11/8/15

The Ultras of Roma

Roma Ultras

A guide to the Ultra groups in Italy: AS Roma

City: Rome

Key Ultra groupsCommando Ultra Curva Sud (CUCS), Fedayn, Boys.

The city they call eternal needs little introduction. Like much of its history, the tale of Rome’s founding is legend; a tale of the twins Romulus and Remus, sons of the Roman god Mars who were abandoned by the River Tiber and raised by wolves. A fraternal feud drove Romulus to kill Remus and build a city in his own honour: Roma. The story is a myth but has become part of folklore. The city’s emblem – the Capitoline Wolf – is a bronze sculpture depicting the twin infants suckling from a she-wolf. The same image can also be found at the heart of AS Roma’s badge and the club’s supporters embrace the symbolism and ancient traditions of the city.

Romanisti are vehement in the belief that, far from being just a team from Rome, AS Roma is the team that truly represents the capital. This sentiment largely stems from their aversion towards city rivals S.S. Lazio. “We carry the city’s name, we carry the city’s colours and we carry the city’s symbol,” Federico affirms brusquely. He is, of course, a Romanista, hailing from Rome and studying in Siena. “How could they [S.S. Lazio] reject the city’s colours back in 1900. It’s shameful,” he pauses before delivering his conclusion: “Burini!”

Burini, perhaps best translated as “peasant”, is a term used by Romanisiti to belittle Lazio fans, suggesting they are simpletons who hail from the agricultural regions outside the city’s confines. While Federico admitted his trips to the Stadio Olimpico were sporadic, this had clearly done little to diminish his antipathy towards Lazio. His disparaging words are symptomatic of one of football’s fiercest rivalries, but they also capture the identity and history of AS Roma and its supporters.

In the 1920s, no fewer than eight football clubs represented Italy’s capital. This superfluity meant they were unable to compete with the dominant clubs of northern Italy. Unhappy with this disparity, a representative of the National Fascist Party (Italo Foschi) organised the merger of three clubs: Alba, Fortitudo and Roman and on 22 July 1927, AS Roma was born.

The only major club to resist this merger was Lazio and despite the fact the Aquile had been founded 27 years earlier, the Romanisti immediately considered their team as the peoples’ club. Why? Then, as now, there were more Roma fans, having absorbed supporters from three different clubs. In their early years, the club also settled in the heart of working-class Rome, playing their matches in the Testaccio neighbourhood. But a crucial part of the answer also lies in an issue touched on by Federico: how could Rome’s first club, Lazio, have neglected the chance to adopt the city’s colours and emblem. It’s a decision that bewilders locals and one that may have pushed many working-class Romans towards AS Roma.

The Lupi (wolves) are one of the best supported teams in Italy and a plethora of ultra groups have monopolised the curve. Their stronghold has always been the Curva Sud but some groups, marginalised for their extremity, have also occupied the Curva Nord, traditionally the domain of Lazio’s ultras. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Curva Sud had a multifaceted look. Groups were formed according to neighbourhoods and names were often inspired by military heroism such as Arditi (Daring Ones), a unit of elite soldiers during the first world war, and Guerriglieri della Curva Sud (Warriors of the South Bend).

However, in 1977 this lack of homogeneity prompted three groups to merge: Fedayn, Pantere (Panthers) and Fossa dei Lupi (The Wolf’s Den), who collectively became known as the Commando Ultras Curva Sud (CUCS). The CUCS announced their arrival during a fixture against Sampdoria, unveiling a 42-metre banner, the longest ever seen at that time. The amalgam breathed new life into Roma’s support and other groups quickly rallied under the CUCS name. “Heart in the south, metal bars in the north,” was adopted as one of the group’s mottos, a reference to their rivalry with Laziali. Their impressive choreographies, high numbers and willingness to go “behind enemy lines” earned them notoriety across the peninsula, but their obstinate nature would also contribute to their demise a decade later

In 1987 the Roma president, Dino Viola, sold team captain Carlo Ancelotti to AC Milan and replaced him with former Lazio player, Lionello Manfredonia. Manfredonia was despised for insulting the Roma fans during a derby game. His arrival caused a schism between CUCS members, some of whom were willing to forget the insult and some of whom were not. This saw the birth of the splinter group CUCS-GAM (Group Against Manfredonia) whose focused on honouring the city and its imperious past. “Roma e Gloria” (“Rome and Glory”) became their slogan and it was around this period that the political ideology on the Curva Sud shifted drastically.

It is important to note that Roma’s hardcore support have traditionally been associated with left-wing politics. Fedayn were overtly communist and their leader Roberto Rulli a renowned idealist, while CUCS also had left-wing sympathies. However, the Italian capital and right-wing politics, namely fascism, have a longstanding history. The word’s etymology is traced back to ancient Rome; a fascis was a rod of birch carried by Lictos (comparable to a police force). Individual fascis were used for disciplinary purposes, but, when tied together they became physically stronger but also a symbol of power. Rome underwent something of a renaissance during Benito Mussolini’s rule, becoming one of the hubs of the fascist regime. Reminders of this period remain scattered across the city, exemplified by the imposing Obelisk emblazoned with Mussolini’s name, dominating the landscape of the Stadio Olimpico.

The book Football, Fascism and Fandom by Alberto Testa and Gary Armstrong provides crucial insight. It explores the relationship between fascism and football support in Rome, following two ultras groups, the Irriducibili of SS Lazio and the Boys of AS Roma. Formed in 1972, the Boys were originally on the periphery due to their neo-fascist ideology. However as the CUCS’s influence dwindled, the Boys rose to prominence along with like-minded groups such as Opposta Fazione(Opposite Faction).

As Testa and Armstrong state: “From the late 1980s … political ideology became more evident among the hardcore AS Roma supporters, an important step in the emergence of the first true ultras.” The academics differentiate the Boys Roma and other groups such as Irriducibili and Internazionale’s Boys-San because their right-wing political ideology is at the nexus of their existence. “Right from the start, [Boys Roma] displayed a neo-fascist ideology in the language, actions and methods of support for their team.” This identity manifests inside and out the stadium and thus the authors coined the term “UltraS”.

Violence is also part of this extreme ideology and, unfortunately, AS Roma ultras have been involved in some particularly abhorrent incidents. During the infamous Derby della Capitale of 2004, Romanisti entered the pitch and had the game abandoned after false rumours were spread that a young boy had been killed by police. This year’s Coppa Italia final in Rome – a game in which AS Roma were not involved – was also marred by violence after Roma and Napoli ultras clashed resulting in the death of Neapolitan, Ciro Esposito. In some quarters, Rome is known as “Stab City”, due to a host of incidents in which travelling supporters have suffered at the hands of a “knife culture” dating back to Ancient Rome.

