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

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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.

08/22/14

The Ultras of Hellas Verona

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A guide to the Ultra groups of Serie A: Hellas Verona

City: Verona 

Key Ultra groupsBrigate Gialloblu (Yellow and Blue Brigade)

Other fan groups: Hellas Army, I 4 Fedellissimi (The Four Loyalists) Hellas Fans, Hellas AlcoolGioventù Scaligera (Scaligera Youth), Verona Front, Cani Blu 1988 (Blue Dogs 1988), Hellas Aliens, Villaggio (Village),Vecchio Inferno (Old Hell), Brigata Borghetti (Borghetti Brigade), 1 Febbraio (February 1), Butei Alti Livelli (The Top Boys), 12 Maggio 85(12 May 85, Orgoglio Scaligero (Scaligero Pride), Quartiere Roma(Roma District), Associazione Stalle Umane (Human Stable Association) and countless others.

“Shits! Thugs! Worms! Turds! Communists!” the boy yells out of the train window. The police look on unfazed. “Fascists! Slavs! Kurds! Bastards!Terroni!” He then pauses to answer his mobile phone: “Ciao mamma… no we’re still at the station in Vicenza… no we didn’t have much homework this weekend I’ve already finished.”

The train begins to pull away from the platform “Momento, Mamma” putting his hand over the microphone he leans out the window again. “Fuck off you assholes you are a disgrace to Italy”. He returns to addressing his mother “Sorry Mamma, the Butei [boys in Veronese dialect] are making a bit of a racket, anyhow we’re just leaving the station now so put the pasta on for around 6.30 and I should be back when it’s cooked.”

This anecdote is taken from Tim Park’s A Season with Verona and it recounts a teenage boy returning from a Verona match against Vicenza who alternates between yobbish football fan to Mamma’s little angel.

It is a Jekyll and Hyde moment that portrays the capricious nature of football supporters and elements of Italian life in general. One moment you are worrying about whether you will be home in time for dinner, the next you find yourself standing in the Curva Sud of the Stadio Bentegodi screaming obscenities at opposition fans, players and, of course, officials. Just ask Tim Parks.

The setting for William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Verona boasts a rich history, including Roman ruins, renaissance culture and the world’s largest open-air opera venue. Its biggest club, Hellas Verona, is an expression of Veronese identity and a symbol of civic pride.

The clue is in the club’s name and nickname. In 1903, when the Gialloblu were formed in Verona’s prestigious school, the Liceo classico Maffei, a Greek teacher coined the name Hellas – Greek for patria, homeland or country. One of their nicknames – Gli Scaligeri – also has historic connotations. It is a reference to the former Lords of Verona who brought the cities of Padua, Vicenza and Treviso under their control in the 14th century. There is a vehement local pride and the Ultras of Hellas Verona stand as defenders of their coat of arms and club colours.

When discussing the world of the Italian Ultras, let alone Verona, it would be impossible not to mention the Brigate Gialloblu, whose motto reads verbatim: “Against hypocrisy and compromise – we hate everybody.” Formed in 1971, their name has become synonymous with the tifosi (fans) of Hellas Verona and, despite their official dissolution in 1991, they remain infamous today.

Although some of the Verona Ultras have a notorious reputation for expressing far-right political views, the name Brigate Gialloblu allegedly has its origins in the left-wing student movement of the late 1960s and is a reference to the Italian red brigades. In fact a left-wing sub-group called Rude Boys coexisted peacefully with a number of right-wing factions within the Brigate, namely: Gioventù Scaligera (Scaligera Youth), Verona Front and Hellas Army. Their love for Hellas far outweighed their ideological differences.

To distinguish themselves and create a hostile atmosphere, the Brigate would stop at nothing to abuse and provoke opposition fans and players. This has seen racism plague the Curva Sud. One of the more distasteful incidents back in the 1980s involved fans throwing bananas at Cagliari’s Peruvian, Julio César Uribe, one of the first black players to play in Italy.

The Brigate Gialloblu were as fanatical, original and intransigent as any fan group in Italy. Having formed ties with Chelsea’s hooligan group The Headhunters in the mid-1970s, elements of the group adopted the mores of English supporters. This even included making business cards that read: “Congratulations you have just met the BG,” an idea inspired by the calling cards left by English hooligans on their victims after a fight.

One particular contingent, known as Associazione Stalle Umane (Human Stable Association) particularly embraced the hooligan ways, drinking beer in excess and living up to the slogan “Veronesi tutti matti” (“the Veronesi are all crazy”).

