During the World Cup, football-crazed Italy grinds to a halt as fans glue themselves to the TV to watch the Azzurri play. But when the national team faces off against Slovakia on Thursday in Johannesburg, not everyone back home will be rooting for the reigning champions. Besides the odd punter, many backers of the Northern League party will be cheering against Marcello Lippi’s squad.
Founded in 1991, the League is no stranger to controversy. Umberto Bossi, the party’s brash, outspoken leader, once raised a middle finger to the Italian national anthem while speaking at a political rally. A separatist movement that has coalesced into a regional political force, the League enjoys support in prosperous towns and cities stretching from Turin to Venice, capitalizing on northern voters’ resentment of the profligate ways of the south and politicians in Rome.
While the League has toned down talk of secession in recent years, its supporters look for ways to promote their national identity – Bossi uses the term “Padania”, the Latin name for the Po River Valley, to refer to their would-be homeland. The party’s popular battle cry is “Roma ladrona” (“Thieving Rome”), often depicted on a poster showing a hen in Padania laying golden eggs that are caught by a smiling southern Italian housewife.
Along with a flag and a Miss Padania beauty pageant, the League promotes its own football team, nicknamed the Verdi (“All Greens”) to distinguish it from the azure blue jersey worn by the Italian team, a colour associated with the House of Savoy, the royal dynasty that oversaw the unification of the country. Earlier this month in Malta, Padania lifted the trophy at the VIVA World Cup, a tournament that brings together teams from aspiring nations like Kurdistan that are not recognised by FIFA.
Radio Free Padania celebrated the triumph and its announcers followed it up days later with shouts of joy during the play-by-play of Italy’s first World Cup group match when Paraguay opened the scoring. The news was quickly picked up by the mainstream press, with League politicians coming to the defence of the commentators by arguing that they were free to back whoever they wanted.
A minority partner in Silvio Berlusconi’s ruling conservative coalition, the League’s politicians often find themselves in hot water on the issue of allegiance. Luca Zaia, the newly elected governor of the Veneto region and a former minister for agriculture in Berlusconi’s cabinet, took some flak at an inauguration of a public school when he asked for the national anthem to be substituted with the League’s version (the party favours “Va, pensiero”, a chorus from Verdi’s Nabucco). On the eve of the World Cup, another Northern League minister questioned the need for the country’s football federation to pay out bonuses should the team lift the World Cup trophy this summer.
The negative comments have not gone down well in the Azzurri camp. In press conferences, a visibly annoyed Lippi and his players have repeatedly fired back at their northern critics. Team captain Fabio Cannavaro, a Neapolitan native who has no love for the League, has been the most outspoken. He announced that should the Azzurri repeat as champions, part of the prize money would be donated. The recipient? The committee in charge of organising next year’s celebrations of 150 years of Italian unity.