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Italy is, in many ways, a resplendent country, with beautiful, historic architecture and all in all pleasant, family orientated people. The nation is also revered for it’s rich footballing history, boasting four World Cup victories, fabulous, if perhaps ageing stadia to accompany its incredible culture and fantastic food.
However, when talking purely football – there is an undercurrent of a less than palatable side. A side that is unfortunately ingrained in Italian football culture as much as defensive solidity. A side dominated by mob led violence, racism and underworld crime.
The Italian ultras – more than just football hooliganism, these are impassioned groups of ‘fans’ who see their role more as a violent occupation than a hobby.
‘Campanilismo’ is a very important aspect of life in Italy, it symbolises a sense of identity, of pride, and of belonging to the place of your birth. A feeling which is usually much stronger to an Italian than any sense of national identity. This is where the notion of ultras ultimately resonates from.
In the 1970s, paramilitary style groups with often ideological and dangerous undertones formed within the sanctions of football supporters across the regions of Italy. Each with their own slogans and emblems often from the Second World War to represent themselves, their association with their club and their area.
Often linked with underworld criminal activity and with pre-established mafia connections, these groups are not for the faint-hearted. Slowly but surely, they have become a growing influence on Italian football culture.
By the 1980s football hooliganism was rife across Europe, nowhere more so in Italy. However, the Italians were doing things differently. Far from being a group of fans who would work all week and simply turn up on a Saturday and perhaps have a tear up at a train station somewhere in the countryside, these groups stood for something bigger.
Ultra groups like political parties elected a ‘Capo’, a leader. The Capo would be responsible for dictating the actions of the group and the songs they sang. By this point, football was becoming a side-note to the bigger picture, it was ultra dealings first – football was almost the occupational hazard.
I have first hand experience of seeing some of the Capo’s duties as ultra leader. During Napoli’s visit to Anfield in this season’s Champions League group stages, I was sat close to the away supporters. A number of fans did not see a single kick of a football that night. Instead, their time was spent antagonising and essentially cheer leading. I had the misfortune of attending the return fixture as well. Whilst on the face of it, Naples is a stunning city in many ways, during a match day, there is definitely a sense of unrest that resides in the streets.
As you head towards the San Paolo Stadium, the wall become less and less pleasant and more adorned with racism and Forza Napoli messages.
The club once famously graced with the presence of Diego Maradona, albeit under some unusual circumstances in itself, was now more a symbol of violence from the outside looking in.
Whilst much of the English game’s ‘firm’ or ‘mob’ culture was eradicated after the late 80s and early 90s, the Italian ultras were just getting started and are still very present to this day.
In 2009, during his time in charge of England, manager Fabio Capello said “the fans are in complete control, they have taken the Serie A hostage”. How right he was. At this point, club officials were allocating tickets to the ultra group leaders in return for promises of good behaviour and a positive atmosphere, such was their stranglehold over the clubs themselves.
In 2012, Genoa’s 4-1 Serie A defeat at home to Siena was postponed for over 45 minutes when protesting fans aimed fireworks at their own players, by way of showing their displeasure at performances. Outrageous maybe, but this pales in comparison to other acts.
During 2016, the ultra world was impaled in one of it’s most controversial moments. During an investigation into the suicide of Raffaello Bucci, a member of Juventus’ infamous ‘Drughi’ ultras, a less than above board relationship between the club and its fans was discovered and brought into question.
Following his death, police searched his mobile, discoveries were made and the conclusion was that at the time of his death, Bucci had been working as a go between for the club, the Drughis, and the mafia.
Bucci had been distributing funds generated from an illicit touting scheme. Although tragic in circumstance, this revealed just how dire the Italian ultra problem was.
It’s not just off the field issues that have marred the once revered world of Italian football. There have often been accusations and occasional guilty rulings of match-fixing, just another problem to add to the growing list.
2014 saw one of the first high profile ultra murders, certainly to the public consciousness. The Coppa Italia final was proceeded, not uncommonly, by violent scenes prior to kick off at the Stadio Olimpico.
Despite the final being contested by Napoli and Fiorentina, members of the Roma ultra group came along for the ride. Notorious Roma ultra Daniele de Santis began firing shots at the Napoli fans, injuring many and killing one, 30-year-old Ciro Esposito.
What transpired were immediate protests, all whilst the then Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, watched on from the stands after expecting to watch a football match. De Santis was convicted of murder and imprisoned for 26 years in one of Roma’s darkest days.