Many may argue documenting these contemptible behaviours only serves to give these groups the oxygen of publicity but, as Testa and Armstrong argue, understanding such phenomena can help create solutions. It is also important to remember that these elements are not representative of the club’s fanbase as a whole. In fact, Romanisiti are often appreciated as some of the most passionate fans in the world, capable of producing awe-inspiring atmospheres. Despite being starved of genuine success (the club have won just three Serie A titles) in the words of their famous anthem “Roma Roma Roma”, Lupi fans consider the club as their “city’s heart and only true love”.

Supporters deploy giant portraits of Roma's former captains and stars before the Italian Serie A football match AS Roma vs Lazio on January 11, 2015 at Rome's Olympic stadium.    AFP PHOTO / TIZIANA FABI        (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)

Supporters deploy giant portraits of Roma’s former captains and stars before the Italian Serie A football match AS Roma vs Lazio on January 11, 2015 at Rome’s Olympic stadium. AFP PHOTO / TIZIANA FABI (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images). Photo retrieved from Forza27.com

Their relationship with the city’s history makes their story all the more intriguing. Their owner, James Pallotta, plans to solidify this patrimony by financing a new stadium, its design evoking memories of the Colosseum. It will be in this setting that AS Roma’s modern day gladiators do battle. And no one personifies the spirit of the club more than captain Francesco Totti, a man who has dedicated his career to AS Roma during an age of footballing mercantilism. He too, more than anyone appreciates the contribution the Romanisti have made to the club and this year, on his 38th birthday, he made the point of saying a special thank you to the supporters.

“On my birthday there are so many people I would like to thank… But I would like to say one special thank you to the heart of AS Roma – to our wonderful supporters. For the motivation they give us, their passion and unconditional love. It’s difficult to find words to describe what this means to me. Then, as now, you have always made me feel special. You are unique and simply fantastic.”

@LH_Ramon25

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

09/21/15

The Ultras of Parma

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Even to Italian football fanatics, a match between Parma and Empoli on a misty Sunday afternoon in late November would appear rather inconspicuous. For the clubs’ supporters, however, it was a fixture of particular importance. That both teams were locked in a relegation scrap was a contributing factor, but above all, this was the celebration of a 30-year gemellaggio (twinning) between the ultras of Parma and Empoli.

The friendship began when the two sides played in Serie B in 1984. Empoli triumphed 1-0, a fact many fans were apparently unaware due to the thick fog that had descended over the Stadio Carlo Castellini. Gracefully accepting their defeat, the thousands of travelling Parmensi felt obliged to inform their adversaries that they had actually triumphed. From then a friendship was born and on a Sunday back in November 2014 it was honoured. The two sets of fans mixed amicably, eating lunch together and exchanging messages during a match that was again won by Empoli. While the Parma players left the field to a chorus of whistles from the home support, the cordial relationship between the fans was maintained.

Parma lies in the north west of Emilia Romagna, a region contiguous with Tuscany to the south, Liguria to the west and Lombardy and the Veneto to the north. The region is bounded by the River Po and it is one of the most prosperous on the peninsula. In this wealthy city, Campanilismo (local pride) is keenly felt by the population. Indeed the Parmigiani can be somewhat supercilious at times, revelling in their affluent identity. But is it any wonder? This is a city that has given us Lamborghinis and some of the world’s finest produce, such as Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The composer Giuseppe Verdi was also a Parmigiano and the Parma players often step into the Stadio Ennio Tardini to the tune of Verdi’s Marcia Trionfale. But while the city is generally renowned for its music, art and gastronomy, to a handful of its population, Parma FC represents an integral part of a Parmigiano’s identity.

During the summer of 1977, a group of youngsters formed the BOYS. United by their love for Parma FC and inspired by the ultras movement proliferating across Italy, the thinking was simple. The club colours would be defended under the aegis of this newly fledged group.

A banner was promptly designed in the city’s colours: blue and yellow with two stars on either side of the group’s name. Over the years this name has been tweaked to BOYS PARMA 1977 and they have moved to the Curva Nord, but they have stood the test of time, as they pointed out in their fanzine in 2012:

“Throughout the 1990s, groups that made history during the [ultra] movement such as the Fossa dei Leoni [AC Milan], Brigate Gialloblu [Hellas Verona], CUCS Roma disbanded for reasons that aren’t our business. However, just like us they were born back in the 1970s and thus 35 years of existence is a reason to be extremely proud.”

Supporters’ clubs were already well established at the Stadio Ennio Tardini before the BOYS were formed. Il Centro di Coordinamento del Parma represented the majority of the Crociati fanbase, and like the BOYS, the organisation still exists. However, the BOYS labelled themselves as ultras. The significance lies in the etymology of the word “ultra”, Latin for “beyond”. This is the mentality through which the BOYS differentiated themselves, going beyond the average call of duty for a supporter. Turning up to watch their team labour in Serie C and Serie B until the Ducali finally earned an historic promotion to Serie A in 1990. And between the years of 1990 and 2004 the supporters had plenty to shout about.

Bankrolled by the Tanzi family, owner of the local dairy industry giant Parmalat, Parma became one of the most successful clubs in Italy. Three Coppa Italia triumphs, two Uefa Cups, one Cup Winners’ Cup and a second-place finish in Serie A earned them the tag as one of the Sette Sorelle (Seven Sisters), the most prominent clubs in Serie A.

Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram, Dino Baggio, Gianfranco Zola, Hernan Crespo and Enrico Chiesa were but of a few of the illustrious names to wear the yellow and blue jersey. This newfound success meant the supporters encountered new rivalries. Their battles with Juventus, including Parma’s famous victory in the 1995 Uefa Cup final, ensured the Vecchia Signora remains a coveted scalp. This is not to say their historic rivals were forgotten. The local derbies against Reggiana (Derby del Grana) and Bologna (Derby D’Emilia) have been the ultras’ traditional battlegrounds.

However, as the old proverb goes, “all good things must come to an end”. In 2003 a criminal investigation into Parmalat uncovered gross financial irregularities, leading to bankruptcy and its CEO, Calisto Tanzi, being imprisoned in 2006. This had a disastrous knock-on effect. In 2004 Parma were declared insolvent and this culminated in the club’s relegation from the top flight in 2008. The club bounced back, enjoying a sixth-place finish in Serie A under coach Roberto Donadoni during the 2013-14 season.

However, financial problems would come back to haunt the club and after a return to Europe was barred due to the late payment of a tax bill, the sheer scale of the clubs debts became apparent during the 2014-15 season. Club President Tommaso Ghirardi had accumulated a total debt of more than $200m and in December 2014, he sold Parma for one euro to a Russian-Cypriot conglomerate. The situation left the Parmensi humiliated and culminated in the clubs bankruptcy and relegation to Italy’s fourth tier. Under the guise of Parma Calcio 1913, the Ducali are rebuilding in Serie D. They will do so with the staunch backing of their supporters, who broke a Serie D record for season ticket holders after just three days of tickets being on sale.