In the mid-1980s the Brigate’s reputation grew with the team’s success. Thousands travelled to support Hellas in Europe after they won their first and only Scudetto in 1985. This signalled a golden era and the eclectic Curva Sud was rarely devoid of humour. During a trip to Como, Verona Ultras turned up at the Stadio Giuseppe Sinigaglia with blow up rafts, beach mats and flippers changing the words of the Italian song “Stessa Spiaggia, Stesso Mare” (“Same beach, Same Sea”) to chant: “This year nothing changes, all to Como like the beach”. Perhaps it was satire mocking the easy nature of playing Como, or perhaps it was emphasising the sheer number of Veronesi who had flocked to watch a game played on the shores of Lake Como, however it gives you a picture of their ingenuity.

Nevertheless, a game at Brescia in 1986 demonstrated their chaotic and violent tendencies. After being provoked by some Bresciani, it is thought that around 5,000 Verona fans descended on Brescia hell-bent on causing havoc. The Veronesi proceeded to ransack Brescia, vandalising the station, damaging cars and leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

The president of Verona at the time, Ferdinando Chiampan, called the fans criminals and threatened to withdraw the team from Serie A. The police shared this view and 12 arrests were made. The Curva Sud demonstrated their solidarity displaying a banner against Roma reading: “Not 12 but 5,000 guilty”. However, in 1991, following a tumultuous clash with Milan fans, the various parts of the Brigate Gialloblu unanimously decided to disband after some judges wanted to put the group on trial for being a “criminal organisation.”

Although they no longer officially exist, many Verona Ultras still label themselves as Brigate Gialloblu members. Verona’s return to Serie A in 2013 marked the end of one of the club’s darkest eras after having spent 11 years away from the top flight. If this wasn’t enough, the Verona faithful also had to watch their city rivals Chievo enjoy life in Serie A during their absence. However their stalwart passion has not wavered and even after their relegation to Serie C1 in 2007 an incredible 10,000 season tickets were sold in a league which averaged an attendance of around 2,500.

Their return to Italy’s elite has seen old rivalries reignited, notably with Chievo, Juventus, Milan, Atalanta and Napoli, the latter a fixture that brought the satirical best out of the Veronesi after they revealed a banner reading “Neapolitans… Sons of Juilet”. It was a humorous response to a previously unveiled Napoli banner which taunted Verona’s romantic heroine Juliet, proclaiming she was a whore.

While many presume Chievo are Hellas’s fiercest rivals, the Veneto derby that really raises the blood pressure is against Vicenza. Indeed Verona’s promotion to Serie A last season coincided with Vicenza’s slide into the lower Lega Pro league, which will have given the Veronesi untrammelled joy.

Whether they are producing spectacular choreographies, unfurling witty banners or chanting “Forza Verona Ale” to the tune of Giuseppe Verdi’sAida, the Brigate Gialloblu and Hellas supporters as a whole remain respected across Italy. Much like the story of Romeo and Juliet, the Veronesi have been embroiled in a tale of scandal, feuds and romance, the only difference being their true love never seems to die.

05/9/14

The Ultras of Genoa

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A guide to the Ultra groups in Serie A: Genoa

City: Genoa

Key Ultra Groups: Fossa dei Grifoni (Griffins Den), Via Armenia 5r (5r Armenia Street), Ottavio Barbiera, Vecchi Orsi (Old Bears).

Other Ultra/Fan Groups: Brigata Speloncia (Speloncia Brigade), Figgi do Zena (Dialect for Figli di Genova – Sons of Genoa), Ragazzi Certosa (Certosa boys), Ragazze Certosa (Certosa Girls), South Group, Old Block, Sette Setembre (7th of September), Vecchia Sestri (Old Sestri), Superbi Zena (Pride of Genova)

In the 1990s, during the derby della lanterna (the derby of the lighthouse), the red and blue half of the Stadio Luigi Ferraris unveiled a banner reading “We are Genoa”. It was a banner of mammoth proportions engulfing all the supporters in Genoa’s Gradinata Nord – a flight of steps resembling the end of an English stadium rather than an orthodox Italian Curva.

That the Luigi Ferraris appears anglicised and the banner itself was in English is entirely appropriate. It was a declaration of pride in the club’s long history, which started in 1893 when British Consular officials set up the Genoa Cricket and Football Club. It also served as a mocking reminder to their opponents and city rivals Sampdoria, born 53 years later in 1946, Genoa was the club with the prestigious footballing past, both as the oldest team in Italy and as the beating heart of the city.

Wedged between the Ligurian Sea and the Apennine Mountains, the city of Genoa is a sight to behold. Steeped in history and cultural splendour, the Genovese take fierce pride in their city, hence its nickname “La Superba” – ‘The Proud One’.

