04/24/15

The Mlambe Project: Using Football to Help Build Futures in Malawi

Mlambe Project

The belief that football can be an effective vehicle in enacting social change is often underpinned by an aggressive optimism. It is widely coined the global game, a sport that can transcend conflict, breaching barriers while offering hope to those living in the most austere of circumstances.

But football contains many paradoxes and Criminologist Victor Jupp’s analysis of sport reflects the nature of the game. “On the one hand sport is the context for that which is bad in us and society – sleaze, corruption, fraud, violence and aggression – and at the same time is a model for that which is good and the panacea of social ills”

Although the road to eradicating football’s aforementioned ills remains long, when used in the correct manner, there is no doubt it has a social and humanitarian role to play. There are a myriad of examples. The Football4Peace project was created to facilitate peaceful integration within several neighbouring Jewish and Arab societies while football has also been used in the volatile political environments of Northern Ireland and South Africa. During his research on the possibilities football offered various demographics in the reconstruction of post-conflict Liberia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, academic Gary Armstrong, asserted that football gives people reason to visit and better understand the “people over the hill”

However much of the work being conducted by organisations across the globe often slips under the radar. Thanks to the blogging and ‘tweetosphere’, I was lucky enough to come across the work of Football Beyond Borders, the charity kind enough to provide a platform for this article and one that uses football “to inspire young people to achieve their goals and to tackle inequality and discrimination.”

The fact that Arsenal midfielder, Santi Carzola, just became the charities new patron speaks volumes for their progress and it was their altruistic work that inspired me to write an article on an initiative a in which my friend is involved.

While sharing a drink with this friend (Saalim), he told me about the work he was doing for a charity called the Mlambe Project. The project – created by a group of Physic students at the University of Manchester – is based out in the African country of Malawi. Its overarching mantra is to aid the Malawian people in their struggle against poverty through the provision of sustainable livelihoods and a proper education. Sourced from their website, they aim to achieve this via two primary objectives:

  1. To promote the use of earthbag building across Malawi
  2. To develop and implement new educational technologies and methods in a responsible and sustainable manner.

Intrigued, I enquired further about why they chose Malawi. “Malawi was chosen as one of our co-founders Jamie [Proctor] travelled through the country, he was immediately drawn in by the amazing Malawian people and the amount of inspiring projects which already exist, something which myself and Brad [Vanstone] felt. So, I guess Malawi chose us!” Saalim told me.

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and while one organisation can’t solve this, their work within the Mlambe community is already making a significant difference.

“We have created jobs by teaching local builders the new skill of building with earth bags, providing a new revenue stream into the village.” Using this technique a new school block, toilets and a head teacher’s office (with computers) have all been built.

“This has helped improve school-life at Mlambe for both teachers and students who can now study indoors as opposed to underneath trees – a lesson underneath a tree doesn’t sound too bad for those of us who went to UK schools where an outdoor lesson was the most exciting part of the day – but it really is a tough ask when attempting to teach a 100-student class with the wind swirling and the incredible heat. I gave it a go and it was not easy!”

As head of educational development at the Mlambe Project, Saalim’s role is primarily concerned with developing educational initiatives. Shortly after speaking to him, he travelled back to Malawi to work on his latest initiative in which he is hoping to provide an alternative means of education for those children who can’t afford the school fees to attend secondary school, which he emphasised, was an alarming number.

As we continued to chat, the conversation’s focus invariably turned towards football, at which point Saalim began to tell me about how the game had become integral to both the charities work and the Mlambe community. Their ventures have included building a football pitch, creating a team in Mlambe and organising the village’s first football match. Fascinated, I asked Saalim if we could conduct an interview. “Sure” he said, “but the person you really want to be speaking to is Brad Vanstone [Head of New Development Opportunities], the football pitch was his project.” I interviewed both and here is what they had to say.

As you know I am primarily concerned with the role football can play within society both positive and negative and it’s great to see the Mlambe project utilising the sport, but is there a strong footballing culture in Malawi?

