09/12/14

A Political Football: A Force for Good

Russian President Vladimir Putin plays w

“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.

04/10/14

True Bravery Lost in Football’s Hyperbole

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Manchester United fought like a brave Old Trafford side of old – it was their best display of the season.” ­Martin Keown writing for the Daily Mail

It is interesting how we perceive and use certain words. Bravery, what are the hallmarks of bravery and how is it defined?

In the Oxford dictionary brave is defined as: “Ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage.”

From 300 Spartans fighting to the death at the Battle of Thermopylae, to the Charge of the Light Brigade at the battle of Balaclava, throughout history acts of war-time bravery have consistently been immortalised. Today, in the absence of a prominent warrior culture, sport has become a de facto battle ground, allowing us to experience displays of sporting courage.

Of course we are often drawn into romanticised versions of bravery. According to legend, 300 Spartan’s defied the might of one million Persians. In actual fact scholars believe the Spartans were joined by a thousand Thespians and Thebans, while the might of Persia could only muster an army 100,000 strong (Spare a thought for the Thespians and Thebans who were not immortalised in the same manner as their Spartan brothers). Highlighting this is pernickety and undoubtedly the Spartan story personifies bravery. The point is, such tales lend themselves to hyperbole and sport, in particular football, is littered with examples.

“Evra and out for brave United.” The Times Back Page, 10th April 2014.

Following Manchester United’s Champions League exit to Bayern Munich on Wednesday night, a recurring theme was noticeable. Listening to pundits, reading articles and trawling through twitter, words such as brave, valiant, admirable and courageous were being used to describe the Red Devils performance. It was all rather irksome.

Sporting bravery can take various forms, whether it’s physical, i.e. risking injury for the good of the team, or psychological, i.e. a gay athlete coming out and overcoming the trepidation of challenging stereotypes and barriers. So for a moment, let’s analyse the headline:“Evra and out for brave United.”  

What is the purpose of the word brave here? Barring Nemanja Vidic, who took one in the private parts to block Mario Mandzukic’s fierce shot and perhaps Patrice Evra’s goal, which was certainly audacious, it’s hard to pinpoint true acts of bravery during United’s performance. David Moyes didn’t drastically alter his tactics in order to deceive his opposite number – Pep Guardiola, nor did his team go toe to toe with the Germans and throw caution to the wind. You can hardly blame Moyes and United as the pressure in football is such that rarely is there room for fool-hardy acts of bravery. Thus why the word brave? It’s specious and redundant.

United’s performance was energetic (for 70 odd minutes). It was disciplined and organised until they took their ephemeral lead in the 57th minute. And it was certainly full of effort and endeavour, but that’s the least one should expect from professional players. However a brave performance? No, brave isn’t the word that should be used to summarise their defeat to Pep Guardiola’s side.Words are important because they portray and betray the underlying beliefs and psyche of an author and the culture that author represents. In an interview with Sir Clive Woodward on BBC Radio 5 live, Queens Park Ranger midfielder, Joey Barton said.

“We love unlucky losers in this country. It’s our mindset. In football terms we are losers; we love the side that gets heroically beaten and hate sides that are successful.”

He may just have a point. A few months back I explored how the English mind-set can work to the detriment of the national team. How hopes and dreams are projected onto individuals and thus failures attributed elsewhere, eventually damaging the team’s efficacy. On this occasion, an English team’s disappointment and deficiencies were hidden under the guise of bravery. The term glorifies defeat and also reveals an inferiority complex which can have a pernicious knock on effect.

This conflates a number of issues. Firstly the word brave projects power onto the opposition. In other words Bayern are so omnipotent that only a lionhearted performance from United could have toppled the German giants, skill alone would not have been sufficient.

Granted Bayern are an extremely talented team, officially the best in Europe but Manchester United aren’t exactly minnows. If Hyde FC – currently bottom of the Skill Conference Premier – had played the reigning European champions then, perhaps, brave would’ve been apt. But this was a team that has hardly been parsimonious in the transfer market and despite their recent travails, possess a surfeit of talent. Thus inferring this was a brave performance, or an admirable defeat, implies the odds were overwhelming in the first place and this is neither conducive to self-belief nor taking responsibility.

On the other hand this rhetoric also skirts around the crux of the problem – the English Champions simply weren’t good enough. If you’ve ever studied psychology you’d recognise this as attribution theory. Admittedly there are times when all good coaches will take pressure off their players by attributing failures to external factors (referees, bad luck etc.). However there is a worrying trend in British culture to veer towards attributing super human qualities to the opposition. This creates an environment where, even stepping onto the field to battle the adversary becomes an act of heroism. Just look at Greg Dyke’s reaction to England’s World Cup draw, anyone would’ve thought Saint George’s boys were off to fight a dragon all over again.

