02/22/15

The Ultras of Lazio

Choreo

A guide to the Ultra groups of Serie A: Lazio

City: Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

article-2237027-162AD1B1000005DC-789_964x580

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

02/9/15

On the Front Line: The Political Battle Continues for Egypt’s Ultras

white-knights-ultras-egypt

While the political turmoil in Egypt continues, expect the ultras to be on the front-line.

The death of Egyptian football fans on Sunday evening in Cairo is likely to reinvigorate the protests of football ultras, one of Egypt’s largest social movements who have already proved they are capable of challenging the state through public protest.

The hardcore fan group of Zamalek SC, the Ultras White Knights, described the violence against supporters at an Egyptian Premier League game as a “deliberate massacre.” How the events unfolded remains unclear, yet reports indicate violence erupted after police fired teargas and shotgun pellets at supporters trying to force their way into Zamalek SC’s Air Defence Stadium.

Death toll estimates have varied. State television announced 22 were found dead in the events preceding the game between Zamalek SC and ENPPI (Engineering for the Petroleum and Process Industries), while on the official Facebook page of the Ultras White Knights (UWK), the fans themselves claimed 28 had died. The incident is just the latest outbreak of violence which has seen security forces and football supporters clash with fatal consequences.

Having already explored the politicisation of football ultras across the globe in an article for Football Beyond Borders, this recent bout of violence in Egypt conflates a number of issues. The tragedy bears striking similarity to that of the politically charged mass brawl in Port Said in 2012 during a game between Al Masry and another Cairo based club, Al Ahly. On that occasion 74 supporters died, and then as now, the antipathy between the state and football fans is threatening to cement irreparable divisions in Egyptian society.

The Egyptian revolution is crucial to an understanding of these episodes. In January 2011, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians spilled into the streets calling for an end to president Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime. It was the Cairo-based ultras of Al Ahly (Ultras Al Ahlawy) and Zamalek SC (UWK) that, despite their virulent rivalry, united to confront Mubarak’s security forces. As James Dorsey explains, “they were in a sense the shock troops of the revolution.” Their insurgence continued in the subsequent protests against Mubarak’s military successor, Mohamed Morsi, as well as during anti-government demonstrations against the rise of Egypt’s current president, Mr. Al Sisi. As such, both Port Said and Sunday night’s events were undoubtedly underpinned by complex political machinations.

Three years ago, while the ultras of home side, Al Masry, fought fans of Al Ahly, the police either watched passively or even joined the violence. Authorities blamed the subsequent deaths on supporters from Al Masry, however the Ultras Al Ahlawy believed the security forces used the game in Port Said to exact revenge on those who had played a vital role in toppling the Mubarak regime. Sunday night’s tragedy follows the same story line.

The interior ministry has blamed Zamalek’s ultras for Sunday’s deaths, claiming they were the result of a stampede sparked by police attempts to stop fans from entering the stadium without tickets. UWK, however, believe this was another act of calculated state vengeance motivated by their role in previous pro-democracy protests. Patrick Kinglsey, the Guardian’s Egyptian correspondent, reported that many witnesses said the police’s attack was brutal and unprovoked.

The incident occurred just days after the Egyptian government lifted the ban on supporters attending all domestic football matches, a measure introduced after the events at Port Said. These latest clashes triggered the suspension of the Egyptian Premier League indefinitely. Should the government re-impose a spectator ban, this would only serve to further stoke the fires of unrest.  In recent months, the UWK have also come to blows with Zamalek’s president, Mortada Mansour, who has campaigned to outlaw the clubs ultras as a terrorist organisation. He is thought to have the tacit support of president Al Sisi.

The continued oppression of the ultras appears a clear attempt by Mr. Al Sisi’s government to criminalise protest. Sunday’s bloody clashes certainly demonstrate their continued use of police brutality to quash agitators and opponents. The figures speak for themselves. Since Mr. Al Sisi seized power from the Morsi government, more than 1,000 people have been killed in clashes with state authorities.