(Saalim) “Malawians are football-mad! There is something quite special about being in a room which would comfortably house five people with about 10 times that crowded round a tiny T.V. watching a game; you can’t really beat that atmosphere! Everywhere you go people are wearing football shirts, predominantly English Premier League teams but I did also run into a Bolton Wanderers fan on my travels! The kids are nurtured with football as one of the few hobbies available to them; and their resourcefulness in creating footballs out of nothing was nothing short of mind-blowing. They usually collected rubbish that had been left lying around and with a few plastic bags and some string managed to create a perfectly crafted ball that would last at least a month- and once it reached the end of its recycled life they proceeded to make another one with just as much ease. I sat and watched a few kids create balls and tried to make one myself, it’s definitely not as easy as they make out. It’s one of the best examples I’ve seen of people reacting against their poor situations, not just accepting them.”

 Brad, I saw one of your notable ventures was building a football pitch in the village, how was the pitch built?

The whole area needed to be hoed up and the organic matter removed before being ‘ploughed’, flattened and raked. Thanks to the help of the local community, and with the use of some alternative ploughing techniques which were not previously referred to in the risk assessment, we were able to finish this project in 5 days!

(Brad helping assemble the goals)

What did the pitch bring to the Mlambe community?

(Brad) The football pitch is at the heart of Mlambe and has created a real hub for the whole community. Outside of the school and church, the community and particularly the children had no focal point from which to gather. The pitch has given the village a real centre point that is now the height of activity, constantly bustling with people.

An inaugural match was played between Mlambe and local team Nanthomba, do you have any specific memories from the day?

(Brad) The opening game was played between Mlambe and local rivals Nanthomba (where NGO ‘HELP! Malawi’ have done some incredible work). My lasting memory was of a 40 strong parade of woman and children circling the pitch continuously chanting and signing for the entirety of the second half. Mlambe won 2-1 and the scenes of sheer jubilation at the final whistle were also very special.

Have there been other matches since and has the creation of a football pitch seen sport included in the educational programme at the Mlambe School?

(Saalim) There is now a Mlambe men’s team which we are proud to say is one of the best in the district. They play matches once or twice a week and their matches attract crowds of pretty much the whole village, around 200 people! Again, it’s a brilliant atmosphere with women dancing by the pitch, kids acting as very able ball boys, and pretty much everyone trying to manage the team from the side-lines.

(Mlambe celebrating a famous victory versus Nanthomba)

Are any of the volunteers football coaches and if not could you see football coaching used in future Mlambe Project initiatives?

(Saalim) The football team is fully run by locals from the community. Therefore the two coaches who run the team live in the village, if any of our volunteers are ever skilled in football coaching then we’d love them to take some training sessions for the team and share their knowledge. But we try to push ideas of sustainability and the main way of doing this would be for volunteers to spend most of their time with the football coaches themselves.

In your opinion, what are the connections – if any – between your building initiatives and football?

(Brad) The newly erected school buildings have given the community a real sense of pride. That pride is now personified by the Mlambe team during every fixture they play. Training sessions are serious affairs, with the younger children watching their idles, dreaming that they one day might represent the community. Playing for Mlambe bestows upon each player a great sense of responsibility. You are representing yourself, you are representing your school and most importantly you are representing your community.

Developing and promoting education is paramount to the charities initiatives, how do you feel football can and has contributed to this?

(Saalim) The benefits football can have on individuals and society are vast. Some of the best footballers in the world came from upbringings of abject poverty, we hope this inspires some of our younger talents at Mlambe school to go on to greatness! Obviously sport teaches individuals fantastic ethics of teamwork, leadership and notions of belonging. It’s a great outlet and opportunity to forget about the sometimes terrible things local people see day-by-day and we hope it continues this way. Education is not and should not be viewed simply as time spent in the classroom, though this time is obviously important. Extra-curricular options are key to exercising different parts of the brain and sports is great at enabling this.

How do you think football has aided your project as a whole?

