02/22/15

The Ultras of Lazio

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A guide to the Ultra groups of Serie A: Lazio

City: Rome

Key Ultra groupsIrriducibili (Indomitables), Eagles Supporters, Ultras Lazio

Other ultra Groups: Banda Noantri (Our Gang), Viking Lazio, Commandos Monteverde Lazio (CML 74), Gruppi Associati Bianco Azzurri (White and Blue Association Group), Folgore (Lightening), Boys, Marines, Gruppo Sconvolti(Deranged Group), Gruppo Rock (Rock Group), Ultras 74, Brigate S Giovanni (S Giovanni Brigade), Golden Boys, Nucleo Armato Biancazzurro (Nuclear Armed White and Blue), Vigilantes, Leopard, Eagles’ Korps, Gioventus Biancazzurra(White and Blue Youth), Eagles’ Girls, Avanguardia (Vanguard), In Basso a Destra(Down on the Right), Only White, Caos Group.

T’avemo arzato la coppa in faccia” (“We raised the Cup in front of your face”), read the banner that flew over the city of Rome. Lazio fans had hired a light aircraft to deliver the message. Another proclaimed: “The real truth is that we hurt you: 26-05-13.” This was one of the greatest days in Lazio’s 114-year history, the day they beat Roma in the Coppa Italia final. For the duration of the summer the Laziali revelled in schadenfreude, tormenting their Roman counterparts at every given opportunity.

For the derby in September 2013, the Lazio ultras had planned a special choreography. Balloons would lift a giant Coppa Italia above the Curva Nord, just as a reminder – as if Roma needed one – that the Biancocelesti had won the most important Derby della Capitale in their history. The authorities banned the display, wary of the backlash it could cause. In a sardonic response, the Laziali left the Curva Nord empty for the first five minutes of the game, but for a banner which read: “Ah, I forgot, it’s the ‘memorial’ derby. I’ll finish my beer first…”

Laziale or Romanista?” There is perhaps no question more important in the eternal city. Founded in 1900, SS Lazio is the city’s oldest club. In 1927, when the National Fascist Party merged Rome’s biggest clubs, the Biancocelesti were the only ones to resist. Roma fans claim to support the club that truly represents Rome, however Lazio fans are quick to remind them of who arrived first.

The realm of Lazio’s ultras – the Curva Nord of the Stadio Olimpico – is renowned across the world. It has been at the vanguard for some of Italy’s most colourful choreographies. The groups have changed but their support for the Aquile(Eagles) has been steadfast, none more so than the Irriducibili.

Formed in 1987, the first members of the Irriducibili were originally known as Cani Sciolti (Wild Dogs). After dislodging a group called Viking, the character Mr Enrich, a little man who kicks furiously, was adopted as their mascot. As one of their members claimed, he “signifies rebellion against the political and football system.”

In 1992 British flags adorned the Curva following the arrival of cult hero Paul Gascoigne. He was received warmly by the Irriducibili, who unveiled a banner depicting a pint of English beer with the message: “It’s ready for you.” That year also saw the dissolution of Lazio’s first prominent ultra group, the Eagles. They were formed in 1976, two years after the team’s first Scudetto success, which saw the numbers in the Curva proliferate.

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Gascoigne was an honorary guest at the Stadio Olimpico during Lazio’s Europa League tie against Tottenham.

The arrival of food tycoon Sergio Cragnotti marked the beginning of one of the club’s most successful eras. They won their second Scudetto in 2000, their centenary year, and the Curva Nord’s celebrations brought 25,000 people on to the streets.

The popular group numbered 7,000 people, sometimes even more. They became infamous across Italy and were distinguished for their merchandising business. The group franchised and sold their products around Rome. This helped them provide their own away-day packages and fund their fanzine, La Voce Della Nord(the Voice of the North).

The group gained brand notoriety but their merchandising business was criticised by some in the Curva. This led to a schism in 2006 and a group called Banda Noantri (Our Gang), now known as In Basso a Destra (Low on the Right), were formed. In the book Football, Fascism and Fandom Alberto Testa and Gary Armstrong write: “The Irriducibili were challenged with the insult of embourgeoisement: that they had compromised and were now money driven.”

Both groups co-existed in relative harmony, mainly because of their ideological standpoint (both held overt neo-Fascist sentiments), yet four years later a crossroads was reached. In 2010 the Irriducibili invited the moderate right politician Renata Polverini into the Curva during an election campaign. At a time when the club were struggling, this angered other groups on the Curva. To make matters worse, the politician sat on the portrait of Gabriele Sandri – a DJ from Rome who had been shot dead by police – an unforgivable faux pas for some.

In respect for what they had done since 1987, the Irriducibili leader Fabrizio Toffolo announced the dismantling of the group on the radio. It would appear the ultras are now united under the banner of Ultras Lazio. This group is mostly comprised of youngsters and former Irriducibili members. Other smaller groups including Avanguardia, In Basso a Destra, Only White and Caos Group also reside on the Curva.

Unfortunately it’s impossible to discuss Lazio’s ultras without mentioning their political extremism, something explored in depth in Football, Fascism and Fandom. Heinous views have plagued the Curva Nord, with monkey chants, racist banners and fascist memorabilia all on show. One unabashedly racist banner that read “Auschwitz is your town; the ovens are your houses” was unveiled against Roma. The banner was a reference to Roma’s association with the Testaccio neighbourhood, which has a Jewish population. Paolo Di Canio performed a fascist salute to the Curva Nord while playing for Lazio during a derby in 2005. Di Canio – a former Irriducibili member – saw the salute as a badge of identity with the ultras.

The Laziali have also suffered two tragedies. The first was back in 1979, when a Lazio fan called Vincenzo Paparelli was hit in the eye and killed by a flare fired by a Roma supporter. It was Italy’s first football-related fatality. In November 2007, a 25-year-old by the name of Gabriele Sandri was shot and killed by a police officer. The police claimed the shooting was accidental after the officer Luigi Spaccatorella intervened to stop a fight between Lazio and Juventus supporters at a motorway service stop. Sandri’s death triggered nationwide outrage and displayed the deep contempt ultras feel towards the authorities. In the capital, Laziali and Romanisti united to cause havoc across the city. Sandri’s funeral attracted over 5,000 mourners.

The Laziali feel it is their duty to look after the club’s best interests. This has led to years of struggle with Lazio president Claudio Lotito, a pantomime villain in the eyes of many. It appears strange that the ultras would protest against a man who saved the club from liquidation, but during his tenure Lotito stopped the policy of supplying the Irriducibili with 800 free tickets for matches. He also refused to fund the Curva Nord’s choreography and rejected a proposed takeover of the club by former Lazio legend Giorgio Chinaglia. The ultras feel that the their Eagles can soar once Lotito is jettisoned. Last season 6,000 supporters held a protest before their home game against Sassuolo. Thousands of placards reading “Libera Lazio” (“Free Lazio”) were displayed in the stadium.

The Laziali and in particular the Irriducibili could be described as pioneers. Having transformed the style of support on the Curva their name has become one of the biggest in the domain of the Italian ultras. When sky blue fumes choke the air and the Curva Nord ripples under a gargantuan banner to the back-drop of Vola Lazio Vola the Stadio Olimpico truly becomes the heartbeat of this ancient city.

First appeared on Guardian Sport and The Gentleman Ultra

@LH_Ramon25

02/9/15

On the Front Line: The Political Battle Continues for Egypt’s Ultras

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While the political turmoil in Egypt continues, expect the ultras to be on the front-line.

The death of Egyptian football fans on Sunday evening in Cairo is likely to reinvigorate the protests of football ultras, one of Egypt’s largest social movements who have already proved they are capable of challenging the state through public protest.

The hardcore fan group of Zamalek SC, the Ultras White Knights, described the violence against supporters at an Egyptian Premier League game as a “deliberate massacre.” How the events unfolded remains unclear, yet reports indicate violence erupted after police fired teargas and shotgun pellets at supporters trying to force their way into Zamalek SC’s Air Defence Stadium.

Death toll estimates have varied. State television announced 22 were found dead in the events preceding the game between Zamalek SC and ENPPI (Engineering for the Petroleum and Process Industries), while on the official Facebook page of the Ultras White Knights (UWK), the fans themselves claimed 28 had died. The incident is just the latest outbreak of violence which has seen security forces and football supporters clash with fatal consequences.