Just like the club, the ultras have not always enjoyed an easy ride. During the late 1980s the nucleus of the BOYS was decimated after a derby against Bologna turned nasty. Twenty-nine policemen were injured and, as a result, a wave of repression threatened the group’s very existence.

In March 2008 tragedy struck when one of the group’s leading members, Matteo Bagnaresi, was run over and killed on his way to a game against Juventus. The bus that hit the 27-year-old was carrying Juve fans and accounts regarding the incident differ. Some claimed it was as a result of fan-related violence, causing the driver to panic and consequently run down Bagnaresi. Others maintain that this was a simple road accident. Following Bagnaresi’s death, the Curva Nord was renamed in his honour. His loss is still keenly felt by Parma ultras and on the fifth anniversary of his passing, before a game against Pescara, the BOYS orchestrated an imposing choreography with an image of Bagnaresi and the caption “Ribelle col sorriso, Bagna vive” (“Rebel with a smile, Bagna lives”).

curva-nord-matteo-bagnaresi

Despite this poignant episode, the BOYS are known across Italy for being somewhat tame. Laughable though it may be, this reputation has made them a target for mockery by rival supporters. On occasions, however, this patient demeanour is tested. Last season, following the team’s sixth defeat in seven games against Atalanta, the BOYS stayed in the stands after the final whistle and demanded answers. A face-to-face meeting was held with the players, with club captain Alessandro Lucarelli taking the brunt of the disgruntled inquiries.

While the presence and power of the ultras on the terraces has diminished, their influence in club affairs is still significant. This remains a questionable aspect of Italian football, unimaginable in England. Yet, it is hard not to sympathise with the logic behind these actions. The ultras simply expect their own commitment to be matched on the field. Indeed, for the huge sums of money supporters spend on watching their teams, there are plenty of other disgruntled fans who would welcome the opportunity to question the commitment of some of their under-performing, yet extremely well-paid players. Regardless, Parma’s ultras will continue to enjoy and suffer every moment of their team’s emotional rollercoaster.

@LH_Ramon25

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

07/13/15

The Ultras of Palermo

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Palermo fans celebrating their return to Serie A in 2014

A guide to the Ultra groups in Italy: Palermo

City: Palermo

Key Ultra groupsCommandos Aquile, Warriors Ultras Palermo 1980, Ultras Palermo 1900, Brigate Rosanero.

In April 2014, a young Palermo fan called Jose sat in the Stadio Renzo Barbera’s Curva Nord Inferiore for the first time. While many young Italians dream of hearing their name chanted in the stadium, Jose’s ambition was to be part of the comradery formed on the terraces. The ultras embraced him as one of their own, sitting him next to the lancicori, the leader of the chants, and giving him the responsibility of beating the drum.

This is no small task. Incessantly hammering a drum, waving a huge flag or screaming over a microphone for 90 minutes leaves little time to enjoy the aesthetics on the field. However, these roles are central to the spectacle created by these groups. That this young Palermo fan has Down’s Syndrome serves to illustrate some inherent contradictions in the Italian ultras. Throughout this series, altruism is not a word that has come to be associated with the fangroups. All too often, incidents of violence, coercion and discrimination have cast a dark shadow over the more positive aspects of these fanatical supporters. Yet, although their world and attitudes can bewilder, it is not all chants, flares, fireworks and violence.

The city of Palermo offers myriad styles and flavours, from exotic Arabic cupolas and exuberant baroque facades to archaic crumbling palazzi. The architecture speaks for the cultural diversity of Sicily’s regional capital. This is in large part due to Palermo’s quilted history, and its strategic position at the heart of the Mediterranean has brought wave upon wave of invaders, including the Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Saracen Arabs, French and Spanish.

As such, there is no homogenous style in Palermo; there never has been and there never will be. However, in this urban melting pot, there is one outlet that provides a source of collective identity: U.S. Città di Palermo. Support for the Rosanero often comes hand in hand with a sense of belonging to Sicily, hence the regular appearance of Sicilian flags in the stands.

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Palermo’s pioneering ultra group were formed in 1977 and adopted the name Commandos Aquile after drawing inspiration from Roma’s Commando Ultra Curva Sud. As usual in Italian ultra culture, Commandos Aquile did not separate football from politics. Throughout their existence they maintained a strong affiliation to the left. With the formation of new groups, however, this political ideology would shift drastically.

1980 saw the birth of Brigate Rosanero and Warriors Ultras Palermo, two groups that became the vanguard of the club’s organised support. Brigate were founded by a group of youngsters from the Olivella zone in Palermo and they immediately concerned themselves with creating a more vibrant support. Warriors became notorious for their far-right political sympathies, which would eventually cause Commandos Aquile to disband.

Palermo have struggled to cement a place among the elite clubs in Italian football, oscillating between the country’s top three leagues. The journey of their ultras has mirrored the team’s; as results have improved, the numbers on the Curva have burgeoned. That said, even when the club were expelled to Serie C2 in 1987 due to financial irregularities, the ultras never abandoned their boys in pink.

Since the early 2000s, under the tenure of their capricious owner Maurizio Zamparini, also known as Mangia allenatori (manager eater), the supporters have tasted ample success. This has included European football, a fifth-place finish in Serie A and a run to the Coppa Italia final. Throughout this more prosperous period, both the Brigate and Warriors became renowned for their substantial presence during away games, despite the often gruelling journeys they were forced to travel across the mainland.

Such was the Warriors’ popularity that new sections of the group were created by Palermitani in other regions of Italy, including Lombardy, Emiglia Romagna and Lazio. Historically, Palermo’s Curva Nord has been the flag bearer of their ultras movement, but in recent years a small group of supporters have taken up residence in the Curva Sud, renowned as the “silent” section of the ground. This season, riding the wave of success following the club’s return to Serie A, the Stadio Renzo Barbera has seen a re-styling of support. In an attempt to provide a more cohesive and united front, groups from both the upper and lower sections of the Curva Nord fused to create Ultras Palermo 1900.

Curiously, Palermo ultras are said to have a close friendship with Padova fans. For those educated in Italy’s political landscape this might come as a surprise. Especially given that the Veneto region in which Padova is located has a reputation for being a hotbed of anti-southern sentiment (the regionalist party Lega Nord gained 60.2% of the local vote in 2010). Indeed the motto of the fans’ twinning acknowledges this North-South schism: “Nessuna secessione potrà fermare la nostra unione!” (“No secession can break our union”).