(Brad) Football was played at Mlambe long before the project began. We’ve given the community a more spacious, flatter and all round superior surface where they can spend their free time. Although we primarily promote the benefits of a solid education, we also understand the importance of balancing a child’s mental development with their physical development. 

I see the young footballers of Mlambe are keen on Chelsea FC, have you made any attempts to try and contact CFC to see if they will get involved?

(Brad) I was blown away by the number of Chelsea shirts I saw in Malawi, witnessing at first hand the impact of players such as Didier Drogba and Michael Essien. I contacted Chelsea FC earlier this year to try to see if they would be willing to donate any old kit to the project. They sadly declined as they are already supporting Right to Play in Africa.

Will football have an ongoing role in the Mlambe project?

(Brad) Absolutely. Whilst the primary functions of the charity will be based around providing a sustainable education for the children of Mlambe and beyond, we appreciate the importance of football in a child’s development. FIFA is forever highlighting football’s ability to unite, inspire and break down barriers. At Mlambe, and indeed across Malawi, their rhetoric is for once true. Football does just that.

This year the Mlambe football team may have the opportunity to represent their community in a festival called the Pamodzi Cup, an event with the intention of mobilising local resources and staff working in the field of HIV aids. To borrow from the anti-apartheid icon and philanthropist Nelson Mandela, “Sport has the power to inspire…it can create hope where once there was only despair.” Through football, the Mlambe project is embracing this ethos.

With thanks to Saalim Koomar and Brad Vanstone. You can find out more about the charity by visiting their website The Mlambe Project or following them on twitter @mlambeproject

@LH_Ramon25

04/3/15

The Ultras of AC Milan

Milanultras095

A guide to the Ultra groups in Serie A: AC Milan

City: Milan

Key ultra groups: Fossa Dei Leoni, Commandos Tigre, Brigate Rossonere, Alternativa Rossonera, Guerrieri Ultras Curva Sud Milano, Avanguardia Rossanera, Curva Sud Milano.

Other groups: Gruppo Veleno, Estremi Rimedi, Vecchia Maniera, Ultras 1976, Panthers, Boys Assatanati, Il Gruppo Nervus, Il Gruppo the Bull Dog, Il Gruppo Avanguardia, Il Gruppo Barbera, Il Gruppo Zava, Pitbulls, Gruppo Comodo, Gruppo Caramello, Area 207, Armata Rossonera, Bad Boys, Acid Group, Banda Casciavit, Herbert Kilpin Firm, Banda Scalino, Barone Rossonero, Baschi Rossoneri, Black Sheep Group, Bomber Group, Brigate Venete, Brothers, Brutti Dentro, Cani Sciolti, Celtic Devils, Clan, Convinti, Dannati, Devils 1978, Diavoli di Como, Drunk Company Veneto Alcool, Eagles, Fanatic, Fedelissimi Milan, Feroci, Fronte Rossonero, Hooligans, I Diavolacci, Indyans, Kaos, Legionari Tigre, Inferno Rossonero, Mazzo Group, Mods, Nobilita Rossonera, Nucleo Tifosi Rossoneri, Out Laws, Panthers 1976, Ragazzi del 99 ACM 1899, Sconvolts, Settembre Rossonero, Skunkati, Stars, Teste Matte, Tigers, Torcida Rossonera, Ubriachi di Milan, Vecchi Teschi, Villani, Warriors, Gioventu Rossonera.

While it is never pleasant to see footballers on the end of scathing criticism, when Milan ultras castigated left-back Kévin Constant through the unfurling of a banner during their 1-1 draw with Genoa back in 2013, their exasperation was understandable. “Constant, instead of clowning around and being arrogant, respect those who watch your embarrassing performances,” read the rebuke.

Not only were his performances questionable, but his off-field frivolities – including tweeting pictures from a nightclub on the Friday before Milan’s weekend clash with Genoa – suggested he was less than committed to honouring the iconic red and black shirt. But while there was some justification behind this protest, the criticism reserved for Paolo Maldini during his 900th and last appearance for Milan against Roma in 2009 was baffling.

