06/29/15

Verona – Vicenza: One of Italy’s Forgotten Rivalries.

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On a Friday night back in April, Davide Di Gennaro calmly dispatched a 92nd minute penalty to earn Vicenza a 1-0 victory away to Cittadella. The travelling Vicentini erupted. It was another invaluable victory in their quest for promotion to Serie A and one made all the sweeter by the fact that Cittadella are local rivals.

The two cities are separated by just 25-kilometres and Vicenza fans undoubtedly enjoyed a moment of schadenfreude as their victory ensured Cittadella slipped further into the Serie B relegation mire. However as the away contingent burst into song, their vocals were directed at one local rival in particular – Hellas Verona.

“Chi non salta è veronese, ooooo, ooooo, ooooo, o, o, o.”

‘Who doesn’t jump is a Verona fan’ bellowed the chant as a morass of red and white bounced to the tune of the famous partisan anthem ‘Bella Ciao’. For while every derby game matters, in the Veneto region there is none more fervent than that between Vicenza and Verona.

 The two rivals were formed just one-year apart, Vicenza in 1902 and Hellas Verona in 1903. Since then, they have played the role of provincial upstarts, both experiencing spells of transient success in which they challenged Italian football’s elite.

 In 1953, after Vicenza were saved from their economic woes by woollen firm Lanerossi, under the guise of their new proprietors, they became a Serie A regular throughout the 1960s and most of the 1970s. This period culminated in the Biancorossi’s most successful season to date after the goals of legendary Italian forward Paolo Rossi steered them to second place in the 1977-78 Serie A season.

 Verona would go one better just seven years later when, under the tenure of Coach Osvaldo Bagnoli, they won the Scudetto in 1985. Inspired by the attacking prowess of Preben Elkjær, Pietro Fanna, Antonio Di Gennaro and Giuseppe Galderisi, the triumph remains Hellas’s only Serie A title.

 However more often than not, Vicenza and Verona have been perennial strugglers, something which has only helped strengthen their rivalry. Separated by no more than an hour’s car journey, it was a rivalry that started in 1906 after the pair met for the first time in a regional tournament. Vicenza won 2-1 and since that day the rivalry has only intensified. But there is much more to the Derby del Veneto than just football.

The Veneto boasts some of Northern Italy’s most idyllic locations, from the floating city of Venice to Verona’s Casa di Giulietta. It’s a region that takes pride in its culture and traditions, whose people are often keen to distinguish themselves not only from the rest of Italy, but from those living just down the road.

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Venice: The Floating City

The main avenue through which the Veneti express this local patriotism, or Campanilismo, is through their language. While often referred to as a vernacular, Venetian is actually a Western Romance Language. The accent is instantly recognisable by its guttural yet rhythmic sound, perhaps owing to the regions history, during which it experienced Spanish and Austro-Hungarian rule. As a result, the dialects and accents vary from town to town, each with their own intricacies and tweaks.  For example, Hellas fans refer to each other as butei, Veronese dialect for ragazzi (boys) while in Vicentino, ragazzi becomes tosi. Understanding the Vicenza –Verona rivalry, requires a certain grasp of Italian history.

There is an old Veneto saying:

Veneziani gran signori,

Padovani gran dottori,

Vicentini magnagati,

Veronesi tutti mati.

Venetians lords and earls,

Paduans learned doctors,

Vicentini cat eaters,

Veronesi are all mad.

The saying has its roots in the past. Venice was renowned for its commerce and merchant classes whilst Padua was – and is – famous for its university and medical school. The Vicentini’s rather more unflattering tag is thought to have originated from an era in which Vicenza – and the Veneto as a whole – suffered crippling poverty, leading to rumours that the people of Vicenza resorted to eating cats. The epithet has stuck. As for the Veronesi, the presence of two psychiatric hospitals in the city (San Giacomo and Marzana) combined with the fresh air of the Monte Baldo mountain range is alleged to have inspired their ‘mad’ moniker. Indeed, someone with an eccentric character is said to have ‘Spirito Montebaldino’ – the spirit of Monte Baldo.

 The adage also reflects the regions civic rivalries. During the middle ages the Scaligeri (Scala) family made Verona one of the most powerful city’s in northern Italy, bringing the territories of Padua, Treviso and Vicenza under their dominion. Vicenza remained under Scaligeri rule until the Doge’s republic of Venice eventually broke Verona’s autonomy in 1405. But the antipathy between the cities has endured.