It is said this friendship was born in the early 1980s after a group of Padovani who were on holiday in Sicily found themselves in gregarious conversation with Palermo ultras. Friendly exchanges were continued during the teams’ next meeting in 1983 and this nascent alliance was reinforced further by their shared right-wing ideology. Despite the distance that separates them, the ultras have maintained their twinning to this day and they have been known to attend each other’s games.

Palermo’s biggest rivals are their Sicilian counterparts, Catania. The animosity that surrounds the Derby di Sicilia is vehement and poisonous. Graffiti reading “Forza Etna” can often be seen sprawled across walls in Palermo, a grotesque plea to the volcano to eviscerate Catania, which lies mercilessly in its shadows. John Foot, author of Calcio: A History of Italian Football has described the rivalry between Sicily’s two biggest clubs as a “political battle” in which the two cities are left “fighting for resources in one of Italy’s poorest and most corrupt of regions.”

This antipathy was brutally exhibited back in February 2007 after violent clashes between opposition fans culminated in the death of police officer Fillippo Raciti. However, both sets of fans have more in common than their pride would allow them to admit. They both have an ardent sense of pride for their island and a large proportion feel more Sicilian than Italian.

Upon taking a photo of his son immersed in the heart of the Curva Nord Inferiore, Jose’s father remarked: “When my son is with you all he is overjoyed.” One of the Palermo ultras described the day as a “beautiful moment for the Rosanero support, one of those moments which fills you with pride.” Being a part of these groups gives thousands of Italians a sense of belonging and identity.

It’s not easy to square the circle between an altruistic gesture and the more egregious examples of mindless thuggery, but this young boy’s story illustrates that, while it is easy to fixate on the negatives, positives do exist. In a city that has been fractured by poverty, countless invasions and discrimination, Palermo offers a nexus around which the people can rally. The ultras see themselves as defenders of this tradition.

@LH_Ramon25

First published on The Guardian and The Gentleman Ultra

05/6/15

The Ultras of Napoli

Napoli vs Juventus

A guide to the Ultra groups in Serie A: Napoli

City: Naples

Key ultra groups: CUCB (Commando Ultras Curva B), Ultras Napoli, Fedayn.

Other groups: Masseria, Blue Tiger, Nucleo, Old Clan 91, South Boys, Cobra, Wanted, La Iene, Mastiffs, Teste Matte, Vecchi Lions, Brigata Carolina, Ultra Girls, Ladies Napoli.

On the afternoon of 10 May 1987, a deathly quiet fell over the city of Naples. The streets were desolate, prompting Italian anthropologist Amalia Signorelli to write: “The world had changed, the noisiest, most crowded and most chaotic city in Europe was deserted.”

But on occasion, murmurings could be heard. They were the cheers and jeers of the Stadio San Paolo. The world may not have changed, but SSC Napoli were on the brink of winning their first Serie A title in 61 years. A 1-1 draw with Fiorentina secured Napoli’s triumph. The city erupted. Exultant Neapolitans poured on to the streets. Days of partying began. Fans danced on rooftops, fireworks exploded, cars and buildings were draped in sky blue.

In his book Calcio, John Foot observed that: “During the celebrations, Napoli fans displayed all the classic traits of what has become known as the Neapolitan ‘character’: irony, parody and a sense of the macabre, obscenity and blasphemy.” On the walls of the city’s graveyard, graffiti appeared in vernacular “Guagliu! E che ve sit pers!” (“Guys! You don’t know what you are missing”). Satirical funerals were arranged for Juventus. The supporters paid homage to their heroes and one man stood above all others as the saviour of Naples: Diego Armando Maradona.

The use of religiously infused language here is no coincidence. To this day, Maradona is awarded godlike status in the city. During his spell at the club, they won their only two Scudetti as well as a Uefa Cup in 1989. This prompted cultlike adoration. Thousands of babies were named Diego or even Diega, while streets and neighbourhoods also took the revered name. Murals were made comparing him to the city’s patron saint San Gennaro. One even depicted him in the arms of the saint himself.

His humble background and rebellious nature struck a chord with the Napoletani. His passion, volatility and footballing genius reflected Neapolitan character. In a sense, Maradona became an adopted son of Naples.

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But perhaps more importantly, he helped Napoli break the overwhelming dominance established by the affluent Northern trio of Juventus, Milan and Internazionale. At a time when the hostile, anti-southern politics of northern regionalist parties such as Lega Nord were taking hold in the terraces of northern clubs, Maradona restored pride to the city of Naples. The Napoletani now had a riposte to the anti-Neapolitan rhetoric. It was smug and simple: “May 1987, the other Italy has been defeated, a new empire is born.” Napoli’s fanatical supporters still revel in the memories of a time when the giants of the north were humbled by a resurgent Naples.

The Partenopei are the fourth-best supported club in Italy and their following also extends to various corners of the globe. According to Italian sports journalist Domenico Carratelli, Napoli is a club that “brings people together from all walks of life – rich and poor alike. It is the people’s team.”

Surprisingly, outside of their transient success in the late 1980s, there is a paucity of major honours. This has rarely detracted from the devotion of their support. Even after the club went bankrupt and were relegated to Serie C1 back in 2004, they broke divisional records for attendance, with numbers in excess of 50,000. One urban myth claims that the roar of the crowd celebrating a Napoli goal at the San Paolo has occasionally been registered on the seismographs at the city’s university.

The story of Napoli’s ultras is perhaps best summarised as a tale of two curvas: Curva A (the north bend) and Curva B (the south). Over time, the Curva A has assumed a more prominent role and has been home to a variety of groups including: Mastiffs, Vecchi Lions, Teste Matte and Brigata Carolina. Yet, a divide has always characterised the relationship between Curva A and B, with the former being notoriously riotous and the latter more tranquil. This, however, only serves to rouse one of the most charged atmospheres in Serie A.

The first ultra group to create match-day choreographies were the Commandos Ultras Curva B (CUCB). Founded in 1972 by Gennaro “Palummella” Montuori, the group quickly established themselves by creating their own newspaper and television programme. During their existence, CUCB allegedly denounced violence, a sentiment reflected in a banner they unveiled back in the 1980s: “Violence divides us, our passion unites us.” This period also saw the inception of women’s Ultra groups, including Ultra Girls and Ladies Napoli, the latter formed by university lecturers.

Unsurprisingly, the CUCB glory days came during the Scudetto-winning years. The archaic San Paolo would bounce to the rhythm of Porompompero, while the ultras’ ubiquitous presence at away games would ensure that a pocket of an Italian stadium would be transformed into a mini-Naples for the afternoon.