This offers an interesting and somewhat contradictory psychological conundrum. On the one hand such language shows a damning acceptance of a team’s shortcomings, on the other it avoids addressing  inadequacies. But the complexities of the British psyche is an article for another time.

It’s fair to praise effort, although some pundits such as Roy Keane – the pathological  “truth sayer” – `would point out that effort should be a given. He is right and just because a team gives their all, this should not be misconstrued as bravery. It is a word thrown around with gleeful abundance in the footballing lexicon but more often than not, it makes a false comparison to true acts of bravery.

2500 years ago the Spartan’s hope was forlorn and they were rightly labelled brave. Last night Manchester United played a team superior to them and they were underdogs. However their hope was not forlorn. The numbers on the field of the Allianz Arena were even and for the 22 seconds they were in front, United were closer to winning their battle than the Spartan’s could ever have dreamed. United’s odds were considerably more favourable. Their task was daunting but achievable, not impossible. Their performance was determined but not brave. Bayern were good at the Allianz, but they weren’t Persia at Thermopylae.

04/6/14

The Ultras of Fiorentina

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A Guide to the Ultra Groups in Serie A: Fiorentina

City: Florence

Key Ultra GroupsUltras Viola and Colletivo Autonomo Viola (CAV)

Other fangroupsLegione Viola (Purple Legion), Guelfi (Guelphs),Granducato (Grand Duchy), L’Alcool Campi (Alcohol Campi – signifying fields or a province called Campi in Florence), Vieussex, Settebello(Beautiful Seven), Fiorenza 93, Firenze Ultras, Gruppo Storico Ultras V.’73, Aficionados, Urban Crew, Alterati (Altered state – drug related),Fedelissimi (Stalwart faith), Bomber Group, Pazzi di Lei (Crazy for Fiorentina), Sindrome Viola (Purple Syndrome), Vecchio Stampo (Old Fashioned), Stati Liberi del Tifo (Supporters Free State), Viola Korps,Gruppo Signa (Signa Group) and many others

In 1289, a schism between the Pro-Papal Guelph forces of Florence and the imperial Ghibelline forces of Arezzo culminated in a brutal conflict at the Battle of Campaldino. This battle was part of the long struggle for power between the popes and Holy Roman Emperors in Italy. It also reflected the fervent civic rivalries of the era, rivalries that remain to this day. On the blood-strewn plains of Campaldino, the Florentines and their allies triumphed. It was a victory that secured the Guelphs in Florence.

The Tuscan Republic would go on to become the birthplace of the Renaissance, a civic colossus on the Italian peninsula. Florence remains a city of unquestionable prestige and, though the days of civic war are over, the city’s team, Fiorentina, provide an outlet for campanilismo – local patriotism.

Expressions of Guelphism are often seen at the Stadio Artemio Franchi and, under the aegis of the Ultras, the city’s medieval splendour lives on. The metropolis and its football club are viewed by supporters as one entity, so a victory for La Viola is a victory for Florence. The team is the city’s symbolic army and these cultural nuances set Fiorentina supporters apart in the world of Italian ultras.

Fiorentina are said to have the sixth largest following in Italy and this is exemplified in their numerous Ultra groups (I lost count at around 100). This perhaps reveals a trait particular to Florence: the need for individuality and ingenuity are entwined with the city’s glorious past.

The first origins of Viola fan-groups can be traced back to 1965 and the formation of Vieussex (the name of an historic library in Florence) and Settebello (Beautiful Seven). These two groups are present today, with Vieussex residing in the Ferrovia stand and Settebello in the Curva Fiesole, the heartbeat of the Artemio Franchi stadium.

One of the more renowned groups to have resided in the Curva Fiesole is the Ultras Viola (Purple Ultras). Formed in 1973, a vicious fight with the Genovese led some fans to create a group of “super supporters” who could compete with any adversary. Founded and led by a man called Stefano “Pump” Biagini, this period is described by a Viola Ultra as the “glorious 1970s”, characterised by violent clashes, stolen banners, dangerous away days and above all the years of “Calcio vero” (uncorrupted football).

Despite the group’s prominence, the Ultras Viola disbanded just 10 years after their inception following violent exchanges with Romanisti which saw their twinning with the Romans come to an abrupt end. Stolen banners (which both fans blamed on each other) sparked an irreconcilable quarrel and this change, combined with a rise in eminence of Colletivo Autonomo Viola (CAV – Autonomous Purple Collective), led to a changing of the guard. Created in 1978, CAV took a central position on the Curva and, despite their dissolution in 2011, the group’s vestiges have ensured that the Fiesole remains one of the most vivacious Curvas on the peninsula.

It is also worth highlighting Alcool Campi (Alcohol Camp), a clan who lived a brief but fiery existence. This tempestuous group were said to be the culprits in a notorious incident, when Fiorentina Ultras launched petrol bombs on to a train full of Bologna fans. A 14-year-old died tragically and Alcool Campi quickly ceased to exist.

