San Siro Readied For Ronaldo Debut

San Siro Stadium was readied in time for season ticketholders to see Brazilian hotshot Ronaldo make his debut for AC Milan, while 11 Italian first and second division soccer matches were forced to take place behind closed doors.

Italian soccer was suspended after a policeman working at the February 2 Sicilian derby match between Catania and Palermo was killed during crowd trouble outside the ground.

The match, which Palermo won 2-1, was suspended for more than a half hour after smoke – apparently from tear gas outside the stadium – made it impossible for the players to continue.

"I am very disillusioned, it can not go on like this," Palermo coach Francesco Guidolin told the Gazzetta dello Sport Web site.

The fixtures re-started over the February 10 weekend but the fans were only allowed into matches in stadiums that fall within the new safety and security measures that the government announced a few days earlier.

During the week leading up to AC Milan’s home match against Livorno, which it won 2-1 with Ronaldo – recently signed from Spain’s Real Madrid – coming on for the last 27 minutes, the stadium installed the 28 turnstiles needed to convince the Italian authorities to give the go-ahead for the club’s 37,000 season ticketholders to be allowed in.

The Milan side, which started the season with an eight-point penalty from the Italian match-fixing scandal, did well to prepare the San Siro in time. Most of the rest of the £10 million ongoing refurbishment isn’t expected to be completed until October.

Elsewhere the situation looks desperate. Only six sides in the country’s top flight (Serie A) have stadiums that fit the new safety and security criteria and over half of the February 10-11 fixtures in the top two divisions were lockouts.

Roma and Lazio, which share Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, AC Milan and Inter Milan (which share San Siro), Sampdoria, Palermo, Torino, Cagliari and Siena can continue to play in front of full houses, but Catania – where Chief Inspector Racati was killed – is said to be about 10 months away from having a building that comes up to scratch.

At Udinese, the Udine Friuli is unlikely to be ready for five months, the Stadio Marcantonio Bentegodi at Chievo needs another three months work and Livorno’s Stadio Armando Picchi is expected to have the builders coming in for at least another couple of months.

Livorno was due to play its February 9 European (UEFA) Cup tie at home to Spain’s Espanyol in an empty stadium.

The soccer arenas in Florence, Naples and Bologna are also among the two dozen considered unsafe.

The government has come under fire for taking such draconian measures, but it has threatened to close stadiums as part of a crackdown against soccer violence for more than two years.

In April 2005, interior minister Giuseppe Pisanu said "another Sunday like this" would result in the closure of stadiums after 85 police officers were injured in a wave of fan violence that swept across the country.

The weekend games in Rome, Palermo, Udinese, Cava dei Tirreni and Perugia had turned violent, with visiting fans battling police at railway stations as they were led away from the trouble.

The new measures introduced since the Catania policeman’s death include handing out prison sentences of up to four years for anyone found near a stadium with a flare, a firecracker or a racially offensive banner.

Closed-circuit TV and modern turnstiles are to be installed at all grounds. Those that don’t have these facilities will remain closed to fans until the installation work is completed.

A system of named tickets will be introduced with stewards and police authorized to check the identity of the bearer matches the name on the ticket. No domestic matches will be scheduled to be played in the evening, although the various European cup competition games will still go ahead on weekday evenings – even if is behind closed doors.

"We must send a clear message that we must stop the kind of degeneration of sport that unfortunately happens so often," Italian prime minister Romano Prodi said in a written statement.

The Italian national side, the current world champions, is due to host Scotland in a Euro 2008 qualifier on March 28.