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 there is rarely 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.

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.