“Neither left nor right” has always been the motto of the Fiorentina Ultras, who have predominately refused political affiliation. This does not have any bearing on their twinnings and rivalries, epitomised in their longstanding friendship with Hellas Verona fans (traditionally right-wing) after ex-Fiorentina players joined the Gialloblu and helped them to their one and only Scudetto in 1985.

It is impossible to talk about Fiorentina without mentioning their virulent hatred for Juventus. When the Bianconeri come to the Artemio Franchi, a furore rages across the city. The origins of this rivalry date back to the 1981-82 Serie A season, when the Viola had the Scudetto snatched from their grasp by Juventus on account of some dubious refereeing. This rivalry was accentuated when Fiorentina cult hero Roberto Baggio was sold to Juventus in 1990, triggering riots across the city.

In parts of the Tuscan capital you can buy stickers that read “zona anti-gobbizzata” (“hunchback-free zone”). Hunchbacks are seen as lucky in Italy thus the nickname was patented for Juventus, a team seen as notoriously lucky. In what must be a sight to behold, albeit a strange one, Fiorentina fans have also been known to perform a ritual on players signed from Juventus in which they are “de-hunchbacked”.

The rivalry can take on a more sinister nature, with some Viola fans taunting their rivals about the Heysel tragedy which claimed the lives of 39 Juventini. Fiorentina fans have been known to wear Liverpool merchandise when facing their Turin adversaries, and following the tragedy in 1985, a banner was revealed by Fiorentina Ultras reading “39 less hunchbacks”. Juventus fans claim that this is why CAV attempted to befriend Liverpool fans back in 2009 when the clubs met in the Champions League.

Despite this, the Fiorentina Ultras are renowned for their loyalty, sarcasm and irony. They are no strangers to decrying the club’s hierarchy or the team itself if they feel things aren’t being done to their lofty Florentine standards. Former owner Vittorio Cecchi Gori, whose disastrous tenure at the club culminated in bankruptcy and demotion to Serie C2 in 2002, can certainly vouch for this. Viola fans had to endure the humiliation of losing the club name for a year – when they became Florentia Viola – and 30,000 of them descended on the city centre to make their feelings known to Cecchi Gori.

The hub of the Italian Renaissance, Florence is synonymous with Michelangelo, Dante, Machiavelli and the Medici. The Fiorentina Ultras take untrammelled pride in the city’s cultural history and the Artemio Franchi has become something of a holy ground for the Viola fanatics. Awash with purple and white, the stadium can produce electrifying atmospheres and decorative choreographies that even the greatest Florentine artists would be proud to call their own.

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

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

03/25/14

Ferenc Puskas: The football star that awoke a nation.

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(Ferenc Puskas 1927 – 2006. Photo from www.theguardian.com )

Cristiano Ronaldo is set to leave yet another indelible mark on the history of Real Madrid. With 240 competitive goals to his name, he sits just two behind ex-Galactico, Ferenc Puskas, who is fourth in the Los Blancos all time scoring charts. This puts the Portuguese phenomenon on the brink of surpassing yet another landmark in his decorated career.

However while the 2013 Ballon d’or winner will exceed Puskas’s achievements within the realms of football, the Hungarian’s exploits beyond the field of play transcend any goal scoring honours. In light of events in Ukraine the story of this revolutionary footballer is worth re-visiting.

Born in 1927, Puskas is Hungarian footballs greatest exponent. Short and stocky of build, the striker was prolific at both club and international level. For Hungary, he scored 83 goals in 84 appearances and in 1954 he led his nation to a World Cup final, narrowly losing 3-2 to the might of West Germany. Puskas was in footballing terms, light years ahead, capable of producing brilliance others could barely fathom let alone replicate. However while many marvelled at his bewitching left-foot, the powers in his own country saw his ingenuity as a problem.

Having been occupied by Germany and then Russia, Hungary had endured times of significant hardship during World War Two. Under the ‘iron fist’ of the Soviet Union the country’s new hard-line apparatchik, Matyas Rakosi, had implemented a state dictatorship rivalling that of his comrade Joseph Stalin. Freedom of speech was non-existent. Thousands of Hungarians were sent to camps and prisons. Like so many other Communist states, sport was used as an ideological battleground. Football became both a vehicle of solidarity and one with which to challenge the West.

But in a political system which espoused collectivism, Puskas was a free spirit. He played for a team that was the antithesis of the martinet regime they represented. The ‘Marvellous Magyars’, an epithet you would hardly associate with a Communist dictatorship.

In 1953, on the 25th of November – led by their virtuoso captain – the Magyars travelled to Wembley unbeaten in three years. However facing England was a different proposition. The English were indomitable at their prestigious home and football remained a proud bulwark of a diminishing British Empire. This was a clash of two footballing greats with contrasting ideologies. England’s Capitalist Imperialism vs. Hungary’s Communism. Gusztav Sebes the Hungarian coach (and member of the Communist government) re-affirmed this:

“The bitter struggle between capitalism and communism is fought out not only between our societies, but also on the pitch.