It goes without saying that Maldini is a club legend. A product of the Milan Primavera, their youth team, Maldini won five European Cups and seven Scudetti over the course of his 25-year career. Yet, after his final match at the San Siro, his lap of honour was soured by a pocket of ultras who expressed their dissent.522685-22732500-1600-900“Thanks captain. On the pitch you were an undying champion but you had no respect for those who made you rich,” read one of the banners. “For your 25 years of glorious service you have the thanks of those who you called mercenaries and misers,” opined another.

The ill feelings are said to have stemmed from an angry exchange between Maldini and a group of ultras who had awaited the team’s return at the Milan airport following their loss to Liverpool in the 2005 Champions League final. The banners were accompanied by a giant shirt emblazoned with the number six, which was unveiled to the backdrop of the chant: “There’s only one captain, Baresi.”

Giancarlo Capelli, an ultras leader, later remarked: “It was not a protest. We just wanted to make it clear what we thought about some of his comments and behaviour over the past years.” Throughout his career, Maldini had not shied from condemning the ultras when they had failed to support some of his team-mates, and his defence of Silvio Berlusconi’s transfer policy also irritated fans.

For observers on the outside, it is hard to accept that a club legend would be subjected to such treatment, albeit from a minority of supporters. However, the intensity of this incident reveals the visceral relationship between ultras and their club. At times it feels like the macho response of a domineering spouse or spurned lover who feels they haven’t been awarded their due respect. While these actions are highly questionable and a flagrant offence to many a football purist, this behaviour is part of the ultras’ fabric.

That Milan’s ultras hold their players to such lofty standards is perhaps born out of the club’s success and prestige. Founded in 1899 as Milan Cricket and Football Club by English expatriates Alfred Edwards and Herbert Kilpin, the Milanisti take great pride in the knowledge that their team is the oldest in the city and one of the most decorated in Europe – facts they are keen to flaunt when they play their city rivals, Internazionale.

To honour their roots, Milan have retained the English spelling of the city’s name and this history is also celebrated by the supporters, most notably when the ultras choreographed a gigantic banner of Kilpin in his archaic red and black shirt during their match against Barcelona in 2013. The display was accompanied by the date 1899 and the message “La Storia Siamo Noi” (“We are the history”). The supporters may also have Kilpin to thank for the club’s iconic red and black colours and as a consequence their nickname, Il Diavolo (the Devil).

phoca_thumb_l_milan barcellona 2012-2013 10

The Englishman is said to have arrived at this choice of colours after saying: “We are a team of devils. Our colours are red as fire, and black to invoke fear in our opponents.” Indeed, the San Siro can be one of the most daunting arenas in European football and the ultras of the Curva Sud thrive off their menacing moniker. Unsurprisingly, Milan’s status means they have a plethora of ultra groups, none more renowned than the historic Fossa dei Leoni (Lion’s Den).

The group were formed in 1968 and are said to be the first modern ultra organisation in Italy. As such they played something of a pioneering role in the nascent years of the movement. Although Fossa dei Leoni originally resided on Ramp 18 of the Settori Popolari of the San Siro, in 1972 the group shifted to the Curva Sud and became the heartbeat of the Diavolo support. Accompanied by the Brigate Rossonere (Red and Black Brigade), founded in 1975, and Commandos Tigre (Tiger Commandos) who joined Brigate and Fossa on the Curva Sud in 1985, they formed a triumvirate that made the Rossoneri’s support one of the most eclectic on the peninsula.

To emphasise Fossa’s cult nature, the group had their own song, Leoni Armati (Armed Lions), inspired by the Italian film L’armata Brancaleone. In 1982 they featured in the Italian film Eccezzziunale… veramente, in which actor Diego Abatantuono played the role of the group’s leader, Donato “Ras della Fossa”.