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However the departure of Palummella, supposedly due to the death of his brother, caused CUCB to disband. As a result, Fedayn (1979) and Ultras Napoli monopolised the Curva B. The two have lived an uncomfortable coexistence, with both refusing to chant in tandem. Fedayn’s more belligerent reputation saw them receive an invitation to join the Curva A, their slogan “Estranei alla Massa” (Outside the Norm) encapsulating their intransigence. Indeed the Fedayn’s reputation makes the Curva B’s more serene tag somewhat risible.

While Napoli’s ultras have often declared themselves apolitical, the historic and cultural divide between north and south has dictated some of their fiercest rivalries. Historian Nicholas Doumanis has argued that the northern and southern halves of Italy are like two different countries, with their own social, cultural and economic situations. Parties such as Lega Nord have even advocated secession from the south altogether. The Napoletani are frequently subjected to territorial insults, which range from chants about the city being destroyed by their neighbouring volcano Vesuvius to the people being dirty and carrying cholera. Fixtures against Juventus, Hellas Verona, Milan and Internazionale are particularly explosive.

That said, irony is not lost on the Neapolitans. When there is a chance to decry the Italian authorities, regional rivalries can always be put to one side. When supporters of their northern foes were hit with stadium bans for territorial discrimination during the 2013-14 Serie A season, the Partenopei faithful mocked the Italian football federation’s decisions with a banner reading: “[We are] Naples’ cholera-sufferers. Now close our curva!”

For all this bravado, these rivalries also reveal the more sinister elements of Italian football. Napoli’s ultras have been involved in some deplorable violence. On 3 May 2014, people tuned into the Coppa Italia final between Napoli and Fiorentina to witness scenes of anarchy and chaos. Violent clashes between opposing fans had delayed the kick-off. Three Napoli fans were hospitalised. One, Ciro Esposito, would die from gunshot wounds after weeks in a critical condition.

It later emerged that the Napoletani had clashed with Roma fans, despite the Giallorossi not even participating in the final. A Roma ultra, Daniele De Santis, was later charged with the death of Esposito. There is no love lost between Napoli and Roma, a rivalry that is made especially hostile because it is not based on the regional divide but is solely concentrated on football.

The other enduring image was that of Gennaro De Tommaso, the Napoli fan who took it upon himself to speak to Napoli captain, Marek Hamsik, about having the game postponed as rumours swept the stadium that Esposito had died. The game went ahead and Rome’s police commissioner later denied that there had been any negotiation, saying the police had merely asked Hamsik to inform the fans of Esposito’s condition.

Having already been banned from attending stadiums for five years, De Tommaso was arrested in September along with four other ultras for their involvement in the Coppa Italia final, with charges including “throwing hazardous materials and invasion of a pitch at a sporting event”. The incident was chilling and people like De Tommaso bring shame upon Il Calcio.

While Napoli’s ultras cannot be held accountable for the actions of mindless individuals, their violent reputation is not fabricated. Thus one is left at odds. On the one hand there is no place for such criminal behaviour, let alone in football. On the other, without the ultras we wouldn’t enjoy the moments that make spines tingle and hairs stand on end. Moments such as the famed repetition of “Gonzalooo Higuaín” nine times while the decrepit walls of the Stadio San Paolo shudder.

The famous expression “See Naples and die” portrays the beauty and excitement of this city. After playing in the Stadio San Paolo for Manchester City, Yaya Touré observed that the relationship between Napoli’s fans and their team was visceral, comparable to the love shown between a mother and her son. It is this passion that produces one of the most awe-inspiring yet intimidating atmospheres in European football.

@LH_Ramon25

First published on The Guardian and The Gentleman Ultra

04/3/15

The Ultras of AC Milan

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A guide to the Ultra groups in Serie A: AC Milan

City: Milan

Key ultra groups: Fossa Dei Leoni, Commandos Tigre, Brigate Rossonere, Alternativa Rossonera, Guerrieri Ultras Curva Sud Milano, Avanguardia Rossanera, Curva Sud Milano.

Other groups: Gruppo Veleno, Estremi Rimedi, Vecchia Maniera, Ultras 1976, Panthers, Boys Assatanati, Il Gruppo Nervus, Il Gruppo the Bull Dog, Il Gruppo Avanguardia, Il Gruppo Barbera, Il Gruppo Zava, Pitbulls, Gruppo Comodo, Gruppo Caramello, Area 207, Armata Rossonera, Bad Boys, Acid Group, Banda Casciavit, Herbert Kilpin Firm, Banda Scalino, Barone Rossonero, Baschi Rossoneri, Black Sheep Group, Bomber Group, Brigate Venete, Brothers, Brutti Dentro, Cani Sciolti, Celtic Devils, Clan, Convinti, Dannati, Devils 1978, Diavoli di Como, Drunk Company Veneto Alcool, Eagles, Fanatic, Fedelissimi Milan, Feroci, Fronte Rossonero, Hooligans, I Diavolacci, Indyans, Kaos, Legionari Tigre, Inferno Rossonero, Mazzo Group, Mods, Nobilita Rossonera, Nucleo Tifosi Rossoneri, Out Laws, Panthers 1976, Ragazzi del 99 ACM 1899, Sconvolts, Settembre Rossonero, Skunkati, Stars, Teste Matte, Tigers, Torcida Rossonera, Ubriachi di Milan, Vecchi Teschi, Villani, Warriors, Gioventu Rossonera.

While it is never pleasant to see footballers on the end of scathing criticism, when Milan ultras castigated left-back Kévin Constant through the unfurling of a banner during their 1-1 draw with Genoa back in 2013, their exasperation was understandable. “Constant, instead of clowning around and being arrogant, respect those who watch your embarrassing performances,” read the rebuke.

Not only were his performances questionable, but his off-field frivolities – including tweeting pictures from a nightclub on the Friday before Milan’s weekend clash with Genoa – suggested he was less than committed to honouring the iconic red and black shirt. But while there was some justification behind this protest, the criticism reserved for Paolo Maldini during his 900th and last appearance for Milan against Roma in 2009 was baffling.

It goes without saying that Maldini is a club legend. A product of the Milan Primavera, their youth team, Maldini won five European Cups and seven Scudetti over the course of his 25-year career. Yet, after his final match at the San Siro, his lap of honour was soured by a pocket of ultras who expressed their dissent.522685-22732500-1600-900“Thanks captain. On the pitch you were an undying champion but you had no respect for those who made you rich,” read one of the banners. “For your 25 years of glorious service you have the thanks of those who you called mercenaries and misers,” opined another.

The ill feelings are said to have stemmed from an angry exchange between Maldini and a group of ultras who had awaited the team’s return at the Milan airport following their loss to Liverpool in the 2005 Champions League final. The banners were accompanied by a giant shirt emblazoned with the number six, which was unveiled to the backdrop of the chant: “There’s only one captain, Baresi.”