Captains Ferenc Puskas and Billy Wright lead their teams out at Wembley Stadium back in 1953.

Left Hungary captain Ferenc Puskas, right England captain Billy Wright, leading their teams out at Wembley Stadium back in 1953.

Hungary triumphed sweeping England aside 6-3. Puskas scored two, including his famous – drag back goal – which screamed individuality.

A year later the two sides met again, this time at the newly built Nepstadion in Budapest. Hungary eviscerated England 7-1, Puskas again scoring two. The Hungarian government attempted to bill these successes as a triumph of the Communist system. Yet the performances had been down to the sprezzatura of players like Puskas who defied convention. Football allowed Puskas to do things exactly the way he wanted.

That same year the man nicknamed the “Booming Cannon” led his team to a World Cup final. However the disappointment of losing to their ideological rivals West Germany was too much to bear, both for the Hungarian public and Rakosi. The disbelieving mob poured onto the streets venting their anger at the draconian regime. The protests became a prelude for the 1956 Hungarian revolution.

Rakosi on the other hand took matters into his own hands and found his scapegoat in the shape of Hungarian goalkeeper, Gyula Grosics. Grosics was detained and charged with spying however the case fell through due to a lack of evidence.

Puskas would experience similar treatment. After Hungary lost to Czechoslovakia the national football association banned him for “laziness on the pitch.” However the regime needed its sporting heroes and he was pardoned just a couple of months later.

Hungary’s triumphs on the field and the exploits of their captain created a new sense of national identity. The team’s success helped the country open their eyes to the possibility of independence from their Soviet occupiers. According to Hungarian writer Peter Esterhazy, the success of the Magyars can be seen as a symbol of the 1956 rebellion. In a BBC article about Hungary’s triumph at Wembley, the writer claims Puskas became “the hero of a fairy-tale, who triumphs where ordinary men cannot.”

In 1956 there was a nationwide insurrection. At the time Puskas’s club side –  Budapest Honved – were in Spain for a European Cup game. The Hungarian football federation attempted to prevent the match going ahead however Puskas was defiant, announcing the team no longer recognised the federation’s authority. Furthermore he openly voiced support for the revolution and defected to Spain.

Öcsi

Puskas at Real Madrid

A Communist athlete had taken a stand against a government that had tried to stymie his individuality. The Soviets sent in the tanks and the uprising was brutally crushed. Puskas became a pariah but he began a new chapter at Real Madrid. Fearing for his life, he did not return to Hungary until the fall of Communism in Europe. In 2006 he passed away in Budapest.

But what significance does this story hold today? The 1956 Revolution was during the height of the Cold War era. The Hungarian insurgents had hoped that the West would intervene but help was not forthcoming. Recently Ukraine was plunged into turmoil after a rebellion against their Russian-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Russian troops have since flooded into Crimea in an attempt to annex the Ukrainian territory. The majority of Crimean’s have voted in favour of re-joining Russia but the European Union, the U.S. and Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, have denounced the referendum. Some have warned we are teetering on the edge of a new Cold War.

At the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Paralympic’s, Ukraine pointedly sent out just one athlete as their flag-bearer to protest against Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Two other Ukrainian athletes covered their medals on the podium in a silent protest. The situation resonates with historic events in Hungary. Then as now, athletes used sport as a medium to express themselves. Thus the story of the Marvellous Magyars and Ferenc Puskas could not be more relevant.

Regarded as one of the greatest European footballers of all time, Puskas was also a revolutionary. In a country torn apart by a deep political schism, he was a figure whose footballing achievements helped people forge a new identity. Puskas awoke a nation to the possibility of change.

Ferenc Puskas – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJYXvqenhVs

03/18/14

The Ultras of Chievo

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A Guide to the Ultra Groups in Serie A: Chievo

City: Verona

Key Ultra Groups: North Side 94

Other fan groups: Ultras Chievo, Cani Sciolti (Wild Dogs or Bad Boys), Chievo 1929, Gate 7, Mussi Volanti (Flying Donkeys), Gioventù Clivense (Chievo Youth), Gruppo Milano (Milan Group), La Fossa dei Pandorini (The Pandora’s Den), Brulè Boys (Grill Boys), The Friends, North Side Girls.

Come si scrive Ciampion Lig” (“How do you write Ciampion Lig”) … certainly not like that. Of course it was tongue-in-cheek, an ironic gesture emphasising the Chievo fans’ own incredulity at their team’s success, success that saw them on course for a Champions League spot during their first ever season in Italy’s top flight.

In the end, it wasn’t to be, with the Flying Donkeys finishing fifth in the 2001-02 season and outside of the Champions League spots. Just five years later, with a little help from the Calciopoli scandal that led to Juventus, Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio all being banned from Europe, spelling “Ciampion Lig” was the least of Chievo’s worries; they were in it – well, at least the preliminary stage.