 In the absence of warring lords and despotic families, sport, namely Calcio, has in the words of eminent psychologist William James, offered the cities a “moral equivalent of war.” In his book ‘A Season with Verona’, Hellas fan and author Tim Parks offered the quintessential summary when recalling the clubs first ever victory against Vicenza.

 “That day in 1912 the Veronese crowd, unarmed, discovered a new way of expressing their antique rivalry with their neighbours. For the first time they could take pleasure, unarmed, in their neighbours discomfort… You beat the neighbouring town at football and a collective dream is born.”

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 “The derby with Vicenza is probably more than a game of football.” Charles Ducksbury tells me, “Even Veronesi with no interest in the game hate Vicenza.” Charles should know. He has been following Hellas since he was 9-years-old and his passion for the club and the city is undiminished.

Charles has lived the derby, both home and away. He has had objects hurled at him, inhaled the smoke of the flares and sung his vocal chords dry. “The hostility can be intense. When they [Vicenza] beat us in our promotion season [from Serie B], the Vicentini were kept inside the Stadio Bentegodi for almost three hours because of the Butei outside waiting for them.”

His last Derby del Veneto involved a trip to Vicenza’s Stadio Romeo Menti back in September 2012. Verona won 3-2 thanks to a Domenico Maietta goal, something of a collector’s item given the defender has only scored three times throughout his 15-year career. Not that Charles had the pleasure of seeing this rare strike.

 “My impression of that game is that I hardly saw any of it. Behind the goal is some huge netting to stop people throwing things on the pitch. So the Butei hung their flags on it, and from where I was stood, most of the pitch was covered up.”

 Back then the sides met in Serie B, a season in which Hellas won promotion while their red and white counterparts slipped down to Lega Pro. But in truth, the last decade has seen both clubs struggle, on and off the field. At the Scaligeri’s nadir in 2009, the club flirted with relegation to the bottom tier of Calcio’s professional pyramid. Even more recently, the future of Vicenza was in doubt after their financial malaise triggered talks of a merger with their city bedfellows, Real Vicenza V.S.

Back in 2012, Charles observed that the hostilities between the two sets of fans might be easing, which he attributes to more stringent policing.

 “To be honest, I think that particular derby I attended was tame compared to others I’ve read about. Inside (the stadium), we sang all game of course, and the Vicenza ultras had a couple of good choreo’s, but I wouldn’t say it was as hostile as normal. It was too hot. There have been many violent incidents in the past, but recent years it has seen less violence around the stadium, though this is more to do with police presence than the will of the fans.”

But other factors may have also contributed. Both clubs travails mean it has been 14-years since the Gialloblu met the Biancorossi in Serie A. Furthermore, the rise in prominence of Chievo Verona, haughtily dismissed by Hellas fans for their miniscule fan base, has seen the intra-city rivalry intensify.

 “It is a complex relationship. For years they [Chievo] were a second team of many Hellas fans, but now of course they’re not. It’s an important game now, because of the history of them using our colours, symbol, stadium etc. But to consider this rivalry above all others is laughable.” Charles retorted.

It is Verona against Vicenza that really makes the blood boil and for Tim Parks no game compares. “…in the end it always comes back to this old game with the magnagati, our cuginastri (nasty cousins). The one no one wants to lose, the one that will attract the most away supporters. No distinction is more urgent or more arduous than that between ourselves and those who most resemble us, the guys down the road.”

Were Vicenza to make a return to Serie A, the flame would undoubtedly be reignited. After losing out to Pescara in the 2014-15 Serie B semi-final play-offs, the Vicentini will hope that they can use this experience as a platform from which to propel themselves into Serie A next season. The Veronesi undoubtedly revelled in their rivals failure, however they would have equally relished the chance to relive this historic rivalry on Italy’s grandest stage.

Outside the Veneto region, the Verona-Vicenza derby has been somewhat forgotten. But for the aficionados, it is one of the peninsula’s most fascinating rivalries. It’s a matter of history and pride. It’s the butei against the tosi, the mati against the magnagati. It’s an antique clash and one to decide the rulers of the Veneto. For those involved, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

With thanks to Veronese, Charles Ducksbury, and Vicentino, Marcello Casarotti, for their help and insight. Images courtesy of Marcello.

Originally published on The Gentleman Ultra

@LH_Ramon25.