The Italian ultra movement was inextricably linked with the political activism of the era but, curiously, Fossa never adopted a clear political identity. It is said that some of their members veered towards the left, with images of Che Guevara visible in the San Siro during the group’s early years, but many of the ultras on the Curva Sud have avoided political affiliation. While occasional rifts arose between Commandos, Brigate and Fossa, the groups led the Curva for 20 years in relative harmony, until Fossa disbanded in 2005.

The reason behind Fossa’s dissolution once again beggars belief. The story goes – and there are numerous accounts – that during a game between Milan and Juventus in 2005, the group managed to steal a banner from a Juve ultra group known as Viking. Fossa proceeded to unfurl this banner in the Curva Sud as a trophy of their conquest, but it later emerged that rather than stealing the banner, the Milanisti had obtained it senza onore (without honour). The fans hadn’t physically fought to steal the banner and this went against the unwritten rules of the ultras. The Juventini wanted revenge and a few days later a Fossa banner was stolen by Viking and posted on the group’s fanzine. The following Sunday the banners were back in the possession of their owners. Rumours spread that the swap had been organised in agreement with the police, a heinous crime in the world of the ultras and shocking news to the other groups in the Curva Sud.

Fossa ceased to exist, but the conflict in the Curva Sud went on. Internecine warfare ensued. A Milan fan was shot in the legs. Monza magistrates concluded that the attack was part of an internal war among Rossoneri ultras over merchandising and tickets. Commandos and Brigate lived on, while new groups such as Guerrieri Ultras (Ultra Warriors) – formed of ex-Fossa members – were born. Their motto – “neither red nor black, just black and red” – encapsulated their apolitical stance. The peace was eventually restored and now the majority of the Curva Sud has united under the umbrella of Curva Sud Milano. Their headquarters lie in the industrial area of San Giovanni but their members are spread across the length of the peninsula.

326681_heroaThe infighting, the protests, their unabashed hubris and the revolving door in which groups form and disband is ludicrous. It is bemusing but undeniably beguiling. In the midst of all the chaos there are codes and rules that must be followed stringently. It is madness but there is a meticulous method to the ultras madness. Imagine Italian football without them. Imagine the San Siro on a Champions League night without the Curva Sud, the match devoid of incessant chanting, flares, smoke and spectacular choreographies.

In 2010, when Manchester United faced Milan in the Champions League knockout phase, Sir Alex Ferguson was left in awe. Not by the superstars on the field but by the supporters in the terraces. “The one thing that’s so amazing is that for the first 15 minutes I felt in shock, really in shock, because the atmosphere was unbelievable,” Ferguson explained. “Coupled with the noise when they scored, it unnerved me and it unnerved my players. No matter how much experience you have got, you get drawn into that cauldron of noise.” Therein lies the seductive power of these ultras.

@LH_Ramon25

First published on The Guardian and The Gentleman Ultra

03/21/15

Football and Politics: An Inseparable Couple

fcbarcelonavrealmadridcflaligatankaehhog5l

With the rise in nationalism and diplomatic tensions across the world, the old canard that sport and politics should be kept separate is increasingly outdated.

Russia’s 2018 World Cup has come under scrutiny due to their role in the Ukrainian conflict, with notable politicians such as British deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, calling for FIFA to axe Russia as the host. In 2014, prior to the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, several English athletes approached Team England asking for guidance on how to respond to heckling from a partisan crowd. The Scottish referendum on independence was just weeks away and 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. Indeed the English athletes received a warm welcome and the eventual referendum on September 18, 2014, saw the Scots vote against independence. The Scottish referendum was also followed with considerable interest in Catalonia, an autonomous region in Spain whose separatist movement has often been compared to that of Scotland’s. Just five days before Scotland’s independence vote, the La Liga game between Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao at the Camp Nou was another fascinating example of the Gordian Knot that is sport and politics.

