O Zico o Austria” (“Either Zico or Austria!”) was the ultimatum. In the summer of 1983, Udinese were on the verge of signing the Brazilian icon. He had been approached by AS Roma and Juventus, so there was shock when the Flamengofantasista opted to join lowly Udinese.

The Italian Football Federation opposed the deal as they thought the transfer was far too expensive for a foreign player. This prompted a furore among the Udinese fans, who amassed in the city centre holding up placards reading “O Zico o Austria”. The threat may have been satirical but it wasn’t without historic and political resonance.

Bordering Austria to the north and Slovenia to the east, the city of Udine has been at the crossroads of diverse cultures and peoples. During the 15th century it was a Venetian republic and only a 100 years ago it formed part of the Austrian empire. Pride of originating from Friuli, the region in which Udine is located, often trumps pride of being Italian. For much of the population, Friuliano is the native tongue. Some advocate a more autonomous or even independent Friuli in line with historical borders, such as the political party Lega Nord Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

The Zico episode encapsulates the proud identity of the Udinesi. The federation eventually buckled and the man dubbed the “White Pele” signed for theBianconeri, leaving thousands delirious. Landing such a prestigious player was a major coup and one journalist even compared the move to “fitting the engine of a Ferrari into a Volkswagen.”

Despite failing to win a major honour during his two-year spell, Zico became a legend at Udinese, scoring 57 goals in 79 appearances. Others, such as Oliver Bierhoff and the club’s record goalscorer Antonio Di Natale, have since taken his mantle, but, to the supporters, their club transcends the achievements of any individual player. When Luca spoke to the Ultras Udinese 1995, they made this abundantly clear:

Who are the Ultras Udinese 1995?

“Our group was born on 10 December 1995 by six guys who were already ultras on the Curva. Given that they were all from Pordenone, they wanted to create a group that united the Udinese ultras who came from the most westerly area of Friuli. Year after year the group has grown and now it also includes members from Udine. This year we are celebrating our 20th anniversary, during which we have continued to embrace the principles our founders gave to the group, supporting Udine wherever they play and promoting friendship between members, inside and outside the stadium.”

Can you tell us a little about the history of Udinese’s ultras?

“The Black and White Superstars are considered the first real group of ultras in Udine. They were founded at the end of the 1970s. Then, in 1980, the Teddy Boys were born. They are one of the most famous groups who still sit on the Curva today. In the 1980s, Nuova Guardia, Brigata Ultrà and Nord Kaos were also formed and it was from these groups that Ultras Udinese 1995 came to being. In the 1990s, groups such as Friulani al Seguito and the Supporters were born. Collettivo IncUdine was formed in 2003 while Nord Kaos disbanded in 2006. There have been many other groups throughout the years but the list would be very long. Those mentioned are the most renowned and established.”

What is the relationship like between the various groups of ultras?

“Every group is autonomous, producing their own memorabilia – scarfs, T-shirts etc – but there is also collaboration between the various groups, for example, to organise the away trips and other initiatives within the Curva. With regards to banners, every group has their own, but in the last two years groups have displayed banners in protest against the new anti-ultras laws in Italy, which are too restrictive and in our opinion non-constitutional.”

Which period has been most successful, not only for the club but also for the fans?

“It is difficult to say with any certainty. A period in which there was huge enthusiasm was when Zico played for Udinese. During those years the stadium was always full with around 40,000 supporters, an enormous number for a city of only 100,000. Another successful period was during the 1990s when Udinese qualified for Europe for the first time in their history and finished third in Serie A during the 1997-98 season. Another key moment was the 2010-11 season in which the Tessera del Tifoso [supporters ID card] was introduced, a document we have always opposed. This has prevented us from sitting in the away section of grounds, however, the laws did not prevent us from buying tickets for other sections, therefore we often found ourselves among the home supporters, sometimes shoulder to shoulder with rival ultras. It was a very interesting period.”

Zico is a legend at Udinese and there is a supporters’ club dedicated to him. What does Antonio Di Natale represent to the club and fans?

“Along with other groups, we don’t support individual players. This is because players come and go, while the colours and the shirt remain. For this reason, we don’t even have chants for individual players. For the rest of the supporters this isn’t the case, and obviously Di Natale is considered a symbol of Udinese and has been for the last 10 years.”

You have been forced to move from the Curva to the Tribuna due to the reconstruction of the Stadio Friuli. How have you found this change?

“Moving to the Tribuna for the entire year has been a completely new experience. On one hand it has been positive because it united the supporters in the same section, but on the other hand it has been a hindrance with regards to choreographies and flags. We hope the new stadium will bring renewed enthusiasm and larger crowds and that this won’t just be transitory. Of course we will endeavour to make the best of it.”


