Chapter 8: Riccardo
Chapter 8: Riccardo
“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distan- ”
- General John B. Sedgwick [Last words]
I can see almost everything that’s happening from here thought Riccardo.
He was looking out of the highest window of an apartment building with Place St George below him, and Hotel de la Paix down and to the left of his line of sight. The sun was behind him, and he could see all but the southern wall of the square, where he tried to remember the scene as he’d passed it, minutes earlier. Trained to be observant, he held a clear image in his head. A lone, olive-skinned woman sat centrally with her back to the wall of a school, next to a blocked-off alleyway. Six or seven metres away from her, on the gravelled boules terrain in the south-eastern corner, a young couple had been chatting: A shaggy-haired, fair-skinned male in a yellow T-shirt, facing a young woman with blond hair and a pink vest, who sat square in the corner.
God she was beautiful! He had watched her for several seconds as he had walked across the west side of the square, until he remembered that he was at work and sent his mind elsewhere.
He sighed as he took in the dimensions of Place St George.
Only enough room for a small hotel, an internet café and a bookshop along the northern side. It’s hardly Piazza Duomo is it?
He placed his rucksack on the dusty floor, took out a packet of cigarettes and looked at the long aluminium box to his right, then out of the window again, from several angles, trying from the left and then the right.
A narrow view, even from here, and the whole area down there is hardly more than twenty metres by twenty… I suppose that does limit the scale of any possible civilian disturbances.
He opened his rucksack and took out a tiny folding stool, his standard police-issue binoculars and a Beretta 92 pistol, still in its holster. He recalled the theatrical voice of his first ever firearms instructor, back as a young carabiniere in Velletri.
‘Officers must always carry a service weapon while on duty, even when in plain clothes.’
Riccardo smiled to himself as he opened a can of Diet Coke, and spotted his colleague, Giovanni, heading toward the right, along on the far side of the square below, just as Riccardo was putting his earphones back in his ears. He switched his radio to his spotter team’s frequency and called in that he had found a vantage point, although he gave no other details. He sipped his Coke and watched the people, mainly English, milling through the square.
Fewer than I’d feared he thought.
Some sang, and one or two waved flags, which intermittently obscured his view. This had been a real problem for him at a match at the Stadio San Paolo in Napoli once, while trying to ascertain exactly what had happened when a stabbing incident took place.
Something else that affected his appraisal of what was happening was the clothes people wore. He knew that many were England supporters, and thankfully there had been no need for wearing bandanas and masks to hide their identities as yet, but just the fact that many were neutral, or wearing clothes that simply said France ’98, offered anonymity. Unlike Italian ultras travelling en masse, no self-respecting English hooligans would advertise their loyalties by wearing team colours or scarves on their way to a match, it would make them too easy to identify, should trouble occur.
All quiet so far…
He knew he shouldn’t smoke at his post, it could give his position away, but he couldn’t resist the calming effect it offered, so he lit another Marlborough red.
He held his cigarette with one hand as he began to carefully empty the rest of his equipment with the other. He checked the battery charge on the camcorder, and put it to one side. The empty room around him was bleak and had a dusty smell. He thought it must have been left unoccupied for weeks, and there was no furniture, so he guessed it would remain so for a while. He looked through the dusty window and touched it with his left hand.
Clean enough to see the overall picture he decided. I won’t need to advertise my position by wiping it.
He exhaled sharply and picked up his binoculars, swapping between them and the naked eye to look through the window, down onto Place St George. He picked a speck of dust off his shorts and checked his watch.
A distant riotous cheer stole his attention and raised his heartbeat, but the source was out of sight. He tried to create a visual image of the entire scene, not just the positions of people and what was immediately visible, but also taking in their movement, the flow and intention of the pedestrians as they left his view, and he also tried to envisage who and what may come around the corners, and what may be happening in his blind spots. The complete mental image had fuzzy, unknown edges and dead ends, and it was always incomplete, but after a while you got an instinct for what might arrive at a moment’s notice, from nowhere. Riccardo had been a police spotter for years, and he was seldom surprised these days.