For the first time in Barca’s 115-year history, the club sported the iconic yellow and red colours of Catalonia in front of their home crowd. The decision was awash with political nuances. The yellow and red strip denotes the Catalan flag, La Senyera. Furthermore, the build up to the game had been marked by the tri-centennial Diada Nacional de Catalunya (National day of Catalonia), a commemoration of the regions defeat during the War of the Spanish Succession on September 11th, 1714.

Catalonia has long harboured a strong separatist movement and Spain’s economic crisis has only served to reinforce these sentiments. Throughout Barca’s existence, the club has provided an outlet for Catalan nationalism, especially during the reign of Fascist dictator, General Franco, whose policy of ‘cultural genocide’ threatened to extinguish Catalan identity altogether. General Franco used Real Madrid as an arm of his virulent anti-Catalan policy, seeing the capital’s club as another means through which to suppress Catalonia and humiliate Barca.

Franco prohibited the flying of La Senyera at Blaugrana matches while the Catalan language was prohibited. Real Madrid versus Barcelona was no longer a football match but more a de-facto battleground between the centralist powers of Franco and the separatists of Catalonia. Referring to the clubs role during this era, renowned Spanish author Manuel Vazquez called Barcelona “the symbolic unarmed army of Catalonia.”

381760_Barca-Catalonia-independence

Despite the politically infused kit change, La Liga accepted the clubs request to wear the Senyera shirt. This was followed by a statement released by the Blaugrana denying the club mixed sport with politics.

The Senyera shirt is not being worn because of the 11 September [National Day] – we are doing it to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the fall of Barcelona at the hands of the troops of Philip V and the French in 1714.”

The move delighted followers of the Catalonia independence movement. Club defender Gerard Pique, who was born in the city, made the link explicit after he joined a march for Catalan independence and tweeted a picture of himself and his son, Milan, who was wearing the shirt. This example serves to reinforce the argument that it is nigh-on impossible to keep sport free from politics, despite the pretence of those in charge.

Thus rather than pretending there is no ‘political football’, the solution may lie 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. Should Barcelona have been allowed to wear a shirt that was championing the Catalan cause? That’s down to ones interpretation of what constitutes corrosive politicisation, a question with no easy answer. In this instance, Barca’s political maneuverings brought neither the security nor integrity of football into disrepute and as such, perhaps unwittingly, La Liga followed Shaun McCarthy’s advice and decided that the kit change was not a ‘corrosive aspect of politicisation.’

As recently as November 2014, 80% of people in Catalonia backed independence for the region in an informal, non-binding vote. The ballot went ahead despite fierce opposition from the Spanish government. The game between Barcelona and Real Madrid this weekend will be the first played at the Camp Nou since Catalonia’s unofficial referendum vote. This will only foment the antagonism surrounding the fixture and undoubtedly inspire yet more gestures of political defiance.17 minutes and 14 seconds into the game, chants of ‘Independencia’ will bellow down from the stands of the camp nou. It is and always has been a politically infused chant remembering the date Catalonia lost it’s independence. So 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.

@LH_Ramon25

Part of this article was originally published on These Football Times

03/19/15

The Ultras of Livorno

tumblr_n5u4vnS7kP1rny7rco3_1280

A guide to the Ultra groups in Serie A: Livorno

City: Livorno

Key Ultra Groups:  Brigate Autonome Livornese (Autonomous Livorno Brigade)

Other Ultra Groups: Visitors 1312, Livornesi, Livorno 1915, Doia Dè, Exarchia Club, Ultras Livorno 1976, Fossa 1977, Magenta, Fedayn, Sbanditi, Gruppo Autonomo, Norh Kaos.

It was the first game of the 2004/05 Serie A season and newly promoted Livorno travelled to the San Siro to face AC Milan. The Tuscan’s earned a surprise 2-2 draw but for many Livorno fans, the result was trivial. The fixture transcended the average footballing rivalry. AC Milan were an economic juggernaut backed by media tycoon and then Italian president, Silvio Berlusconi. Livorno – a bastion of left-wing ideology –seized the opportunity to mock their ‘betters’, especially a certain signor Berlusconi.

