- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 12, 2008

ROME — An Italian soccer team has set off a furor by adopting the green assault rifle logo of the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah on its players’ shirts “so that we can frighten our adversaries.”

Conservative critics said the action fits in with the center-left Italian government’s policy of encouraging Middle Eastern radicals. They recalled the criticism faced by another team that tried to include the cross in its logo.

“Hezbollah is a war machine, but until now, we thought it was confined to Lebanon,” the Milan daily Il Giornale said. “Wrong, now the Shi’ite guerrillas have made converts … in a soccer club of Sardinia.”

The newspaper reported that the Carioca amateur league team’s decision to use the logo of the “Party of God” — an assault rifle in a green clenched fist — became public knowledge after Hezbollah’s television station, Al Manar, praised the players in a dispatch picked up by the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute.

The team has changed its name frequently in its 15 years of existence on the rugged Italian island. This season it called itself “Zassbollah,” a combination of Hezbollah and the family name of the team’s captain, Luigi Zasso.

“In this way, we will be more frightening to our adversaries who will understand how we are ready to fight as you have against Israel,” Il Giornale quoted team player Davide Volponi as telling Al Manar.

Mr. Volponi subsequently sought to play down the inspiration from Hezbollah, listed by the United States and several other countries as a terrorist organization because of its avowed aim of destroying Israel.

“Everything started in a spirit of fun that has been manipulated,” he told the Italian news agency ANSA. “We were referring only to our state of ‘fighting fitness’ on the soccer pitch.”

But Il Giornale, considered close to the center-right opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi, in its headline denounced what it termed “the latest craziness — amateur soccer players idolizing Lebanese fundamentalists.”

The newspaper recalled how another team, Internazionale of Milan, had been criticized by liberals for incorporating a Christian cross in its team logo.

The team, better known as Inter Milan, introduced the uniform of white shirt with a red cross to mark its centenary late last year. Last month, a lawyer from Turkey sued the team, saying the players’ shirt logo — inspired by Milan’s coat of arms — was reminiscent of the Crusades and hence insulting to Muslims.

“Something makes no sense,” Il Giornale said. “Zassbollah sings the praises of [Hezbollah spiritual leader] Sheik Hassan Nasrallah while Internazionale is criticized for the cross. These seem to be the new rules of the game.”

Some pundits noted that the center-left government of Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi has pursued a policy of dialogue with groups such as Hezbollah and Palestinian militants of Hamas. Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema caused a furor in 2006 when he said efforts to bring the two movements into the political fold should be encouraged.

“Hamas and Hezbollah are not al Qaeda,” Mr. D’Alema told the Corriere della Sera newspaper. “Besides their well-known responsibilities for terrorist actions, they have a political side; they are engaged in assistance.