03/19/15

The Ultras of Livorno

tumblr_n5u4vnS7kP1rny7rco3_1280

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.

livorno

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

lucarelli1

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

02/2/15

The Winds of Change: Is Cuban Football on the Brink of a Revolution

Cuba football

“Champions generate joy, honour, glory, and prestige for the country.”

(Fidel Castro)

At around 4:05pm, on July 13, 2013, a deadly silence fell over the Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. The American’s enthusiasm had been sapped, momentarily lost within the sultry summer air. Jose Ciprian wheeled off in celebration, showcasing his best impression of Usain Bolt’s iconic victory pose. The seemly unthinkable was unfolding. For ten minutes Cuba led the USA 1-0 in their CONCACAF Gold Cup group game. For ten minutes, the underdogs were on course to record a famous victory against their historical and ideological arch-rivals. For ten minutes, perhaps we got a glimpse into what the future could hold for Cuban football.

Despite leading from the 36th to the 47th minute, a Cuban victory was never truly tangible. From the moment Landon Donavan equalised from the penalty spot, order was restored and the USA waltzed to a 4-1 victory. Jürgen Klinsmann’s men produced the reaction you would expect from a team of professionals playing a team of amateurs. For professionalism has been outlawed on the Communist island of Cuba since 1962, three years after Fidel Castro’s revolution ousted the U.S. backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Cuba went on to be knocked out in the Quarter-finals, equalling their best ever finish in the Gold Cup. They had qualified for the tournament courtesy of the country’s first Caribbean Cup triumph in 2012, claiming the scalps of Jamaica and eight time winners, Trinidad and Tobago. These victories were milestones for Cuban football but plenty more lie ahead. In a country where revolutionary reforms placed sport at the nexus of domestic and international policy, football has remained inconspicuous, even neglected. It has traditionally been baseball and boxing making waves on the shores of the Antilles. Yet with the political winds seemingly swirling in the direction of American shores, could football be ready for its own revolution?

Caribbean football’s pioneers

Jamaica’s 2-1 victory against Japan at the 1998 World Cup in France endeared the Caribbean’s to football partisans. They played with gusto, with a vibrancy that matched the tempo of their supporter’s drums. It was their first ever victory in their first ever appearance at a World Cup finals. However Jamaica was not the first Caribbean nation to appear on football’s grandest stage. That privilege was Cuba’s.

In May 1938, this pioneering Cuban team boarded a ship to compete in the third edition of the World Cup finals in France. Football was popular back then, a legacy left during Spain’s colonisation of the island. In fact, having remained a cornerstone of the Spanish Empire until 1898, the majority of the squad were all of Spanish ancestry.

Remarkably, however, Cuba hadn’t played a World Cup qualifier, reaching the finals by means of invitation after Mexico had withdrawn. None of their players had even touched foot on foreign soil before, let alone competed in a major international competition. Yet despite their inexperience; the Leones del Caribe (Lions of the Caribbean) defied all odds, beating a strong Romanian side 2-1 in a first round replay having originally drawn 3-3.

In the Quarter-finals, a humiliating 8-0 drubbing at the hands of Sweden quashed dreams of another upset. According to the team’s top-scorer, Juan Tunas, a waterlogged pitch didn’t help the Cuban cause. Speaking to FIFA.com in 2010, he said:

We were playing well and felt we were favourites going into the game. But then something happened that we hadn’t bargained for: it rained and the pitch was sodden. We weren’t used to conditions like that and we kept slipping over.”

Known during his playing days as ‘El Romperredes’ (The Netbuster), Tunas was the last surviving member of Cuba’s trailblazing Lions, dying in 2011 at the age of 98.  While his team’s legacy was not forgotten, it certainly wasn’t built upon. Cuba’s debut in 1938 remains their only appearance in a World Cup Finals. No progression just stagnation, lost by the wayside as baseball and boxing took centre stage.

Football not fit for Castro’s revolution.

Sport is seldom, if ever free from politics. This has proven particularly pertinent in Cuba. Upon overthrowing President Batista’s military junta in 1959, Fidel Castro immediately outlined his intention to make sport a pillar of the revolution.

“Politics is an instrument of sports. That is, sport is not a means, but rather an end, like every other human activity…”

The man nicknamed ‘Commandante’ (Commander) quickly set about restructuring Cuban sport, arguing that it had become a kleptocracy and an object of exploitation. To this end, professional sport was banned. The creation of a centrally controlled sports ministry known as INDER (Instituto Nacional de Deportes, Educacion Fisica y Recreacion) helped Fidel implement schemes geared towards promoting mass participation and discovering athletic talent. Once discovered, these talents were nurtured, trained and indoctrinated at specialised sports schools known as EIDE (Escuelas de Iniciacion Deportiva Escolar).

The overarching aim behind these policies was twofold. Domestically sport helped promulgate a cohesive Marxist society. Internationally, it was an indirect but effective way to antagonise and compete with their U.S. neighbour, perceived as an overweening world power and a threat to the nascent Cuban revolution. But if sport was such a triumphant vehicle of the revolution, why was football a pariah in Fidel’s political machinations? Three considerations must be taken into account – amateurism, Fidel Castro and the U.S.