06/2/15

“They Always Say Time Changes Things…?” Is It Really Goodbye To Blatter’s FIFA?

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“Blatter has demonstrated his intransigence knows no bounds. The man himself said he intends to “leave through the front door and leave with a clean house.” After four terms in office, he is not about to relinquish power, at least not without a long fight.”

They say a lot can change in just 10 minutes of football, well try 24-hours. Sepp Blatter saved his greatest act of chicanery till last. Having duped us into believing he would unabashedly continue his 17-year reign as Fifa president, at an official Fifa press conference on Tuesday, Blatter announced he would resign. Jaws dropped unanimously. Not many could have predicted this latest twist in the Fifa saga.

Last week, the arrest of seven Fifa officials on bribery and corruption charges plunged Fifa into crisis. Calls for Blatter to resign were vociferous. Yet, he was his usual ebullient and obstinate self, vowing to restore trust and “find a way to fix things.” But as new evidence placed Blatter’s top deputy, Jérôme Valcke, at the centre of this storm, the 79-year-old’s position became increasingly  precarious. Then came his shock press conference.

“It is my deep care for Fifa and its interests, which I hold very dear, that has led me to take this decision” a weary looking Blatter told the world.

There has been much speculation surrounding Blatter’s sudden U-turn. The pressure heaped upon Fifa by its sponsors may well have been a factor, with Visa, Coke and MCDonald’s all welcoming Blatter’s decision to resign. But perhaps more significantly, reports in the US media just hours after Blatter’s announcement alleged that he was also the subject of a corruption inquiry by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The news of his departure has been greeted with rapture, at least within the West. England’s Football Association chairman, Greg Dyke, triumphed that Blatter’s decision is “brilliant for world football” while potential Fifa president candidate, Luis Figo, said “Change is finally coming. Let’s find a solution to start a new era of transparency and democracy in Fifa.”

In reality however, the fight to clean up Fifa has just begun. First of all, Blatter hasn’t actually officially resigned yet.

“While I have a mandate from the membership of Fifa, I do not feel that I have a mandate from the entire world of football” Blatter continued, “Therefore, I have decided to lay down my mandate at an extraordinary elective Congress. I will continue to exercise my functions as Fifa President until that election.”

While the Swiss football administrator has been duplicitous before, it’s unthinkable that he would renege on this pledge. That is not to say that Blatter won’t go without resistance and exerting influence. The very fact he has resigned, rather than allowing himself to be ignominiously toppled, demonstrates his desire to cling to power for as long as humanly possible. The next Fifa congress at which a new president will be elected is expected to take place between December 2015 and March 2016. Blatter will still posses considerable clout, particularly when it comes to influencing the next Fifa election. His support in continents such as Africa and Asia will not dissipate and as such, one begins to realise just how long and arduous the road to reforming Fifa could prove.

Blatter was the face of Fifa’s corruption but he wasn’t the body and soul. Deceit and avarice have been engrained in Fifa over years, cementing a culture of corruption and patronage in which Fifa’s hegemony stand to profit. Fifa is a Machiavellian type organisation, one built upon the premise that deviance is the most effective means through which to cling onto power. Sociologist, Ellis Cashmore, explained this phenomenon by citing a fellow academic, an Italian scholar named Vilfredo Pareto. Responding to the question of whether a change in Fifa leadership would make a difference, Cashmore replied:

“There are always cliques that rise to the top and engineer ways of staying there. He [Pareto] called it the Circulation of Elites. If he were around today, he’d probably conclude that, in a largscale organization like Fifa, which has reserves of about $15 billion, it really doesn’t matter who’s in charge: the people in positions of power will try to feather their own nest — make money for themselves.”

Another interesting facet of Blatter’s resignation is the significant pressure it will heap on Qatar’s highly scrutinised 2022 World Cup bid. While it has been mooted that the Russian World Cup could also be moved, these calls often carry more than a whiff of political posturing, especially in the UK and the US. However, from an ethical standpoint, the humanitarian grounds for boycotting Qatar are well founded. Were the allegations of a corrupt bidding process to be corroborated, the case for a boycott would be compelling.

Undoubtedly, Blatter’s imminent resignation is a step in the right direction, however this is neither a time for triumphalism nor complacency. The first step will be ensuring that the candidates for the next Fifa election are batting on a level playing field.

As renowned and controversial artist, Andy Warhol, once said: “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”

06/1/15

World Cup Boycott: “It Doesn’t Smell Good”

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“I am not certain, but it doesn’t smell good,” Sepp Blatter opined.