Any government, particularly those that are totalitarian, will not welcome large gatherings of young people in already socially volatile spaces such as football stadia. Events such as those witnessed in Cairo emphasise the political clout football supporters carry. This has been seen in other countries such as Ukraine and Turkey in which hardcore fan groups have also been heavily involved in political activism.

As such football ultras are regarded as a veritable threat to the hegemony of Egypt’s autocratic government. But the draconian measures aimed at repressing the ultras only serves to accentuate their sense unity against the state. The 2011 revolution has shown it’s neither an effective means of consolidating power nor a solution to quelling social unrest.

This inflammatory rhetoric is threatening to polarise an already disillusioned youth, a youth that has used the football stadium as a 21st century agora in which to protest and dissent. In the last year, members of the Ultras Nahdawy (Renaissance Ultras) led student protests on university campuses against Mr. Al Sisi’s dictatorial regime, advocating academic and other freedoms. Composed of former UWK and Ultras Ahlawy members, it is the only militant football group to openly declare its politicisation while not being aligned to a specific football club.

This is significant. Football is becoming a powerful means to a political end. At this rate the siege mentality adopted by both parties is leaving an environment ripe for another popular rebellion. Don’t be surprised if it’s Egypt’s ultras on the front-line once again.

@LH_Ramon25

02/2/15

The Winds of Change: Is Cuban Football on the Brink of a Revolution

Cuba football

“Champions generate joy, honour, glory, and prestige for the country.”

(Fidel Castro)

At around 4:05pm, on July 13, 2013, a deadly silence fell over the Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. The American’s enthusiasm had been sapped, momentarily lost within the sultry summer air. Jose Ciprian wheeled off in celebration, showcasing his best impression of Usain Bolt’s iconic victory pose. The seemly unthinkable was unfolding. For ten minutes Cuba led the USA 1-0 in their CONCACAF Gold Cup group game. For ten minutes, the underdogs were on course to record a famous victory against their historical and ideological arch-rivals. For ten minutes, perhaps we got a glimpse into what the future could hold for Cuban football.

Despite leading from the 36th to the 47th minute, a Cuban victory was never truly tangible. From the moment Landon Donavan equalised from the penalty spot, order was restored and the USA waltzed to a 4-1 victory. Jürgen Klinsmann’s men produced the reaction you would expect from a team of professionals playing a team of amateurs. For professionalism has been outlawed on the Communist island of Cuba since 1962, three years after Fidel Castro’s revolution ousted the U.S. backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Cuba went on to be knocked out in the Quarter-finals, equalling their best ever finish in the Gold Cup. They had qualified for the tournament courtesy of the country’s first Caribbean Cup triumph in 2012, claiming the scalps of Jamaica and eight time winners, Trinidad and Tobago. These victories were milestones for Cuban football but plenty more lie ahead. In a country where revolutionary reforms placed sport at the nexus of domestic and international policy, football has remained inconspicuous, even neglected. It has traditionally been baseball and boxing making waves on the shores of the Antilles. Yet with the political winds seemingly swirling in the direction of American shores, could football be ready for its own revolution?

Caribbean football’s pioneers

Jamaica’s 2-1 victory against Japan at the 1998 World Cup in France endeared the Caribbean’s to football partisans. They played with gusto, with a vibrancy that matched the tempo of their supporter’s drums. It was their first ever victory in their first ever appearance at a World Cup finals. However Jamaica was not the first Caribbean nation to appear on football’s grandest stage. That privilege was Cuba’s.

In May 1938, this pioneering Cuban team boarded a ship to compete in the third edition of the World Cup finals in France. Football was popular back then, a legacy left during Spain’s colonisation of the island. In fact, having remained a cornerstone of the Spanish Empire until 1898, the majority of the squad were all of Spanish ancestry.

