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”).

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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

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

01/9/14

“Nothing Against the State”: European Football and Fascism

I was slightly perplexed when I heard Nicholas Anelka had been lambasted by the French Sports Minister, Valerie Fourneyron, for what at first sight, appeared nothing more than an inconspicuous goal celebration. ‘La quenelle’ – a reverse Nazi salute?  Even Arsenal’s French manager, the studied and renowned Arsène Wenger, expressed his bewilderment:

“Nobody knows in France what it means. Some make it an anti-system movement; some make it an anti-Semitic movement. I think personally I don’t know, I have never seen this movement.”

After scoring the first of his two goals in West Brom’s 3-3 draw with West Ham back in December the French striker, who it must be said is no stranger to controversy (just ask Raymond Domenech), celebrated with what has been described as a pseudo-Nazi salute with anti-Semitic connotations.

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Anelka and his comedian friend Dieudonné – the quenelle (Photo from http://www.spi0n.com/)

Quenelle’ – loosely translated as a spice dumpling in French is the word used to describe Anelka’s gesture. Its appearance strongly resembles a downward facing Nazi Salute, with the non-saluting arm placed upon the other to symbolize it being held down, as a regular Nazi salute is of course not acceptable. Patented by the French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala (who goes by Dieudonné), Anelka’s actions prompted widespread condemnation from both political and sporting circles.

Anelka responded to this furore by claiming that the celebration was “just a special dedication to my comedian friend Dieudonné” and that he is “neither a racist nor an anti-semite”. Dieudonné asserts the quenelle is anti-establishment rather than anti-Semitic. But this is a man who has been fined on a number of occasions for inciting racial hatred and whose humour consists of saying “When I hear Patrick Cohen speak, I think to myself: ‘Gas chambers … too bad [they no longer exist].”

With the FA investigating his controversial gesture, Anelka could face a lengthy ban of 5-10 games. The former French international has pledged not to repeat this action, yet whether his plea of blissful ignorance holds any weight is another question. The fact he dedicated the celebration to Dieudonné, a man who openly voices some deplorable views, makes it hard to sympathise with Anelka. At a time when anti-Semitism in football has found voice in whispers, the FA must act swiftly to make an example of this particular incident.

Stan Collymore, ex-professional and now football pundit responded to the incident, saying he didn’t believe politics should mix with sport and that footballers should leave such issues to the politicians. Maybe but we must remember footballers are voting people just like the rest of us and as long as they are not voicing, tweeting , gesturing, or communicating views which disseminate political extremism and/or messages that incite racial hatred then I believe they have a right to a political opinion. However that is neither here nor there. My main point is, as Sid Lowe explores in his book Fear and Loathing in La Liga “Like it or not, sport and politics do mix, no match is so infused with politics as the Clasico”.

Political expressions during El Clasico are common place.

Political expressions during El Clasico are common place.

Indeed the history of this fixture highlights the purpose of this article. The political backdrop to El Clasico owes much to the Spanish Civil War and the Fascist dictator General Francisco Franco’s oppression of Catalonia. For the Catalan people, Real Madrid, a team based in the Spanish capital, became something of a standard bearer for the Franco regime. It was a regime which the majority in Catalonia virulently opposed and was a continuation of the regions ongoing struggle for autonomy. Franco ruthlessly manipulated the passion of Spain’s bitterly divided football supporters and made the sport an arm of his Fascist policy. Consequently FC Barcelona became a symbol of Catalan defiance. This is just one example in which fascism is interwoven in football’s history.

So without getting bogged down in the minutiae of the Anelka saga I would like to raise a wider issue. The quenelle incident is just the latest chapter in an ongoing narrative which has seen far right, fascist sentiments take hold within European football.

Football and its Fascist past.

“It’s only a game but behind the image of football lies a history of coercion, corruption and manipulation by the three most powerful fascists of the 20th century.”

This is one of the opening statements in the BBC’s documentary Football and Fascism. Benito Mussolini, General Franco and Adolf Hitler all exploited the popular culture of football for the benefit of their regimes. Mussolini used Italy’s triumph in the 1934 World Cup (hosted by the Italians) as an opportunity to gain International prestige and mold a national identity for Fascist Italy while under Hitler, the Nazi’s intimidated, threatened and murdered footballers who refused to bend to their will.

Italian team line up for the 1934 World Cup saluting Benito Mussolini.

Italian team line up for the 1934 World Cup – Fascist salutes.

On the face of it the nature of a sport like football to an oligarchy like Fascism is quite obvious. It is a sport which teaches values of discipline, adherence to rules, cohesion as well as stalwart passion for one’s team. International sporting success can also be extrapolated to wider contexts such as asserting and showcasing a nation’s superiority and dominance, something which was a leitmotif in all three of the aforementioned Fascist regimes. Nonetheless with the extinction of these dictators and their totalitarian states one might think Fascism’s place in football died with them – not quite.

Benito Mussolini or Il Duce as he was known said “Fascism is a religion. The twentieth century will be known in history as the century of Fascism.” Unfortunately it would appear such ideologies have managed to inexorably slither into the 21st century too.

