February 22, 2024 | Rome, Italy

The fight club

By |2023-12-13T22:29:41+01:00January 1st, 2008|At Large & Sports, Other Works|
Rome's Olympic Stadium is a cauldron for clashes.

arly in Richard Ford’s latest novel, narrator Frank Bascombe ponders American mobility. Not upward mobility but moving itself — across, away, passage to some better or imagined elsewhere. Why do Americans move so much? Because they can. This, muses the middle-class Bascombe, is history as a function of landmass. America is a very big place.

Italy is not. Its social “up” escalator is geographically and culturally class-conscious. “Do not enter” signs are plentiful despite the urban camouflage of European chic. Down is an unpopular destination, teeming with multicultural immigrants.

And landmass? Italy is not much so much a boot as an arthritic leg. Physical mobility — usually south to north — is modest. Italians revel in family and tradition. Their history of staying put reflects the judgments and restrictions of a surprisingly parochial peninsula. Remaining in one place, small-town style, would seem intrinsically at odds with bone-crunching militancy. But that doesn’t account for Italy’s civic malnutrition.

Which is where soccer fits in. Not the national team, a byproduct of 1930s fascism (Italy won two World Cup titles under Benito Mussolini), but club soccer, a voracious fraternity of honor and virility that nurtures an all-for-one, one-for-all subculture whose thuggish loyalties run against the prevailing grain of deference and opportunism.

The youthful “ultràs” that exalt and pillory the country’s top teams, teasing conflict from rival fans and police, are model “stay-putters,” fanatical Boy Scouts in reverse. Their choreographed weekend rebellions hew less to traditional disenfranchisement (boredom, unemployment, and indolence) than to theatrical, non-ideological assertions of being. They sound like an army — “brigades,” “fighters,” “boys” and “ultràs,” the name social critics like — and shop for conflict.

But they are not nihilists. Racist slogans and vulgar banners are defiant deeds of ownership. Their game-day habitat is in a stadium’s end-zone stands and terraces, called “fosse,” caves, “tane,” dens, or “curve,” curves. These squalling bolgias are in turn divided by north and south so ultràs can stake out strategic positions ahead of city rivalries. The rest of the stadium is a no-man’s land reserved for less ardent fans (tifosi), casual spectators, journalists and VIPs. Ultrà leaders, small-scale operatic radicals, attain celebrity status among their all-male peers through seniority and dare-fulfillment. In a society where national politicians and businessmen masticate on negotiation, occulting and dissembling at will, ownership of insubordination can be a sublimely affirming antidote to family or work-place passivity.

Soccer talk radio, an addictive force in blue collar life, nourishes the vitriol. Ultrà members gladly imagine themselves as a “twelfth man” — a soccer team has 11. They presume influence over a team’s choice of players, coaches, even strategy, heady clout that has no equivalent in the Anglo-Saxon world. Italian ultràs are in fact closer to South American aficionados in their unconditional worship.

“A crowd in a stadium,” writes journalist Beppe Severnigni in his book “La Bella Figura,” a chatty study of the Italian character, “knows that soccer offers what our culture denies us, and politics only promises: participation in a national conversation.” Too often, though, Latin conversation, whether about soccer or taxes, runs parallel to, or diverges from, the rule of law.

Twice last year soccer spawned urban warfare, both pent-up and spontaneous. In February, a 38-year-old police officer was killed by an explosive device as fans of rival Sicilian teams Palermo and Catania fought outside Catania’s stadium while play continued on the field. Italy’s elite league, known as Serie A, was suspended for a week, with fans locked out of some subsequent matches. After the riots, the government rushed through a bill imposing heavy fines and prison terms for convicted rabble-rousers. But the judiciary’s chronic failure to consistently apply national law gave the new legislation little traction.

In November, a traffic officer intervening in a quarrel between rowdy fans of Lazio of Rome and Juventus of Turin at a highway rest stop near Arezzo unthinkingly discharged his weapon and killed a 26-year-old Rome disc jockey, a mistake of seismic consequence. Learning of the shooting, ultrà backers of Bergamo’s Atalanta team disrupted an ongoing game with AC Milan. Fights broke out on the field. Tellingly, the league at large played on.

By evening, the rage had spread to Rome. Local ultràs, milling around after the cancellation of a night match, charged police gathered near the headquarters of the Italian Olympic Committee. Leslie Osborne, a member of the U.S. national team visiting Rome after the women’s World Cup in China, lay trapped in a city bus with two teammates. “We were petrified and thought we were going to die,” she said. By midnight, after six hours of clashes, 40 police had been injured and parts of north Rome lay in shambles.