Having already explored the politicisation of football ultras across the globe in an article for Football Beyond Borders, this recent bout of violence in Egypt conflates a number of issues. The tragedy bears striking similarity to that of the politically charged mass brawl in Port Said in 2012 during a game between Al Masry and another Cairo based club, Al Ahly. On that occasion 74 supporters died, and then as now, the antipathy between the state and football fans is threatening to cement irreparable divisions in Egyptian society.

The Egyptian revolution is crucial to an understanding of these episodes. In January 2011, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians spilled into the streets calling for an end to president Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime. It was the Cairo-based ultras of Al Ahly (Ultras Al Ahlawy) and Zamalek SC (UWK) that, despite their virulent rivalry, united to confront Mubarak’s security forces. As James Dorsey explains, “they were in a sense the shock troops of the revolution.” Their insurgence continued in the subsequent protests against Mubarak’s military successor, Mohamed Morsi, as well as during anti-government demonstrations against the rise of Egypt’s current president, Mr. Al Sisi. As such, both Port Said and Sunday night’s events were undoubtedly underpinned by complex political machinations.

Three years ago, while the ultras of home side, Al Masry, fought fans of Al Ahly, the police either watched passively or even joined the violence. Authorities blamed the subsequent deaths on supporters from Al Masry, however the Ultras Al Ahlawy believed the security forces used the game in Port Said to exact revenge on those who had played a vital role in toppling the Mubarak regime. Sunday night’s tragedy follows the same story line.

The interior ministry has blamed Zamalek’s ultras for Sunday’s deaths, claiming they were the result of a stampede sparked by police attempts to stop fans from entering the stadium without tickets. UWK, however, believe this was another act of calculated state vengeance motivated by their role in previous pro-democracy protests. Patrick Kinglsey, the Guardian’s Egyptian correspondent, reported that many witnesses said the police’s attack was brutal and unprovoked.

The incident occurred just days after the Egyptian government lifted the ban on supporters attending all domestic football matches, a measure introduced after the events at Port Said. These latest clashes triggered the suspension of the Egyptian Premier League indefinitely. Should the government re-impose a spectator ban, this would only serve to further stoke the fires of unrest.  In recent months, the UWK have also come to blows with Zamalek’s president, Mortada Mansour, who has campaigned to outlaw the clubs ultras as a terrorist organisation. He is thought to have the tacit support of president Al Sisi.

The continued oppression of the ultras appears a clear attempt by Mr. Al Sisi’s government to criminalise protest. Sunday’s bloody clashes certainly demonstrate their continued use of police brutality to quash agitators and opponents. The figures speak for themselves. Since Mr. Al Sisi seized power from the Morsi government, more than 1,000 people have been killed in clashes with state authorities.

Any government, particularly those that are totalitarian, will not welcome large gatherings of young people in already socially volatile spaces such as football stadia. Events such as those witnessed in Cairo emphasise the political clout football supporters carry. This has been seen in other countries such as Ukraine and Turkey in which hardcore fan groups have also been heavily involved in political activism.

As such football ultras are regarded as a veritable threat to the hegemony of Egypt’s autocratic government. But the draconian measures aimed at repressing the ultras only serves to accentuate their sense unity against the state. The 2011 revolution has shown it’s neither an effective means of consolidating power nor a solution to quelling social unrest.

This inflammatory rhetoric is threatening to polarise an already disillusioned youth, a youth that has used the football stadium as a 21st century agora in which to protest and dissent. In the last year, members of the Ultras Nahdawy (Renaissance Ultras) led student protests on university campuses against Mr. Al Sisi’s dictatorial regime, advocating academic and other freedoms. Composed of former UWK and Ultras Ahlawy members, it is the only militant football group to openly declare its politicisation while not being aligned to a specific football club.

This is significant. Football is becoming a powerful means to a political end. At this rate the siege mentality adopted by both parties is leaving an environment ripe for another popular rebellion. Don’t be surprised if it’s Egypt’s ultras on the front-line once again.

@LH_Ramon25

02/2/15

The Winds of Change: Is Cuban Football on the Brink of a Revolution

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“Champions generate joy, honour, glory, and prestige for the country.”

(Fidel Castro)

At around 4:05pm, on July 13, 2013, a deadly silence fell over the Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. The American’s enthusiasm had been sapped, momentarily lost within the sultry summer air. Jose Ciprian wheeled off in celebration, showcasing his best impression of Usain Bolt’s iconic victory pose. The seemly unthinkable was unfolding. For ten minutes Cuba led the USA 1-0 in their CONCACAF Gold Cup group game. For ten minutes, the underdogs were on course to record a famous victory against their historical and ideological arch-rivals. For ten minutes, perhaps we got a glimpse into what the future could hold for Cuban football.

Despite leading from the 36th to the 47th minute, a Cuban victory was never truly tangible. From the moment Landon Donavan equalised from the penalty spot, order was restored and the USA waltzed to a 4-1 victory. Jürgen Klinsmann’s men produced the reaction you would expect from a team of professionals playing a team of amateurs. For professionalism has been outlawed on the Communist island of Cuba since 1962, three years after Fidel Castro’s revolution ousted the U.S. backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Cuba went on to be knocked out in the Quarter-finals, equalling their best ever finish in the Gold Cup. They had qualified for the tournament courtesy of the country’s first Caribbean Cup triumph in 2012, claiming the scalps of Jamaica and eight time winners, Trinidad and Tobago. These victories were milestones for Cuban football but plenty more lie ahead. In a country where revolutionary reforms placed sport at the nexus of domestic and international policy, football has remained inconspicuous, even neglected. It has traditionally been baseball and boxing making waves on the shores of the Antilles. Yet with the political winds seemingly swirling in the direction of American shores, could football be ready for its own revolution?

Caribbean football’s pioneers

Jamaica’s 2-1 victory against Japan at the 1998 World Cup in France endeared the Caribbean’s to football partisans. They played with gusto, with a vibrancy that matched the tempo of their supporter’s drums. It was their first ever victory in their first ever appearance at a World Cup finals. However Jamaica was not the first Caribbean nation to appear on football’s grandest stage. That privilege was Cuba’s.

In May 1938, this pioneering Cuban team boarded a ship to compete in the third edition of the World Cup finals in France. Football was popular back then, a legacy left during Spain’s colonisation of the island. In fact, having remained a cornerstone of the Spanish Empire until 1898, the majority of the squad were all of Spanish ancestry.

Remarkably, however, Cuba hadn’t played a World Cup qualifier, reaching the finals by means of invitation after Mexico had withdrawn. None of their players had even touched foot on foreign soil before, let alone competed in a major international competition. Yet despite their inexperience; the Leones del Caribe (Lions of the Caribbean) defied all odds, beating a strong Romanian side 2-1 in a first round replay having originally drawn 3-3.

In the Quarter-finals, a humiliating 8-0 drubbing at the hands of Sweden quashed dreams of another upset. According to the team’s top-scorer, Juan Tunas, a waterlogged pitch didn’t help the Cuban cause. Speaking to FIFA.com in 2010, he said:

We were playing well and felt we were favourites going into the game. But then something happened that we hadn’t bargained for: it rained and the pitch was sodden. We weren’t used to conditions like that and we kept slipping over.”

Known during his playing days as ‘El Romperredes’ (The Netbuster), Tunas was the last surviving member of Cuba’s trailblazing Lions, dying in 2011 at the age of 98.  While his team’s legacy was not forgotten, it certainly wasn’t built upon. Cuba’s debut in 1938 remains their only appearance in a World Cup Finals. No progression just stagnation, lost by the wayside as baseball and boxing took centre stage.

Football not fit for Castro’s revolution.

Sport is seldom, if ever free from politics. This has proven particularly pertinent in Cuba. Upon overthrowing President Batista’s military junta in 1959, Fidel Castro immediately outlined his intention to make sport a pillar of the revolution.

“Politics is an instrument of sports. That is, sport is not a means, but rather an end, like every other human activity…”

The man nicknamed ‘Commandante’ (Commander) quickly set about restructuring Cuban sport, arguing that it had become a kleptocracy and an object of exploitation. To this end, professional sport was banned. The creation of a centrally controlled sports ministry known as INDER (Instituto Nacional de Deportes, Educacion Fisica y Recreacion) helped Fidel implement schemes geared towards promoting mass participation and discovering athletic talent. Once discovered, these talents were nurtured, trained and indoctrinated at specialised sports schools known as EIDE (Escuelas de Iniciacion Deportiva Escolar).