During the summer of 2004, Berlusconi had been pictured wearing a bandana while entertaining English Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and his wife Cherie in Sardinia. The Italian media claimed the bandana was disguising a hair transplant and the photo soon went viral.

Roughly 10, 000 Livornesi turned up at the San Siro, 4,000 of whom wore white and maroon coloured bandanas with the inscription ‘Silvio we are coming’. The bating continued as they unveiled a banner reading“Berlusconi: Brocchi, chi ti vota.” The statement was a play on words. Christian Brocchi was an ex-Milan midfielder but colloquially the word Brocchi also signifies someone who is useless in a sporting context. Thus roughly translated the banner read “Berlusconi voters are useless.” Unsurprisingly Berlusconi took umbrage and Livorno were regularly fined for such flagrance. This never proved a deterrent and for every Berlusconi peccadillo; the Livorno fans have been on-hand to deride the politician.

Formed in 1915, A.S. Livorno are not renowned as one of Calcio’sheavyweights. Since enjoying a prosperous yet transient spell in the 1940’s – in which they maintained their Serie A status for seven years including a 2nd place finish behind Il Grande Torino in 1943 – Livorno have been perennial strugglers. But their Ultras have a unique identity, one rooted in their left-wing political ideology and strong affinity to their city (otherwise known as Campanilismo)

The history of this quintessential port town reveals how the Livornesi came to embrace this distinct identity. During the 15th century, the ruling Medici family of Florence constructed a port at Livorno and passed a range of laws, known as the Leggi Livornine, allowing merchants of any nation to colonise the republic. Jews, Turks, Moors, Armenians, Persians and others arrived creating a cosmopolitan city. Industrialisation and Italy’s Risorgimento(unification) added to the melting pot, with growing political activism among the city’s workers. In 1921, the formation of the Italian Communist Party in Livorno cemented the city’s left-wing tradition. This cultural and political history has proved immutable and since the inception of the Ultras Livorno in 1976, the Curva Nord of the Stadio Armando Picchi has been a constant outlet for Livornese identity.

Before the formation of the famed Brigate Autonome Livornese (BAL) (Autonomous Livorno Brigade) in 1999, the Curva Nord was divided and disorganised. This was due to schisms between groups including Magenta , Fedayn, Sbandati and Gruppo Autonomo. However an amalgamation of the aforementioned quartet led to the inception of the BAL, who brought structure to the Livorno support, underpinned by their leftist ideology.

Communist symbols such as the ‘red star’ or the ‘hammer and sickle’ have been a leitmotif. Images of socialist icon Che Guevara adorn flags, scarves and t-shirts while a banner dedicated to the birthday of former Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, has also been unveiled on the Curva Nord. Green, guerrilla styled military jackets and army styled caps – made famous by global revolutionaries like Cuba’s Fidel Castro – are often worn and the chanting of Communist anthems including Bandiera Rossa (The Red Flag) and Bella Ciao (a popular Partisan song during World War Two) act as further markers of the Livornesi’s politics.The BAL played a pivotal role in manifesting this ideology and in 2004; they celebrated the clubs return to Serie A after 55-years by organising a spectacular choreography.

livorno

The Curva Nord shimmered under red placards, while a large image depicting a hammer and sickle placed within a shining sun was the centre-piece of the display. Underneath, a banner read ‘A long night is disappearing…at the horizon, our sun is rising’.  Dr Mark Doidge, a sport sociologist who has written extensively on Livorno’s supporters and their politics, recognised that the choreography not only referred to a new beginning for the club, but also embodied Livornese identity through the use of Communist symbolism.

This left-wing identity means the Ultras also seek to demonstrate solidarity with those less fortunate. In the past this has included the display of Palestinian flags, notably in a UEFA cup game against Israeli team Maccabi Haifa. Similar sympathy has been shown to the nationalist Irish cause and the IRA. The Armando Picchi has also been the setting for various fundraising projects, including collections for the Earthquakes that devastated the Italian city of L’Aquila in 2009 and a year later, Haiti.

