Dane_0023-sm.jpg I can already feel the buzz. The Italians cannot wait for the tournament to begin. Expectations are high. Their team did bring home the World Cup two years ago, and they enter Euro 2008 with largely the same roster. It is nice to be in a country where soccer is anticipated with enthusiasm, appreciated.

Yesterday, while I was taking in some sights – the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Forum, Saint Peter’s Square, the Tiber – after clearing customs at roughly 8 AM, I bumped into a number of people ready to enthusiastically (with hands wildly flailing) explain their national sport to me. The conversations went as expected until I brought up the issue of racism in their beloved sport.

“I do not believe there is any racism in soccer here in Italy,” claimed an Italian economist who lived and worked in London for eight years before returning to his home country.

“All that is done is only to win. They do whatever it takes to win. That is the only reason for incidents.”

Another Italian soccer fan explained, “No, no … Europe is different from America. People in America come from everywhere, all over. In Europe, people are from where they are. In my opinion there is no racism in Europe like America. America has lots of nationalism like Britain, France. In Italy, no, not as much.”

I could not believe what I was hearing. I thought everyone acknowledged the prevalence of racism in Italian soccer.

They had to be wrong, I thought. This is a country whose government imposed a controversial new rule to halt any soccer matches where offensive banners are displayed, the same country where monkey chants and boos often rain down upon black players, the same country where banners themselves were banned entirely this past year because the government-imposed rule was not enough.

Perhaps these two fans are just too close to the situation. According to Soccer Against the Enemy, there is a saying in Naples “that when a man has money, he first buys himself something to eat, then goes to the soccer match, and then sees if he has anything left to find a place to live.” These two fans must love their game so much that they ignore the dark side of it.

The next day, I awoke with their words still on my mind. I was in Italy to discover why their soccer matches seemed to spawn so many more racial incidents compared to other countries such as England. Could I have been wrong about the extent to which racism exists in Italian soccer? My interview later that day would certainly shed more light on the matter.

I went to the internet cafe around the corner to double check the directions they had sent me on how to take the Metro out to their headquarters when I found an e-mail waiting for me from one of the persons I would be interviewing later that day. Apparently something had come up and they had pushed the interviews forward. I had thirty minutes to get there.

After asking the cafe manager how long it would take to get to Unione Italiano Sport Per Tutti (UISP) headquarters, I knew I wouldn’t make it, so I scrambled to find a taxi.

I gave the driver the address I had written down from the e-mail. He nodded and sped off.

Twenty-five minutes later, I got the distinct feeling that the driver had no idea where he was going. He kept pulling out his map and looking at the address and checking his map and so on.

After another ten minutes, he started asking me various questions in Italian. I had no idea what he was saying. All I could do was point at the address on the paper. “Franchellucci? No Franchelluci,” he said, pounding his finger on the map.

I immediately took out my cell phone and called Francesca, the person I would be interviewing first. I told her I would be late, that I was in a cab, and that we were lost. She tried to give me directions to relay to the driver, but I ultimately had to hand over my phone to him.

The speed of the conversation quickly took off to a rate I had never encountered before. I arrived at their building in no time. It turns out it was just around the corner.

The interviews went swimmingly. It turns out racism in Italian soccer is very prevalent, even more so than I had read about.

We discussed incidents ranging from the amateur level to the national level and everywhere in between. They had their own ideas about how to limit these events from occurring, and, for the most part, they sounded great.

To them it is most important to start educating the kids about the dangers of racism and the asininity of believing one racial or ethnic group is superior to another. “If you educate them while they are young,” Francesca contended, “they will know what is right from the start.”

It will be a long process, but all three of the people I interviewed believed that, in the end, it would work and help rid their national sport of such a dark blight.

When pressed to answer why they believed there had been a surge of racist behavior in recent years, they claimed that it was likely a reflection to the large surge of immigrants into Italy in recent years.

They claimed that Italy had never been a country where people from other parts of the world came to live until recently, and native Italians were having a hard time coping with these new outsiders from Romania, Africa and elsewhere.

Give it time, they repeated. It’ll just take a little while for people to adjust, but it’s happening.

That night as I sat in a corner caf?? in one of Rome’s many piazzas, I listened to the conversations of the men and women around me. I could pick up names of players I recognized here and there, “Matterazi,” “Luca Toni.” They were clearly discussing their soccer team’s chances in Euro 2008. I enjoyed listening, even though I couldn’t fully understand what they were saying. There is a clear passion for soccer in their country, a clear departure from the United States.

I knew soccer was much bigger throughout the rest of the world. I had heard many times over that it is the world’s most popular sport, but it’s hard to understand the kind of passion that people around the world have for it. The buzz is incredible.