He scanned the people walking through the square from the east, and then to the west at Hotel de la Paix. He zeroed his binoculars on the corner of the square, on the terrace of the hotel where the three loud Englishmen drank. They laughed uproariously and knocked each other’s bottles of beer on the terrace, occupying the left hand side of the three tables facing the square, with locals at the two tables to the right. He knew they were English because the big one had been shouting as he’d passed with Giovanni earlier.
Blind drunk at this time on a Sunday afternoon. He shook his head. Only the English... They don’t look organised or ready for anything… Fairly unlikely to act out a pre-planned threat, but they could explode at short notice. He had seen it many times.
Just around the corner of the terrace, down the hotel’s left hand side, was a single, empty table at the top of Rue des Pecheurs. It was at the top of a downward slope toward Le Petit Voisin, a café a hundred and twenty metres straight downhill from where Riccardo watched. He checked the drunk England fans again, and looked at the table around the corner to the left, only three or four metres away from them. Through his binoculars he could see a sheet of paper beneath an ashtray that read: ‘RESERVÉ’ in large letters, but no one was sitting there, as yet.
From Hotel de la Paix the pedestrian traffic through the square went mostly toward the west, along the northern edge, and there was a light but fairly consistent flow of people, mostly in small groups of two or four. All seemed genuinely excited at the prospect of a sunny afternoon in Marseille, and he hoped they were only looking forward to a good football match to either attend, or watch on a big screen at the beach. Fundamentally depressed despite the adrenalin, Riccardo couldn’t help thinking about what he would rather be doing:
I could be back at home in Syracuse, making love to Maria or drinking a Blandanino. We could go for another weekend away, take a walk out in the North West.
Riccardo and his wife loved to walk together in the evening, and he thought of a recent short break in Zingaro, where they had gone for a long evening hike and then stopped to eat spaghetti frutti del mare and watch the sun go down over the Mediterranean.
Zingaro has some of the warmest people on the island, he had found and the food is always excellent. He tried to beat a new image out of his mind, but it seeped in and he grew momentarily cold as he thought of the reserve near Catania at the mouth of the Cyane River, where papyrus still grows. It was there that Maria had told him of her inability to have children.
Maybe it’s for the best he thought gravely, I’ve got little hope of creating much of a legacy.
He shook his head and forcibly thought of another of their weekend excursions, to San Leone on the South Coast. He reminisced about how the beach was covered with beetles, and they needed to dig small trench around their towels, to stop them getting crawled over as they sunbathed.
In an increasingly common knee-jerk reaction, his rose-tinted recollections of leisure time were replaced by thoughts about the pressures of work back at the station in Syracuse, his burgeoning backlog of admin, certain other pressing responsibilities he had taken on, plus his spiralling gambling debts. He just wanted to settle down and get away from all this life. That is why he was so keen to retire early, to go on more long walks with his wife, to spend more time in church, and to try to come to terms with his conscience.
The police frequency crackled into action in his earpiece:
“Reports of a disturbance – a mêlée just north of your locale, down the hill from Place St George. England fans clashing with North African males, presumably Tunisian in origin. Apparently some national flags have been set alight, and the situation looks like it may escalate further.”
He looked at the English drunks outside Hotel de la Paix as the largest of them appeared to shout some anecdote, leering at the locals at the other two tables on the terrace as he did so. Every now and then he would stick his chest out, presumably trying to look stronger, but his legs were narrow, he was unsteady on his feet and his size seemed of little real substance. He looked like he may be keen to get into a fight, but Riccardo suspected he wouldn’t cause any serious damage, without a lot of luck, unless he was armed. But appearances can be deceiving.
He imagined how crowd trouble might happen in Place St George - which was a fairly enclosed place - and how a disturbance could best be dealt with, in a ‘worst case scenario’. The beach was the main focus of the CRS riot units, Place St George would be practically impossible to access for water cannons, and they would always only be a last resort, as they can cause serious injury to innocent bystanders. Nobody wanted that kind of publicity with the eyes of the world’s media watching.
Apart from the shaky political issues, it was the innocent victims of football violence that were the main problem for Riccardo. Damage to property is one thing, but needless acts of violence - rather than any real ideology - was incredibly petty, and the whole process of the repeated behaviour was, he believed, simply caused by too much bravado.