Giancarlo Capelli, an ultras leader, later remarked: “It was not a protest. We just wanted to make it clear what we thought about some of his comments and behaviour over the past years.” Throughout his career, Maldini had not shied from condemning the ultras when they had failed to support some of his team-mates, and his defence of Silvio Berlusconi’s transfer policy also irritated fans.

For observers on the outside, it is hard to accept that a club legend would be subjected to such treatment, albeit from a minority of supporters. However, the intensity of this incident reveals the visceral relationship between ultras and their club. At times it feels like the macho response of a domineering spouse or spurned lover who feels they haven’t been awarded their due respect. While these actions are highly questionable and a flagrant offence to many a football purist, this behaviour is part of the ultras’ fabric.

That Milan’s ultras hold their players to such lofty standards is perhaps born out of the club’s success and prestige. Founded in 1899 as Milan Cricket and Football Club by English expatriates Alfred Edwards and Herbert Kilpin, the Milanisti take great pride in the knowledge that their team is the oldest in the city and one of the most decorated in Europe – facts they are keen to flaunt when they play their city rivals, Internazionale.

To honour their roots, Milan have retained the English spelling of the city’s name and this history is also celebrated by the supporters, most notably when the ultras choreographed a gigantic banner of Kilpin in his archaic red and black shirt during their match against Barcelona in 2013. The display was accompanied by the date 1899 and the message “La Storia Siamo Noi” (“We are the history”). The supporters may also have Kilpin to thank for the club’s iconic red and black colours and as a consequence their nickname, Il Diavolo (the Devil).

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The Englishman is said to have arrived at this choice of colours after saying: “We are a team of devils. Our colours are red as fire, and black to invoke fear in our opponents.” Indeed, the San Siro can be one of the most daunting arenas in European football and the ultras of the Curva Sud thrive off their menacing moniker. Unsurprisingly, Milan’s status means they have a plethora of ultra groups, none more renowned than the historic Fossa dei Leoni (Lion’s Den).

The group were formed in 1968 and are said to be the first modern ultra organisation in Italy. As such they played something of a pioneering role in the nascent years of the movement. Although Fossa dei Leoni originally resided on Ramp 18 of the Settori Popolari of the San Siro, in 1972 the group shifted to the Curva Sud and became the heartbeat of the Diavolo support. Accompanied by the Brigate Rossonere (Red and Black Brigade), founded in 1975, and Commandos Tigre (Tiger Commandos) who joined Brigate and Fossa on the Curva Sud in 1985, they formed a triumvirate that made the Rossoneri’s support one of the most eclectic on the peninsula.

To emphasise Fossa’s cult nature, the group had their own song, Leoni Armati (Armed Lions), inspired by the Italian film L’armata Brancaleone. In 1982 they featured in the Italian film Eccezzziunale… veramente, in which actor Diego Abatantuono played the role of the group’s leader, Donato “Ras della Fossa”.

The Italian ultra movement was inextricably linked with the political activism of the era but, curiously, Fossa never adopted a clear political identity. It is said that some of their members veered towards the left, with images of Che Guevara visible in the San Siro during the group’s early years, but many of the ultras on the Curva Sud have avoided political affiliation. While occasional rifts arose between Commandos, Brigate and Fossa, the groups led the Curva for 20 years in relative harmony, until Fossa disbanded in 2005.

The reason behind Fossa’s dissolution once again beggars belief. The story goes – and there are numerous accounts – that during a game between Milan and Juventus in 2005, the group managed to steal a banner from a Juve ultra group known as Viking. Fossa proceeded to unfurl this banner in the Curva Sud as a trophy of their conquest, but it later emerged that rather than stealing the banner, the Milanisti had obtained it senza onore (without honour). The fans hadn’t physically fought to steal the banner and this went against the unwritten rules of the ultras. The Juventini wanted revenge and a few days later a Fossa banner was stolen by Viking and posted on the group’s fanzine. The following Sunday the banners were back in the possession of their owners. Rumours spread that the swap had been organised in agreement with the police, a heinous crime in the world of the ultras and shocking news to the other groups in the Curva Sud.

Fossa ceased to exist, but the conflict in the Curva Sud went on. Internecine warfare ensued. A Milan fan was shot in the legs. Monza magistrates concluded that the attack was part of an internal war among Rossoneri ultras over merchandising and tickets. Commandos and Brigate lived on, while new groups such as Guerrieri Ultras (Ultra Warriors) – formed of ex-Fossa members – were born. Their motto – “neither red nor black, just black and red” – encapsulated their apolitical stance. The peace was eventually restored and now the majority of the Curva Sud has united under the umbrella of Curva Sud Milano. Their headquarters lie in the industrial area of San Giovanni but their members are spread across the length of the peninsula.

326681_heroaThe infighting, the protests, their unabashed hubris and the revolving door in which groups form and disband is ludicrous. It is bemusing but undeniably beguiling. In the midst of all the chaos there are codes and rules that must be followed stringently. It is madness but there is a meticulous method to the ultras madness. Imagine Italian football without them. Imagine the San Siro on a Champions League night without the Curva Sud, the match devoid of incessant chanting, flares, smoke and spectacular choreographies.

In 2010, when Manchester United faced Milan in the Champions League knockout phase, Sir Alex Ferguson was left in awe. Not by the superstars on the field but by the supporters in the terraces. “The one thing that’s so amazing is that for the first 15 minutes I felt in shock, really in shock, because the atmosphere was unbelievable,” Ferguson explained. “Coupled with the noise when they scored, it unnerved me and it unnerved my players. No matter how much experience you have got, you get drawn into that cauldron of noise.” Therein lies the seductive power of these ultras.

@LH_Ramon25

First published on The Guardian and The Gentleman Ultra

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

02/22/15

The Ultras of Lazio

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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.

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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

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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

01/14/15

The Ultras of Juventus

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A guide to the Ultra groups of Serie A: Juventus

City: Turin

Key Ultra groups: Gruppo Storico Fighters 1977 (Fighters Historic Group 1977), Black and White Fighters Gruppo Storico 1977, Drughi (The Droogs), Viking

Other fan groupsFossa dei Campioni (Champions Den), Panthers, Gioventu Bianconera (Black and White Youth), Area Bianconera (Black and White Area), Indians, Nucleo Amato Bianconero (Nuclear Black and White Love) later renamed Nucleo 1985, Arancia Meccanica (Clockwork Orange), Fighters, Irriducibili Vallette (Unbreakable Vallette), Arditi (Daring Ones), 06 clan, Noi Soli (Only Us), Gruppo Marche 1993 (Marche Group), Bruxelles Bianconera (White and Black Brussels), Gruppo Homer (Homer Group), Assiduo Sostegno (Loyal Support), Bravi Ragazzi (Top Boys), Tradizione Bianconera (Black and White Tradition), Vecchia Guardia (Old Guard).

