Dumped out of the World Cup, mired in political controversy, the countrys pride has been wounded. Time to take refuge in some traditional delights
Millions of Italians have been understandably despondent for the past few days. The results of the regional elections in Sicily proved that former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is back in the big time. With a face that looks more sinister with each passing year, the 81-year-old politician took the credit for a victory in which his rightwing coalition won more than double the votes of the left.
Then, on Monday evening, the Italian football team were dumped out of the World Cup in the qualifying stages, beaten in the playoffs by the humble but hard-working Swedes. For the first time since 1958, the Azzurri four-time winners wont even be at the tournament. It feels like not being invited to your own birthday party, said a glum Italian friend.
Football was one of the remaining reasons Italians felt any national pride. With that gone, it seems that their self-esteem has hit rock-bottom. Allitaliana has become short-hand for something done badly, with corners cut and, probably, a bit of corruption too. Its a country, says everyone, allo sfascio ruined or collapsed. Last month Andrea Camilleri, author of the Inspector Montalbano books, derided that well-worn phrase of national self-approval Italiani, brava gente (Italians good people): We Italians are racist, he said, why dont we want to say it? Forget good people.
No one would pretend that the country isnt in a grave crisis: youth unemployment stands at 37.8%, some 11.9% of Italians are living in extreme poverty. The national public debt is at 134.7% of GDP (according to EU treaties, its supposed to be at 60%). Corruption is endemic and every year the various mafias seem to spread like black ink on blotting paper.
Perhaps most worryingly, more people are looking back nostalgically not to Berlusconi, but to the man who sometimes inspires him: Benito Mussolini. Italys far right is now vocally and visually present in every football stadium, with straight-arm salutes so normal theyre not even news. Last month, stickers of Anne Frank were put up in Romes Stadio Olimpico, a sign that to many fans the Holocaust is just a joke with which to taunt the opposition. In Ostia, neo-fascists recently won 9% of the vote.
And yet the reason the neo-fascists are winning votes is, paradoxically, the same reason Italians might stop their collective hand-wringing and feel proud of their country: Italy has offered refuge to more than three-and-a-half million immigrants in the last 15 years. In the space of barely two decades, Italy has gone from being an almost monocultural country to one with 10% of its population considered foreign. Last year more than 180,000 migrants arrived by ship alone.