It was an astounding achievement for a club whose existence was for so long peripheral, even non-existent in the eyes of their powerful overweening neighbours Hellas Verona. This was Chievo’s time and their fans were keen to remind their city bedfellows.

In a game against Livorno the Clivensi (Chievo supporters) produced a banner that read: “Chievo frazione di Verona, provincia d’Europa” (“Chievo district of Verona, province of Europe”). A club from a tiny suburb of Verona that is home to 3,000 inhabitants were competing in Europe’s premier football competition. Their success became known as the “Chievo phenomenon” and how the Veronesi loathed it.

Writing in the Guardian back in October 2001, Tim Parks, the author of A Season with Verona, gave his own account of the Chievo area:

“I’d lived in Verona more than 10 years before I stumbled across it, a miserable case of working-class suburb overflowing into declining semi-industrialised fenland.”

Parks conveys the haughtiness that every Verona loyalist expresses towards Chievo, both the place and the team. Chievo’s nickname in Veneto dialect is “Ceo” which means kid. Their story is certainly a child’s fairy tale: the ugly duckling that blossomed and became a swan, flaunting its feathers among Calcio’s elite. It is fanciful but not far from the truth. Chievo fans may be maligned by their city rivals for their miniscule fan-base and they are not renowned across Italy, but they have still played their part in Chievo’s romance.

Having trawled through forums and fan sites, it is clear there remains an ambiguity regarding Chievo’s more stalwart fans. Are they really Ultras? Aside from the countless Hellas jibes, some recognise Chievo’s North Side as the ‘only real group of Ultras’.  Apparently a few boys formed the group over a beer in 1994, in a bid to start a movement of ardent fandom that would help their cause of claiming the Curva Nord as their own domain. Normally residing in the Curva Sud inferiore of the Stadio Bentegodi, they move to the Curva Nord on derby days to accommodate the greater number of visiting Verona fans.

In the early years, the group’s symbol became the Looney Tunes character Marvin the Martian, who, as a member describes, “encapsulates Chievo and above all the North Side who were aliens in the world of professional football”.

When Chievo faced Napoli in 2000 an overly offensive banner abusing the visitors (the content of which remains elusive) led to five members of the North Side being expelled, creating profound divisions. New leadership re-asserted the group’s basic ideals, including a non-violent, apolitical stance and a rejection of official twinnings and rivalries. These are not your usual Ultras and this episode best captures their idiosyncrasies.

Later that year Chievo’s promotion to Serie A saw the North Side flourish and the Flying Donkeys were followed more feverishly than ever before. As a result various sub-groups formed. These include Ultras Chievo (1999), who have now dissolved but were allegedly ‘less good-natured” than North Side, Chievo 1929 and Gate 7, who were formed as recently as 2013.

Although the North Side Ultras profess to have no rivals, Chievo’s prominence has seen Verona develop a new-found hatred for their once “fictitious” neighbours. The return of the Mastini to Serie A in 2013 saw the first Derby della Scala in over a decade.

There were murmurings of trouble and stories than the Clivensi had thrown objects and sticks at the Verona team bus. But as many of theVeronesi will tell you, historically this is not the Veneto derby they get worked up about. The Veronesi never believed this rivalry would materialise, as demonstrated by the banner they unfurled during their 1995 derby in Serie B: “When donkeys fly we will play this derby in Serie A”. Needless to say Chievo’s success and Verona’s struggles in the last decade have allowed the Clivensi to revel in a touch of schadenfreude.

Having written about Catania’s Ultras, the contrast is striking. If you were to juxtapose Chievo with the Sicilians, you would have to say they are the saints of the Ultra world. The Chievo story is unique and in a small way their fans have left an indelible mark on the pages of the club’s history. Whether you call them magnanimous Ultras or just fans, the Clivensi offer a passionate and loyal support that follow and fly with their donkeys wherever they can.

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

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

02/26/14

Football supporters and political protests: A trend of the future?

A demonstrator holds up a flare during a protest to demand the ouster of the Islamist-dominated government in Tunis

The world is undergoing a period of historic transition. Times are rapidly changing and many feel insecure and angry. The worst economic depression since the 1930’s has taken its toll. People are no longer willing to idly sit by and let the politicians decide their future. They have taken to the streets to voice their discontent with the economic, political and social state of affairs in their countries. The unrest in Turkey, Egypt, Brazil, Venezuela and Ukraine are just are few of the recent examples.

On the Channel 4 news, a man from the Donetsk region (a staunch pro-Russian area of Eastern Ukraine) gave insight into why he opposed a move toward the Europeanisation of Ukraine.

“On February the 1st the demonstration for the legalisation of bestiality in Berlin, I heard there are 100,000 people practicing bestiality in Germany.” He continued.