“Real Madrid dumped you, Napoli rejected you, only your greed brought you back here.”

This was the message that greeted Fabio Cannavaro on his return to Juventus in 2009. His two league titles with the Bianconeri did not spare him. He was regarded as a traitor by the club’s ultras, a player who had abandoned his team during their hour of need.

Back in 2006 Juventus were relegated to Serie B in the wake of the Calciopoli scandal. While club icons such as Gianluigi Buffon and Alessandro Del Piero remained, Cannavaro moved to Real Madrid. It is hard to begrudge such a career move but this treachery was neither forgotten nor forgiven. In the ultras’ eyes, he only returned to satisfy his avarice. A group known as Viking started circulating a T-shirt which read “Cannavaro mercenary” on the front and “No forgiveness for traitors” on the back.

This treatment of a former club hero did not sit well with some Juve supporters, but it exposes the visceral culture of the ultras: it borders on the extreme but has at its heart an unswerving passion for one club. Darwin Pastorin, one of Italy’s famed football writers said: “Juventus is a team which unites everyone: from intellectuals to workers… it is a universal team, a footballing Esperanto… and then there are the fans, the real fans, from Sicily to the Aosta Valley. There are eleven million of us!”

Juventus are the most successful club in Italian history with 30 league titles (32 if you’re a Juventino). They are the Manchester United of Italy. You either love them or hate them and perhaps this is where the nickname La Fidanzata d’Italia (Italy’s girlfriend) originates. The club is the third oldest in Italy. It was founded in 1897 by a group of students from Turin and since 1923 the club has been managed by the Agnelli family, the founders and owners of Fiat.

Juventus also have nationwide support. This is in part due to the influx of workers from the south who migrated to Turin to work at Mirafiori, the huge Fiat factory constructed on the edge of the city in 1939. Fiat provided thousands of jobs and Umberto Agnelli (former Fiat CEO and Juventus chairman) once claimed that “one of the reasons which led migrants to choose Turin during the great migrations of the 1950s and 1960s was the possibility of going to see Juventus play”. This history and their huge success has made their fanbase the largest in Italy and has given the club a surfeit of ultra groups.

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The story of the Juventus ultras is like no other. It reads like a script of The Borgias with its bewildering catalogue of schisms, reformations and civil wars. The origins of the Bianconeri’s organised support can be traced back to two groups, Venceremos and Autonomia Bianconera, who were formed in the mid-1970s and positioned to the extreme left of the political spectrum, although that stance has changed considerably.

In 1977 one of Juve’s most renowned ultra groups, Gruppo Storico Fighters (Historic Fighters Group), was founded by Beppe Rossi, who remains a heroic figure among ultras today. Residing in the Curva Sud Scirea (or Curva Filadelfia as it was known in the old Stadio Olimpico) the vestiges of the group survive today. For 10 years they enjoyed prominence among the landscape of the Italian ultras, but the era would be marred by the darkest day in the history of Juventus.

On 29 May 1985, 39 Juventus fans died at Heysel Stadium during their European Cup final against Liverpool. Trouble had already flared when Liverpool fans breached a fence separating them from the Italians. In the maelstrom that followed, Juventus fans were crushed against a concrete wall that collapsed, killing and injuring many people. For Juventini, the blame was apportioned solely to Liverpool. An attempt was made to remove any “Englishness” from the Curva and a virulent hatred was born. When the sides were drawn together in the Champions League in 2005, many Juve ultras made their feelings clear by turning their backs on the choreography prepared by Liverpool at Anfield that read “Amicizia” (Friendship). In the return leg banners were displayed reading “Easy to speak, difficult to pardon murders” and “15-4-89. Sheffield. God exists”, the latter an unpleasant reference to the Hillsborough disaster.

The 1980s also saw the inception of other influential ultra groups, including Viking (whose members hailed from Milan) and Nucleo Amato Bianconero. The latter changed their name to Nucleo 1985 in memory of the Heysel victims. In 1987, following the dissolution of Fighters due to brutal skirmishes with bitter rivals Fiorentina, Arancia Meccanica (Clockwork Orange) was formed. Inspired by the Stanley Kubrick film, the group was an amalgam of various splinters in the Curva Sud, and under the authorities behest their name was later changed to I Drughi (the Droogs). During their infancy their membership allegedly grew in excess of 10,000. However, with the formation of Irriducibili Vallette (Vallette Unbreakables), who migrated to the Curva Nord, and the re-emergence of the Fighters, the ultras battled and squabbled among themselves.

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Following the Bianconeri’s Champions League triumph against Ajax in 1996, the jubilant fans rallied under the same banner, calling themselves the Black and White Fighters Gruppo Storico 1977. However, this unification faded with the outbreak of internecine fighting. In 2005 the Fighters disbanded again, leaving the control of the Curva Sud up for grabs. This was compounded after the Turin giants were found guilty for their involvement in the Calciopoli scandal. A power struggle ensued and before a pre-season friendly against Alessandria in 2006 this reached an ugly peak.

Multifarious groups, including Tradizione Bianconera, Arditi, Drughi, Irriducibili and Viking, were said to have clashed in what can only be described as civil war. Two fans were stabbed and 50 were arrested. This is not the only occasion in which Juventus ultras have allegedly attacked each other. It would appear that relative peace has been restored. The Fighters have returned to the Curva Sud Scirea and they are accompanied by Viking, the Drughi and a bourgeoning number of other groups. While it is hard to get one’s head around this clannish mentality, the internal divisions reflect elements of wider Italian society.

Nonetheless, the superfluity of Juventus Ultras can create one of the more colourful and eclectic atmospheres on the peninsula. Each group boasts their own banners, which creates a vibrant and multi-faceted choreography. This makes the chic Juventus stadium a cauldron on match days and there is rarely an empty seat.

Set to the backdrop of the Alps and straddling the River Po, Turin is often referred to as the Industrial centre of Italy. The city’s armoury includes Fiat, ancient Egyptian artefacts, a myriad of contemporary art and the best chocolate in Italy. However, to the Juventini, Turin is most importantly home to a juggernaut of Italian football and the Ultras thrive in the knowledge that their beloved Vecchia Signora is the envied queen of Italy.

First appeared on Guardian Sport and The Gentleman Ultra

@LH_Ramon25

11/8/14

The Ultras of Internazionale

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A guide to the Ultra groups of Serie A: Internazionale

City: Milan

Key Ultra groups: Viking, Boys-San

Other fan groups Irriducibili (Unbreakables), Skins, Inter Ultras 1975, Brianza Aloolica (Brianza Alcoholics), Milano Nerazzurra (Black and Blue Milan), Boys Roma, Imbastici, Squilibrati (unbalanced), Bulldogs, Pitbull, Decisi (Decided), Boys Veneto, il “Covo”, Pessimi Elementi (Heavy Elements), Fo De Co (Milanese dialect for Out of your head).

