Sampdoria

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From an English perspective, the Stadio Luigi Ferarris is one of Italy’s more aesthetically pleasing stadiums. Located in the port city of Genoa, its rectangular shape and the proximity of the crowd to the pitch make for a claustrophobic and intense atmosphere. The stadium also plays host to one of Italy’s most under-appreciated rivalries: Genoa-Sampdoria.

Known as the Derby della Lanterna — named after the port’s iconic old lighthouse — the fixture captures the imagination thanks to the efforts of those standing on the steps of the Gradinate, with both ends of the stadium engulfed in a riot of noise and colour. The heart of Sampdoria’s support beats in the Gradinata Sud and the ultras help make the Marassi one of the most eye-catching venues in Calcio.

The Blucerchiati (‘Blue Circled’) as Samp are also known, cannot boast as distinguished a tradition as their neighbours, Genoa CFC. Formed in 1946, following the merger of two sports clubs, Sampierdarenese and Andrea Doria, they have had to endure the haughty putdowns from their older city cousins. However, despite being born some 53 years later than Genoa, Sampdoria have carved out a distinct identity and rich history. Their name and colours (blue-white and red-black) pay tribute to the clubs from which they emerged and they have enjoyed spells of veritable success.

At their zenith, Sampdoria toppled the mighty Milan, beating Silvio Berlusconi’s giants to the Serie A title in 1991. The following year, the Doriani threatened to conquer Europe, but Barcelona and a swing of Ronald Koeman’s right foot shattered their dreams in the European Cup final. The game was played at the old Wembley, a stadium Pelé once called “the cathedral of football”. That day in 1992, the Sampdoriani ensured Pelé’s observation was true, bellowing chorus after chorus while decorating their end of the pitch in a sea of blue, white, red and black.

Sampdoria’s fangroup, Ultras Tito Cucchiaroni, are one of the most venerable in Italy. Formed in 1969, they were trailblazers in the ultra movement. In fact, the group claim to be the first to differentiate as “ultras”. The evidence for this claim can be found in the writing on the walls. “Uniti Legneremo Tutti I Rossoblu Sangue” (United, we will beat the red and blues [Genoa] till they bleed), the acronym of which spells ULTRAS.

This graffiti is still visible in parts of Genoa and, according to the Ultras Tito Cucchiaroni, it could be seen in the city’s Piazza della Vittoria and Scalinata Montaldo long before Torino and Milan supporters claimed to be the first ultras in Italy. Squabbling over who came first can seem like nitpicking but history and tradition matter in football and it is no different for the ultras.

There is also a story behind the group’s name. Ernesto “Tito” Cucchiaroni was an important player for Sampdoria in the 1960s. He endeared himself to the supporters immediately after scoring two goals in his first Derby della Lanterna and this admiration was cemented when he helped the club to a fourth-placed finish in the 1960-61 season. Despite his small size, Tito had grinta (grit) and, when he finished his career at the club, the ultras decided to adopt his name in honour of his effort and commitment.

The Ultras Tito Cucchiaroni have shared the Gradinata Sud with a number of other groups, most notably the Fedelissimi 1961. Although they were born eight years earlier, the Fedelissimi originated as a simple fan club. Barring a faction of left-wing, anti-racist campaigning ultras known as Rude Boys, Sampdoria’s fanatics are generally known to be apolitical. This absence of politics undoubtedly contributed to the harmonious existence of the two groups who were united by their passion, both physically and metaphorically, in the lower tier of the Gradinata. This was until Sampdoria’s travails on the field in the late 1990s led to the departure of golden boy Roberto Mancini in 1997 and, two years later, the club’s relegation to Serie B.

The Blucerchiati’s malaise split opinion. The president at the time, Enrico Mantovani, suffered the opprobrium of the Fedelissimi, who felt that his mismanagement had brought about the club’s struggles. On the other hand, the Ultras Tito Cucchiaroni sided with Mantovani and instead rallied against Mancini for the manner in which he left. After 15 years of service, the Samp icon had allowed his contract to expire and joined Lazio on a free transfer, leaving the club short of money to replace him. The spat resulted in separation. Accompanied by a group called San Fruttuoso 1987, Tito Cucchiaroni moved to the upper tier of the Gradinata, leaving Fedelissimi and the other groups to occupy the lower tier.

Having written extensively about Italy’s ultras, the homogenous nature of the movement can at times lend itself to repetition. But scratch beneath the surface and there are always differences and peculiarities to be uncovered. Sampdoria were said to be the first club to have a group of female ultras, while women were prominent within Tito Cucchiaroni’s hierarchy. Doria’s Ultras are also among the few supporters in Italy who do not use banners during their match-day displays. This is largely in protest against specific legislation within the Decreto Antiviolenza, a decree aimed at tackling football hooliganism. This legislation has seen drums and megaphones banned in stadiums, while the use of flags and banners is strictly regulated. Supporters must seek police permission for the paraphernalia they intend to bring into the stadium seven days in advance. According to many fans across Italy, this legislation is systematically destroying the phenomenon of organised support and limits their freedom of expression.

When it comes to violence and politics, it appears that the Sampdoriani take a philosophical viewpoint, as revealed by this quote from a fanzine:

“Above all, it’s wrong to go to the stadium with the intention of causing havoc. As much as possible, we try to behave. However, it’s almost impossible not to react when opposition fans pass the Gradinata and start launching objects at people: it’s wrong, this is true, but we try to limit our retaliation… Luckily we have managed to expel the delinquents and political troublemakers from our ranks.”

In football we are often mesmerised by the talent on the field, whether it be a sleight of foot, a moment of individual genius or the elegance of the perfect team goal. There is no doubt that football supporters in Italy can unleash the ugly and grotesque. But, it is also worth appreciating the raw beauty and innovative spirit of Italian football fanaticism. In 1982, during the Derby della Lanterna, the Sampdoriani lived up to their self-acclaimed pioneering title, unveiling a gigantic flag displaying the the club colours, swallowing the entirety of the Gradinata. Its sheer scale was impressive and remains one of the biggest ever unveiled on Italian curve.

The level of organisation and effort behind such displays should not be underestimated. Today, under the tenure of eccentric owner Massimo Ferrero, the club have threatened to rekindle the distant glories of the early 1990s. Regardless of the club’s success, however, Sampdoria’s ultras continue to charm those who admire an alternative form of footballing art, one born in the terraces.

This article originally appeared on The Gentleman Ultra and The Guardian Sports Network