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