It was a particularly astute observation. Only, Blatter wasn’t referring to the skulduggery that has landed Fifa in the eye of its most turbulent storm during his 17-year tenure as president. Instead, he was questioning the timing of the arrest of seven Fifa officials on the eve of the federations congress in Zurich. The arrests were part of an indictment led by the United States Department of Justice in which 14 individuals are under investigation for allegedly accepting bribes and kickbacks estimated at more than $150m over a 24-year period. Swiss federal prosecutors have also launched a criminal investigation into the awards of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments to Russia and Qatar.

Blatter told Swiss television station, RTS, that he suspected the arrests were an attempt to “interfere with the congress” at which he had been re-elected for a fifth term as Fifa president.

“No one is going to tell me that it was a simple coincidence, this American attack two days before the elections of Fifa,”

The 79-year-old continued “Why would I step down? That would mean I recognise that I did wrong. I fought for the last three or four years against all the corruption.”

US attorney general, Loretta Lynch, had said corruption in football was “rampant, systemic and deep-rooted”, yet in spite of this damming assessment, and widespread calls for Blatter’s resignation, his chutzpah was unwavering. “I am the president of everybody, I am the president of the whole Fifa” he triumphed, as obdurate in victory as he was in the face of adversity.

It is worth remembering plenty were happy to see the Swiss football administrator return to office. Blatter holds a strong base of support within many Football Associations outside Europe and North America. As this Bloomberg report details, his work directing power and funds away from Europe to the smaller and poorer countries, has ensured that while Blatter is regarded by many in the West as a cartoon villain, to the rest of the footballing world he is a saint.

Nevertheless, to those calling for reform and hoping that the arrests in Zurich would pave the way for the dawn of a new Blatter-free era, the 79-year-old’s re-election was disheartening. Particularly for FIFA’s most vocal critic, UEFA. Before the election, UEFA president Michel Platini had urged Blatter to resign, refusing to rule out the possibility of European teams boycotting the World Cup.

UEFA’s pre-election gambit aimed at swaying votes in favour of Blatter’s opponent, Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein, has led them into a cul de sac, and Platini has since made it clear that he does not want a World Cup Boycott. That said, he remains under pressure, with calls for such an action having strengthened since Blatter’s re-election. England’s Football Association chairman, Greg Dyke, has been particularity vocal in pledging enthusiastic support, claiming that a boycott would need to involve “10 large countries” to have an impact.

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Dyke (left) said Platini (right) must unite Europe in a boycott 

Speaking on BBC Radio 5 live’s sport week, Dyke said “There would certainly be us, there would certainly be the Dutch, there would certainly be the Germans who have been demanding change. The FA chairman also believes that most South American countries opposed Blatter in the election, but admitted “They [Fifa] would only take serious action if there’s enough [opposition willing to act].”

Danish Uefa ExCo member Allan Hansen is also said to be of a similar mindset and has proposed to stage a new competition featuring sides from Europe and South America. In reality however, there are no guarantees a boycott would achieve any tangible reform in a hurry.

Blatter has demonstrated his intransigence knows no bounds. The man himself said he intends to “leave through the front door and leave with a clean house.” After four terms in office, he is not about to relinquish power, at least not without a long fight.

In addition, Fifa’s World Cup qualifying draw is due to be held on July 25 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Despite the fulminations of Dyke and British politicians, it is hard to envisage circumstances in which significant numbers agree to withdraw their participation from the qualifying draw, especially in a time-scale of just under two months. Then of course their is the risk of missing out on the financial windfall that competing in the World Cup and its associated sponsorship brings.

On Saturday June 6, UEFA will meet in Berlin to discuss their next step. Talks of a boycott will be high on the agenda however it will not be a united ship. Spain, France and of course Russia are three of the 18 European countries who were said to have opposed UEFA’s reform mandate, voting for Sepp Blatter.

Minus the backing of UEFA president Michel Platini and with no guarantees that Europe’s pro-reformers can rely on the support of the South American contingent, the boycott campaign could be derailed before it’s even truly in motion. For example, could England rely on the backing of Argentina given the history of fraught diplomatic relations between the two? And that is where the real problem lies – in geo-politics.

With so many stakeholders involved, what is the true purpose of this boycott?