It is impossible to document Livorno’s Ultras without mentioning Cristiano Lucarelli. The Amaranto No.99 (chosen in honour of the BAL’s formation date) famously said “Some players buy themselves a Ferrari or yacht with a billion lire; I just bought myself a Livorno shirt.”

Cristiano Lucarelli symbolises the ‘typical Livornese’. Gregarious, amicable and openly political, Lucarelli reflects the young masculine fans on the terrace,” – Dr. Doidge

lucarelli1

The Livorno born forward was a former member of the BAL and shared their political ideals. He often saluted the Ultras with the Communist ‘clenched fist’ and back in 1997, during an Italy U21 match in Livorno, he celebrated his goal by taking off his shirt to reveal an image of Che Guevara. The Italian media have drawn parallels between Lucarelli and Lazio icon, Paolo Di Canio, a player notorious for sharing the fascist ideals upheld by some of the Biancocelesti’s Ultras. In fact when Livorno faced Lazio back in 2006, the satirical television show La Iene broadcast a simultaneous interview with the two club icons. Both were quizzed on their political allegiances and the love for their respective clubs.

Unsurprisingly Lazio and Hellas Verona are two of Livorno’s fiercest rivals due to the far-right contingent within their support. Indeed these fixtures are marked as high risk by Italian authorities and can often lead to violent clashes between opposition fans or with the police. Local and historic rivals, Pisa, are hated with equal verve. The Livornesi are twinned with the left-wing supporters of Greek side, AEK Athens, and French club, Olympique Marseille, in a friendship known as the ‘triangle brotherhood’.

Although the BAL were the vanguard of the Livorno support it is said they coexisted with another group called ‘Norh Kaos’. Some speculated that there was friction between the two due to Norh Kaos’s affiliation to the far-right. Yet it appears this wasn’t the case and the duo had an amicable relationship, inside and out of the stadium.

DASPOS (banning orders) curtailed the numbers of the BAL and this eventually proved to be a factor in their dissolution. It is also said one of their former leaders, Lenny Bottai, altered his focus to pursue boxing (he’s reportedly doing quite well). Although their pseudonym allegedly survived until 2007, the Curva Nord lost some of its effervescence. Having spoken to Mark Doidge, he stated that three groups – Livornesi, Visitors and 1312 were preeminent on the Curva after the BAL disbanded. The latter two merged to form Visitors 1312. 1312 is the numerical code for ACAB – the acronym for ‘All Cops Are Bastards.’ This is a new aspect to ultras identity across Europe, uniting them in opposition to the police.

The dogmas of the Livornesi set them apart in the landscape of the Italian Ultras, especially given the resurgence of far-right sentiments within Italian Stadia in recent years. Their club may continually struggle but their supporter’s spirits are never dampened and Mark Doidge mirrored this sentiment.

“Too many people visit Italy for the sights, the food, the art or whatever. Spending time with the Livornesi made me realise that people are the most important thing. They embody their history and continue with a warm and generous spirit to this day.”

With thanks to Mark Doidge for providing his insight and expertise. Mark is a doctor in the sociology of sport at Brighton University and spent six months in Livorno with official supporters clubs and the ultras.

@LH_Ramon25

First published here on @Gentleman_Ultra

03/6/15

Russia 2018: Could the World Cup be Boycotted?

russia-world-cup-logo-014-1050x630

This article is published in full on Futbolgrad. You can also follow them (@Futbolgradliveand their owner (@homosovieticus) on twitter.

 

02/22/15

The Ultras of Lazio

Choreo

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.

article-2237027-162AD1B1000005DC-789_964x580

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

white-knights-ultras-egypt

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

Cuba football

“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

0002-2Juventus-Cagliari

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.

0003-2Torino-Juventus

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.

0003-3Parma-Juventus

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

image-41-for-steven-gerrard-s-liverpool-fc-career-in-pictures-gallery-97183545

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