Football Supporters and Fascism

For a while now it has been well documented that some sets of supporters across the Europe harbour fascist views.

Back in 2012 a group of Zenit St Petersburg fans called for non-white and gay players to be excluded from their team (Photo from the Telegraph).

Back in 2012 a group of Zenit St Petersburg fans called for non-white and gay players to be excluded from their team (Photo from the Telegraph).

Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Italy, Spain and Holland are just a number of countries among many others which have seen incidents of racism and utterances of fascism plague their football. Extreme cases have even seen hard core fan groups like those at Zenit St Petersburg openly voice their displeasure at seeing non-whites play for their club.

In England the situation has vastly improved and gone are the days where far right parties like the National Front held sway in the terraces and monkey chants were regularly hurled at black and ethnic players. However even British football, which did so much to nullify the hooliganism and racism which bedevilled the game in the 1970’s and 80’s, has seen right-wing views appear through those cracks left unsealed.

Granted the gas chamber hissing noises directed at Tottenham and monkey gestures directed at players might not be full-blown fascist salutes but they open up a Pandora’s box of all those atrocities and iniquitous values that millions died fighting against. An equally worrying facet of this, is the manifestation of Fascist sentiments among football players themselves.

Footballers and Fascism.

In the aftermath of Croatia’s World Cup play-off victory against Iceland back in November 2013 in Zagreb, Croatian defender Josep Simunic picked up a microphone to address the jubilant crowd.  “For the homeland” Simunic shouts.  “READY” the crowd responds. Simunic was subsequently hit with a 10 match ban after being found guilty of chanting a pro-Nazi slogan. The war call is a vestige of a slogan used by Ustashas, the pro-Nazi Croatian regime that ruled the state during the Second World War. The same chant has been coupled with the Nazi salute by Croatian fans in the past. FIFA have set a precedent by banning the Australian born Croatian who will miss the World Cup as a result.

Giorgos Katidis 'celebrates'  his goal with Nazi salute. (Photo from Reuters).

Giorgos Katidis ‘celebrates’ his goal with a Nazi salute. (Photo from Reuters).

However this is not an isolated incident. In March last year Greek footballer Giorgos Katidis was banned for life from playing for the national team after his goal celebration was accompanied by a Nazi salute. The AEK Athens player took to twitter to say “I am not a fascist and would not have done it if I had known what it meant”. Yet in a country which has seen the birth of the neo-fascist political party Golden Dawn, who I might add received 7% of the popular vote during the 2012 national Greek elections, it is hard to believe Katidis was completely naive to the meaning of his salute.

Of course Paolo Di Canio’s infamous Roman salute to the fans of S.S Lazio (their more extreme groups professing to hold far right sentiments) following their triumph in the Rome derby in 2005 provides more fuel to the burning fire. The salute harks back to the hegemony of Mussolini and Di Canio himself has admitted to being intrigued by Italy’s far right history and once stated “I’m a fascist not a racist”.

It is a fascination shared among other Italian footballers. In the book Football, Fascism and Fandom (Gary Armstrong and Alberto Testa) a number of prominent Italian players are mentioned in connection with far-right politics. These include AC Milan’s Christian Abbiati, revealed in 2008 as an associate of the Milan based neo-Fascist gathering Black Heart, and Fabio Cannavaro who once held aloft an Italian flag bearing a fascist symbol while playing in Madrid as well as others have been tarred with this brush.

Football and Fascism: why the re-emergence?

What has caused this ignominious spread of fascist sentiments in football? One must remember that football has always been known as the people’s game. It is the most popular sport in the world and plays a modern-day role akin to that of the Roman gladiatorial games, bread and circuses, assuaging discontent and occupying the masses. Football is a microcosm of society, and the stadiums have become a place where public opinion or more recently grumbles of disaffection have become more profound.

The worst recession the world has experienced since the 1930’s has given rise to extremist politics and it is the far right which has undergone somewhat of a renaissance. Mass unemployment, wretched living conditions and widespread immigration has allowed parties that once trod with caution to regurgitate the trite old prejudices of ‘race’ and ‘national identity’.

Notably far right parties such as the French National Front, The Danish People’s Party and the Flemish Vlaams Belang, among others are increasingly gaining popular support. While they remain careful not to align themselves with openly neo-Fascist parties such as Golden Dawn and Hungary’s Jobbik, Europe is veering dangerously towards an environment which saw Fascism take hold in the 1930’s. Although it is unacceptable to espouse such views in day-to-day society, football remains a ready vehicle for extreme ideologies to mobilise support.

Unfortunately this tars the image of a game we hold dear. FIFA and other governing bodies must do their utmost to quash these overt displays and although football has made an example of players like Simunic and Katidis, we must ask ourselves is this enough to deter such expressions from re-occurring.

With Nicholas Anelka currently under investigation for his quenelle gesture it will be interesting to discover what the FA feels is appropriate retribution. It may seem severe but a draconian crackdown is in order, by taking the attitude of its just and ‘few’ and its only ‘ a game’ we slip into the dangerous trap of letting history repeat itself. After all it was football which proved integral to the regimes of some of Fascism’s most infamous dictators.