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

04/10/14

True Bravery Lost in Football’s Hyperbole

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Manchester United fought like a brave Old Trafford side of old – it was their best display of the season.” ­Martin Keown writing for the Daily Mail

It is interesting how we perceive and use certain words. Bravery, what are the hallmarks of bravery and how is it defined?

In the Oxford dictionary brave is defined as: “Ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage.”

From 300 Spartans fighting to the death at the Battle of Thermopylae, to the Charge of the Light Brigade at the battle of Balaclava, throughout history acts of war-time bravery have consistently been immortalised. Today, in the absence of a prominent warrior culture, sport has become a de facto battle ground, allowing us to experience displays of sporting courage.

Of course we are often drawn into romanticised versions of bravery. According to legend, 300 Spartan’s defied the might of one million Persians. In actual fact scholars believe the Spartans were joined by a thousand Thespians and Thebans, while the might of Persia could only muster an army 100,000 strong. Spare a thought for the Thespians and Thebans who were not immortalised in the same manner as their Spartan brothers. Highlighting this is pernickety and undoubtedly the Spartan story personifies bravery. The point is, such tales lend themselves to hyperbole and sport, in particular football, is littered with examples.

“Evra and out for brave United.” – The Times Back Page, 10th April 2014.

Following Manchester United’s Champions League exit to Bayern Munich on Wednesday night, a recurring theme was noticeable. Listening to pundits, reading articles and trawling through twitter, words such as brave, valiant, admirable and courageous were being used to describe the Red Devils performance. It was all rather irksome.

Sporting bravery can take various forms, whether it’s physical, i.e. risking injury for the good of the team, or psychological, i.e. a gay athlete coming out and overcoming the trepidation of challenging stereotypes and barriers. So for a moment, let’s analyse the headline:“Evra and out for brave United.”  

What is the purpose of the word brave here? Barring Nemanja Vidic, who took one in the private parts to block Mario Mandzukic’s fierce shot and perhaps Patrice Evra’s goal, which was certainly audacious, it’s hard to pinpoint true acts of bravery during United’s performance. David Moyes didn’t drastically alter his tactics in order to deceive his opposite number – Pep Guardiola, nor did his team go toe to toe with the Germans and throw caution to the wind. You can hardly blame Moyes and United as the pressure in football is such that there is rarely room for fool-hardy acts of bravery. Thus why the word brave? It’s specious and redundant.

United’s performance was energetic (for 70 odd minutes). It was disciplined and organised until they took their ephemeral lead in the 57th minute. And it was certainly full of effort and endeavour, but that’s the least one should expect from professional players. However a brave performance? No, brave isn’t the word that should be used to summarise their defeat to Pep Guardiola’s side.

Words are important because they portray and betray the underlying beliefs and psyche of an author and the culture that author represents. In an interview with Sir Clive Woodward on BBC Radio 5 live, Queens Park Ranger midfielder, Joey Barton said.

“We love unlucky losers in this country. It’s our mindset. In football terms we are losers; we love the side that gets heroically beaten and hate sides that are successful.”

He may just have a point. A few months back I explored how the English mind-set can work to the detriment of the national team. How hopes and dreams are projected onto individuals and thus failures attributed elsewhere, eventually damaging the team’s efficacy. On this occasion, an English team’s disappointment and deficiencies were hidden under the guise of bravery. The term glorifies defeat and also reveals an inferiority complex which can have a pernicious knock on effect.

This conflates a number of issues. Firstly the word brave projects power onto the opposition. In other words Bayern are so omnipotent that only a lionhearted performance from United could have toppled the German giants, skill alone would not have been sufficient.

Granted Bayern are an extremely talented team, officially the best in Europe but Manchester United aren’t exactly minnows. If Hyde FC – currently bottom of the Skill Conference Premier – had played the reigning European champions then, perhaps, brave would’ve been apt. But this was a team that has hardly been parsimonious in the transfer market and despite their recent travails, possess a surfeit of talent. Thus inferring this was a brave performance, or an admirable defeat, implies the odds were overwhelming in the first place and this is neither conducive to self-belief nor taking responsibility.

On the other hand this rhetoric also skirts around the crux of the problem – the English Champions simply weren’t good enough. If you’ve ever studied psychology you’d recognise this as attribution theory. Admittedly there are times when all good coaches will take pressure off their players by attributing failures to external factors (referees, bad luck etc.). However there is a worrying trend in British culture to veer towards attributing super human qualities to the opposition. This creates an environment where, even stepping onto the field to battle the adversary becomes an act of heroism. Just look at Greg Dyke’s reaction to England’s World Cup draw, anyone would’ve thought Saint George’s boys were off to fight a dragon all over again.

This offers an interesting and somewhat contradictory psychological conundrum. On the one hand such language shows a damning acceptance of a team’s shortcomings, on the other it avoids addressing  inadequacies.

It’s fair to praise effort, although some pundits such as Roy Keane – the pathological  “truth sayer” – `would point out that effort should be a given. He is right and just because a team gives their all, this should not be misconstrued as bravery. It is a word thrown around with gleeful abundance in the footballing lexicon but more often than not, it makes a false comparison to true acts of bravery.