It was all a formality. Internazionale had already been crowned 2006-07 Serie A champions. Marco Materazzi was on the verge of converting his second penalty to give his side a 3-0 victory against Torino. But this was the last game of the season and possibly Luis Figo’s last game in the iconic black and blue colours. The Portuguese play maker was a crowd favourite and the Ultras on the Curva Nord wanted to honour him.

The message was transmitted and suddenly the Curva bellowed the chant “Luís Figo rest in Milano.” Figo was moved and quickly stopped to applaud the Inter faithful. Moments later the Curva erupted again, prompting Marco Materazzi to step away from the penalty spot and point at Figo. He had understood the message loud and clear, Figo was to have his moment in the spot light. The Nerazzuri number 7 made no mistake and the crowd descended into delirium. Figo ended up staying with the Benemata for another two years, in part influenced by the arrival of his Portuguese compatriot Jose Mourinho and undoubtedly swayed by the passion and warmth of the Interisti.

Milan, the modern heart of Italy, is a city that needs little by way of introduction. The metropolis is at the vanguard of the fashion world, combining glitzy designer stores with businesslike modernity and historic landmarks. The most eye-catching of these is Il Duomo, an imposing gothic-styled cathedral at the hub of the city and at its peak, a statue of the Virgin Mary (the Madonnina) surveys Milan. The city is not only a pilgrimage for fashionistas but also a home for football aficionados, boasting two Italian behemoths, AC Milan and Internazionale. The latter represents the black and blue half of this prodigious city.

In 1908, following a schism within the Milan Cricket and Football Club, a group of Italians and Swiss (who were unhappy about the domination of Italians in the AC Milan team) broke away and formed Internazionale. The club has won 18 league titles and is now the joint-second most successful in Italian history, tied with none other than their city rivals. The Nerazzurri have a global and nationwide following and, although they may not have the same clannish mentality adopted by the supporters of provincial clubs, this is not to say they are any less fanatic.

The origin of their organised support was allegedly inspired by former coach and Catenaccio partisan Helenio Herrera, a man who enjoyed major success during the 1960s with a team that became known as “Grande Inter”. This saw the inception of organised fan groups such as I Moschettieri (the Musketeers) and Aficionados. However, the club’s first official Ultra group, now known as the Boys-San, were formed in 1969. Along with a group called Vikings, the Boys-San remain the protagonists of the Curva Nord and, in tandem with their Nordic inspired companions, they are capable of producing an explosive atmosphere.

The Boys-San were originally named 11 Assi – Boys Le Furie Nerazzurre (11 Axes – the Furious Black and Blue Boys). The name was inspired by a mischievous character called Boy in a cartoon published by the clubs magazine during that era. During the 1970s, while the Ultra movement was still in its infancy, the Boys stood out due to their organisation and unity. These were pioneering years for the group and it was during this period that fierce rivalries were born, in particular with Atalanta, Torino, Juventus, Sampdoria and AC Milan.

In 1979, a restructuring of the Giuseppe Meazza meant the Boys-San made the heart of the Curva Nord their stronghold. Not long after, the Boys also changed their name to Boys-San, (Squadra d’azione nerazzurre – Black and blue action squad). In 1984, the Vikings replaced a group known as the Skins on the Curva after they were allegedly forced to disband due to police repression. Unfortunately, like their predecessors, the Vikings have been known to hold far-right political sympathies, a transgression which detracts from their often impressive match-day support.

In more recent years, the club have enjoyed untrammeled success, especially after the relegation of Juventus in 2006 for their involvement in the Calciopoli scandal. The clubs successful history is reflected in their substantial fan-base and it is also worth mentioning other influential groups on the Curva Nord. One particular circle known as Forever Ultras (1975) took prominence in the Curva until 1995, while Potere Neroazzurro (Black and Blue power) were supposedly forced down to a lower section of the Curva following an internal dispute with the Boys-San. Following their fusion with Zona Nera (Black Zone), the Irriducibili (whose banner appeared in the 1988-89 season) became renowned for their tendency to provoke chaos and violence, that said the atmosphere has cooled in recent years and this is especially apt when anaylsing the Milan derby.

The Derby della Madonnina is an ongoing civil war between two cousins vying to become ruler of the city. It is a rivalry made truly colossal not by the icons on the pitch but the fanatics in the stands. This derby used to be marred by violent skirmishes, particularly in the 1970s, when the Ultras were positioned next to each other in the stadium (A key reason for the Interisti moving to the Curva Nord and Milanisti to the Sud). On occasion this violence would even spill on to the streets and into daily life. Then, following a particularly ferocious derby in 1983, a pact of non-aggression was agreed. This serves to add to the sprezzatura of the Milan derby in which the Ultras fight a symbolic battle through the creation of artistic choreographies and satirical banners.

Indeed the Interisti are more than happy to remind their counterparts about the more shameful days in AC Milan’s history. The Rossoneri‘s relegations in 1980 (due to the Totonero match-fixing scandal) and 1982 have provided the Nerazzurri with plenty of ammunition. “The only reason you didn’t return to Serie B is because the referees let you off,” is one particular example while during a derby in 2006 the Inter faithful unveiled a banner reading “38 years of the Fossa dei Leoni (AC Milan’s oldest Ultra group), trials and relegations and you really want to talk about intercepted phone calls.”

The striscione was in response to a Milan banner questioning Internazionale’s innocence in the Calciopoli scandal. One of the less subtle banners produced by the Curva Nord read: “You my cousin? I have never had a whore of an aunt!” Conversely, the Interisti don’t hesitate to show solidarity with their city cousins if they feel they have been unjustly oppressed by the common enemy (the Italian authorities). This was demonstrated during the derby back in December 2013, when both Internazionale and AC Milan ultras protested after the authorities deemed the Milanisti‘s banner inappropriate, preventing them for unveiling it at the derby.

Yet with this fiery support comes a volatility which bubbles and simmers and can occasionally reach boiling point. Back in 2001, during a match against Atalanta, Interisiti managed to smuggle a motorbike, allegedly stolen from Atalantini, into the Curva Nord. In one of the more peculiar incidents seen in Italian football, after failing to set it on fire, the fans launched the bike into a lower section of the ground. Fortunately no one was hurt.

Such flagrant acts overshadow the more positive aspects of the Ultras fervor. However  when the Curva Nord of the Giuseppe Meazza shimmers with hundreds of black and blue placards and the Ultras orchestrate the unveiling of a 40-metre banner to the backdrop of their anthem, Pazza Inter Amala, there are few places more beguiling or stylish in the city of Milan.

Follow myself – @LH_Ramon25 and Richard Hall – @Gentleman_Ultra on twitter.