They are also known to be tough, resourceful and reserved. However, when the weekend arrives and the Grifoni (Griffins) grace the Luigi Ferraris, this reticence is lost in a tumultuous atmosphere that can produce some of the most spectacular tifo (fandom) Italy has to offer. As journalist Marco Liguori puts it:

“If you speak about trophies in Italy, the teams that have become legend are Juventus, Inter and Milan, but if you speak instead about fandom, it is the Gradinata Nord of the Marassi that is legend.”

The history of Genoa’s support is inextricably linked with the formation of their first Ultra group Fossa dei Grifoni (FdG) (Griffins Den) in 1973. Fossa was part of the supporters group Ottavio Barbieri, which was named after the former Genoa player. Both groups were born out of a dark era in the club’s history, when they languished in Serie C. FdG embodied the soul and ancestry of Genoa, combining British characteristics of sustained organised chanting with the breathtaking choreographies of Italian fandom.

Having established a real sense of unity, the Ultras’ heyday came in the late 1980s to early 1990s, when coach Osvaldo Bagnoli led the Rossoblu to a fourth-place finish in Serie A and European qualification. Genoa’s trip to face Liverpool in the quarter-final of the Uefa Cup in 1992 is fondly remembered for the vociferous and powerful support at Anfield. The Genoa fans were applauded by the Liverpool supporters at the final whistle.

In 1993, protests against the then-president Aldo Spinelli as well as strained relationships with the local press and police led to the disbanding of the FdG. Former members dispersed and joined groups such as Ottavio Barbieri, while others created splinter groups like Vecchi Orsi (Old Bears). Now Via Armenia 5r (5r Armenia Street), who are accompanied by the banner “You’ll never walk alone” are the vanguard of the Gradinata NordI Figgi do Zena – Sons of Genoa in Genovese vernacular – also produce some impressive choreography, having taken their place in a section of the ground which traditionally had a more serene atmosphere.

Unfortunately this zealous fanaticism can lead to ignominious acts of violence. On 29 January 1995, a match between Genoa and AC Milan was marred by tragedy after Genoa supporter Vincenzo Claudio Spagnolo was fatally stabbed. The culprit, Simone Brasaglia, was a member of AC Milan’s notoriously violent fringe Ultra group, the Barbour Gang (a reference to the British styled coats they wore). When news of the stabbing spread, the game was cancelled at half time and riots broke out around the Marassi, with Genoani seeking vengeance.

Calcio reeled and the following week’s league fixtures were postponed. The incident sparked the first ever national Ultra gathering in which groups pleaded for an end to the use of knives and mindless attacks. Brasaglia was sentenced to 16 years in prison and a monument in memory of Spagnolo was subsequently erected outside the Marassi. Political backlash was also swift. A new anti-violence decree was implemented that attempted to subjugate organised fans; however this didn’t stymie their considerable power inside the stadiums.

On 22 April 2012, Genoa hosted fellow relegation strugglers Siena. What unfolded was truly unfathomable. With the Grifoni trailing 4-0 early in the second half, a group of Genoani launched flares on to the pitch and clambered up on to the tunnel and fences towards the locker room. The players were effectively held hostage and the referee was forced to abandon the game.

The Rossoblu captain, Marco Rossi, attempted to negotiate but was met with demands that the players hand over their shirts as they were deemed unworthy of wearing them. After consulting with club president Enrico Preziosi, who by now had joined the players on the pitch along with a host of stewards and police, Rossi began to collect the shirts. It was a moment that evoked a certain pathos, with some players reduced to tears.

Giuseppe Sculli was having none of it. Known to be the grandson of a notorious Calabrian mafia boss and bolshie at the best of times, he refused to hand over his shirt. After a passionate exchange, the player and the Ultras embraced and the game eventually resumed.

The Ultras had halted a top flight game (neither the first nor the last of such incidents), but it was the revelations that followed that beggared belief. While Genoa were hit with a hefty fine, Sculli was banned after accusations of having prior knowledge of the Ultras’ protest; his apparent heroism was a sham. Whether it is true or not, the story shows the power and sway held by the Ultras.

Despite such incidents, the supporters have been unwavering and the atmosphere produced at the Marassi can often stun and awe. Their fealty has not gone unnoticed and in an ultimate tribute the club retired the number 12 in honour of the supporters. They are both figuratively and literally Genoa’s 12th man and this is encapsulated in their motto: “Support Genoa when they win but love them when they lose.”

The following is a video of Genoa’s choreography during the Derby della Lanterna on February, 3, 2014.

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

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