No father figure Riccardo had observed on many occasions when he had interviewed those involved and read their files. He blamed much of society’s woes on the breakdown of family values and a lack of decent role models, a situation made worse by drugs and unemployment. This was particularly true in the area of football violence, and Riccardo had been required to study the subject in quite some depth.
His lectures had taught him that England’s Edward II banned football in 1314 because the game itself was basically two villages fighting over a pig’s bladder. It’s as if so-called hooliganism existed even before the game was played by teams on a football pitch he had thought at the time. In 1969 a riot at a game between Honduras and El Salvador actually led to a short war.
English football violence, especially in the 1980s, had long been reported as a major influence on the extreme fan elements of mainland Europe. It was an image largely fuelled by the media, but was a common misconception, even among most football followers. Since early on in his specialist training, Riccardo knew better. Hajduk Split’s Torcidawas founded in 1950, Fedelissimi Granata were founded in Turin in 1951, even the Sampdoria Ultras - the first to call themselves such - appeared in 1969, soon to be followed by Inter Milan’s Boys San.
His eyes fixed on the comings and goings of Place St George, as he continued to cast his mind back to those early lectures and video clips.
From the outset, all over Europe and elsewhere, the groups had often had a political agenda - everything from anti-racism to extremely racist ethnic nationalism, the only subject they generally agreed on was business - No al Calcio: They were against the commercialisation of football.
Commercial involvement was not the major danger, as far as Riccardo was concerned. Many factions in Eastern block countries were often highly extreme in their politics, although to outsiders the picture was far from clear: groups might be waving anything between the Hammer and Sickle, a swastika, the anarchy symbol or the image of Che Guevara. Many mainland Italian ultras try to maintain that they are ‘for’ their club rather than ‘against’ the opposition, and as such they even get allowed special seat allocations and storage for their elaborate banners at some stadia, which would be unheard of in many other countries.
Policing was so difficult because the situation was far from simple. He had learned of the recruitment potential of large groups with such a strong bond between them, where extremists sometimes tried to distribute propaganda. In contrast, some factions actively refuse to carry any such symbols, and don’t allow members to display anything that could be construed as political – the political views themselves are considered an invasion, and can bring violence from within the group.
Riccardo found the teams that had sponsors with an openly political agenda to be the most disturbing, following his involvement in a special research project focused on Romania. Steaua in Romania was founded by the army in 1947 and was actually owned by them right up until the revolution in 1989. FC Rapid was sponsored by the Ministry of Transport, and Dinamo Bucharest was openly supported by the police, as many injured opposing supporters could attest. As football revenue streams grew, such a conflict of interest would have been difficult to maintain in Western Europe.
He watched through his binoculars as the English trio on the hotel terrace laughed loudly and pointed towards the locals who sat, quietly people-watching at the next table. He noticed for the first time that the biggest of them was repeatedly sniffing and rubbing his nose.
Cocaine. They’re probably all on it.
He became even more uneasy. He knew too well that this significantly increased the threat of violence, especially for the big loud-mouthed one with the inflated chest and skinny legs.
Coke-fuelled powder kegs like him are usually the first to be drawn to the mass hysteria of the hooligan swarm.
Again Riccardo recalled some of the police training videos he’d seen, demonstrating how such people’s state of mind is easily ignited, and how en masse they are drawn to the fray; they act as just one of many angles of attack from within the group, prepared to kick a man to bloody unconsciousness - or worse - when he’s down.
Safety in numbers. The English talk about their firms like they are the Cosa Nostra, but much of it is just stupid posturing from a distance - shouting and throwing plastic chairs. What the hell do the British know about modern organised football gangs?
The Ndrangheta mafia use Interpiana and Sapri to gain support in Calabria. They’re probably the most powerful family in Italy, thanks to its hold on the cocaine trade. The Barrio Boys in Argentina are just as sophisticated: they go to university and learn to speak foreign languages, some study law. They have such close links to the club that they often receive a cut from players’ transfer fees. The money goes toward trafficking arms and drugs. The best the British can manage is to swap phone numbers with other firms and then smash up a few pubs… maybe a small coke deal once in a while.
He shook his head and tutted.