The overarching aim behind these policies was twofold. Domestically sport helped promulgate a cohesive Marxist society. Internationally, it was an indirect but effective way to antagonise and compete with their U.S. neighbour, perceived as an overweening world power and a threat to the nascent Cuban revolution. But if sport was such a triumphant vehicle of the revolution, why was football a pariah in Fidel’s political machinations? Three considerations must be taken into account – amateurism, Fidel Castro and the U.S.

Historically the most popular sports in Cuba have been baseball and boxing. It’s unsurprising given the islands proximity to the U.S. For Fidel, they were the perfect fit. Both sports have a strong amateur tradition, with the Olympic and Pan American Games providing a global ‘shop window’ for Cuba’s sporting prowess. Baseball was one of Fidel’s favourite sports and boxing was an effective means through which to compete with the U.S., factors that cemented their place as hallmarks of the revolution.

Despite being favoured by Fidel’s foil – Argentinian Socialist icon Ernesto Che Guevara – football was not awarded the same prestige. It was inextricably linked to the world of professionalism. Professional players were even permitted to compete in the Olympic Games from 1984 onwards, further stymieing chances for Cuban football to make inroads. During the height of Fidel’s reforms, ‘soccer’ was yet to take off in the U.S., meaning it did not serve any ‘revolutionary’ purposes. As such, the game was not afforded the provision of other sports.

The problems Cuban Football faces today

Fast forward and the Cuban football system remains amateur in every sense of the word. The Campeonato Nacional (16 clubs split into four groups of four teams) is the highest level in the Cuban football pyramid. None of the players are paid, the facilities are squalid and the pitches shoddy. For many with aspirations of forging a career in football, it’s a glass ceiling.  This leaves talented young players bereft of a chance to hone their skills and playing abroad isn’t an option – that is unless they are willing to defect.

Many have, Eviel Corvodes, Maykel Chang, Odisnel Cooper, Maykel Galindo, Osvaldo Alonso and Yordany Álvarez are just a number of players who have chosen to pursue a professional football career in the United States. Speaking to USA Today, Álvarez, who played for Salt Lake City in Major League Soccer (MLS) before retiring in 2014, gave a candid insight into the realities Cuban footballers face:

Cuba has good soccer players but the conditions are bad – no cleats, bad coaches, bad food. All my friends in Cuba have retired. They don’t play anymore because there is no money.”

In line with Cuba’s egalitarian policies, players of the Cuban national team are not awarded any special treatment. They receive a derisory sum of $8-10 a month. In truth the amount is barely enough to get by and unsurprisingly many defect, favouring a stable career over the duties of their country. The defectors are considered traitors, unable to represent the national team to the detriment of Cuban football’s progression. But amid this doom and gloom, successes on the pitch suggest the dawn of a new era could lie just around the corner.

A new dawn for the Caribbean’s Lions

Upon winning the Caribbean Cup in 2012, Cuban head coach Walter Benitez said: “Our style of playing is kind of flowing, fast-moving football, where we create chances for our strikers and trust each other totally.” It’s a style of play that appears to be capturing the imagination of Cuba’s youth. “I like soccer better than baseball, it’s a strong sport, the movement, the energy,” one 16-year-old Cuban told the New York Times. Another youngster echoed this sentiment while partaking in his daily kick around after school “It’s our game, fun and fast.”

In terms of popularity, football has started to rival baseball as the favourite sport of many young Cubans. It shows.  In 2013 the national u-20 side qualified for the World Cup at that youth level for the first time in their history. The tournament itself was a learning curve as the Cubans finished bottom in their group and failed to register a point. However for a team comprised of amateurs it was a major coup and one which demonstrated the wealth of raw talent on the island. To borrow from Paula Pettavino and Geralyn Pye (academics in Cuban sport and history), Cuba’s footballers are ‘rough diamonds just waiting to be polished’

Times are changing on the island nicknamed the ‘Pearl of the Antilles.’ The austerity faced by Cuban society during the last two decades has seen gradual economic liberalisation. Raul Castro (brother of Fidel) has announced he will stand down as president in 2018, heralding the end of the Castro-era. Cuba and the U.S. are in the midst of landmark talks focused on restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries. These improved relations could be the harbinger of a new era for Cuban football.

And why not? Fidel Castro’s regime has laid the foundations, creating a sporting infrastructure that has proved it can produce world-class athletes. The figures speak for themselves. Since the 1959 revolution, Cuba has won a total of 11 Pan-American golds in baseball and 67 Olympic medals in boxing. It isn’t inconceivable that with time, football could reach similar levels.

The normalisation of relations with the U.S. could certainly quicken the process. Could the rise in popularity of American soccer have a knock-on effect in Cuba? Could access to the professional leagues, particularly MLS, become more readily available which in turn could prevent Cuba’s footballing stars from defecting? Could we even see an MLS team based in Cuba one day? For now the latter remains implausible however according to MLS Commissioner Don Garber, the prospect of future world-class Cuban footballers is very much feasible.

“There’s no reason why in a country of 11 million people that has had a reputation for producing world-class athletes, Cuba can’t be a producer of world-class soccer players.”

Cuba is undergoing a moment of historic transcendence but ameliorating decades of hostilities with the U.S. will be a lengthy process. Just as reforming a sporting identity will. Baseball is engrained into the Cuban psyche but as sportswriter Michel Contreras declared, there is also room for football.

For now, the Cuban national team will be looking to build upon their fourth place finish in the 2014 edition of the Caribbean Cup. This year’s CONCAF Gold Cup in Canada and the U.S. will be another invaluable experience and they will hope their performances can inspire yet more young Cubans to lace up their ‘cleats’ rather than slap on their pitching gloves.

”It is not just a simple game, it is a weapon of the revolution.”

(Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara on football)

@LH_Ramon25

This article first appeared on These Football Times

01/14/15

The Ultras of Juventus

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A guide to the Ultra groups of Serie A: Juventus

City: Turin

Key Ultra groups: Gruppo Storico Fighters 1977 (Fighters Historic Group 1977), Black and White Fighters Gruppo Storico 1977, Drughi (The Droogs), Viking

Other fan groupsFossa dei Campioni (Champions Den), Panthers, Gioventu Bianconera (Black and White Youth), Area Bianconera (Black and White Area), Indians, Nucleo Amato Bianconero (Nuclear Black and White Love) later renamed Nucleo 1985, Arancia Meccanica (Clockwork Orange), Fighters, Irriducibili Vallette (Unbreakable Vallette), Arditi (Daring Ones), 06 clan, Noi Soli (Only Us), Gruppo Marche 1993 (Marche Group), Bruxelles Bianconera (White and Black Brussels), Gruppo Homer (Homer Group), Assiduo Sostegno (Loyal Support), Bravi Ragazzi (Top Boys), Tradizione Bianconera (Black and White Tradition), Vecchia Guardia (Old Guard).

“Real Madrid dumped you, Napoli rejected you, only your greed brought you back here.”

This was the message that greeted Fabio Cannavaro on his return to Juventus in 2009. His two league titles with the Bianconeri did not spare him. He was regarded as a traitor by the club’s ultras, a player who had abandoned his team during their hour of need.

Back in 2006 Juventus were relegated to Serie B in the wake of the Calciopoli scandal. While club icons such as Gianluigi Buffon and Alessandro Del Piero remained, Cannavaro moved to Real Madrid. It is hard to begrudge such a career move but this treachery was neither forgotten nor forgiven. In the ultras’ eyes, he only returned to satisfy his avarice. A group known as Viking started circulating a T-shirt which read “Cannavaro mercenary” on the front and “No forgiveness for traitors” on the back.

This treatment of a former club hero did not sit well with some Juve supporters, but it exposes the visceral culture of the ultras: it borders on the extreme but has at its heart an unswerving passion for one club. Darwin Pastorin, one of Italy’s famed football writers said: “Juventus is a team which unites everyone: from intellectuals to workers… it is a universal team, a footballing Esperanto… and then there are the fans, the real fans, from Sicily to the Aosta Valley. There are eleven million of us!”

Juventus are the most successful club in Italian history with 30 league titles (32 if you’re a Juventino). They are the Manchester United of Italy. You either love them or hate them and perhaps this is where the nickname La Fidanzata d’Italia (Italy’s girlfriend) originates. The club is the third oldest in Italy. It was founded in 1897 by a group of students from Turin and since 1923 the club has been managed by the Agnelli family, the founders and owners of Fiat.