“In Lithuania they were only seven votes short of passing a law where 6-year-olds would learn not only about sex between men and women but also homosexuality.”

Having watched the interview the man’s scathing attack on the Germans felt slightly reminiscent of the irrational fervour that swept Europe during the 1930’s. Since when have the Germans been known for bestiality? He portrayed them as inferior animals who indulge in these backward practices, much like the blood libel that was sporadically perpetrated throughout the Middle-Ages and 20th century in Europe. This was coupled with archaic views on sexuality; however the man made no coherent economic or political argument for why Ukraine should move towards the East and Russia. It was a bizarre justification for the rejection of the European Union and a worrying one at that.

The man and his compatriots were also wearing orange and black ribbons on their coats. They appeared to be a badge of identity and far from being an expert on Ukraine and Eastern Europe I initially associated the colours with the city’s biggest football club – FC Shakhtar Donetsk. However having consulted Manuel Veth, a Phd student researching economics and politics of Soviet and post-Soviet football, he informed me that the orange and black tassels were actually the ribbons of St George. These ribbons constitute one of the most recognised and respected symbols of military valour in modern Russia. However my supposition that they were connected to football supporters may not be a coincidence.

There are striking similarities between many of the aforementioned protests. One recurring theme which deserves further scrutiny is the role of organised football supporters within the demonstrations in Egypt, Turkey and Ukraine.

The politicisation of organised fans or Ultras is well-documented. On occasion this has led to the dissemination of deplorable political views within the football stadia. However while these organised groups are infamous for their tendency towards mindless chaos, the recent global turmoil has demonstrated the social and political sway they hold. The fiercest of rivals have, if only momentarily, put their differences aside and united in a cause which goes far beyond the echelons of football support.

 Ukraine – Defenders of the right to protest

Protests quickly escalated in Ukraine with thousands taking to the streets. (Photo from http://www.businessinsider.com/)

Protests quickly escalated in Ukraine with thousands taking to the streets. (Photo from http://www.businessinsider.com/)

Parts of Ukraine have become a war-zone in the last couple of weeks and the most recent development has seen president Viktor Yanukovych ousted in what is increasingly looking like a bona fide revolution. One of the more idiosyncratic features of this insurrection has been the involvement of Ukrainian Ultras.

In a piece titled ‘Ukrainian Ultras and the Unorthodox Revolution’ on their blog – FutbolgradDavid McArdle and Manuel Veth state the Ultras are being portrayed by Western media as protectors of Euromaidan. In their words: “Rather than protesting per se they purport to be apolitical, merely protecting those who wish to express their dissent.”

The article acknowledges the Ultras have their own motivations for taking to the streets. These include battling government hired thugs – Titushky and the special forces of the police – Berkut. But they have also demonstrated a level of organisation and political awareness, advocating the right to freedom of speech. Even supporters of clubs in Eastern Ukraine (notoriously Pro-Russian) have in some cases opposed government forces fighting for the rights of the dissidents. The Ultras, like the wider population of Ukraine have grown weary of self-serving oligarchs.

Egypt – A Footballing Coup

Egyptian Ultras take to the street to protest. (Photo from http://mideastsoccer.blogspot.co.uk/)

Egyptian Ultras take to the street to protest. (Photo from http://mideastsoccer.blogspot.co.uk/)

“We always say that our revolution started in 2007 not 2011. Most of the group was thinking freedom all the way. We went down to the streets to be part of the revolution as Egyptian citizens, not as Ultras.”  Taken from the Channel 4 website, the quote is by Ahmed Gaffer a founding member of Al Ahly’s militant Ultra Group Al Ahlawy – soldiers of the Egyptian revolution.

In January 2011, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians spilled into the streets to call for an end to president Hosni Mubarak’s reign. During this period the football stadium was an outlet for popular discontent at a time when freedom of speech was highly curtailed. When the uprising began the fans simply took their defiance onto the streets. Historic differences between the Ultras of Cairo clubs Al Ahly (Ultras Al Ahlawy) and Zamalek (The Ultras White Knights) were put aside. James Dorsey, an academic who writes extensively on Football in the Middle East, summarised their role.

 “It was Ahly and Zamalek Ultras who led marches into Tahrir Square and in some areas, where security forces had blocked exits, it was Ultras who would stand on roofs and threw down Molotov cocktails.”

They defended protestors against the police and helped the people overcome their trepidation about challenging the regime. Mubarak eventually fell in February 2011. After the Port Said tragedy in 2012 there was a gradual political disengagement from the Ultras. Yet for a brief moment they had discovered that they could wield a political power by uniting, using their experience in defying authority for the benefit of change.