…It’s like a drug in itself to those that follow it… All this so that people can watch a load of overpaid prima donnas earn huge amounts of money scoring goals for debt-ridden clubs. The bigger the club, the bigger the debt. Now we have the rise of Asian betting syndicates and the corruption that goes with them.
In order to distract himself from thinking about the rising spectre of his own debt situation, he drifted back to the contrasts and comparisons he had learned as part of his football violence training.
English thugs don’t realise the simplicity of following their ‘beautiful game’ back in their homeland. There it’s just team against team with some racism mixed in.
Riccardo had learned how, on mainland Europe, especially towards the East, different areas of a ground sometimes have different financial backers, which effectively means that the powers-that-be can support fans with certain political preferences, paying to refurbish, when other parts of the ground supported by opposing political views may even be closed for safety reasons. Such an obvious conflict of public interest would be difficult to muster in much of the western world, but where politics is more polarised and times are hard, age-old cultural frictions that have threaded through generations and world wars, can overcome humanity and common sense. He found it was the ideologically vulnerable that are targeted.
Yes, football can bring people together he thought, but sometimes it drives whole populations apart.
What he found especially strange in some instances, especially in England, was that the men involved sometimes had very highly paid jobs. They had families, and were outwardly good members of society from Sunday to Friday, but could overflow with hate and act like pack animals on a Saturday afternoon. Like most of his squad, Riccardo shared the mainstream media’s tone of moral indignation:
How do they live with themselves during the week? How can they repeat such behaviour, week in, week out?
He couldn’t fathom the camaraderie they all talked about. Fundamentally, Riccardo had always been a loner, but at some point they must witness the evil for the first time, and yet be drawn to it rather than repulsed. He wondered what they gained from it.
What about days later, sober, spending time with their children?
He shook his head as he watched a boy of no more than fourteen stride through Place St George, spontaneously chanting with his arms in the air, fists clenched, clearly drunk. There was no obvious reason for the outburst, but the group behind him seemed uplifted by his actions.
He thought of how small scale territorial attitudes, all the way up to international politics, are often influenced at low levels by intoxication, be it alcohol, cocaine, or any other substance that can unite or conquer a particular group. Prohibition often felt like sweeping leaves on a windy day, but surely there was a need for it.
A drug can have a significant impact, even on who governs. Ask any Columbian or Afghani.
He placed his binoculars on the ground and filmed the square below for a few seconds with his camcorder, struggling to maintain a steady view due to the sweat pouring from the palms of his hands.
This is probably the only footage of this square at the moment.
He watched the two American journalists as they talked amongst themselves in the centre of the square, the man’s large video camera idle at his side. They seemed to be filming for only a fraction of the time that passed, which made Riccardo less uneasy than he might otherwise have felt.
He shook his head, lamenting how what should have been the greatest enemy of football violence had become its saviour. Closed circuit television cameras simply pushed football violence away from the stadium environment and decreased its visibility. The advent of mobile phones had recently made it so much easier to meet rivals elsewhere. He had watched as the numbers appeared to decrease a little, but the larger firms had been together for so long - they socialise together, go to each other’s weddings and funerals, go into business together. Then the younger ones get involved, now fuelled by cocaine or amphetamines as well as alcohol, hearing stories about how uncle so-and-so put flight to a gang of twenty at an away game, wielding nothing but an ice cream cone.
It’s not really even about football, it’s just gang violence that attaches itself to sport. When it gets to issues of race, politics, and religion, why not try and distance them from football altogether? Keep them away from the matches and the different teams. Let them fight it out, once a year, all together in a field, and then pay their own medical bills - or even better - if you want to prove you’re a man, or prove you can fight, just join a boxing gym and really prove your mettle.
Riccardo was a big boxing fan and loved Rocky Marciano. He believed that at his best, late on his career, he was even better than Ali at his best.
There is plenty of camaraderie in a boxing club, too… And it is founded on fighting spirit and real skill, not just bullshit and menace and stupid racial or cultural divisions.
He looked down Rue des Pecheurs in the direction of the crowd, a hundred and twenty metres from his vantage point, and he could see that some people were hurrying up the hill, away from Le Petit Voisin and toward Hotel de la Paix and Place St George, talking urgently and looking worried. He spoke into his microphone.
