Il Calcio: Uniting and Dividing Italy

On Sunday evening 3rd place Juventus will host 2nd place Napoli in what is the most eye-catching game in this round of Serie A fixtures. With both sides tied on 28 points, sitting just three behind a rejuvenated Roma it is an opportunity for either to stake a claim for the Serie A title.

However the fixture is not solely a meeting of two title contenders. It is a meeting of the North and the South. Another illustration of the regional divide that exists in Italy. Just like the Renaissance era – when civic states battled for supremacy on the peninsula – these two bastions of Turin and Naples will renew a territorial rivalry which has its roots in Italian history.

Campanilismo is an Italian word perhaps best translated as fervent local patriotism. It symbolises a sense of identity, a sense of pride and belonging to your place of birth. A feeling which can often be much stronger than any sense of national identity. When introducing their place of origin I have often heard Italians say Sono Vicentino (I’m from Vicenza), Sono Napoletano (I am from Naples) before saying Sono Italiano (I am Italian).

Napoli fans expressing their loyalty to their city. Interestingly the fans have spelled Neapolitan - Napulitan...a mistake the editor puts down to spelling. However it is perhaps a reference to the Italian word Pulire - To Clean. If so it is another example of Napoli fans subversively mocking the discriminatory chants used against them which describe Neapolitan's as people who are dirty and smell . (Photo from http://www.theguardian.com/ taken by Tom Jenkins).

Interestingly the fans have spelled Neapolitan – Napulitan…a misspelling or subversive irony? Pulire is Italian – To Clean. Another example of Napoli fans mocking the discriminatory chants describing them as dirty?? (Photo from http://www.theguardian.com/ taken by Tom Jenkins).

Why?? Just under three years ago Italy celebrated its 150th anniversary of its Risorgimento and its birth as a nation. Compared to England  a unified nation for over a 1000 years  this is no time at all. Like a jigsaw puzzle where the remaining pieces do not quite fit, Italian national identity remains an enigma.

While King Henry VIII waged war on the continent under the English banner, the Italian peninsula was fragmented. Any sense of collective identity was defined by civic pride. Italy as a nation did not exist. Fast forward and some of these underlying divisions remain.

This is exemplified by the North-South divide. So much so that Nicholas Doumanis (author of Inventing the Nation: Italy) claimed that the northern and southern halves of the peninsula appear in social, cultural and economic terms to be two very different countries. To give this context  the regional stereotypes that exist in Italy are to a degree comparable to those in England, albeit in Italy the north is viewed as the ‘prosperous’ half. The comparison stops here, for in England, as far as I am aware, no political party has ever challenged the idea of  a collective English identity.

Lega Nord or Northern League is a regionalist political party which has often attacked the idea of Italian unity by claiming that the south is a burden on the nation. The party’s political programme advocates greater regional autonomy, especially for the North and at times secession of the North altogether.

A Lega Nord slogan: Yes to Polenta (a traditional cuisine from the Veneto area) No to cous cous (a staple food in North African cuisine)

A Lega Nord slogan: Yes to Polenta (a traditional cuisine from the Veneto area) No to cous cous (a staple food in North African cuisine)

Couple this with the view expressed by Gary Armstrong and Alberto Testa (Football Fascism and Fandom: The UltraS of Italian Football) that Il Calcio has constantly mirrored the socio-political environment in Italy and one can begin to grasp the power it possesses, both to unite and divide. It is an issue which has never been more contemporary.

This summer the Italian Football Association (FIGC) decided to apply UEFA’s stadium ban rule (aimed at tackling racist chanting) to what it calls “territorial discrimination”. Low and behold when the fans of AC Milan were found guilty of using derogatory chants, first against Napoli, which led to a closure of the Curva Sud (AC Milan Ultras stronghold), and then against Juventus, which led to the closure of the San Siro (a decision eventually suspended) it caused uproar among supporters across Italy.