Remarkably, however, Cuba hadn’t played a World Cup qualifier, reaching the finals by means of invitation after Mexico had withdrawn. None of their players had even touched foot on foreign soil before, let alone competed in a major international competition. Yet despite their inexperience; the Leones del Caribe (Lions of the Caribbean) defied all odds, beating a strong Romanian side 2-1 in a first round replay having originally drawn 3-3.

In the Quarter-finals, a humiliating 8-0 drubbing at the hands of Sweden quashed dreams of another upset. According to the team’s top-scorer, Juan Tunas, a waterlogged pitch didn’t help the Cuban cause. Speaking to FIFA.com in 2010, he said:

We were playing well and felt we were favourites going into the game. But then something happened that we hadn’t bargained for: it rained and the pitch was sodden. We weren’t used to conditions like that and we kept slipping over.”

Known during his playing days as ‘El Romperredes’ (The Netbuster), Tunas was the last surviving member of Cuba’s trailblazing Lions, dying in 2011 at the age of 98.  While his team’s legacy was not forgotten, it certainly wasn’t built upon. Cuba’s debut in 1938 remains their only appearance in a World Cup Finals. No progression just stagnation, lost by the wayside as baseball and boxing took centre stage.

Football not fit for Castro’s revolution.

Sport is seldom, if ever free from politics. This has proven particularly pertinent in Cuba. Upon overthrowing President Batista’s military junta in 1959, Fidel Castro immediately outlined his intention to make sport a pillar of the revolution.

“Politics is an instrument of sports. That is, sport is not a means, but rather an end, like every other human activity…”

The man nicknamed ‘Commandante’ (Commander) quickly set about restructuring Cuban sport, arguing that it had become a kleptocracy and an object of exploitation. To this end, professional sport was banned. The creation of a centrally controlled sports ministry known as INDER (Instituto Nacional de Deportes, Educacion Fisica y Recreacion) helped Fidel implement schemes geared towards promoting mass participation and discovering athletic talent. Once discovered, these talents were nurtured, trained and indoctrinated at specialised sports schools known as EIDE (Escuelas de Iniciacion Deportiva Escolar).

The overarching aim behind these policies was twofold. Domestically sport helped promulgate a cohesive Marxist society. Internationally, it was an indirect but effective way to antagonise and compete with their U.S. neighbour, perceived as an overweening world power and a threat to the nascent Cuban revolution. But if sport was such a triumphant vehicle of the revolution, why was football a pariah in Fidel’s political machinations? Three considerations must be taken into account – amateurism, Fidel Castro and the U.S.

Historically the most popular sports in Cuba have been baseball and boxing. It’s unsurprising given the islands proximity to the U.S. For Fidel, they were the perfect fit. Both sports have a strong amateur tradition, with the Olympic and Pan American Games providing a global ‘shop window’ for Cuba’s sporting prowess. Baseball was one of Fidel’s favourite sports and boxing was an effective means through which to compete with the U.S., factors that cemented their place as hallmarks of the revolution.

Despite being favoured by Fidel’s foil – Argentinian Socialist icon Ernesto Che Guevara – football was not awarded the same prestige. It was inextricably linked to the world of professionalism. Professional players were even permitted to compete in the Olympic Games from 1984 onwards, further stymieing chances for Cuban football to make inroads. During the height of Fidel’s reforms, ‘soccer’ was yet to take off in the U.S., meaning it did not serve any ‘revolutionary’ purposes. As such, the game was not afforded the provision of other sports.

The problems Cuban Football faces today

Fast forward and the Cuban football system remains amateur in every sense of the word. The Campeonato Nacional (16 clubs split into four groups of four teams) is the highest level in the Cuban football pyramid. None of the players are paid, the facilities are squalid and the pitches shoddy. For many with aspirations of forging a career in football, it’s a glass ceiling.  This leaves talented young players bereft of a chance to hone their skills and playing abroad isn’t an option – that is unless they are willing to defect.