2500 years ago the Spartan’s hope was forlorn and they were rightly labelled brave. Last night Manchester United played a team superior to them and they were underdogs. However their hope was not forlorn. The numbers on the field of the Allianz Arena were even and for the 22 seconds they were in front, United were closer to winning their battle than the Spartan’s could ever have dreamed. United’s odds were considerably more favourable. Their task was daunting but achievable, not impossible. Their performance was determined but not brave. Bayern were good at the Allianz, but they weren’t Persia at Thermopylae.

03/18/14

The Ultras of Chievo

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A Guide to the Ultra Groups in Serie A: Chievo

City: Verona

Key Ultra Groups: North Side 94

Other fan groups: Ultras Chievo, Cani Sciolti (Wild Dogs or Bad Boys), Chievo 1929, Gate 7, Mussi Volanti (Flying Donkeys), Gioventù Clivense (Chievo Youth), Gruppo Milano (Milan Group), La Fossa dei Pandorini (The Pandora’s Den), Brulè Boys (Grill Boys), The Friends, North Side Girls.

Come si scrive Ciampion Lig” (“How do you write Ciampion Lig”) … certainly not like that. Of course it was tongue-in-cheek, an ironic gesture emphasising the Chievo fans’ own incredulity at their team’s success, success that saw them on course for a Champions League spot during their first ever season in Italy’s top flight.

In the end, it wasn’t to be, with the Flying Donkeys finishing fifth in the 2001-02 season and outside of the Champions League spots. Just five years later, with a little help from the Calciopoli scandal that led to Juventus, Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio all being banned from Europe, spelling “Ciampion Lig” was the least of Chievo’s worries; they were in it – well, at least the preliminary stage.

It was an astounding achievement for a club whose existence was for so long peripheral, even non-existent in the eyes of their powerful overweening neighbours Hellas Verona. This was Chievo’s time and their fans were keen to remind their city bedfellows.

In a game against Livorno the Clivensi (Chievo supporters) produced a banner that read: “Chievo frazione di Verona, provincia d’Europa” (“Chievo district of Verona, province of Europe”). A club from a tiny suburb of Verona that is home to 3,000 inhabitants were competing in Europe’s premier football competition. Their success became known as the “Chievo phenomenon” and how the Veronesi loathed it.

Writing in the Guardian back in October 2001, Tim Parks, the author of A Season with Verona, gave his own account of the Chievo area:

“I’d lived in Verona more than 10 years before I stumbled across it, a miserable case of working-class suburb overflowing into declining semi-industrialised fenland.”

Parks conveys the haughtiness that every Verona loyalist expresses towards Chievo, both the place and the team. Chievo’s nickname in Veneto dialect is “Ceo” which means kid. Their story is certainly a child’s fairy tale: the ugly duckling that blossomed and became a swan, flaunting its feathers among Calcio’s elite. It is fanciful but not far from the truth. Chievo fans may be maligned by their city rivals for their miniscule fan-base and they are not renowned across Italy, but they have still played their part in Chievo’s romance.

Having trawled through forums and fan sites, it is clear there remains an ambiguity regarding Chievo’s more stalwart fans. Are they really Ultras? Aside from the countless Hellas jibes, some recognise Chievo’s North Side as the ‘only real group of Ultras’.  Apparently a few boys formed the group over a beer in 1994, in a bid to start a movement of ardent fandom that would help their cause of claiming the Curva Nord as their own domain. Normally residing in the Curva Sud inferiore of the Stadio Bentegodi, they move to the Curva Nord on derby days to accommodate the greater number of visiting Verona fans.

In the early years, the group’s symbol became the Looney Tunes character Marvin the Martian, who, as a member describes, “encapsulates Chievo and above all the North Side who were aliens in the world of professional football”.

When Chievo faced Napoli in 2000 an overly offensive banner abusing the visitors (the content of which remains elusive) led to five members of the North Side being expelled, creating profound divisions. New leadership re-asserted the group’s basic ideals, including a non-violent, apolitical stance and a rejection of official twinnings and rivalries. These are not your usual Ultras and this episode best captures their idiosyncrasies.

Later that year Chievo’s promotion to Serie A saw the North Side flourish and the Flying Donkeys were followed more feverishly than ever before. As a result various sub-groups formed. These include Ultras Chievo (1999), who have now dissolved but were allegedly ‘less good-natured” than North Side, Chievo 1929 and Gate 7, who were formed as recently as 2013.

Although the North Side Ultras profess to have no rivals, Chievo’s prominence has seen Verona develop a new-found hatred for their once “fictitious” neighbours. The return of the Mastini to Serie A in 2013 saw the first Derby della Scala in over a decade.

There were murmurings of trouble and stories than the Clivensi had thrown objects and sticks at the Verona team bus. But as many of theVeronesi will tell you, historically this is not the Veneto derby they get worked up about. The Veronesi never believed this rivalry would materialise, as demonstrated by the banner they unfurled during their 1995 derby in Serie B: “When donkeys fly we will play this derby in Serie A”. Needless to say Chievo’s success and Verona’s struggles in the last decade have allowed the Clivensi to revel in a touch of schadenfreude.

Having written about Catania’s Ultras, the contrast is striking. If you were to juxtapose Chievo with the Sicilians, you would have to say they are the saints of the Ultra world. The Chievo story is unique and in a small way their fans have left an indelible mark on the pages of the club’s history. Whether you call them magnanimous Ultras or just fans, the Clivensi offer a passionate and loyal support that follow and fly with their donkeys wherever they can.

You can also read these articles on Richard Hall’s website –  The Gentleman Ultra.

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