“This is SD08. That’s an affirmative to signs of a spontaneous low level disorder to the north” he reported on his radio.
That’s the last thing I need!
“I can’t see the source directly, and you don’t have to send back-up to the square. I’ve seen the odd Tunisian, and a few English, but no large groups and no one obviously organised or dangerous. He picked up his binoculars again and looked through them at the square, scanning to his left. He increased magnification, scanned to his right, then felt himself shudder.
The size of him!
Over to his far right he saw a trio as they entered the square: An enormous tattooed man, accompanied by two others. One was skinny with purple hair, wearing an oversized England shirt, who flinched slightly as the third one of the three aggressively pointed at him, even though they appeared to be together. They looked outwardly like they may be here for something other than just football, as they were a miss-matched bunch, and the skinny one carried a large holdall, crumpled and oversized for its contents.
Bright purple hair. What was he thinking?
Arriving at the square, the tattooed man turned and strode purposefully westbound through Place St George, checking the surrounding area as he walked. The few people approaching him gave him a very wide birth; he looked incredibly imposing even from Riccardo’s distant vantage point.
Through his binoculars, Riccardo looked him up and down, imagining how one tattoo might link with another, across his latticed arms and legs and enormous chest.
Most of his face is inked! The mind boggles.
The blue-green monster took a quick glance behind him, just as a group of people passed the trio, and he was even checking the windows of the buildings around the square and…
Riccardo swiftly ducked down to his right as the huge tattooed man looked straight up, directly toward the window he looked out of.
He’s nearly fifty metres away, this window is dirty and the sun is behind me. It’ll be fine.
Riccardo stole a last drag from his cigarette, dropped the butt in his finished can of Diet Coke, and breathed deeply and slowly.
Feeling his pulse still racing, he concentrated on the movement of his diaphragm, and made a conscious effort to try and regulate it - a relaxation method he had learned to help him, in his line of work. Another group of young men arrived at the square from the west, but they wore only France ’98 T-shirts, so he couldn’t be certain where they came from, although they looked pretty serious. The odd trio walked behind a young Japanese couple, and Riccardo took his camcorder and filmed them all a little, followed by the drunk men drinking outside Hotel de la Paix, just for the record.
He watched his short-term colleague Giovanni, wander through the square with the awkward swagger of someone uneasy on his own turf. He had been diplomatically striking up small talk with a local man, but by chance had walked directly south and out of sight, just as the odd British trio arrived on the scene.
‘Pluk’ would be the correct French I believe.
Riccardo evaluated his own knowledge of French, then thought about Giovanni’s language skills.
Half-Sicilian you may be, but fluid Italian? No chance, you fat idiot. You sound like a three year-old.
Riccardo had studied French at the Language Office of the Carabinieri Training School Command in Rome, along with English, Spanish, and Romanian. He had also studied with the Sardinia Heliborne Hunter Squadron, at the Scuba Centre in Genoa, and even at the dog-handling centre in Florence. He watched as Giovanni smiled awkwardly at the passing strangers while trying to look busy.
Stop that pointless loitering or get out of the square altogether.
To a properly trained, military law enforcement operative like Riccardo, the local Giovanni seemed horribly civilian and provincial, brash smile and firm handshake or not.
He felt his pulse increase again as the new trio - Tattoo, Purple Hair and the aggressive one - picked up the interest of the pair of street urchins that Giovanni had talked about earlier. It seemed like they might be following them; their eyes were on Purple Hair’s bag.
The big guy’s a real pro… he thought. He watched the tattooed man checking out his two companions and their environment as he paced slowly but purposefully through the square, clearly aware of the crowd dynamics around them.
But has he seen those two street kids? Salim and David, wasn’t it?
The Arabic one’s attention was definitely fixed on their bag.
It’s all far too close, too constricted… and he looks like he could be Tunisian. Tunisia play England later, what if those English lads start something from the Hotel?
Riccardo carefully pushed away the contents of his rucksack as his radio crackled into action again.
