Written by Scott Mistler-Ferguson
Edited by Cameron Gale
In April 2019, Saverio Dominello and his son Rocco, two die-hard fans of one of Italy’s greatest and richest football clubs, Juventus FC, were convicted of association with the country’s most powerful mafia, the ’Ndrangheta. Juventus was shaken by allegations of corruption, and court findings of links between the club and the prominent Pesce-Bellocco mafia clan. Club managers were reportedly serving clan interests by providing intermediaries with free match tickets to be sold on to fans at inflated prices.
The spectacle, while embarrassing for a nation so madly in love with the beautiful game, was simply falling into an all-too familiar pattern of high-profile offenses between Italian football and organized crime that dates back nearly a century.
Football is a social, financial, and political force all wrapped up in one game, and Italy is one of the best examples of this mixture. Annually, the country generates over $2 billion USD through its top league Serie A, with an additional $100 million USD in sports betting.
No small wonder then, that criminal organizations routinely weave themselves into the fibers of the game, in the name of profit, power, and prestige.
Italian Mafia Origins
When it comes to organized crime, Italy is a paradox. On the one hand, it is home to some of the most potent criminal organizations on the planet, and synonymous the world over, with “mafia power”. On the other, it is a leading nation in battling organised crime with a criminal resilience score even higher than its criminality score, according to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC).
Italy has pioneered organised crime research, and anti-organised crime legislation, birthing a powerful law enforcement apparatus that can stand toe-to-toe with the likes of the ‘Ndrangheta, the Camorra, Sacra Corona Unita, and Cosa Nostra.
These mafias are unique to the world of organized crime in that they outstrip simple territorial and criminal control. Adolfo Beria di Argentine, a renowned expert on Italian mafias, wrote that
"they transcend what one thinks of when considering traditional drug traffickers or street gangs. Mafia is not just a name or an organization. Mafia is a culture, “taking refuge in the environment of underdevelopment… it is violence for profit and it is a structure of power which pervades all other powers.”
In Italy, this culture takes the form of omertà, whereby silence towards outsiders is sacrosanct, loyalty within clans paramount, and members must comport themselves as “men of honor”. Indeed, the very origin lore of Cosa Nostra, the Camorra, and the ‘Ndrangheta is rooted in the same tale of three 14th century Spanish knights forced to flee to Italy having bravely defended the honor of their sister.
Italian mafias to this day continue to deck themselves in myths and religious symbolism in order to reinforce their role not as predatory criminals, but as secret societies representing spaces the government has abandoned or neglected.
In football, as with all other business ventures they undertake, these organizations benefit from control over local territory, and the threat of violence within that territory, to promote their own interests. They also, however, benefit from local ties and community protection, omertà existing as a kind of safeguard against the prying eyes of the state.
Mafia clans are not the only Italian organizations looking to expand territorial and social control under a unified banner. While Italian politicians naturally share similar ambitions, Ultra groups occupy this role more loudly than any of them.
Italy: Birthplace of the ‘Ultra’
Ultras are a keystone species of Italian football. Intensely devoted to their chosen football clubs, they are immovable fixtures at each match, delivering bravado, fire, and of course fans. While the 2019 Juventus scandal involved the release of official match tickets to be sold to the public, or touted, providing profits to the ‘Ndrangheta, it was Ultras that acted as their trusted brokers.
Italian criminologists have oft-repeated the importance of brokers and intermediaries in the country’s criminal landscape. They act as a gateway for crime groups to financial markets, territory, and local politics. Where mafias can leverage violence-for-profit, Ultra brokers can give that leverage a physical space to operate.
In 2022, criminal researchers Saša Đorđević and Ruggero Scaturro noted the spread of Ultra associations, not only in Italy, but throughout broader Europe. These organizations are tight-knit groupings of fans, united by their support of a single football club and in many cases, “a strong attachment to a particular urban district, political ideology or ethnic affiliation.”
As the loudest, and most unyielding of fans, Ultras are really the gatekeepers between a club and any outside interested parties. Born in the late 1960s in Italy, they have grown to wield formidable influence, involving themselves directly in club affairs, corralling voters to affect local elections, and at times blackmailing their clubs outright. Ultras have also been known to try their hand at more traditional forms of criminality.
Drug dealing, robbery, racketeering, and money laundering have each cropped up on the rap sheets of Italian Ultras. Though these groups are in no way illegal,
their ability to mobilize hundreds, sometimes thousands of members to their cause, has made them a long-running headache for Italian football. Club presidents in particular, are beholden to their capacity to drive up or down match attendance with ease.
In short, clubs will work tirelessly to keep Ultra leaders happy, reportedly “gifting dozens of free tickets to ultra groups and allowing them to operate the burger and parking concessions.”
Thus, mafia groups are attracted to Ultras twofold. Not only are they a point of entry for financial gain, they can also boost a clan’s social footprint. Despite the often reviled view held for Ultras by outside observers, within their individual communities there is far more ambiguity.
Tobias Jones, in Ultras: The Underworld of Italian Football, wrote that these organizations are often social do-gooders as well. After an earthquake tore apart the central region of Abruzzo in 2009, it was Ultras that swarmed the scene to provide food and aid. Jones cited the Mayor of Amatrice thanking multiple Ultra associations and claiming, “the Ultras have done more than thirty years of politicians.” There are plenty more cases of such grassroots efforts by these groups to positively impact their communities, graying their simplified depiction as wholly violent criminals.
Social and Financial Capital
This portrayal is exactly the sort mafias chase. Unlike traditional trafficking organizations, mafias collect political, social, and cultural influence just as rapaciously as they do profits.