Juventus also have nationwide support. This is in part due to the influx of workers from the south who migrated to Turin to work at Mirafiori, the huge Fiat factory constructed on the edge of the city in 1939. Fiat provided thousands of jobs and Umberto Agnelli (former Fiat CEO and Juventus chairman) once claimed that “one of the reasons which led migrants to choose Turin during the great migrations of the 1950s and 1960s was the possibility of going to see Juventus play”. This history and their huge success has made their fanbase the largest in Italy and has given the club a surfeit of ultra groups.

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The story of the Juventus ultras is like no other. It reads like a script of The Borgias with its bewildering catalogue of schisms, reformations and civil wars. The origins of the Bianconeri’s organised support can be traced back to two groups, Venceremos and Autonomia Bianconera, who were formed in the mid-1970s and positioned to the extreme left of the political spectrum, although that stance has changed considerably.

In 1977 one of Juve’s most renowned ultra groups, Gruppo Storico Fighters (Historic Fighters Group), was founded by Beppe Rossi, who remains a heroic figure among ultras today. Residing in the Curva Sud Scirea (or Curva Filadelfia as it was known in the old Stadio Olimpico) the vestiges of the group survive today. For 10 years they enjoyed prominence among the landscape of the Italian ultras, but the era would be marred by the darkest day in the history of Juventus.

On 29 May 1985, 39 Juventus fans died at Heysel Stadium during their European Cup final against Liverpool. Trouble had already flared when Liverpool fans breached a fence separating them from the Italians. In the maelstrom that followed, Juventus fans were crushed against a concrete wall that collapsed, killing and injuring many people. For Juventini, the blame was apportioned solely to Liverpool. An attempt was made to remove any “Englishness” from the Curva and a virulent hatred was born. When the sides were drawn together in the Champions League in 2005, many Juve ultras made their feelings clear by turning their backs on the choreography prepared by Liverpool at Anfield that read “Amicizia” (Friendship). In the return leg banners were displayed reading “Easy to speak, difficult to pardon murders” and “15-4-89. Sheffield. God exists”, the latter an unpleasant reference to the Hillsborough disaster.

The 1980s also saw the inception of other influential ultra groups, including Viking (whose members hailed from Milan) and Nucleo Amato Bianconero. The latter changed their name to Nucleo 1985 in memory of the Heysel victims. In 1987, following the dissolution of Fighters due to brutal skirmishes with bitter rivals Fiorentina, Arancia Meccanica (Clockwork Orange) was formed. Inspired by the Stanley Kubrick film, the group was an amalgam of various splinters in the Curva Sud, and under the authorities behest their name was later changed to I Drughi (the Droogs). During their infancy their membership allegedly grew in excess of 10,000. However, with the formation of Irriducibili Vallette (Vallette Unbreakables), who migrated to the Curva Nord, and the re-emergence of the Fighters, the ultras battled and squabbled among themselves.

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Following the Bianconeri’s Champions League triumph against Ajax in 1996, the jubilant fans rallied under the same banner, calling themselves the Black and White Fighters Gruppo Storico 1977. However, this unification faded with the outbreak of internecine fighting. In 2005 the Fighters disbanded again, leaving the control of the Curva Sud up for grabs. This was compounded after the Turin giants were found guilty for their involvement in the Calciopoli scandal. A power struggle ensued and before a pre-season friendly against Alessandria in 2006 this reached an ugly peak.

Multifarious groups, including Tradizione Bianconera, Arditi, Drughi, Irriducibili and Viking, were said to have clashed in what can only be described as civil war. Two fans were stabbed and 50 were arrested. This is not the only occasion in which Juventus ultras have allegedly attacked each other. It would appear that relative peace has been restored. The Fighters have returned to the Curva Sud Scirea and they are accompanied by Viking, the Drughi and a bourgeoning number of other groups. While it is hard to get one’s head around this clannish mentality, the internal divisions reflect elements of wider Italian society.

Nonetheless, the superfluity of Juventus Ultras can create one of the more colourful and eclectic atmospheres on the peninsula. Each group boasts their own banners, which creates a vibrant and multi-faceted choreography. This makes the chic Juventus stadium a cauldron on match days and there is rarely an empty seat.

Set to the backdrop of the Alps and straddling the River Po, Turin is often referred to as the Industrial centre of Italy. The city’s armoury includes Fiat, ancient Egyptian artefacts, a myriad of contemporary art and the best chocolate in Italy. However, to the Juventini, Turin is most importantly home to a juggernaut of Italian football and the Ultras thrive in the knowledge that their beloved Vecchia Signora is the envied queen of Italy.

First appeared on Guardian Sport and The Gentleman Ultra

@LH_Ramon25

01/7/15

Unwelcome Change: Steven Gerrard and the Bigger Picture

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The dust is finally beginning to settle after an announcement that Liverpool fans would have been dreading for some time. Steven Gerrard, a man voted by the readers of Sky Sports and the Liverpool Echo as the greatest Reds player in history, is leaving after 25-years at the club. But what does this outpouring of emotion reveal about people’s fear of change and the fragility of identity.

Gerrard’s decision to embark on a new venture in MLS next season is understandable. For a born competitor who still has plenty of energy left in those industrious legs, the prospect of having your game time “managed” is less than appealing. Of course, much has been written regarding the 34-year-olds departure and he has rightly received the highest plaudits. He has been eulogised as a ‘legend’ and one of the greatest ‘one-club players’ in history. The sceptics have taken umbrage to the latter assertion.

By definition, perhaps it would be wrong to put the Merseyside man alongside club icons such as Paolo Maldini, Francesco Totti and Ryan Giggs, purely due to the fact that these players have only played for one club throughout their professional careers. That said, although Gerrard will be plying his trade in the United States next season, it would be unfair to question his loyalty, especially when this is predominately based on a transfer to Chelsea that never happened. It’s a spurious slur. Although Liverpool’s captain marvel handed in a transfer request to join the Blues in 2005, the move never materialised. Despite the temptation, he decided against joining Roman Abramovich’s revolution and his only peccadillo was considering a lucrative and career changing offer. Few players wouldn’t.

But that’s why Gerrard’s decision to leave Liverpool has fuelled such strong opinion. Loyalty is a diminishing commodity and players like Gerrard are a dying breed. With the opening of yet another January transfer window, many supporters across Europe will anxiously be scanning the gossip columns, hoping beyond hope that one of their club heroes or prized assets doesn’t give into the lure of a remunerative contract or the promise of silverware.

There is often a disparity between the loyalties of a supporter and that of a player. It’s one of football’s great taboos. Fans usually proclaim they will follow their club “till they die”, while players and managers swap clubs as if it were a game of musical chairs. This mercantilism isn’t a new phenomenon and throughout history, armies and noblemen have chopped and changed their allegiances, dictated by the opportunity of prosperity and riches.  It is a reality that exists in everyday life, people jump ship when offered a more profitable job and indeed the world of recruitment is built around this premise. However just as in football, the act of moving to a rival firm or business is still frowned upon and condemned.

For Liverpool fans and Gerrard admirers, much of the furore surrounding his imminent exit is dictated by angst. What will life be like without Stevie G? Liverpool will lose a club bastion, a player who personifies their ideals, while the Premier League loses one of its most exciting home-grown talents.  Lifelong Liverpool fan and current employee of the club, Rickie Lambert, labelled his teammate as “Mr Liverpool” while manager, Brendan Rodgers, admitted his captain would be “irreplaceable.” The most passionate of fans feel that they belong to their club while at the same time owning a portion. If you give your body and soul to something, you hope for the same in return. The Liverpool captain gave that to his club and he embodied the footballing qualities supporters so dearly desire. But this makes his departure even harder to bear. Losing such a prominent figure can be traumatic. The retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson clearly damaged Manchester United’s cohesion and efficacy and they have only recently showed signs of recovering.

But the clamour surrounding Gerrard’s departure may also tap into a broader social issue which has a contemporary pertinence, that being insecurity surrounding identity. Most people are desperate to have a clear sense of identity or in simpler terms, belonging. These are usually constructed by our social milieu, which normally includes family, peers, geographical location, nationality and social class. The economic downturn and political maelstrom in recent times has left a generation of disillusioned individuals, individuals who are desperate to feel a part of something. In this ever evolving and globalised world, it is increasingly difficult for people to map out a clear identity and in some cases this uncertainty has allowed ideological extremism to proliferate.