“All Units. Continuing spontaneous civil disturbance at the bottom of Rue des Pecheurs, outside Le Petit Voisin, mentioned before. It is escalating further. People are running away. Concentrate surveillance on that area if you have a line of sight… ”
He looked on as another group of three men arrived on the scene from his right, but from the north. One also carried a bag, this time a black rucksack over a muscle-bound shoulder.
All three are obviously Eastern European. You could spot that from a mile away.
He checked them out individually as they also headed toward the Hotel de la Paix on the corner, several metres behind Tattoo’s motley trio. Again there seemed to be one who looked potentially dangerous, in a professional kind of way, although he was a far cry from the switched-on impression of awareness that Tattoo gave. The opposite number was also big, and he wore combat trousers and a camouflaged vest; his overall look suggested ex-military, but he seemed like more of a grunt. The second, somewhat uncomfortable-looking one was probably about twenty five, and sported a large handlebar moustache and a scruffy shirt above washed-out clothes. The third’s body language and smart, expensive clothes showed that he was clearly in charge.
Riccardo breathed steadily and slowly, in for five seconds through the nose, out for five through the mouth. He dropped his police binoculars into his rucksack and leaned over to the aluminium box to pick up another eyepiece with better resolution, and looked through it at Hotel de la Paix.
He watched as the street kids following Purple Hair separated and walked around the Japanese couple, Salim still had his eye on the black bag. He wasn’t far behind, now. Tattoo arrived at the corner.
I hope those drunken English at the hotel don’t take that kid for a Tunisian and start something.
Tattoo turned and spoke to Purple Hair outside the hotel, right in front of the three rowdy English drunks who all seemed to be staring at the size of Tattoo’s immense chest and arms. A moment later Tattoo took the bag himself, and then unzipped it.
The bag looks half-empty.
In for five…
Out for five.
Riccardo watched as Tattoo turned and carried the holdall downhill to his right, a few metres past Table 4, then seemed to be suddenly distracted by a shop window to the right, just beyond the hotel. He approached the shop where there was a high class watch display, and stopped to look in. Riccardo strained to maintain his breathing pattern. Purple Hair and the angry-looking one stood by Table 4, as if they might sit down.
Is that Arab kid going to try and snatch his bag and make a run for it? Tattoo must have an incredible grip, but surely he would be far too heavy to have chance of catching the kid if he gets caught by surprise and lets go.
He looked back across the square to the right, to see Giovanni heading back toward Hotel de la Paix, only seconds behind the Eastern Europeans, who were unaware of any police presence.
There was a flash at the bottom of Rue des Pecheurs. He heard nothing from his vantage point, but at the bottom of the sloping road a smoke grenade bellowed tear gas. The CRS riot police had arrived. It scattered a scuffling group of seven or eight, mostly wearing bandanas around their faces. A few more panicking tourists ran up the hill toward Hotel de la Paix. Approaching the square, they were led by two women who passed Tattoo as he leaned to his right. He was intently looking in the window and bending down while Salim sneaked up behind him.
He looks like he might actually put the bag down.
A light draft blew from behind him, lifting the hairs on the back of Riccardo’s neck.
I was hoping for less wind today.
In for five…
He tilted his head and quickly scanned the Eastern Europeans with the naked eye. They were approaching the hotel slowly, still five or six metres away, just ahead of Giovanni.
Nice shoes Riccardo thought to himself, nodding his approval at the one in charge. Teddy: the guy that’s paying me… I can’t believe I’m doing this job while I’m still officially on duty.
Out for five...
He crossed himself and breathed out steadily, concentrating on the upturned V shape in the lens as it touched the horizontal bar. He pressed the stock of the Heckler & Koch HK 33 sniper rifle firmly into his right shoulder and trained it through the small, perfectly spherical hole cut into the bottom left of the dusty window. He listened to his heartbeat as he exhaled.
In for five…
He took up the play in the trigger, aimed just above Table 4, and avoided the urge to gasp as, still looking at the watch display, the huge tattooed guy placed the open bag on the ground to his right. The young Arab kid sneaked up behind him and leaned forward, extending his hand, obviously intent on theft. Riccardo switched the aim of his rifle rapidly between the Arabic kid and Tattoo.
Out for five…
Please God, help me get through today without having to shoot anyone.