The secret lives of the Mafia hunters

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The ‘Band of Lions’ during the arrest of a Mafia boss.

The Mafia still holds a romantic aura, partly because of Hollywood movies, partly because of our fascination with the criminal underworld.

Street plaques at every corner of Palermo (with endless lists of Palermitans, journalists, lawyers, Police officers, judges brutally murdered by mobsters) are shadowed by street vendors who sell Godfather T-shirts or gun-shaped cigarette lighters.

My interview with IMD, one of the ‘invisible’ officers of the Catturandi –the elite squad that rounds up members of the mob – came out on BBC Magazine the other day. It’s meant to shed a light on the daily fight against organised crime and the extraordinary lives of these ‘cops’ who can’t tell what they do for living to their loved ones to protect them from death threats and retaliation.

The Mafia might kill less than a decade ago but its presence looms over Italian politics, business and finance and, as IMD tells me, it’s harder than ever to separate the good guys from the bad guys.

As the piece came out, Public Radio International interviewed me to better understand what the Catturandi does and how Italy is managing the battle against Mafiosi while mob leader Matteo Messina Denaro is still on the loose.

You have to read this piece – it’s an offer you can’t refuse.

At a football match, the real (freak) show is on the bleachers.

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As I was ambling through my Christmas holidays, getting up from a crowded dinner table just to sit down again for another abundant meal, I decided to go see a football match.

I’m not a sports fan, really, although I consider myself to be a champion in shade-lifting and meal-skipping. This was the second time I entered a stadium: the first time, I was puzzled because I thought they would provide some sort of commentary from the stadium speakers to allow people like me to understand what was going on on the field. But I guess football aficionados don’t need a distracting narration while shouting to support their team.

A friend of mine, a very dedicated football journalist and Guinness-gulper, invites me to a Serie D match, one of lowest leagues in Italian football, to see Piacenza-Ciserano.

Sunny day, almost a thousand supporters in the stadium, lots of families and a soft breeze that makes the bank holiday afternoon look more like an early spring evening.

As the game starts, a woman the age of my mother vehemently puts all her energies into putrid strings of invective, bombastic exhortations against God and all the known saints. Next to her, her teenage daughter who seems more interested in browsing on social media and her husband, a man with sad eyes and slumped shoulders desperately busy in digesting the last round of pork ribs.

Safe inside the press box that looks more like the back of a garage, I quickly lose interest in the match and I start following the creative imprecations of this lady that suddenly turns her anger toward the referee, an easy target for any football fan. To her defence, he misses a couple of obvious fouls, but that’s not the point. As I was used to hear allusions of the alleged unfaithfulness of the referee’s wife, causing him to be cornuto, cheated on, therefore the ultimate offence for an Italian macho, the lady rapidly shifted to queer, cunt, Southerner and, to my disbelief, Albanian.

Now, given that I’m still baffled by how people still consider certain nationalities an insult (You, piece of Swede, pass the ball has a little comic effect on me), dropping queer or cunt at a football match – or anywhere else, for that matter – gives me a little headache. Especially when other senior reporters answered my incredulity for the gratuitous slurs with: “If a Southerner queer and an Albanian cunt had a baby, that would be the referee.”

Alright, I do not expect to find Oxford alumni at a football stadium but who would have thought that, a decade and a half into the 21st century, we were still stuck at the 1984’s two minutes of hate?