Football, described by ex-England international Kevin Davies as ‘too tribal’, has long provided a source of identity with clubs acting as rallying points for shared values. Unfortunately, the construction of social groups in a footballing context has also given birth to extremism in the form of hooliganism and on the continent, radical political ideology within Ultra groups.

But returning to the significance of Steven Gerrard, there is no doubt that in purely footballing terms his departure will have widespread implications for the club, its supporters and the Premier League. Love him or loathe him, there are few men who have struck balls as sweetly or governed midfields as imperiously over the last decade or so. But analysing the fallout of Gerrard’s decision in solely footballing terms is superficial. Football, sport in general, is a microcosm of society and thus the emotional reaction reflects a social trend.

Liverpool supporters, who have long been linked with the left-wing, socialist tradition within the city, immediately embraced Gerrard, a working class lad and boyhood fan of the club. His story resonates with many of those who sit in the Kop end; he grew up on the Bluebell estate in Huyton during the 1980’s, a period of austerity as the city resisted Margaret Thatcher’s reforms. Gerrard himself recently admitted had he not been playing for Liverpool, he would be watching them in the stands.  The tributes that Lambert and Rodgers paid to their captain illustrate how the clubs identity has become inextricably linked with the man. Without their emblematic leader, are Liverpool and their supporters losing a key component of their identity?

Gerrard’s departure signals change and in the eyes of many this change is unwanted. People are desperate to cling onto the halcyon days in which they grew up, in this case watching Stevie G in his iconic number eight jersey, the captains armband adorning his sleeve as he taps the ‘This Is Anfield’ sign in the tunnel before leading his red army into battle. It is a situation reflected in today’s society, one in which change is met with apprehension and uncertainty is influencing people to revert back to what they are comfortable with. Unfortunately for Liverpool, as Steven Gerrard sets off across the pond, a part of their identity will go with him. It seems identities are being redefined and not everyone is a fan.

@LH_Ramon25

11/8/14

The Ultras of Inter Milan

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A guide to the Ultra groups of Serie A: Internazionale

City: Milan

Key Ultra groups: Viking, Boys-San

Other fan groups Irriducibili (Unbreakables), Skins, Inter Ultras 1975, Brianza Aloolica (Brianza Alcoholics), Milano Nerazzurra (Black and Blue Milan), Boys Roma, Imbastici, Squilibrati (unbalanced), Bulldogs, Pitbull, Decisi (Decided), Boys Veneto, il “Covo”, Pessimi Elementi (Heavy Elements), Fo De Co (Milanese dialect for Out of your head).

It was all a formality. Internazionale had already been crowned 2006-07 Serie A champions. Marco Materazzi was on the verge of converting his second penalty to give his side a 3-0 victory against Torino. But this was the last game of the season and possibly Luis Figo’s last game in the iconic black and blue colours. The Portuguese play maker was a crowd favourite and the Ultras on the Curva Nord wanted to honour him.

The message was transmitted and suddenly the Curva bellowed the chant “Luís Figo rest in Milano.” Figo was moved and quickly stopped to applaud the Inter faithful. Moments later the Curva erupted again, prompting Marco Materazzi to step away from the penalty spot and point at Figo. He had understood the message loud and clear, Figo was to have his moment in the spot light. The Nerazzuri number 7 made no mistake and the crowd descended into delirium. Figo ended up staying with the Benemata for another two years, in part influenced by the arrival of his Portuguese compatriot Jose Mourinho and undoubtedly swayed by the passion and warmth of the Interisti.

Milan, the modern heart of Italy, is a city that needs little by way of introduction. The metropolis is at the vanguard of the fashion world, combining glitzy designer stores with businesslike modernity and historic landmarks. The most eye-catching of these is Il Duomo, an imposing gothic-styled cathedral at the hub of the city and at its peak, a statue of the Virgin Mary (the Madonnina) surveys Milan. The city is not only a pilgrimage for fashionistas but also a home for football aficionados, boasting two Italian behemoths, AC Milan and Internazionale. The latter represents the black and blue half of this prodigious city.

In 1908, following a schism within the Milan Cricket and Football Club, a group of Italians and Swiss (who were unhappy about the domination of Italians in the AC Milan team) broke away and formed Internazionale. The club has won 18 league titles and is now the joint-second most successful in Italian history, tied with none other than their city rivals. The Nerazzurri have a global and nationwide following and, although they may not have the same clannish mentality adopted by the supporters of provincial clubs, this is not to say they are any less fanatic.

The origin of their organised support was allegedly inspired by former coach and Catenaccio partisan Helenio Herrera, a man who enjoyed major success during the 1960s with a team that became known as “Grande Inter”. This saw the inception of organised fan groups such as I Moschettieri (the Musketeers) and Aficionados. However, the club’s first official Ultra group, now known as the Boys-San, were formed in 1969. Along with a group called Vikings, the Boys-San remain the protagonists of the Curva Nord and, in tandem with their Nordic inspired companions, they are capable of producing an explosive atmosphere.

The Boys-San were originally named 11 Assi – Boys Le Furie Nerazzurre (11 Axes – the Furious Black and Blue Boys). The name was inspired by a mischievous character called Boy in a cartoon published by the clubs magazine during that era. During the 1970s, while the Ultra movement was still in its infancy, the Boys stood out due to their organisation and unity. These were pioneering years for the group and it was during this period that fierce rivalries were born, in particular with Atalanta, Torino, Juventus, Sampdoria and AC Milan.

In 1979, a restructuring of the Giuseppe Meazza meant the Boys-San made the heart of the Curva Nord their stronghold. Not long after, the Boys also changed their name to Boys-San, (Squadra d’azione nerazzurre – Black and blue action squad). In 1984, the Vikings replaced a group known as the Skins on the Curva after they were allegedly forced to disband due to police repression. Unfortunately, like their predecessors, the Vikings have been known to hold far-right political sympathies, a transgression which detracts from their often impressive match-day support.

In more recent years, the club have enjoyed untrammeled success, especially after the relegation of Juventus in 2006 for their involvement in the Calciopoli scandal. The clubs successful history is reflected in their substantial fan-base and it is also worth mentioning other influential groups on the Curva Nord. One particular circle known as Forever Ultras (1975) took prominence in the Curva until 1995, while Potere Neroazzurro (Black and Blue power) were supposedly forced down to a lower section of the Curva following an internal dispute with the Boys-San. Following their fusion with Zona Nera (Black Zone), the Irriducibili (whose banner appeared in the 1988-89 season) became renowned for their tendency to provoke chaos and violence, that said the atmosphere has cooled in recent years and this is especially apt when anaylsing the Milan derby.

The Derby della Madonnina is an ongoing civil war between two cousins vying to become ruler of the city. It is a rivalry made truly colossal not by the icons on the pitch but the fanatics in the stands. This derby used to be marred by violent skirmishes, particularly in the 1970s, when the Ultras were positioned next to each other in the stadium (A key reason for the Interisti moving to the Curva Nord and Milanisti to the Sud). On occasion this violence would even spill on to the streets and into daily life. Then, following a particularly ferocious derby in 1983, a pact of non-aggression was agreed. This serves to add to the sprezzatura of the Milan derby in which the Ultras fight a symbolic battle through the creation of artistic choreographies and satirical banners.

Indeed the Interisti are more than happy to remind their counterparts about the more shameful days in AC Milan’s history. The Rossoneri‘s relegations in 1980 (due to the Totonero match-fixing scandal) and 1982 have provided the Nerazzurri with plenty of ammunition. “The only reason you didn’t return to Serie B is because the referees let you off,” is one particular example while during a derby in 2006 the Inter faithful unveiled a banner reading “38 years of the Fossa dei Leoni (AC Milan’s oldest Ultra group), trials and relegations and you really want to talk about intercepted phone calls.”

The striscione was in response to a Milan banner questioning Internazionale’s innocence in the Calciopoli scandal. One of the less subtle banners produced by the Curva Nord read: “You my cousin? I have never had a whore of an aunt!” Conversely, the Interisti don’t hesitate to show solidarity with their city cousins if they feel they have been unjustly oppressed by the common enemy (the Italian authorities). This was demonstrated during the derby back in December 2013, when both Internazionale and AC Milan ultras protested after the authorities deemed the Milanisti‘s banner inappropriate, preventing them for unveiling it at the derby.