Many have, Eviel Corvodes, Maykel Chang, Odisnel Cooper, Maykel Galindo, Osvaldo Alonso and Yordany Álvarez are just a number of players who have chosen to pursue a professional football career in the United States. Speaking to USA Today, Álvarez, who played for Salt Lake City in Major League Soccer (MLS) before retiring in 2014, gave a candid insight into the realities Cuban footballers face:

Cuba has good soccer players but the conditions are bad – no cleats, bad coaches, bad food. All my friends in Cuba have retired. They don’t play anymore because there is no money.”

In line with Cuba’s egalitarian policies, players of the Cuban national team are not awarded any special treatment. They receive a derisory sum of $8-10 a month. In truth the amount is barely enough to get by and unsurprisingly many defect, favouring a stable career over the duties of their country. The defectors are considered traitors, unable to represent the national team to the detriment of Cuban football’s progression. But amid this doom and gloom, successes on the pitch suggest the dawn of a new era could lie just around the corner.

A new dawn for the Caribbean’s Lions

Upon winning the Caribbean Cup in 2012, Cuban head coach Walter Benitez said: “Our style of playing is kind of flowing, fast-moving football, where we create chances for our strikers and trust each other totally.” It’s a style of play that appears to be capturing the imagination of Cuba’s youth. “I like soccer better than baseball, it’s a strong sport, the movement, the energy,” one 16-year-old Cuban told the New York Times. Another youngster echoed this sentiment while partaking in his daily kick around after school “It’s our game, fun and fast.”

In terms of popularity, football has started to rival baseball as the favourite sport of many young Cubans. It shows.  In 2013 the national u-20 side qualified for the World Cup at that youth level for the first time in their history. The tournament itself was a learning curve as the Cubans finished bottom in their group and failed to register a point. However for a team comprised of amateurs it was a major coup and one which demonstrated the wealth of raw talent on the island. To borrow from Paula Pettavino and Geralyn Pye (academics in Cuban sport and history), Cuba’s footballers are ‘rough diamonds just waiting to be polished’

Times are changing on the island nicknamed the ‘Pearl of the Antilles.’ The austerity faced by Cuban society during the last two decades has seen gradual economic liberalisation. Raul Castro (brother of Fidel) has announced he will stand down as president in 2018, heralding the end of the Castro-era. Cuba and the U.S. are in the midst of landmark talks focused on restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries. These improved relations could be the harbinger of a new era for Cuban football.

And why not? Fidel Castro’s regime has laid the foundations, creating a sporting infrastructure that has proved it can produce world-class athletes. The figures speak for themselves. Since the 1959 revolution, Cuba has won a total of 11 Pan-American golds in baseball and 67 Olympic medals in boxing. It isn’t inconceivable that with time, football could reach similar levels.

The normalisation of relations with the U.S. could certainly quicken the process. Could the rise in popularity of American soccer have a knock-on effect in Cuba? Could access to the professional leagues, particularly MLS, become more readily available which in turn could prevent Cuba’s footballing stars from defecting? Could we even see an MLS team based in Cuba one day? For now the latter remains implausible however according to MLS Commissioner Don Garber, the prospect of future world-class Cuban footballers is very much feasible.

“There’s no reason why in a country of 11 million people that has had a reputation for producing world-class athletes, Cuba can’t be a producer of world-class soccer players.”

Cuba is undergoing a moment of historic transcendence but ameliorating decades of hostilities with the U.S. will be a lengthy process. Just as reforming a sporting identity will. Baseball is engrained into the Cuban psyche but as sportswriter Michel Contreras declared, there is also room for football.

For now, the Cuban national team will be looking to build upon their fourth place finish in the 2014 edition of the Caribbean Cup. This year’s CONCAF Gold Cup in Canada and the U.S. will be another invaluable experience and they will hope their performances can inspire yet more young Cubans to lace up their ‘cleats’ rather than slap on their pitching gloves.

”It is not just a simple game, it is a weapon of the revolution.”

(Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara on football)

@LH_Ramon25

This article first appeared on These Football Times