The walls of the Stadio San Nicola shuddered. The stadium they call the spaceship had liftoff and the man igniting its engines was a baby-faced Antonio Cassano. As he celebrated under the curva nord, flares were lit, flags were waved and the decibel levels soared. Cassano was quickly smothered by the embraces of a jubilant mob. When he emerged from the morass, this 17-year-old was no longer just a prodigious talent, he was a Bari icon: the local boy who had felled a Milanese giant.
The game in question was one Bari fans still remember fondly, a 2-1 victory over Inter on a rainy night in December 1999. Led by Marcello Lippi, this Inter side boasted the defensive steel of Laurent Blanc and Javier Zanetti, with Ivan Zamorano and Christian Vieri leading a talented attack. However, the boy from Bari stole the show, scoring a virtuoso goal which included the deftest first touch you are likely to see from a man running in full flow. It was the type of goal that will forever occupy the memories of those who witnessed it, one of those goals that continues to make spines tingle.
Giancaspro, a life-long Bari supporter who has travelled the length and breadth of the peninsula following the Biancorossi, was there to witness Cassano’s famous goal. For him, it was a game made all the more special by Bari’s feverish support. Despite spending only six of the last 20 seasons in Serie A, Bari remain one of the best followed clubs in Italy and their average crowds over the last two seasons would put them in the top half of Serie A attendances. Even when Bari were on the brink of financial implosion in 2014, their stalwart support rallied around them, turning up to the San Nicola en masse – setting a record for the highest Serie B attendance against Latina – and even helping to fund the team’s travel to away games. Luca spoke to Giancaspro to find out more about Bari’s fanatical supporters:
Bari’s organised support have had a long history; can you tell us a little more?
The Bari supporters formed their first group in 1976, led by Franco Marvulli, nicknamed “Florio”. They united under a banner that read “Alè Grande Bari Club Ultras”. During that same season positive results on the field helped Bari earn promotion to Serie B and, following the example of many other Italian cities, Bari’s organised support was created.
It became a real point of reference and identity for thousands of youngsters with one passion in common: their unconditional love for AS Bari. Florio ensured the group positioned themselves in the curva nord, following in the footsteps of Torino’s curva Maratona, for which Florio had great admiration. Soon after, a new banner appeared in the curva nord, its design more professional, on which the writing read “ULTRAS” accompanied by a symbol of a skull profile above two crossbones.
In the early 1980s, different relationships were formed between the Bari ultras and other organised fan groups: twinings and rivalries. Groups from Lecce, Taranto and Foggia became Bari’s biggest rivals, while a long and steady friendship was born with the Eagles Supporters Lazio. In 1983, Bari were relegated to Serie C once again and for the first time, the supporters unveiled the banner with a winged skull facing frontwards, one which is still in use today.
During these years, the ultras on the curva nord played a key role in events that had both positive and negative consequences: on the one hand, the first striped choreography was produced and hundreds of passionate fans followed the team on the road like never before. On the downside, one cannot forget the [violent] incidents at Siena in 1983 and Pescara in 1984.
What moments have been the most memorable for Bari?
We’ve enjoyed many great moments. I remember the Bari of Eugenio Fascetti [coach from 1995 until 2001, who managed Bari for three consecutive seasons in Serie A], the Bari of coach Antonio Conte [who won the Serie B title in 2008], the Bari of Giampiero Ventura [who guided Bari to a 10th-place finish during the 2009-10 season]. But also earlier we had great teams like the Bari of Enrico Catuzzi [who rose through the coaching ranks to take charge of Bari in Serie B and C from 1981 until 1983], Materazzi [who earned Bari promotion to Serie A while managing them between 1993 and 1995] and Gaetano Salvemini [who won promotion with Bari during the 1988-89 season and would eventually bring in Platt]. Let’s just say it’s been a rollercoaster.
On the subject of David Platt, can you tell me something about his time at Bari?