Yet with this fiery support comes a volatility which bubbles and simmers and can occasionally reach boiling point. Back in 2001, during a match against Atalanta, Interisiti managed to smuggle a motorbike, allegedly stolen from Atalantini, into the Curva Nord. In one of the more peculiar incidents seen in Italian football, after failing to set it on fire, the fans launched the bike into a lower section of the ground. Fortunately no one was hurt.

Such flagrant acts overshadow the more positive aspects of the Ultras fervor. However  when the Curva Nord of the Giuseppe Meazza shimmers with hundreds of black and blue placards and the Ultras orchestrate the unveiling of a 40-metre banner to the backdrop of their anthem, Pazza Inter Amala, there are few places more beguiling or stylish in the city of Milan.

Follow myself – @LH_Ramon25 and Richard Hall – @Gentleman_Ultra on twitter.

09/12/14

A Political Football: A Force for Good

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“To be honest I was nervous about coming to summer school in England because of this F****** political situation in Russia.  I wasn’t sure I would make friends but I had no problems and everyone was very friendly.”

It was intriguing to hear the insight of this Russian teenager while working at a British international summer school. The student had arrived in England with preconceptions. He was well aware of deteriorating diplomatic relations after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and believed that forging new friendships might prove difficult.

His situation was thought provoking. The rise in nationalism and political tensions across the world mean sport is faced with a similar conundrum. Prior to the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, several English athletes approached Team England asking for guidance on how to respond to heckling from a partisan crowd. With the Scottish referendum on independence just weeks away there were fears that Scottish nationalists would use the games to voice animosity to the ‘Auld Enemy’. A spokesman for the Glasgow 2014 games reassured Team England that such an event would not materialise. “While friendly rivalries will exist between athletes on the field of play, we look forward to Scottish crowds expressing their passion for world-class sport in a family-friendly atmosphere.” Indeed the English athletes received a warm welcome but such security concerns are increasingly salient.

From the most egregious example of the murder of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team by Palestinian Nationalists at the Munich 1972 Olympics, to the political shenanigans surrounding the Olympic boycotts of the Cold War era, athletes’ apprehensions regarding their security are not misplaced. Such overt political statements are inimical to sport’s integrity as well as security.

Ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics there were real concerns regarding the safety of gay and transgender athletes, spectators and campaigners after the Russian government passed a law which criminalised support for ‘non-traditional’ relationships. During preparations for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, England manager, Roy Hodgson, expressed his concerns for the safety of both fans and players after violent protests had marred the Confederations Cup a year earlier. In 2012, ahead of the Euros in Poland and Ukraine, the British Foreign Office and ex-England defender, Sol Campbell, advised fans of a different ethnicity to stay at home because of entrenched racism and violence. When asked on a Panorama documentary – Euro 2012 Stadiums of hate – whether fans should travel to Poland and Ukraine, Campbell replied “Stay at home and watch it on TV…Don’t even risk it…you could end up coming back in a coffin.”

This sense of insecurity is bound to have a knock-on effect. The family of England footballer, Theo Walcott, decided against travelling to Euro 2012 after heeding the warning of Campbell and others. Walcott’s brother, Ashley, tweeted:

“Unfortunately my dad n i have taken the decision not to travel to the Ukraine because of the fear of possible racist attacks and confrontations.

 ‘Something’s aren’t worth risking but begs the question why hold a competition of this magnitude in a place that cannot police itself for foreigners of any creed to feel safe.”

Furthermore, is it possible for athletes to give their best performances in such hostile environments? Some of the responsibility lies with international governing bodies and their decision making processes when choosing venues to host major sporting events. That said with the proliferation of nationalist sentiments across Europe, it is likely that new cultural, social and political tensions will erupt in host nations. Following the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 back in July, Russia once again came under intense scrutiny with politicians – notably the UK’s deputy leader Nick Clegg – calling for FIFA to axe Russia as the hosts of the 2018 World Cup. “…You can’t have this – the beautiful game marred by the ugly aggression of Russia on the Russian Ukrainian border.” Clegg declared.

A World Cup in Russia could certainly stir feelings of tension and apprehension among those involved, especially if Ukraine were to qualify. However as David McArdle (co-founder of Futbolgrad) argues, stripping Russia of the World Cup would further isolate an already isolationist country and would also act to strengthen Putin’s rhetoric against the West. This is the crux of the debate. It’s yet another illustration of the old canard that politics and sport should be kept apart. This is a beautiful but romantic ideal. Sport and politics are inseparable as demonstrated in FIFA’s belief that rather than boycotting Russia 2018, the tournament can be used as a “force for good.” A political statement if ever there was one. What FIFA are backhandedly suggesting is that football should be used as a political tool. Thus rather than pretending there is no ‘political football’, the solution lies in tackling the problem head on. Shaun McCarthy, ICSS Director of Research and Knowledge Gathering, has suggested that the most prudent way forward involves forging some form of convention that protects sport from corrosive aspects of politicisation.

Event organisers, national and international governing bodies must attempt to seize the opportunity to use sport to bridge divisions. As with the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, it must be a priority to ensure that all those visiting the 2018 World Cup in Russia feel confident that the utmost is being done to uphold the integrity of the sport but also the security and well-being of all those involved. Let’s stop pretending we can keep sport free from politics and rather focus on how we can harness a positive relationship between the two.

08/22/14

The Ultras of Hellas Verona

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A guide to the Ultra groups of Serie A: Hellas Verona

City: Verona 

Key Ultra groupsBrigate Gialloblu (Yellow and Blue Brigade)

Other fan groups: Hellas Army, I 4 Fedellissimi (The Four Loyalists) Hellas Fans, Hellas AlcoolGioventù Scaligera (Scaligera Youth), Verona Front, Cani Blu 1988 (Blue Dogs 1988), Hellas Aliens, Villaggio (Village),Vecchio Inferno (Old Hell), Brigata Borghetti (Borghetti Brigade), 1 Febbraio (February 1), Butei Alti Livelli (The Top Boys), 12 Maggio 85(12 May 85, Orgoglio Scaligero (Scaligero Pride), Quartiere Roma(Roma District), Associazione Stalle Umane (Human Stable Association) and countless others.

“Shits! Thugs! Worms! Turds! Communists!” the boy yells out of the train window. The police look on unfazed. “Fascists! Slavs! Kurds! Bastards!Terroni!” He then pauses to answer his mobile phone: “Ciao mamma… no we’re still at the station in Vicenza… no we didn’t have much homework this weekend I’ve already finished.”

The train begins to pull away from the platform “Momento, Mamma” putting his hand over the microphone he leans out the window again. “Fuck off you assholes you are a disgrace to Italy”. He returns to addressing his mother “Sorry Mamma, the Butei [boys in Veronese dialect] are making a bit of a racket, anyhow we’re just leaving the station now so put the pasta on for around 6.30 and I should be back when it’s cooked.”

This anecdote is taken from Tim Park’s A Season with Verona and it recounts a teenage boy returning from a Verona match against Vicenza who alternates between yobbish football fan to Mamma’s little angel.

It is a Jekyll and Hyde moment that portrays the capricious nature of football supporters and elements of Italian life in general. One moment you are worrying about whether you will be home in time for dinner, the next you find yourself standing in the Curva Sud of the Stadio Bentegodi screaming obscenities at opposition fans, players and, of course, officials. Just ask Tim Parks.

The setting for William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Verona boasts a rich history, including Roman ruins, renaissance culture and the world’s largest open-air opera venue. Its biggest club, Hellas Verona, is an expression of Veronese identity and a symbol of civic pride.

The clue is in the club’s name and nickname. In 1903, when the Gialloblu were formed in Verona’s prestigious school, the Liceo classico Maffei, a Greek teacher coined the name Hellas – Greek for patria, homeland or country. One of their nicknames – Gli Scaligeri – also has historic connotations. It is a reference to the former Lords of Verona who brought the cities of Padua, Vicenza and Treviso under their control in the 14th century. There is a vehement local pride and the Ultras of Hellas Verona stand as defenders of their coat of arms and club colours.

When discussing the world of the Italian Ultras, let alone Verona, it would be impossible not to mention the Brigate Gialloblu, whose motto reads verbatim: “Against hypocrisy and compromise – we hate everybody.” Formed in 1971, their name has become synonymous with the tifosi (fans) of Hellas Verona and, despite their official dissolution in 1991, they remain infamous today.