This imprisonment, or even the murder, hasn’t put the remaining fanatics off, or if it has they have a funny way of showing it. To this day the ultra problem runs deep within the culture of Italian football.
In April 2018, a group of Roma fans came over to the UK for their Champions League fixture with Liverpool, far from a pleasant trip for the majority. Many fans took it upon themselves to further tarnish the already gutter-bound name of Italian football fans.
Masked members of Roma’s infamous ‘Fedayn’ ultras attacked Liverpool fan, Sean Cox outside Anfield in an unprovoked attack, an attack that left Cox fighting for his life. Thankfully, Sean Cox is now doing better than previously, having been in an induced coma for a long period. The Roma fan was trialled and jailed for three and a half years in February 2019.
It shocked the football world due to it’s location and it’s violent nature, although this type of attack was an indictment of the norm in Italy.
A belt was used as a weapon to administer the damage to Sean Cox, this form of attack is only one of the methods the ultras have adapted. Commonly around the streets of the cities, hooligans will travel by moped, stabbing rival football fans buttocks as they drive past, making it almost impossible for them to be halted. This type of attack is known as ‘Puncicate’ and is thought to have originated in Rome.
Alongside their thirst for football violence comes an even more distasteful side to ultra culture. Nazi style fascism is abhorrently running through nearly all ultra groups, regardless of allegiances. Harping back decades to views that should have been left behind long ago, anti-Semitic discrimination is still common place in Italian football stadiums each match day.
Nazi symbols, swastikas, the Wehrmacht eagle, vile abuse and straight-arm salutes are unfortunately as apparent as the football itself.
Perhaps the epitome of the ultra rivalry can be found in the midst of the hatred between the Roma ‘Fedayns’ and the Lazio ‘Irriducibilis’. Fascist-based competitiveness on who can behave in the most vile manner, often fuels the hate.
During Lazio’s 119th anniversary celebrations, the Fedayns displayed images throughout the nation’s capital, comparing the kit colours of rivals Lazio and Napoli to those of the Israeli flag, with negative connotations – as in their motive.
Despite stadium bans becoming more common place throughout Italy, as well as the occasional prison sentence. Quite simply the authorities have not got to grips with this issue, not even close. Their control isn’t helped by the clubs the ultra’s are supposed to represent, seemingly going against authorities in order to help the ultras have an impact on society.
In 2017, the Irriducibili of Lazio, who had previously been banned from attendance due to racist chanting – got inside the stadium thanks to tickets allocated by club officials. The fan group then proceeded to deface the area of the stadium occupied by Roma fans with stickers reading ‘the Roma fan is a Jew’.
Emblazoned on the sticker was also the image of holocaust victim Anne Frank, wearing a Roma football shirt.
When news of the act broke, all Italian fixtures the next week were preceded by excerpts from Anne Frank’s diary.
Photo: The Times of Israel
Of course, this was marred by groups of ultras, who defiantly booed this act. In the Allianz Stadium, Juventus fans turned their back to the pitch during the respectful readings and instead sang the Italian national anthem in protest.
Perhaps the most common theme of the modern day ultra is the almost incessant racism from the stands directed at players, often regardless of who that player represents.
Former Man. United and Chelsea striker Romelu Lukaku was subject to loud monkey chants as he scored the winning penalty for his new side Inter Milan – from his own fans. Proof that the issues in the game in Italy run far deeper than blind loyalty.
Blame for this racism can only fall directly at the door of the persecutor, however, the ignorance and apparent leniency of Serie A and the IFF has been staggering from the outset. Their failure to deal with multiple racial incidents in the past has resulted in the inevitable failure of eradicating the abuse as well as a perception that they now believe the abuse to be part and parcel of Italian football.
Unfortunately, it seems highly unlikely the problem of ultras will vanish from Italian football anytime soon. Partly due to its seemingly systematic control over so much in the country, but also due to the authorities failure to get to grips with the issue. Clubs, in many ways, currently condemn the actions of their extremest ultra groups, actively seeking to appease them at every given opportunity – leading you to question which group is truly in charge of Italian football matters.
It is an undoubted shame Italian football has found itself in this mess now for almost 50 years. A nation that should be thought upon with great fondness, owing to it’s many wonderful football memories, great players and glorious success of the past – will always be tarnished by the reputation of it’s fans. A reputation that shows no sign of subsiding, if anything, their influence is becoming stronger. Driven by fear, money and power – whether we like it or not, Italian ultras are here to stay.