Livorno captain Andrea Luci was disgusted. "Hellas Verona deserve to be banned for life," he told local paper Il Tirreno. "There's nothing more to add." Luci was of course reacting to what he had heard during Saturday's big match in Serie B, when second met third at the Stadio Armando Picchi.
Half an hour in, something truly disgraceful happened. A chant had gone up among a small section of the 700 Hellas ultras hosted in the away end. Four words that don't bear repeating were said six times. Enough to provoke shock and anger among the Livorno fans. A number of their own ultras would respond in kind with a distasteful song of their own. But for now, members of the home crowd couldn't believe their ears.
A chant had been sung insulting the memory of Piermario Morosini, the Livorno midfielder and Luci's former teammate, who had died six months earlier of arrhythmogenic cardiomyopathy, the same inherited heart disease that had caused the death of Sevilla player Antonio Puerta in 2007. Morosini had collapsed during a match against Pescara. It was a tragedy felt keenly throughout Italy and made headlines around the world.
The actions of the four Hellas ultras identified so far has quite understandably sparked outrage. Although match officials apparently did not include the incident in their report, and neither Livorno owner Aldo Spinelli nor the Hellas directors present claimed to have heard the chants, they were captured on video by the local DIGOS, one of Italy's law enforcement agencies.
When informed, Hellas, to their credit, issued an immediate statement of condemnation. They expressed their regret and sought to distance themselves from those involved. Verona's mayor Flavio Tosi, himself a Hellas supporter who likes to talk about going along to the Bentegodi and sitting in the Curva, said it was "inadmissible". He promised to call Morosini's relatives to say sorry and wants Hellas's players to walk out on the pitch for their next home game against Virtus Lanciano all wearing No.25 shirts and to observe a minute's silence out of respect.
Saturday was particularly upsetting for the club's general manager Giovanni Gardini. He had been employed in the same role for Livorno last season and was there on that fateful day when Morosini lost his life. He had been pictured, his glasses pushed up on his forehead, wiping tears from his eyes. "Fortunately, I didn't hear the chant," Gardini said. "Naturally I disassociate myself from it and I apologise to everyone in the name of the club."
On Tuesday morning Hellas were referred to the FIGC disciplinary commission for punishment. FIGC president Giancarlo Abete called the whole affair "unacceptable." His deputy Demetrio Albertini added that fines and warnings are simply not enough. "We need to think about doing something about it." Fellow supporters, he argued, have to speak out and "isolate" the offenders.
Italy's former Hellas coach Cesare Prandelli agreed, insisting that if he were a spectator and heard someone nearby singing offensive chants, he'd get up, move, disassociate himself from the perpetrator and report it. "I believe it's the only way because we can't accuse an entire Curva. Behaviour like that can't be allowed to ruin an event as beautiful as a football match."
It's a noble sentiment. But, to return to Luci's request that Hellas be banned for life, this isn't of course the first time that sections of their supporters have acted deplorably. The Curva Sud at the Bentegodi has quite the rap sheet. "More than a Curva, it's a gallery of horrors," wrote La Gazzetta dello Sport.
There was the time in the `82-83 campaign when bananas were thrown at Cagliari striker Julio Cesar Uribe. Then what about in 1996 when, during a derby with Chievo, a number of Hellas ultras manifested their disapproval at reports that the club were considering signing Volendam's black defender Maickel Ferrier.
A black puppet was sinisterly hung from one of the tiers in the Curva Sud. A banner behind it read: "Negro go away." Two people were arrested while Hellas pulled out of talks with Ferrier. An injury was given as an official explanation. Yet he joined Salernitana soon afterwards.
It was sickening and remains so to this day.
Not every Hellas supporter, however, deserves a bad name. They shouldn't all be painted with the same brush. It's important to remember that the vast majority do the club proud. But all too frequently they are let down and shamed by a minority of "imbeciles", as they were described by the president of Serie B, Andrea Abodi.
Matters haven't been helped by the actions of Hellas's coach Andrea Mandorlini. He is also required to appear in front of the FIGC's disciplinary commission to answer the accusation of discrimination towards Livorno.
Mandorlini had needlessly stoked up tensions before Saturday's game by saying : "I am proud to be one of Livorno's sworn enemies," an enmity that originates from his spell in charge of rivals La Spezia in the late `90s and early 2000s. As Hellas scored in their 2-0 win at the Stadio Armando Picchi on Saturday, Mandorlini celebrated rather provocatively by pointing at the Livorno supporters.
It's not the first time he has courted controversy. After steering Hellas back to Serie B for the first time in four years, Mandorlini, speaking at the presentation of his team ahead of the new campaign, led the fans and the players in a discriminatory song against people from the south of Italy. It was supposedly aimed at the opponents they'd knocked out in the play-offs: Sorrento and Salernitana. Mandorlini was sanctioned and reminded of the responsibility he carries as a coach.
Northern regionalist sentiment expressed in a prejudicial form is nothing new in Italian football. Diego Maradona never forgot his first trip to the Bentegodi on September 16, 1984. It was his Napoli debut after all. "They greeted us with a flag that made me understand, suddenly, that Napoli's struggle wasn't just a football matter: 'Welcome to Italy', it said. It was north against south, racism against poverty."
Regionalism reared its head again on Saturday evening when Napoli visited Juventus for a top-of-the-table clash in Turin. A Tgr Piemonte reporter was suspended by RAI and an investigation launched when, interviewing fans around the ground, he responded to one who suggested that Neapolitans are everywhere "a little like the Chinese" by saying that "you can distinguish them by the smell". That he and his camera crew gave a platform to a couple of Juventus fans to sing a song expressing their desire to see Neapolitans washed by lava from Vesuvius wasn't too clever either.
The chants continued during the match and a section of Napoli supporters, perhaps in retaliation, ended up trashing the toilets at the Juventus arena. Both clubs were fined 7,000 euros, a punishment that La Repubblica considered "ridiculous" particularly in the case of Juventus because if the FIGC is to be thought of as tough on racism and discrimination then they should have been much more severe.
An editorial published in today's La Gazzetta dello Sport called for Italy's grounds to be cleaned up. "Believe us, it's a lot less challenging than restoring our government finances," wrote Franco Arturi.
It's difficult to share his optimism. First, Gazzetta hasn't always set the right example. Lest we forget, before Italy's Euro 2012 quarter-final with England, the paper printed a vignette depicting Mario Balotelli as King Kong scaling Big Ben.
Second, as events over the past year have amply demonstrated, the country often held up by Italians as a model to follow, namely England, has hardly resolved these issues itself. Getting it right has proven beyond UEFA too. Their haplessness is frustrating given the impression that they're not helpless to change things.
Within this context it's easy to become jaded by it all. Better education and promoting the right values should be the way forward. Italy had an opportunity here. They missed it by allowing Simone Farina, the unlikely hero of the Calcioscommesse scandal who refused an offer to fix a match and then reported it to the authorities, to become an outcast. He left the country to become a community coach with Aston Villa last week.
Until such a time when people like Farina are granted the recognition they deserve and held up as an example so that the difference between right and wrong is made clear to all and sundry, little, it seems, can be expected to change both on the pitch and in the stands.
James Horncastle will be blogging for us on all matters Serie A throughout the season. He contributes to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and Champions magazine amongst others.