Although some of the Verona Ultras have a notorious reputation for expressing far-right political views, the name Brigate Gialloblu allegedly has its origins in the left-wing student movement of the late 1960s and is a reference to the Italian red brigades. In fact a left-wing sub-group called Rude Boys coexisted peacefully with a number of right-wing factions within the Brigate, namely: Gioventù Scaligera (Scaligera Youth), Verona Front and Hellas Army. Their love for Hellas far outweighed their ideological differences.

To distinguish themselves and create a hostile atmosphere, the Brigate would stop at nothing to abuse and provoke opposition fans and players. This has seen racism plague the Curva Sud. One of the more distasteful incidents back in the 1980s involved fans throwing bananas at Cagliari’s Peruvian, Julio César Uribe, one of the first black players to play in Italy.

The Brigate Gialloblu were as fanatical, original and intransigent as any fan group in Italy. Having formed ties with Chelsea’s hooligan group The Headhunters in the mid-1970s, elements of the group adopted the mores of English supporters. This even included making business cards that read: “Congratulations you have just met the BG,” an idea inspired by the calling cards left by English hooligans on their victims after a fight.

One particular contingent, known as Associazione Stalle Umane (Human Stable Association) particularly embraced the hooligan ways, drinking beer in excess and living up to the slogan “Veronesi tutti matti” (“the Veronesi are all crazy”).

In the mid-1980s the Brigate’s reputation grew with the team’s success. Thousands travelled to support Hellas in Europe after they won their first and only Scudetto in 1985. This signalled a golden era and the eclectic Curva Sud was rarely devoid of humour. During a trip to Como, Verona Ultras turned up at the Stadio Giuseppe Sinigaglia with blow up rafts, beach mats and flippers changing the words of the Italian song “Stessa Spiaggia, Stesso Mare” (“Same beach, Same Sea”) to chant: “This year nothing changes, all to Como like the beach”. Perhaps it was satire mocking the easy nature of playing Como, or perhaps it was emphasising the sheer number of Veronesi who had flocked to watch a game played on the shores of Lake Como, however it gives you a picture of their ingenuity.

Nevertheless, a game at Brescia in 1986 demonstrated their chaotic and violent tendencies. After being provoked by some Bresciani, it is thought that around 5,000 Verona fans descended on Brescia hell-bent on causing havoc. The Veronesi proceeded to ransack Brescia, vandalising the station, damaging cars and leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

The president of Verona at the time, Ferdinando Chiampan, called the fans criminals and threatened to withdraw the team from Serie A. The police shared this view and 12 arrests were made. The Curva Sud demonstrated their solidarity displaying a banner against Roma reading: “Not 12 but 5,000 guilty”. However, in 1991, following a tumultuous clash with Milan fans, the various parts of the Brigate Gialloblu unanimously decided to disband after some judges wanted to put the group on trial for being a “criminal organisation.”

Although they no longer officially exist, many Verona Ultras still label themselves as Brigate Gialloblu members. Verona’s return to Serie A in 2013 marked the end of one of the club’s darkest eras after having spent 11 years away from the top flight. If this wasn’t enough, the Verona faithful also had to watch their city rivals Chievo enjoy life in Serie A during their absence. However their stalwart passion has not wavered and even after their relegation to Serie C1 in 2007 an incredible 10,000 season tickets were sold in a league which averaged an attendance of around 2,500.

Their return to Italy’s elite has seen old rivalries reignited, notably with Chievo, Juventus, Milan, Atalanta and Napoli, the latter a fixture that brought the satirical best out of the Veronesi after they revealed a banner reading “Neapolitans… Sons of Juilet”. It was a humorous response to a previously unveiled Napoli banner which taunted Verona’s romantic heroine Juliet, proclaiming she was a whore.

While many presume Chievo are Hellas’s fiercest rivals, the Veneto derby that really raises the blood pressure is against Vicenza. Indeed Verona’s promotion to Serie A last season coincided with Vicenza’s slide into the lower Lega Pro league, which will have given the Veronesi untrammelled joy.

Whether they are producing spectacular choreographies, unfurling witty banners or chanting “Forza Verona Ale” to the tune of Giuseppe Verdi’sAida, the Brigate Gialloblu and Hellas supporters as a whole remain respected across Italy. Much like the story of Romeo and Juliet, the Veronesi have been embroiled in a tale of scandal, feuds and romance, the only difference being their true love never seems to die.

06/17/14

Corruption, Deceit and a Betrayal of Values: Does FIFA Mirror Sport?

Retrieved from The Guardian. Photograph: Paul Childs/Action Images

Retrieved from The Guardian. Photograph: Paul Childs/Action Images

 

The 2014 World Cup in Brazil has kicked off with a bang and millions have been gripped by football fever. We’ve had goals galore, red cards, last minute drama and rapturous atmospheres. We’ve gone from the sublime to the absurd, from Lionel Messi’s majestic goal for Argentina against Bosnia Herzegovina on Sunday, to the petulance of Portugal’s Pepe and his fracas with Germany’s Thomas Muller on Monday.

We are only six days into the World’s greatest footballing fiesta and we are mesmerised. Mesmerised in a world of fantasy, one that convinces you that watching Switzerland against Ecuador, a game that holds not one iota of personal significance, is the most important event at that moment. There lies the magic of such sporting events. They offer a form of escapism.

In the last week, fans of different nationalities, creeds and colours have united on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach to dance, sing, party and above all share the World Cup experience. A political researcher in Eastern Europe tweeted that Russia appeared to be a more jovial place; observing that people were more interested in talking about Germany against Portugal rather than their disdain for Ukraine.

If Peter Pan’s ‘Neverland’ were to host a sporting event, it would be the World Cup because while it has the power to unite, it can also make people forget. Forget about the atrocities transpiring in Iraq and the Middle East; forget about the economic disparity which has seen the anti-World Cup demonstrations continue in Brazil and in relation to sport, forget about the widespread corruption and deceit which has not only tainted footballs world governing body – FIFA – but also sport in general.

You are probably sick to the stomach of hearing about FIFA’s transgressions, or should I say ‘alleged’ transgressions in order to avoid being branded a racist. For that is the latest tirade launched by FIFA’s president, Joseph ‘Sepp’ Blatter. Unable to offer any plausible answers to the latest corruption allegations hurled at FIFA against Qatar’s successful 2022 World Cup bid, Blatter resorted to playing the racism card. Addressing delegates from Africa and Asia – two federations who, coincidentally, are said to have benefited most from Qatar’s alleged bribery – Blatter said:

Once again there is a sort of storm against FIFA relating to the Qatar World Cup. Sadly there’s a great deal of discrimination and racism and this hurts me.”

These comments came in the wake of a Sunday Times report accusing Mohamed Bin Hammam, the former President of the Asian Football Confederation, of paying $5 million in bribes to secure the 2022 World Cup for Qatar. Bin Hammam was a member of FIFA’s powerful 24-person executive committee when the vote took place in 2010 and a huge proportion of his payments reportedly went to representatives from the African federation. This, less than a month after similar allegations were directed at the former vice-president of FIFA, Jack Warner, who after Qatar’s successful bid, allegedly received personal payments from a company controlled by a former Qatari football official.

The opacity of FIFA, especially in regards to their decision making processes, coupled with the hubris of Blatter and his cronies will allow them to unabashedly fend off such allegations. Blatter’s chosen line of defence is ironic, given his notoriously laissez-faire attitude towards racism in football. But FIFA apart, the real concern is that sport in general appears to be losing sight of its ethical values.

Sport has traditionally been thought to have a positive role in society. To many it stands as a bastion of physical prowess and moral virtue; abiding by the rules and playing fair is considered to have redemptive and educational qualities. This sporting esprit de corps reached its apogee during the mid-Victorian era in Britain. However has this notion become archaic?

British investigative journalist, Andrew Jennings, will tell you that kleptocracy and callousness is hardly reserved to football’s international governing body. Jennings is a proven bête noire of FIFA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and has revealed a multitude of their wrong-doings, penned in two of his publications: The New Lord of the Rings and Foul! The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes Vote Rigging and Ticket Scandals. Delve a little deeper and sport has become plagued by a myriad of aberrant behaviours.