Platt was at Bari when I was young and I don’t remember that period as well. However, I have seen many photos and have been told many stories about Platt’s success at Bari, including his famous press conference in which he proclaimed he wanted to become the Maradona of Bari! He was part of a very strong and special team. As a player he left his mark and was a joy to watch.
From one iconic ex-Bari player to another, Antonio Cassano was born in the city and grew up in the youth team but it does not look as if he will return. What does he represent for the club and fans?
Antonio was our most important player, even though many fans don’t hold him in the same esteem after his comments regarding his love for Sampdoria. But I think he has always had Bari in his heart, even if he doesn’t say so in interviews. He is tied to Samp because of his wife [who is from Genova] but his roots are here in Bari.
In 2014, Cassano was vocal in his support for Bari during their financial problems, what was the fans’ role during this period?
In 2014, the fans played a crucial role in pushing the club from low to high. It was a memorable effort that did not result in Serie A promotion but made us very proud of the boys who simply played for our happiness and for our shirt– these are the values we as fans appreciate the most. The players gave their best for the club, which was not the case for the players who followed them and thus they did not earn the same affection.
What do you think about manifestations of politics in Italian stadia?
Today politics is on the decline in the stadia. However, it has not disappeared. At Bari for example, there is controversy within the ranks of the ultras as to whether the colour of the shirts they wear should be black or red… [a metaphor for the struggle between small left-leaning and right-leaning political factions within the support].
Local pride or “campanilismo” is often very prominent across Italy. Is being from Puglia important to Bari fans?
Very much so, you really feel the pride, especially among Bari supporters who live in the north of Italy. When there are away games in the north, we always meet up with them and they tell us that they are always watching the games, eating traditional food sent from Bari. It’s great fun seeing each other, we are in love and I am one of those fans who lives and breathes Bari. I really suffer when we lose, I lock myself away and feel ill.
Given that clubs from northern Italy have traditionally been more successful, does the fact that Bari are one of the biggest teams in the south mean they are regarded as a symbol of southern calcio?
Yes, absolutely! But, as in all of Italy, other clubs don’t see it that way and our local rivalries are very bitter, such as our hate for Lecce, Taranto and Foggia. On the other hand, there are also positive twinnings between Bari, Salerno and Reggio.
What are your thoughts of the Italian ultras movement of today?
I’m not an ultra any longer, I am just a fan. I still admire the ultras for their dedication, commitment and organised tifo. But I do not agree with the ultras’ mentality.
There is often a sense that the ultras movement can be a negative phenomenon, what is your opinion?
Yes, this is exactly what I meant when I spoke about the ultras’ mentality. The consequence of what the fans did at the Pescara-Bari match [in 1984], destroying bars and rioting with the police meant the Lega [football association] prevented real fans from travelling to the following away games.
What is the difference between English fans and Italian ultras?
There is a chasm between English and Italian fans. When it comes to mentality and structural organisation within the stadia, we are lagging well behind. This is mainly due to the decrepit state of the stadia. The government don’t give a damn and there are stadia in Serie B that are not fit for purpose because they are old and the local authorities don’t have the money. However, the wind appears to be changing, look at Juve and Udinese, who now own their new stadiums.
For you, what is the most important aspect of Italian fandom?
To be incredibly and absurdly passionate. We are very organised, especially for our trips during away games. We live football 24 hours a day.
It appears that Bari are well respected in Italian football. Why is that?
Easy, because we have a beautiful stadium, we are beautiful fans and the club has produced the best players, sporting directors and nationally famous coaches.
Finally, can you explain what it means to be a Bari supporter?
For us, Bari is our life, it means everything. Bari is our passion. We cry, we argue and celebrate for our colours and the badge. I definitely live these emotions and I always wear the shirt, even when I travel abroad or when I go up north because I am lovesick for Bari, like so many others who support the Biancorossi.
Thanks to Giancaspro for his insight and help.