Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I flew home from France to spend the holiday with my family. Itís about an 7-8 hour flight from Paris to New York, so to pass the time I bought a couple of soccer magazines, because really what else is there thatís worth reading?

One of the more fascinating articles I came across was about politics in Italian football. Itís not a new phenomenon but ití goes past just surface appearances. Itís not just about the rich, Industrial North vs. the Agricultural, poor South or about Berlusconií, the Italian Prime Minister owning AC Milan and AC Milanís vice president, Adriano Galliani being President of the Italian Football League.

No, politics in Italian football is far more entrenched that that. Ití is about the masses, their cultural education and their ideologies. In that same magazine article, there was a map of Italy, showing the different clubs in the Italian first division, according to their political tendencies.

The fact is, that in Italy, every club has a fan base that tends towards a particular political stance. In and of itself, this is simply a curiosity and there is nothing alarming about it or even unique.

In Spain, Real Madrid fans and Barcelona fans are politically opposed, and in England some clubs are traditionally supported by the relatively higher echelons of society and others by the working class. The same is true in France.

Italyís problem is the disturbing manifestation of some extreme ideas in football stadiums. In the last few weeks alone, several incidents have occurred that show just how poisoned the air around Serie A is becoming.

On the weekend of December 10th, the fixture list read Livorno vs. Lazio. This is by no means one of Serie Aís more glamorous games but the political undertones make it one of the most explosive matches that the season will see.

Lazio, or perhaps it is more accurate to say, Lazio fans are known for their extreme right wing beliefs. Livorno fans are situated on the other extreme, far to the left. As is the trend in Italy, each of these sides has an emblematic player, a bandiera, as the Italians say. For Livorno this is Christiano Lucarelli and for Lazio it is Paolo Di Canio.

Iím going to focus on Di Canio because he is the protagonist of this particular anecdote but also to try and provide a window into what he represents to the clubís fans. They adore him because he espouses the same extremist beliefs as they do and makes no bones about it. They see themselves reflected in him.

As a kid he watched Lazio from the North Curve of the Olympic Stadium, the same curve that Lazio fans today watch him from. When he returned to Italy, after several years in England, he took a massive pay cut in order to play for the team he supported as a boy. Heís been faithful to Lazio and the clubís fans are faithful to him.

Last weekend, when he was substituted he Di Canio did something that you just didnít think youíd still see in the year 2005. He tuned towards the Lazio fans and executed a fascist salute.

Oh, wait., my bad. He calls it a Roman salute. And while the gesture may have its roots in ancient Rome, Di Canio knows full well what it stands for now, given the events of the 20th century, and more to the point, given his own political beliefs.

What s worse is that this isnít the first time Di Canio has pulled the stunt this year. He did the same thing during the Rome derby in January. Now, Francesco Totti is as Roman as Di Canio but you donít see the AS Roma captain going around executing fascist salutes. On that occasion, Di Canio was fined 10,000 euros and that was the end of it.

This time the Italian Football League has decided not to take action. The Italian justice system might though, because fascism is illegal according to the Italian constitution. Executing a fascist salute is a crime and if prosecuted Di Canio could face up to three years in prison. An investigation is ongoing.

There was something else shocking about the Livorno v Lazio match, on par with Di Canioís gesture. In the stands, the Lazio fans had managed to bring in with them, all sorts of banner and flags sporting fascist symbols and a couple of Swastikas as well. Iím sorry, but what century are we in?

There are impressionable young children out there watching this stuff on TV. Is this really what we want them to learn and to emulate? I donít think so. To be fair, the Italian authorities have expressed a real desire to eradicate these occurrences from their football but so far they havenít really given themselves the means to do so.

That is to say, they have not come down hard enough on those who break the rules. I donít want people to think I am picking on Lazio but they personify the epitome of this problem. A couple of years ago, the clubís financial situation was so dire, that existing laws dictated they be relegated by a division or two.

The Italian authorities were so scared of the possible repercussions should this happen, of maybe having to deal with rioting and violence in the streets, that they passed a whole new set of legislation, to help Lazio deal with their economic problems and avoid relegation.

In theory the banners and flags that Lazio fans carried in to the Livorno match should have been confiscated by authorities before they ever made it into the stadium. They werenít and the club was fined 8000 euros. Off the top of my head, I could easily come up with more than 20 players that make far more than that in a week.

Another example of how much difficulty the Italian authorities are having dealing the trouble in stadiums these days, was their decision to set back all kick offs by five minutes for a week. This was ostensibly to protest against the events that took place in a Serie A match towards the end of November between Inter Milan and Messina.

During that match, Marc Zoro, a black player from the Ivory Coast, was racially abused by a section of Inter Milan supporters making monkey noises. The abuse got so bad that Zoro threatened to walk off the pitch. He was convinced by his teammates and several Inter players not do this, under the pretext of not giving in to a bunch of idiots, who were in any case in the minority.

What makes this not only disturbing but perplexing is that Inter have players of color in their side. Obafemi Martins of Nigeria, Pierre Wome of Cameroon, or even more pertinently the one they revere as IL Imperatore or the Emperor, Brazilian Adriano. This paradox exists at Lazio as well as they have a couple of black players in their team.

Recently one of those players, Frenchman, Ousmane Dabo gave a radio interview, where he said that he had nearly come to blows with several Lazio fans after trying to show them the illogic of their behavior. He then added, after Di Canioís latest excess that having to play with some one like that, for lack of a more polite translation, pissed him off.

You can hardly blame him and when you see situations like his or like Zoroís you wonder just what Italian authorities hope to achieve by setting kick off back five minutes and having the players carry banners that read "No to Rascim." Racism like the other problems that I mentioned Italian football is facing, is the sort of thing that cannot be fixed overnight.

It is a question of re-educating an entire population, telling young kids that idolize football players, what is and is not acceptable and putting all the resources possible towards eradicating the phenomena. It is not an easy task and to be honest, I have no idea what the best way is for the Italian Football League to go about it.

What I do know is that itís a shame to see Italian football, which is some of the best qualify soccer on offer in the world, with some of the gameís greatest talents making up its history and its present, suffering from such a malaise. Italian journalists often talk about "calcio malato " or sick football,. Letís hope that now that the diagnosis has been made, a cure can be found.