On face value, a UEFA-led protest against FIFA does not appear to be grounded in political pragmatism but rather moral objection. It would be propagated as a boycott against the unscrupulous and corruptive malpractices of Fifa. A means of enacting much needed change and jettisoning Sepp Blatter. However, would such a protest also be based upon the supposition that Russia are a guilty party in the chicanery of the bidding process. It could be a diplomatic minefield.

Some circles have described a World Cup boycott as “Soccer’s nuclear option”, a sure fire way to foment political tensions. Following the arrest of Fifa officials, Russian president Vladimir Putin was quick to wade into the debate, accusing the US of meddling outside its jurisdiction.

“It’s another clear attempt by the USA to spread its jurisdiction to other states. And I have no doubt – it’s a clear attempt not to allow Mr Blatter to be re-elected as president of Fifa, which is a great violation of the operating principles of international organisations.” 

Since his re-election, Sepp Blatter has also launched diatribes at his detractors. The Fifa president highlighted that both England and the US had lost their bids for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively, claiming that, the attempt to unseat him was led by a spiteful media campaign in both countries.

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Both are examples of the shrewd defence adopted by Putin and Blatter. In effect they are playing the role of spin doctors. It is no secret that political relations between Russia and the West have reached their most fractious since the Cold War years. Blatter’s line portrays the US and England as vindictive and irrational, willing to use all manner of subterfuge to prevent Russia and Qatar from holding a World Cup, in turn wresting the event for themselves. Putin is beating a similar drum. Ratcheting up an anti-imperialist rhetoric, suggesting that these attempts to destabilise Fifa and the World Cup are political revanchism, hidden under the guise of anti-corruption.

To some, his line of arguement will resonate. Especially given that calls to boycott the 2018 Russian world cup — as a means of protest against their role in the Ukrainian conflict — have already circulated within Western media and politicians. Only recently, 13 bipartisan US senators wrote to Blatter encouraging him to pull the plug on Russia 2018. Last year, the former deputy Prime Minister of Britain, Nick Clegg, affirmed that a boycott would be a “very potent political and symbolic action”, words that undoubtedly contributed to his inclusion on Russia’s blacklist.

The dangers of a politically charged boycott against Russia are well documented and UEFA will be anxious to distance themselves from such allegations. Unfortunately for Dyke and UEFA however, any withdrawal from the 2018 Russian World Cup would invariably be framed as such. In fact, the significant contribution of British and American politicians in particular, might prove detrimental to the legitimacy of a ‘moral’ boycott or the creation of a ‘Clean Cup’ – a separate competition designed for boycotting nations.

Let us, just for a minute, remove ourselves from our Western bubble. Were the 2018 and 2022 World Cup due to be held in England and the US, would there be the same level of public outrage regarding Fifa’s latest shenanigans? Would we be calling for reform with the same rancour? It all appears a little disingenuous.

Of course, many will argue that the corruption and opacity that we seek to expunge are the only reason the World Cups went to Russia and Qatar. Indeed, a boycott of the Qatari World Cup on humanitarian grounds is well founded given the tragic death of around 1,200 migrant workers, and the continuation of the oppressive Khafala employment system.

There is no doubt Fifa has become a kleptocracy in desperate need of radical rehabilitation. But the problem is, until the Swiss and US prosecutors place key figures behind bars and provide concrete evidence of bribery and corruption, the ground upon which an ‘ethical’ boycott of Russia 2018 would stand, remains shaky.

Admittedly, the indictments and investigations will likely take years to bear fruit. And in this instance, the phrase innocent until proven guilty might be worth heeding. Without robust evidence of Russian wrongdoing in the bidding process, a World Cup boycott could have far-reaching, geo-political consequences. The move would certainly scupper any progress that has been made in reaching a détente with Russia. In terms of the footballing community, it would also create disillusion and frustration among the players and fans of boycotting countries.

Therefore, such talks are neither prudent nor timely. Fifa needs a makeover, but at this moment in time, a boycott would cause more problems than it would solve.

@LH_Ramon25

05/6/15

The Ultras of Napoli

Napoli vs Juventus

A guide to the Ultra groups in Serie A: Napoli

City: Naples

Key ultra groups: CUCB (Commando Ultras Curva B), Ultras Napoli, Fedayn.

Other groups: Masseria, Blue Tiger, Nucleo, Old Clan 91, South Boys, Cobra, Wanted, La Iene, Mastiffs, Teste Matte, Vecchi Lions, Brigata Carolina, Ultra Girls, Ladies Napoli.