Udinese Calcio v UC Sampdoria - Serie A

What is your verdict on Udinese’s season?

“It has been a season of transition. It hasn’t gone well but we hope it is the start of a positive cycle. Players from Friuli are starting to appear in the squad and for us this is very important: we hope that they can, and want, to remain at Udinese.”

John Foot, an English author who wrote the book Calcio, said “The idea that politics and sport should be kept apart is laughable in Italy.” Do you have a political ideology?

“Our group is completely apolitical. We believe that politics and the world of the ultras have nothing to do with each other, and whoever brings politics into the stadium damages the movement.”

Given the history of the Friuli region, how strong is campanilismo (local pride) among the ultras?

“Udinese, other than being the team of the city, is also considered the team that represents the region, it is a symbol of the soil from which we originate. Friuli pride is widespread within the Curva and among the supporters. You can nearly always see the flag of Friuli, a yellow eagle with a blue background, flying at the stadium.”

In light of the ‘Either Zico or Austria’ ultimatum, is the pride of being Friulano stronger than being Italian?

“The banner was obviously satirical. No one actually thought of secession from Italy to Austria had Zico not signed. This despite the fact many consider themselves to be ‘Friuliani’ before Italian.”

Who are Udinese’s main rivals?

“The derby with Triestina is the most passionate, but unfortunately they haven’t been around for a long time after they went bankrupt and were relegated many divisions. Other big rivalries include a historic one with Hellas Verona, one with Napoli after violent fights with their ultras back in 2010, and with Bologna after our twinning with their fans was broken. With regards to friendships, we are twinned with Austria Salzburg –the real club of Salzburg, not Red Bull Salzburg – Vicenza and Arezzo.”

What are your opinions on the Italian ultra movement of today?

“It is a very difficult question. It is a period of change, above all due to the strict laws that have been introduced in the last few years. Supporters are divided on how to confront these difficulties, and these divisions are often among supporters of the same club. Unfortunately, this weakens the movement as a whole. With respect to the 1980s and 1990s, being ultras in Italy today is much harder because there is the risk of being punished for the smallest of transgressions, and for many the term ‘ultras’ is synonymous with delinquency.”

But there are also positive aspects, for example you engage in charitable work for victims of natural disasters?

“Yes, on different occasions we have shown solidarity with the victims of natural disasters, and, along with other groups in the Curva Nord, we sent essential aid to those affected by the earthquake in Emilia Romagna and the floods in Genoa. On other occasions we have organised events to collect funds for local charities. Many ultras do this kind of work. It is a part of our world that the mass media hardly cover, but we consider it very important.”

In your opinion, what are the differences between English fans and Italian ultras?

“From what we can see, the main difference lies in the fact that the ultras are very organised, with stringent rules and unwritten codes that form what we consider the ‘ultras’ mentality’, that should be respected by all groups. Unfortunately this is not always the case. Instead in England, support is more spontaneous. Here in Italy, the ‘English model’ is often lauded by politicians and the mass media when they speak about eliminating the ultras. But this has only pushed the problems outside stadia.”

Your choreographies are incredible and very much admired; it must be hard work creating them?

“Yes, it really is hard work, because they take thought and real ingenuity! The guys spend hours painting, sewing and creating these displays at a remarkable cost, which is covered by our own finances or collections. Coordinating all the supporters at the stadium in order to execute these choreographies is very difficult. However seeing a choreography executed to perfection is very satisfactory, especially for those who have contributed hours of work. It is truly a unique emotion.”

What do you think of the view that the ultras movement allows negative behaviour such as discrimination and violence to manifest?

“With regards to violence, it is one of the aspects that set the ultras apart from normal fans. It is difficult for people to understand but, for us, being an ultra means being prepared for physical confrontation with opposition ultras. But this also means respecting certain rules, like not using knives. Unfortunately these rules aren’t always adhered to, and this is something we resent. Discrimination, however, is often confused with campanilismo between different cities or with episodes that aren’t actually fuelled by racism or discrimination. However, it is undeniable that episodes sometimes cross the line and they deserve condemnation. These episodes are exploited by those who want to eliminate a movement which authorities are uncomfortable with.”

Finally, can you summarise what it means to be an ultra of Udinese?

“Being an ultra of Udinese is to love our colours and defend them wherever, to love and honour our land and its traditions, to constantly strive to improve our group and our Curva, to truly become the 12th man on the field, and to support our team with passion and pride.”

Grazie to the Ultras Udinese 1995

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