Historically the most popular sports in Cuba have been baseball and boxing. It’s unsurprising given the islands proximity to the U.S. For Fidel, they were the perfect fit. Both sports have a strong amateur tradition, with the Olympic and Pan American Games providing a global ‘shop window’ for Cuba’s sporting prowess. Baseball was one of Fidel’s favourite sports and boxing was an effective means through which to compete with the U.S., factors that cemented their place as hallmarks of the revolution.

Despite being favoured by Fidel’s foil – Argentinian Socialist icon Ernesto Che Guevara – football was not awarded the same prestige. It was inextricably linked to the world of professionalism. Professional players were even permitted to compete in the Olympic Games from 1984 onwards, further stymieing chances for Cuban football to make inroads. During the height of Fidel’s reforms, ‘soccer’ was yet to take off in the U.S., meaning it did not serve any ‘revolutionary’ purposes. As such, the game was not afforded the provision of other sports.

The problems Cuban Football faces today

Fast forward and the Cuban football system remains amateur in every sense of the word. The Campeonato Nacional (16 clubs split into four groups of four teams) is the highest level in the Cuban football pyramid. None of the players are paid, the facilities are squalid and the pitches shoddy. For many with aspirations of forging a career in football, it’s a glass ceiling.  This leaves talented young players bereft of a chance to hone their skills and playing abroad isn’t an option – that is unless they are willing to defect.

Many have, Eviel Corvodes, Maykel Chang, Odisnel Cooper, Maykel Galindo, Osvaldo Alonso and Yordany Álvarez are just a number of players who have chosen to pursue a professional football career in the United States. Speaking to USA Today, Álvarez, who played for Salt Lake City in Major League Soccer (MLS) before retiring in 2014, gave a candid insight into the realities Cuban footballers face:

Cuba has good soccer players but the conditions are bad – no cleats, bad coaches, bad food. All my friends in Cuba have retired. They don’t play anymore because there is no money.”

In line with Cuba’s egalitarian policies, players of the Cuban national team are not awarded any special treatment. They receive a derisory sum of $8-10 a month. In truth the amount is barely enough to get by and unsurprisingly many defect, favouring a stable career over the duties of their country. The defectors are considered traitors, unable to represent the national team to the detriment of Cuban football’s progression. But amid this doom and gloom, successes on the pitch suggest the dawn of a new era could lie just around the corner.

A new dawn for the Caribbean’s Lions

Upon winning the Caribbean Cup in 2012, Cuban head coach Walter Benitez said: “Our style of playing is kind of flowing, fast-moving football, where we create chances for our strikers and trust each other totally.” It’s a style of play that appears to be capturing the imagination of Cuba’s youth. “I like soccer better than baseball, it’s a strong sport, the movement, the energy,” one 16-year-old Cuban told the New York Times. Another youngster echoed this sentiment while partaking in his daily kick around after school “It’s our game, fun and fast.”

In terms of popularity, football has started to rival baseball as the favourite sport of many young Cubans. It shows.  In 2013 the national u-20 side qualified for the World Cup at that youth level for the first time in their history. The tournament itself was a learning curve as the Cubans finished bottom in their group and failed to register a point. However for a team comprised of amateurs it was a major coup and one which demonstrated the wealth of raw talent on the island. To borrow from Paula Pettavino and Geralyn Pye (academics in Cuban sport and history), Cuba’s footballers are ‘rough diamonds just waiting to be polished’

Times are changing on the island nicknamed the ‘Pearl of the Antilles.’ The austerity faced by Cuban society during the last two decades has seen gradual economic liberalisation. Raul Castro (brother of Fidel) has announced he will stand down as president in 2018, heralding the end of the Castro-era. Cuba and the U.S. are in the midst of landmark talks focused on restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries. These improved relations could be the harbinger of a new era for Cuban football.

And why not? Fidel Castro’s regime has laid the foundations, creating a sporting infrastructure that has proved it can produce world-class athletes. The figures speak for themselves. Since the 1959 revolution, Cuba has won a total of 11 Pan-American golds in baseball and 67 Olympic medals in boxing. It isn’t inconceivable that with time, football could reach similar levels.

The normalisation of relations with the U.S. could certainly quicken the process. Could the rise in popularity of American soccer have a knock-on effect in Cuba? Could access to the professional leagues, particularly MLS, become more readily available which in turn could prevent Cuba’s footballing stars from defecting? Could we even see an MLS team based in Cuba one day? For now the latter remains implausible however according to MLS Commissioner Don Garber, the prospect of future world-class Cuban footballers is very much feasible.

“There’s no reason why in a country of 11 million people that has had a reputation for producing world-class athletes, Cuba can’t be a producer of world-class soccer players.”

Cuba is undergoing a moment of historic transcendence but ameliorating decades of hostilities with the U.S. will be a lengthy process. Just as reforming a sporting identity will. Baseball is engrained into the Cuban psyche but as sportswriter Michel Contreras declared, there is also room for football.

For now, the Cuban national team will be looking to build upon their fourth place finish in the 2014 edition of the Caribbean Cup. This year’s CONCAF Gold Cup in Canada and the U.S. will be another invaluable experience and they will hope their performances can inspire yet more young Cubans to lace up their ‘cleats’ rather than slap on their pitching gloves.

”It is not just a simple game, it is a weapon of the revolution.”

(Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara on football)

@LH_Ramon25

This article first appeared on These Football Times