Traditionally Napoli fans have been on the receiving end of chants referring to crime, poverty and cholera outbreaks in their city. The following link contains an example of a frequently used chant against Neapolitan’s – http://youtu.be/ZrowkCqT95w  

Translated the chant goes something like this:

Smell the stench, even the dogs are running
The Neapolitans are coming
Infected with cholera, earthquake victims
You have never washed yourselves with soap…
Napoli shit, Napoli cholera
You shame the whole of Italy
Work hard Neapolitan
As you have to bend over (politely put) for Maradona
Diego is shit Diego Diego is shit

However, instead of revelling in a touch of schadenfreude, some of AC Milan’s fiercest rivals, the Ultras of Inter Milan, Juventus and even Napoli voiced support for the Rossoneri’s plight.

With sardonic humor the Napoli fans unveiled a banner at their game against Livorno saying “[We are] Naples cholera-sufferers. Now close our curva!” The Ultras of Juve and Inter then made statements imploring fans across the country to join them in singing those “famous chants of territorial discrimination.”

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(Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images)

AC Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani later said strict rules aimed at tackling racism have been taken to an extreme by the Lega Serie A “I understand that racism is a big problem, a problem in the whole world, but territorial discrimination is something else.”

Long before the arrival of immigrants on Italian shores, regional slurs and stereotypes have been used as insults not just in the stadia but also in day to day Italian life.

So what does this all mean? Perhaps the irony lies in the fact that the Ultras have united in in their fight to discriminate against each other. And therein lies the power of Il Calcio, both to unite and divide elements of Italian society. Supporters across Italy are united in being opposed. Its an oxymoron but it makes perfect sense!

The FIGC introduce tougher sanctions but the supporters continue with their discriminatory chants. And they will go on chanting. For it is embedded in their history. Moreover the Ultras and many others feel it is their right to insult each other.

When another of these historic battles between North and South is enacted at the Juventus Stadium on Sunday night you will be sure to hear those ‘famous’ chants of discrimination. “Napoletani colerosi”, Neapolitan’s – cholera sufferers, Juventini “ladri” – Juventus – thieves in reference to the 2006 Calciopoli scandal.

It is all part of the rough and tumble of the football stadium and it can be viewed as good fun, part of tradition or further evidence for the existence of a fragile national identity. However from one issue arises a multitude of others.

Does the continued practice of territorial discrimination encourage the more extreme elements of Italian society to believe they have the right to actively discriminate. Does territorial discrimination constitute racism? And how is Italian national identity, or lack of, manifested within Il Calcio. These are all questions that warrant further exploration.

4 thoughts on “Il Calcio: Uniting and Dividing Italy

  1. Great article revealing a disturbing yet fascinating and pulsating world within “Il Calcio”.
    A “sub-culture” little known to me, a fellow Italian now living in England.
    The “hardcore” chanting takes me back to the streets of Milan, right in the midst
    of the students revolt of the Seventies.
    Back than it was all intensely political, advocating social change, but the “anger and the rhythmic powerful sound” were the same.
    So exhilarating. Strength in unity and intent. The overwhelming need to “shout your identity”
    Very unfortunately often with ugly and devastating effects.
    I will be following this blog closely.

  2. To Luca Ramon,

    To answer your question of “Interestingly the fans have spelled Neapolitan – Napulitan…a misspelling or subversive irony? Pulire is Italian – To Clean. Another example of Napoli fans mocking the discriminatory chants describing them as dirty?? “, I am afraid you have come to the wrong conclusion, “Napulitan” is merely how one says Neapolitan (napoletano) in the Neapolitan language. In Neapolitan, Napoli is Napule and napoletano has many varied spellings, one of those being the aforementioned “napulitan”.

    Kind regards,

    un napulitan!

    • Really, thanks for informing me that’s very useful.

      It was more a stab in the dark to be honest however thank you for letting me know and grazie mille for stopping by.

      Ciao guaglione.

  3. Pingback: The ultras of Livorno | Nice One

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