On the afternoon of 10 May 1987, a deathly quiet fell over the city of Naples. The streets were desolate, prompting Italian anthropologist Amalia Signorelli to write: “The world had changed, the noisiest, most crowded and most chaotic city in Europe was deserted.”

But on occasion, murmurings could be heard. They were the cheers and jeers of the Stadio San Paolo. The world may not have changed, but SSC Napoli were on the brink of winning their first Serie A title in 61 years. A 1-1 draw with Fiorentina secured Napoli’s triumph. The city erupted. Exultant Neapolitans poured on to the streets. Days of partying began. Fans danced on rooftops, fireworks exploded, cars and buildings were draped in sky blue.

In his book Calcio, John Foot observed that: “During the celebrations, Napoli fans displayed all the classic traits of what has become known as the Neapolitan ‘character’: irony, parody and a sense of the macabre, obscenity and blasphemy.” On the walls of the city’s graveyard, graffiti appeared in vernacular “Guagliu! E che ve sit pers!” (“Guys! You don’t know what you are missing”). Satirical funerals were arranged for Juventus. The supporters paid homage to their heroes and one man stood above all others as the saviour of Naples: Diego Armando Maradona.

The use of religiously infused language here is no coincidence. To this day, Maradona is awarded godlike status in the city. During his spell at the club, they won their only two Scudetti as well as a Uefa Cup in 1989. This prompted cultlike adoration. Thousands of babies were named Diego or even Diega, while streets and neighbourhoods also took the revered name. Murals were made comparing him to the city’s patron saint San Gennaro. One even depicted him in the arms of the saint himself.

His humble background and rebellious nature struck a chord with the Napoletani. His passion, volatility and footballing genius reflected Neapolitan character. In a sense, Maradona became an adopted son of Naples.

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But perhaps more importantly, he helped Napoli break the overwhelming dominance established by the affluent Northern trio of Juventus, Milan and Internazionale. At a time when the hostile, anti-southern politics of northern regionalist parties such as Lega Nord were taking hold in the terraces of northern clubs, Maradona restored pride to the city of Naples. The Napoletani now had a riposte to the anti-Neapolitan rhetoric. It was smug and simple: “May 1987, the other Italy has been defeated, a new empire is born.” Napoli’s fanatical supporters still revel in the memories of a time when the giants of the north were humbled by a resurgent Naples.

The Partenopei are the fourth-best supported club in Italy and their following also extends to various corners of the globe. According to Italian sports journalist Domenico Carratelli, Napoli is a club that “brings people together from all walks of life – rich and poor alike. It is the people’s team.”

Surprisingly, outside of their transient success in the late 1980s, there is a paucity of major honours. This has rarely detracted from the devotion of their support. Even after the club went bankrupt and were relegated to Serie C1 back in 2004, they broke divisional records for attendance, with numbers in excess of 50,000. One urban myth claims that the roar of the crowd celebrating a Napoli goal at the San Paolo has occasionally been registered on the seismographs at the city’s university.

The story of Napoli’s ultras is perhaps best summarised as a tale of two curvas: Curva A (the north bend) and Curva B (the south). Over time, the Curva A has assumed a more prominent role and has been home to a variety of groups including: Mastiffs, Vecchi Lions, Teste Matte and Brigata Carolina. Yet, a divide has always characterised the relationship between Curva A and B, with the former being notoriously riotous and the latter more tranquil. This, however, only serves to rouse one of the most charged atmospheres in Serie A.

The first ultra group to create match-day choreographies were the Commandos Ultras Curva B (CUCB). Founded in 1972 by Gennaro “Palummella” Montuori, the group quickly established themselves by creating their own newspaper and television programme. During their existence, CUCB allegedly denounced violence, a sentiment reflected in a banner they unveiled back in the 1980s: “Violence divides us, our passion unites us.” This period also saw the inception of women’s Ultra groups, including Ultra Girls and Ladies Napoli, the latter formed by university lecturers.

Unsurprisingly, the CUCB glory days came during the Scudetto-winning years. The archaic San Paolo would bounce to the rhythm of Porompompero, while the ultras’ ubiquitous presence at away games would ensure that a pocket of an Italian stadium would be transformed into a mini-Naples for the afternoon.