Here, football is a no-brainer. Digging their roots into the sport does provide real financial gain for mafias, as has been evidenced for decades, but it’s also about forging connections. Anna Sergi and Alberto Testa argue exactly that in Corruption, Mafia Power and Italian Soccer, writing, “in traditional territories, investing in soccer means first and foremost investing in the relationship with the local community to gain social consensus.” This is a long-term investment, laying the groundwork for bonds within a community, maintaining clientelistic relationships, and greasing corruption.
Money, though, must always have its day. The world of football, especially one as opaque as Italian football, does not disappoint. Beyond classic sports-related crime like match-fixing, inflated ticket touting, and illegal betting, there is also space for money laundering, player and club extortion, preferential contracts, and passport fraud. Arguably the most successful culprit has been Italy’s premier mafia organization, the ‘Ndrangheta.
The ‘Ndrangheta Brand
The ‘Ndrangheta is originally a southern organization, based out of Calabria. The group’s clans, though, have long disproven the misconception that mafia criminality is a uniquely southern problem in Italy. Clans sink into illicit and licit economies throughout the country’s northern regions with football presenting just one more opportunity.
The Calabrian Iannazzo Clan in particular, based in the small, coastal city Lamezia Terme, was the subject of one of Italy’s greatest football scandals in recent years.
Nicknamed Operation Dirty Football, the six-year investigation led to some 50 arrests for match-fixing, mafia association, and outright sports fraud, among other charges. At its heart were two simultaneous match-fixing schemes, one headed by the Iannazzos and another by a group that while not formally connected to the ‘Ndrangheta, claimed to have ties to the organization.
The operation was far-reaching for both the Iannazzo clan and the second criminal ring. Dozens of matches across multiple leagues were “bought and paid for with specific agreed upon scores set beforehand to allow participants maximum earnings in betting. Nearly 30 clubs were involved. Players, managers, FIFA lawyers, and referees were all among the 84 individuals investigated by the Direzione Distrettuale Antimafia (DDA).
While only one group benefited from proven affiliation with the ‘Ndrangheta, both used the mafia group’s name in their dealings to smooth the process along. As with other mafia organizations, the ‘Ndrangheta name carries both intimidation and a promise of connections well beyond Reggio Calabria.
Sergi and Testa wrote that in both crime rings, “mafia power is manifested by social practices based primarily on the importance and influence of the brand name [of the ‘Ndrangheta] and on the strength of the reputation of the Calabrian clans.”
Cosa Nostra Clans
Further south, the once-mighty Cosa Nostra still holds sway over the island of Sicily, deriving its own benefits from the local football scene as well. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Cosa Nostra clans have a proven track record of leeching off of the island’s more famous clubs: Palermo FC and Catania FC. The differences in how clans interact with these two clubs however, showcases just how varied mafia dealings really are in Italy.
Mafias after all, are not monoliths. In the case of Cosa Nostra there does exist a hierarchy with provincial representatives handing down loose directives from the top or Cupola, but individual clans and families have considerable autonomy within their own territorial fiefdoms.
Instances of match-fixing or money laundering on behalf of Cosa Nostra have never been proven with Palermo FC and yet it’s a poorly-kept secret that the two organizations maintain links. Rather than sapping profits from the club directly, the Resuttana Clan, one of Palermo’s stronger, has simply cashed in on its territorial control of the area surrounding the club’s stadium, influencing satellite business interests like construction of a new training center.
Strong as the Resuttana clan may be, a business as lucrative as football attracts others. Salvatore “Totuccio” Milano, head of the Palermo Centro Clan, was found acting as an intermediary between two Ultra associations in a ticket-touting scheme for the club in 2016. For a former Serie A club with international recognition, this presented a serious earner. Again, Milano was not involved directly in ticket distribution, but was called upon for his influence and links as a mafioso within the area. He facilitated meetings between the various Ultras and club parties while providing insurance against conflict through the intimidation the Cosa Nostra name holds.
Deeper south still, in Catania, it was the Santapaola-Ercolano Clan that muscled into both match-fixing and illegal betting to enable their own money laundering operation. This all took place with the collaboration of the club’s former president Antonino Pulvirenti as was uncovered by Operation i Treni del Gol (Trains of Goals) in 2015. Unlike in Palermo, the Santapaola-Ercolano Clan is not considered one of the more powerful families in the region. Instead, they managed to coast off of the efforts of Ultras and club leadership during a time when the latter were especially desperate to win the Lega Series B championship and avoid relegation to Lega Pro. In fairness, Catania FC now sits in the middle of the tables within Lega Pro’s Group C.
In nearly every case above, mafia clans did not act alone or directly meddle in football affairs. Instead, through Ultras and fraternal connections, they have managed to siphon money from and reputation from the world’s favorite game, corroding the perception of various leagues and clubs.
Prosecutors in the Dirty Football investigations bemoaned the state of corruption in Italian football, complaining, “even when it is punished [it] reveals, unfortunately, how much this world of football is rotten, with unscrupulous speculators who are willing to sell all they can and really have nothing to share with the sport.”
Italian football is in no way an anomaly within the broader ecosystem of the sport. While the modalities and strategies of mafia organizations differ from those in other corners of the globe, football remains the most heavily targeted sport in the world by organized crime groups. The revenue, glory, and connective tissue it provides from the local to the international stage is simply too attractive and too poorly guarded for criminal organizations to resist.
Scott Mistler-Ferguson is a researcher specializing in organized crime and non-state threats. He reports on corruption, multiple forms of trafficking, and cyber-criminality. Scott is currently completing a Masters Degree at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, focusing primarily on Latin American politics and armed groups.
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