Lega Nord are part of Berlusconi’s ruling coalition, Il Popolo della Libertà, and won an unprecedentedly high share of the vote in northern Italy in the April elections. Padania as a concept is one with little coherent geographical, political or historical basis, but the economic focus of the Lega has recently won them support; and they have a football federation, Padania Calcio, with a singularly rubbish website.
Lega Nord leaders Umberto Bossi and Roberto Maroni were present, along with crowds flying the green and white “Sun of the Alps” flag chosen as a Padanian symbol. Maroni commended that the match had been organised in a sign of “solidarity with the Tibetan struggle”, while Bossi spoke of his “hopes for a democratic solution to the situation” there. A small crowd of Tibetans, including a number of monks, waved national flags behind a banner proclaiming “Tibet Freedom Curva Sud”.
On to the actual football: Padania, wearing distinctly Celtic-like green and white hoops, won by a convincing 14-2 on the night. Well-known names were few and far between, perhaps the best known player being Maurizio Ganz, now 40 years old, who played up front for half of Italy: Samp, Brescia, Atalanta, Inter, Fiorentina, Modena, to mention just a few of his former teams, as well as Milan with whom he won a scudetto in 1999. Bologna legend Carlo Nervo, still playing in the lower leagues, played in midfield alongside former team-mate Fabian Valtolina, previously also of Venezia, Piacenza and Samp. The majority of the team were young amateurs or part-timers, playing in Serie C2 and D.
The Tibetan side were mostly made up, it appears, of students, exiles, whoever could be rounded up and encouraged to play – not the regular Tibetan national side after all. The ref was Paolo Silvio Mazzoleni, usually to be found directing Serie B games; he comes from Bergamo, a good solid Padanian city if ever there was one, with a solid 20% Lega Nord vote. The two sides will meet again in the Viva World Cup to be held in Sweden this summer; this was in some senses a classic pre-tournament friendly. Whether it represents the first step on the road to “freedom” for either side is another question.
Personally, seeing Padanian separatism endowed with some kind of moral equivalence to the Tibetan struggle for independence has left me open-mouthed: at the sheer cheek of the thing, if nothing else. On the other hand, raising awareness of the situation in Tibet and demonstrating support and solidarity is never a wasted gesture, so I shall try to keep a lid on my cynicism. Certainly, harnessing the idea of an independent Padania to that of an independent Tibet is a masterstroke of political spin-doctoring. And in a country where the name of the Prime Minister’s party is a football chant, what better way to do so than via the (not-so) beautiful game? The evening was a fine example of the role of politics in sport, and sport in politics, and the extent to which the two are intertwined in Italian culture.
Images courtesy Calcio blog