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However the departure of Palummella, supposedly due to the death of his brother, caused CUCB to disband. As a result, Fedayn (1979) and Ultras Napoli monopolised the Curva B. The two have lived an uncomfortable coexistence, with both refusing to chant in tandem. Fedayn’s more belligerent reputation saw them receive an invitation to join the Curva A, their slogan “Estranei alla Massa” (Outside the Norm) encapsulating their intransigence. Indeed the Fedayn’s reputation makes the Curva B’s more serene tag somewhat risible.

While Napoli’s ultras have often declared themselves apolitical, the historic and cultural divide between north and south has dictated some of their fiercest rivalries. Historian Nicholas Doumanis has argued that the northern and southern halves of Italy are like two different countries, with their own social, cultural and economic situations. Parties such as Lega Nord have even advocated secession from the south altogether. The Napoletani are frequently subjected to territorial insults, which range from chants about the city being destroyed by their neighbouring volcano Vesuvius to the people being dirty and carrying cholera. Fixtures against Juventus, Hellas Verona, Milan and Internazionale are particularly explosive.

That said, irony is not lost on the Neapolitans. When there is a chance to decry the Italian authorities, regional rivalries can always be put to one side. When supporters of their northern foes were hit with stadium bans for territorial discrimination during the 2013-14 Serie A season, the Partenopei faithful mocked the Italian football federation’s decisions with a banner reading: “[We are] Naples’ cholera-sufferers. Now close our curva!”

For all this bravado, these rivalries also reveal the more sinister elements of Italian football. Napoli’s ultras have been involved in some deplorable violence. On 3 May 2014, people tuned into the Coppa Italia final between Napoli and Fiorentina to witness scenes of anarchy and chaos. Violent clashes between opposing fans had delayed the kick-off. Three Napoli fans were hospitalised. One, Ciro Esposito, would die from gunshot wounds after weeks in a critical condition.

It later emerged that the Napoletani had clashed with Roma fans, despite the Giallorossi not even participating in the final. A Roma ultra, Daniele De Santis, was later charged with the death of Esposito. There is no love lost between Napoli and Roma, a rivalry that is made especially hostile because it is not based on the regional divide but is solely concentrated on football.

The other enduring image was that of Gennaro De Tommaso, the Napoli fan who took it upon himself to speak to Napoli captain, Marek Hamsik, about having the game postponed as rumours swept the stadium that Esposito had died. The game went ahead and Rome’s police commissioner later denied that there had been any negotiation, saying the police had merely asked Hamsik to inform the fans of Esposito’s condition.

Having already been banned from attending stadiums for five years, De Tommaso was arrested in September along with four other ultras for their involvement in the Coppa Italia final, with charges including “throwing hazardous materials and invasion of a pitch at a sporting event”. The incident was chilling and people like De Tommaso bring shame upon Il Calcio.

While Napoli’s ultras cannot be held accountable for the actions of mindless individuals, their violent reputation is not fabricated. Thus one is left at odds. On the one hand there is no place for such criminal behaviour, let alone in football. On the other, without the ultras we wouldn’t enjoy the moments that make spines tingle and hairs stand on end. Moments such as the famed repetition of “Gonzalooo Higuaín” nine times while the decrepit walls of the Stadio San Paolo shudder.

The famous expression “See Naples and die” portrays the beauty and excitement of this city. After playing in the Stadio San Paolo for Manchester City, Yaya Touré observed that the relationship between Napoli’s fans and their team was visceral, comparable to the love shown between a mother and her son. It is this passion that produces one of the most awe-inspiring yet intimidating atmospheres in European football.

@LH_Ramon25

First published on The Guardian and The Gentleman Ultra

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

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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).

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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

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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.”

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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.

As the clock hits 17:14,  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

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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.

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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

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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?

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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

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A guide to the Ultra groups of Serie A: Lazio

City: Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Laziali feel it is their duty to look after the club’s best interests. This has led to years of struggle with Lazio president Claudio Lotito, a pantomime villain in the eyes of many. It appears strange that the ultras would protest against a man who saved the club from liquidation, but during his tenure Lotito stopped the policy of supplying the Irriducibili with 800 free tickets for matches. He also refused to fund the Curva Nord’s choreography and rejected a proposed takeover of the club by former Lazio legend Giorgio Chinaglia. The ultras feel that the their Eagles can soar once Lotito is jettisoned. Last season 60,000 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.

With thanks to Massimiliano Maidano for his knowledge and expertise.

First appeared on Guardian Sport and The Gentleman Ultra

@LH_Ramon25