Though the government called the Arezzo shooting a “tragic accident,” the later disturbances elicited only rhetorical denunciation. Detaining ultràs as domestic terrorists was contemplated but rebuffed by the judiciary. Of the four youths charged with instigating the Rome riots, two were held while another two were placed under house arrest. Defense lawyers used the shooting to cite extenuating circumstances. Readers by the hundreds told sports dailies that lenient rulings only placated the ultràs. Extremist leaders — some speaking anonymously on radio — responded by blaming the warfare on cumulative disrespect. In February, they noted, the league had halted all play when an officer died. A fan “murder” had no such effect. They were just defending themselves against hypocrisy and a longtime police conspiracy directed against them.

“The key problem,” observed political scientist Danilo Breschi in the leftist quarterly TELOS after the Catania killing, “is that there is no civic culture to sustain law and order.” Italy, he said, must learn to control “the natural aggression of the young men, and not to pretend that it does not exist or to deny it through empty rhetoric.”

How to accomplish this he did not say, or couldn’t. More than any other European people, Italians talk their way through crises. They appease irrationality through competitive lamentation. When hysteria exhausts itself, the country creeps on, giving politicians and dissenters a chance to regroup and gear up for the next round. The combustible give-and-take between authority and anti-establishment naysayers has remained unchanged for decades.

But impasse is not necessarily the norm.

Soccer hooliganism tormented the UK between 1970 and 1990, with alcohol-fueled rowdies pushing into mainland Europe. In May 1985 at Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Liverpool fans baited their Juventus of Turin counterparts before a European Championship final, leading to a surreal fracas that caused the collapse of a terrace wall dividing the rival fans. Thirty-nine people died, ages 11 to 58, most of them Italians. Banners “borrowed” from the Juventus ultràs covered the corpses. In a conspicuous display of “show-must-go-on” mentality, the final went ahead. A Belgian court tried and convicted 14 Liverpool fans for involuntary manslaughter, eventually reducing their three-year sentences to 18 months. All British teams were banned from European competition for five years. Yet domestic disturbances persisted. In April 1989, police lost control of crowds coursing into Sheffield’s Hillsborough Stadium for an F.A. Cup game between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Ninety-six Liverpool fans died, most crushed against wire mesh. Another 800 were injured.

Britain’s image badly tarnished, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher introduced harbingers of zero tolerance. Police began carding known hooligans and issuing most-wanted lists. Hidden cameras surveyed movement inside and outside major stadiums. Offenders were arrested and jailed. Deterrence denounced at the time as a threat to civil liberties was nonetheless credited with producing a marked drop in fan violence.

Italy offers conspicuously different challenges.

Britain’s hooligan hoards were swelled by loutish adolescents and working class pals united in their desire to sip brew and spill testosterone. Italian ultràs, while not teetotalers, rarely drink to excess. They are chuffed clans with codes of conduct and rigid protocols involving banners, chants, dress codes, and seating. Most are in their 20s and 30s and proud of their “fight club” order. Their wrath is specific: They seek out enemy ultràs or lash out at police that intervene. To some, they are a weedy vestige of Mussolini’s black-shirted squadrisiti — the word means squad members or teammates — uniformed hoodlums who upheld Fascist rule through abuse and intimidation.

While North American fans can be tempestuous and even hostile, time-outs and sideline distractions soften their focus. Both are nonexistent in soccer. There are no cheerleaders and few video displays. A soccer match is not a family event. Female fans play no role. All is rawer. Italian (and European) supporters are missionary instigators whose nonstop zeal trumps the social compact. Squadra del cuore, which roughly means “heartthrob team,” is literal and proprietary.

After the Bergamo incident, the Italian daily La Gazzetta dello Sport interviewed Atalanta ultrà leader Claudio Galimberti, nicknamed “bocia,” or The Kid. “It may be hard for you to believe, but I don’t like violence as such,” Galimberti, a 34-year-old gardener, told the paper. “I do like skirmishes [with police], which are really a form of protest against this shitty society.” Maintaining harmony among his fellow Atalanta militants, he added, gave him no choice but to challenge territorial intruders. He did his (then) compulsory military service in Bergamo. He knew the ropes, he said. “Each time they ban me, I’ll be back.”

Italy’s occupancy of the moral high ground has limits. The prevalence of white-collar crime and the variable application of law depending on status hardly exalts righteousness. In December, when members of the Fiorentina of Florence team stood at midfield to shake the hands of their vanquishers, Inter Milan, the sports press hailed the act as exemplary. The league, seizing an opportunity, insisted all teams behave similarly. But some managers balked. “If I don’t have a good relationship with an opposing coach, why should I shake his hand?” asked Inter Milan coach Roberto Mancini, once a fiercely competitive striker whose team is Italy’s best. “I’m all for spontaneous gestures, but why should this be foisted on us?” Unwittingly, Mancini had articulated a brooding aspect of the ultrà mindset: All armistice is surrender. Don’t tell us what to do or how to behave. The league has since decided to impose the hand-shaking as a post-game ritual.