Match-fixing and unlawful gambling has grown to unprecedented levels, with football, cricket, tennis, badminton, basketball and motor racing all under siege. Recent research carried out by the International Centre Security for Sport (ICSS) in conjunction with the University of Sorbonne, Paris, revealed that around $140 billion is laundered annually through sport betting.

Doping  and use of performance enhancing substances continues to be a widespread problem and the sophisticated and professional nature of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal – uncovered back in 2012 – prompted The World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) Director General, David Howman, to admit the problem is getting “too big for sport to manage.” Furthermore, the Lombardian ‘win at all cost’ ethic often espoused has led athletes, coaches and administrators to flagrantly neglect the moral codes of sport in pursuit of success and riches.

Money and power are at the nexus of our society. These values have trickled into sport. Thus, does FIFA merely reflect a modern sporting trend? Or can we blame the suits in charge of sport for the corruption of its moral ideals. Mathew Syed, a sports columnist for The Times, has suggested that it appears to be the latter, especially with regards to football.

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“The real ugliness in football is to be found not amongst those who play it, but among those who run it: the corruption, the complacency and ticketing policies that, at this World Cup [Brazil 2014], have disenfranchised millions of ordinary Brazilians.

In the same article, Syed also highlighted the heart-warming sight of the camaraderie and spirit that sport can inspire when Italy’s Claudio Marchisio and Giorgio Chiellini spontaneously helped relieve Englands Raheem Sterling of cramp by stretching his legs. A part of FIFA’s mission statement reads verbatim:

“FIFA’s primary objective is to improve the game of football constantly and promote it globally in the light of its unifying, educational, cultural and humanitarian values, particularly through youth and development programmes.”

Revisiting FIFA and the World Cup, there is nothing wrong with major sporting events which, paraphrasing Karl Marx’s words, “provide an opiate for the masses.” The World Cup presents people with an opportunity to escape from the banality of everyday life. However the problem arises if people start to accept that corruption, deceit etc. are ingrained in sport. In order for football – and sport in general – to return to the halcyon days of fair play and morality, organisations such as FIFA need to start practicing what they preach and we need to continue making our voices heard. Getting rid of Sepp Blatter would be a start.

05/9/14

The Ultras of Genoa

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A guide to the Ultra groups in Serie A: Genoa

City: Genoa

Key Ultra Groups: Fossa dei Grifoni (Griffins Den), Via Armenia 5r (5r Armenia Street), Ottavio Barbiera, Vecchi Orsi (Old Bears).

Other Ultra/Fan Groups: Brigata Speloncia (Speloncia Brigade), Figgi do Zena (Dialect for Figli di Genova – Sons of Genoa), Ragazzi Certosa (Certosa boys), Ragazze Certosa (Certosa Girls), South Group, Old Block, Sette Setembre (7th of September), Vecchia Sestri (Old Sestri), Superbi Zena (Pride of Genova)

In the 1990s, during the derby della lanterna (the derby of the lighthouse), the red and blue half of the Stadio Luigi Ferraris unveiled a banner reading “We are Genoa”. It was a banner of mammoth proportions engulfing all the supporters in Genoa’s Gradinata Nord – a flight of steps resembling the end of an English stadium rather than an orthodox Italian Curva.

That the Luigi Ferraris appears anglicised and the banner itself was in English is entirely appropriate. It was a declaration of pride in the club’s long history, which started in 1893 when British Consular officials set up the Genoa Cricket and Football Club. It also served as a mocking reminder to their opponents and city rivals Sampdoria, born 53 years later in 1946, Genoa was the club with the prestigious footballing past, both as the oldest team in Italy and as the beating heart of the city.

Wedged between the Ligurian Sea and the Apennine Mountains, the city of Genoa is a sight to behold. Steeped in history and cultural splendour, the Genovese take fierce pride in their city, hence its nickname “La Superba” – ‘The Proud One’.

They are also known to be tough, resourceful and reserved. However, when the weekend arrives and the Grifoni (Griffins) grace the Luigi Ferraris, this reticence is lost in a tumultuous atmosphere that can produce some of the most spectacular tifo (fandom) Italy has to offer. As journalist Marco Liguori puts it:

“If you speak about trophies in Italy, the teams that have become legend are Juventus, Inter and Milan, but if you speak instead about fandom, it is the Gradinata Nord of the Marassi that is legend.”

The history of Genoa’s support is inextricably linked with the formation of their first Ultra group Fossa dei Grifoni (FdG) (Griffins Den) in 1973. Fossa was part of the supporters group Ottavio Barbieri, which was named after the former Genoa player. Both groups were born out of a dark era in the club’s history, when they languished in Serie C. FdG embodied the soul and ancestry of Genoa, combining British characteristics of sustained organised chanting with the breathtaking choreographies of Italian fandom.

Having established a real sense of unity, the Ultras’ heyday came in the late 1980s to early 1990s, when coach Osvaldo Bagnoli led the Rossoblu to a fourth-place finish in Serie A and European qualification. Genoa’s trip to face Liverpool in the quarter-final of the Uefa Cup in 1992 is fondly remembered for the vociferous and powerful support at Anfield. The Genoa fans were applauded by the Liverpool supporters at the final whistle.

In 1993, protests against the then-president Aldo Spinelli as well as strained relationships with the local press and police led to the disbanding of the FdG. Former members dispersed and joined groups such as Ottavio Barbieri, while others created splinter groups like Vecchi Orsi (Old Bears). Now Via Armenia 5r (5r Armenia Street), who are accompanied by the banner “You’ll never walk alone” are the vanguard of the Gradinata NordI Figgi do Zena – Sons of Genoa in Genovese vernacular – also produce some impressive choreography, having taken their place in a section of the ground which traditionally had a more serene atmosphere.

Unfortunately this zealous fanaticism can lead to ignominious acts of violence. On 29 January 1995, a match between Genoa and AC Milan was marred by tragedy after Genoa supporter Vincenzo Claudio Spagnolo was fatally stabbed. The culprit, Simone Brasaglia, was a member of AC Milan’s notoriously violent fringe Ultra group, the Barbour Gang (a reference to the British styled coats they wore). When news of the stabbing spread, the game was cancelled at half time and riots broke out around the Marassi, with Genoani seeking vengeance.

Calcio reeled and the following week’s league fixtures were postponed. The incident sparked the first ever national Ultra gathering in which groups pleaded for an end to the use of knives and mindless attacks. Brasaglia was sentenced to 16 years in prison and a monument in memory of Spagnolo was subsequently erected outside the Marassi. Political backlash was also swift. A new anti-violence decree was implemented that attempted to subjugate organised fans; however this didn’t stymie their considerable power inside the stadiums.

On 22 April 2012, Genoa hosted fellow relegation strugglers Siena. What unfolded was truly unfathomable. With the Grifoni trailing 4-0 early in the second half, a group of Genoani launched flares on to the pitch and clambered up on to the tunnel and fences towards the locker room. The players were effectively held hostage and the referee was forced to abandon the game.

The Rossoblu captain, Marco Rossi, attempted to negotiate but was met with demands that the players hand over their shirts as they were deemed unworthy of wearing them. After consulting with club president Enrico Preziosi, who by now had joined the players on the pitch along with a host of stewards and police, Rossi began to collect the shirts. It was a moment that evoked a certain pathos, with some players reduced to tears.

Giuseppe Sculli was having none of it. Known to be the grandson of a notorious Calabrian mafia boss and bolshie at the best of times, he refused to hand over his shirt. After a passionate exchange, the player and the Ultras embraced and the game eventually resumed.

The Ultras had halted a top flight game (neither the first nor the last of such incidents), but it was the revelations that followed that beggared belief. While Genoa were hit with a hefty fine, Sculli was banned after accusations of having prior knowledge of the Ultras’ protest; his apparent heroism was a sham. Whether it is true or not, the story shows the power and sway held by the Ultras.

Despite such incidents, the supporters have been unwavering and the atmosphere produced at the Marassi can often stun and awe. Their fealty has not gone unnoticed and in an ultimate tribute the club retired the number 12 in honour of the supporters. They are both figuratively and literally Genoa’s 12th man and this is encapsulated in their motto: “Support Genoa when they win but love them when they lose.”

The following is a video of Genoa’s choreography during the Derby della Lanterna on February, 3, 2014.

You can also read these articles on Richard Hall’s website –  The Gentleman Ultra.

Follow myself – @LH_Ramon25 and Richard – @Gentleman_Ultra on twitter.