Turkey: Gezi Park and the Football Ultras

Turkish supporters united in Gezi Park protests against

Supporters from Turkish clubs Besiktas, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce united in Gezi Park protests against Recep Tayyip Eerdogan’s regime. (Photo from uk.eurosport.yahoo.com)

Turkey tells a similar tale. In May, 2013, around 50 environmentalists began a protest in Istanbul’s Gezi Park to prevent its demolition. The initially peaceful protest provoked a ruthless response from the Turkish police and the protest quickly swelled with numbers in excess of 10,000.

Many Turkish football fans, especially Beşiktaş JK’s militant Ultra group Çarşi were already opposed to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government (The Justice and Development Party’s – AKP). The regimes introduction of restrictive measures on human rights combined with the oppressive police tactics used at Gezi Park saw Çarşi join the protesters. Yasmin Çongar  a writer on Turkish affairs  claims the Ultras were keen to share their experiences in dealing with tear gas with their Gezi Park compatriots, and they took a front line role shielding the demonstrators from police brutality.

More importantly the insurgent ardour helped achieve something which most sport commentators thought impossible. Just like in Egypt and Ukraine, this political maelstrom saw fans from rival clubs Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş unite. Although their influence did not extend to toppling a regime they played a pivotal role in opposing the government. In recent weeks trouble in Turkey has flared once again and Fenerbahçe supporters have been at the forefront of the largest anti-government demonstrations since the Gezi Park protests on Taksim Square back in 2013.

Football protests and defiance, a history and future

Football has long been a setting where views and opinions are rarely stymied. A trawl through history provides ample examples.

In the Communist, totalitarian state of Soviet Russia, Spartak Moscow (named after the Roman rebel Spartacus) represented a symbol of defiance against the state, who controlled Moscow’s biggest teams including Dynamo Moscow (run by secret police) and CSKA (the armies team). The Hungarian team of the 1950’s (the marvellous Magyars) led by their revolutionary talisman Ferenc Puskas, opened the eyes of a nation to the possibility of change from the rigid functionality of the apparatchik Matyas Rakosi’s regime.

In Nazi-Germany, Bayern Munich – a club with a Jewish president and Jewish manager  battled to survive during Hitler’s dictatorship. The club was persecuted for its Jewish links but Bayern became an outlet for resistance. Their players engaged in acts of defiance such as brawling with Nazi Brown Shirts and one player by the name of Willy Simetsreiter, went out of his way to have his picture taken with Jesse Owens.

 Bayern Munich honour ex Jewish president Kurt Landauer in a game vs. Eintracht Frankfurt. (Photo from http://www.101greatgoals.com/)

Bayern Munich honour ex Jewish president Kurt Landauer in a game vs. Eintracht Frankfurt. (Photo from http://www.101greatgoals.com/)

Today football supporters are uniting against what they see as an intransigent and inequitable hierarchy. These groups are not just a dishevelled bunch of hooligans, what makes them so powerful is that many of them are not mindless. I return to the man I sited earlier who expressed his views on Channel 4.

Are his views xenophobic? Certainly. Does he lack political consciousness? I doubt it. He represents the thousands of people who are uncomfortable with the changes in modern society. These ideas reflect insecurities about socially evolving issues such as national identity, race, and homosexuality etcetera.

Therein lies the risk attached to the mobilisation of Ultra groups. There is a reason why Ultras in these countries have been suppressed. As noble as their revolutionary causes, they have the power and potential to ignite a movement with much more sinister consequences, for example in Ukraine where fascist and white supremacist elements have been highly prominent in the recent uprising. It will be intriguing to observe how the role of the Ultras in the political grappling evolves.

We are witnessing a phenomenon that we can expect to see more of. Football is a game which mirrors the society in which it exists. In Brazil we have seen FIFA become a pariah due to the countries social and economic deficiencies. This in a country where one of their greatest ever World Cup winners, Ronaldo, proclaimed “football is in our blood.”

Bayern Munich fans unveil banner reading "Football is everything including gay" (Photo from http://suedkurve-muenchen.org/wp-content/gallery/fc-bayern-eintracht-frankfurt-02-02-2014/30.jpg%5D)

Bayern Munich fans unveil banner reading “Football is everything including gay” (Photo from http://suedkurve-muenchen.org/wp-content/gallery/fc-bayern-eintracht-frankfurt-02-02-2014/30.jpg%5D)

If football supporters can harness their involvement in politics and fight for positive, social reform, then the role of football in enacting social change could grow ever more relevant. Bayern Munich supporters provided the world with a perfect example when they unveiled a banner in a game against Eintracht Frankfurt this season reading “Fußball ist alles, auch schwul” (Football is everything, including gay).

Who knows people might look back at this period and pinpoint it as a moment of genuine change. Whether that will be for the better or for the worse only time will tell. However don’t be surprised if the role of football and its supporters becomes a leitmotif in this epoch of social and political transition.

