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diplomatic tensions across the world, the old canard that sport and politics should be kept separate is increasingly outdated.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.