Regional ardor, bordering on delusion (witness Italy’s secessionist Northern League), adds another ingredient. “We are of Atalanta,” Galimberti said. “And we are also bergamaschi,” referring to Bergamo’s hardscrabble people, who live at the foothills of the Alps. Atalanta is an old club, founded in 1907, less than 40 years after Italian unification. For ultràs, being bergamasco means assuming a role of rightful authority that outranks police, which answers to loathed Rome.

Ultrà groups have a legacy that long predates today’s howling headlines. In 1951, fans of Torino formed the “fedelissimi Granata,” or Most Loyal Maroons. They convened before a game and cheered the team together. Better-organized, tougher mini-clubs emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s and adopted the popular leftist appellation “brigades,” implying ties (often nonexistent) to the militant leftist political groups of the time. Most larger associations emerged from the Italian north, with members banding together based on pacts forged in neighborhoods, high schools, factories, and even coffee bars.

At first, ultràs blended in with the local “tifosi,” but they soon outgrew the simple “fan” label. Their manic mojo turned into a vocation. Dazzling embroideries accompanied fireworks, flares, drums, and horns. Tribal bragging rights over the “curve” induced turf warfare. The extremist fan groups multiplied and began trailing their teams to away games. Authorities created special trains to keep traveling fans apart, with no success. Factional rifts led to feuds that were usually resolved only when city rivals played one another: for example, Juventus vs. Torino, AC Milan vs. Inter Milan, Genoa vs. Sampdoria, Palermo vs. Catania, and Roma vs. Lazio. Throughout the 1970s, Roma and Lazio ultràs angry at their team’s play or frustrated by the presence of riot police repeatedly set fire to the Olympic Stadium’s then-wooden benches. They hurled splinters and stones at police, invariably touching off tear-gas confrontations.

Organizationally, ultrà “brigades” mirrored the institutional groups they loathed, with chiefs and subalterns deployed in a caste system. Plebian workers prepared banners while leaders discussed wording and epithets. By turn creative and nasty, the subculture flourished into the 1990s, when live television discovered Italian soccer. For decades, broadcasts had been limited to highlights and one half of a selected game on Sunday night. The TV generation dented ultrà unity. Increasingly, fans watched from home. Income from merchandising and pre- and post-game commercials replaced ticket sales, which dropped. As their preeminence waned, the extreme fans devised brawnier strategies to remain in the public eye. Overtly racist banners appeared and racial heckling increased. Much of this was shrewdly intended to attract media coverage.

Ultràs supporting Lazio, a Rome team that was once Mussolini’s favorite, opted for bigotry. Streamers in support of a Serbian war criminal were unfurled to encourage the team’s favorite Balkan player. By contrast, Lazio ultràs deployed banners insulting Aaron Winter, a gifted Dutch defender who was both black and Jewish. In 1999, rival Roma ultràs upped the stakes with a banner directed against their Lazio counterparts that read “Auschwitz la vostra patria, i forni le vostre case” — “Auschwitz is your nation; ovens are your homes.” Two years later, as Roma added black players, Lazio ultràs countered with their own banner: “Roma è una squadra nera e tifosi degli ebrei” — “Roma is a nigger team that cheers for Jews.”

To what extent ultràs actually believe these quilted detestations is unclear. Extreme fandom is a gangland phenomenon focused on assembly. It is also a guildhall defiance of central order. Its members do not regard themselves as outlaws, but as choral, collective inlays, part of a vivid counterculture based on separate-but-equal status. Hundreds of ultrà blogs and unofficial fan sites now flourish online. Some assail ownership, others mock astronomical player salaries. One small but emblematic site, noalcalciomoderno.it , calls itself “a point of reference to those simple fans and organized groups that want to ‘shout’ their disdain at what soccer has become…” The site offers €10 t-shirt with the words “Libertà per gli ultra” — “Freedom for the ultràs.” Freedom from what isn’t clear. It rarely is.

In 2005, when Italy introduced legislation making the tossing of objects onto the field punishable by home team forfeit, ultràs responded as if a hostile force had sacked their lands. Thousands of Livorno and Bologna loyalists stood silent for eight minutes at the start of a game, then turned their backs to the field in disdainful unison. At San Siro Stadium, where both Inter and AC Milan play, ultràs also observed a lengthy, disciplined silence. They then unfurled a banner that read simply, “Noi Siamo con Noi” — “We are with Us.”

Which says it all.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.