02/23/14

The Ultras of Cagliari

35bik50sconvolts-cagliariCagliari Calcio v SSC Napoli - Serie A

A guide to the Ultra groups in Serie A: Cagliari

City: Cagliari – Sardinia

Key Ultra GroupsSconvolts and I Furiosi (The Furious)

Other fan groups: Fossa Ultras, Commando Ultras Supporters Young, Cagliari Ultras Curva Nord, Eagles, Crazy Boys, Brigata S. Elia, Panthers, Rebels, I Miserabili (the Wretches), I Weltschmerz (the World Weariness), Bunker Skin, Vecchie Facce (Old Faces).

In John Foot’s book, Calcio: a history of Italian football, there is a striking vignette of a funeral procession being led by Cagliari fans following their Serie A triumph in 1970.

The Cagliaritani are carrying little coffins through their narrow cobbled streets mourning La Vecchia Signora (The Old Lady). After beating them to the title the fans have decided to bury Juventus. It is a typical example of how Italians often mix Calcio with religious sentiments and it also demonstrates the Cagliaritani‘s sardonicism, a word entirely appropriate due to its definition and etymology; the Greeks believed eating a plant from Sardinia caused facial convulsions resembling those of sardonic laughter.

Cagliari is the biggest club on the island of Sardinia. Their ground Lo Stadio Comunale Sant’Elia has only recently started to host games again due to its decrepit state, however, in the late 1980s its Curva Nord was renowned for being one of the most colourful and vibrant in Italy, producing spectacular choreographies with witty banners.

This was partly inspired by the birth of Cagliari’s most famous Ultra groups, the Sconvolts in 1987 and I Furiosi in 1989. The Sconvolts, whose name comes from the word sconvolto, which means shocked or deranged, were formed as a subgroup of both the Cagliari Ultras Curva Nord and Eagles 1985. I Furiosi on the other hand was formed by ex-members of the Sconvolts and a number of other small groups.

The Ultras of Cagliari are an unorthodox bunch and they differentiate themselves as “duro e puro” (“tough and pure”). It is an aphorism which suits them. Unlike many Italian Ultras they were renowned not for their violent nature, but for their dedication and passion, especially during la trasferta (the away day). This was largely down to geography. For many the ferry was the only viable option and we are not talking about Dover to Calais. Cagliari to Rome takes 13 hours and that doesn’t include travel on the mainland. Despite the long and gruelling journeys, the Ultras relished la trasferta and their stalwart support for I Rossoblu has earned them respect all over Italy.

Yet, in what is becoming a recurring theme, deep underlying divisions existed between their principal groups. This was born from a difference in mentality and ideology. While the Sconvolts remained apolitical, I Furiosi held right-wing sympathies and this meant they had their own twinnings and rivalries. Until 2012, the Sconvolts only recognised true ties with Foggia, whereas I Furiosi had friendships with the Veronese, Interisti and Wild Kaos Atalanta.

I Furiosi also developed a famous rivalry with the Milanisti after they managed to steal a striscione (banner) at one of Cagliari’s home games. Losing a striscione to a rival is shameful; it is the modern day equivalent of losing the king’s colours in battle. This shame was compounded when the Milan Ultras proceeded to reveal this banner at the next game between the two sides. One account even reports a grown man crying with despair at the sight of it.

The incurable differences between the Cagliaritani meant they occupied different positions on the Curva Nord and in 2003 this conflict reached its peak. The Sconvolts travelled to their game against Hellas Verona with the sole aim of revenge. It was meticulously planned. They travelled in small groups so not to attract attention from the police. Arriving in the city they gathered behind the Curva Sud of the Stadio Bentegodi (the realm of the Verona Ultras) and they waited with iron bars, sticks and smoke grenades.

All hell broke loose, a bar was wrecked, fights raged with the Veronesi, two police were hospitalised and 33 Sconvolts were arrested. In the aftermath of the fight, the Veronesi posted the following on a fan forum “It was a fair fight, without the use of knifes… Honour and respect to the Sconvolts.”

The tranquil reputation that followed the Cagliaritani had vanished. But here comes the truly shocking part. This vendetta was a consequence of events that had occurred in Cagliari five months earlier. At the corresponding home fixture, members of I Furiosi had teamed up with Hellas Verona Ultras and attacked the Sconvolts. It was the gravest of insults and one the Sconvolts could not ignore. The Furiosi disbanded later that year and while the exact reasons are hard to ascertain, it was certainly connected to this incident.

Today the Sconvolts remain famous across Italy. Although their numbers have dwindled due to a large proportion of their recent home games being played in Trieste (a mere 666 miles away), their old adage of “pochi ma buoni” (“few but good”) is truer now than ever.

They remain passionate and loyal and their slogan “Essere ultras esserlo nella mente” )Being Ultras is a state of mind”) is famous nationwide. This is encapsulated in a quote by a member of the Sconvolts: “Nobody in their right mind would leave their family on a Saturday to travel to Trieste to watch the last game of the season with nothing riding on it. It’s the purest of passion with no logic”

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

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