Ultras are woven through Italian football culture, from when the first groups began to emerge in the 1950s to today, with the flare-wielding, flag-bearing maniacs still being found in the curve of nationwide football stadia on a Sunday afternoon.
The ultras consider themselves to be the most passionate of football supporters, differentiating themselves from the other fans by reserving a particular part of the ground for themselves – the stands behind the goals, or the curve, waving scarves, using flares, drums and horns and generally making themselves heard. Loudly.
The infamous and most unsavoury side of the ultras history is the violence between the varying groups, mostly between the 60s and 80s. This was a time of sociopolitical turmoil and nationwide terrorism in Italy, which spilled over into football matches, with the heavily-politicised football culture causing uproar at football grounds between the sets of ultras.
However, whilst this blood-stained past is nothing for calcio to be proud of, the bonds formed between fellow clubs were in equal measure to the rivalries created, with many of the supporters’ groups carving relationships with other sets of fans, through an arrangement called ‘gemellaggi’, or twinning.
Such bonds between the ultras were borne out of shared political beliefs or experiences. At a time when the tribal violence between fans is gradually being weeded out (despite the tragic death of a policeman in the Sicilian derby between Catania and Palermo in 2007) the amicizie, or friendships, have created something wonderfully unique within Italian football, recognizing and encompassing the rich – yet dark – history behind calcio’s greatest rivalries, and demonstrating it in a show of friendship and unity.
The biggest examples of such a bond are evident in some of the largest clubs in the nation, born out of political beliefs and historical backgrounds of the supporters. Inter’s fans are traditionally more middle-class and right-wing, with the club nicknamed bauscia, a Milanese term translated as ‘braggart’. Milan on the other hand are known as casciavit, or, ‘screwdrivers’, due to their supporters being historically working-class, trade unionist migrants from the south.
Lazio are well known (partly thanks to a certain Mr Di Canio) for having right-wing ultras – something seen in the Olimpico this season, when Lazio tifosi held aloft a banner which read “Klose mit uns,” a play on the Nazi slogan “Gott mit uns,” or ‘God with us’. It’s because of this political alignment that Laziale are twinned withInteristi, and both have a strong dislike for the twinned Milan and Brescia.
Similarly, some of the most politically opinionated supporters on the peninsula are those of Livorno, famous for their extreme left, communist views. It’s no coincidence that it was the birthplace of the Italian Communist Party in 1921. The football team’s ultrasare twinned with those of Ternana, currently playing in the third tier, and whose supporters are, rather unsurprisingly, of a communist bent. They share a common dislike for the more right wing supporters, such as Lazio and Hellas Verona.
Despite the deeply political background to the ultras, the first ever twinning of groups was believed to be in 1977, and is nothing to do with ideological alignment. Rather, it is a heartwarming tale of two sets of supporters full of mutual admiration and respect.
It was January 9th, 1977, and three-thousand Pescara fans descended on Vicenza for a game between the two clubs. It was the travelling side who took a surprise victory, but aside from booing their own team – they applauded their opponents and their sympathetic supporters, a reception reciprocated by Pescara in the return match. It was a season to remember for both sides, as, incredibly, both won promotion to Serie A, with a friendship that would last forever. “Pescara-Vicenza: nessuna differenza. Vicenza-Pescara: nessuno ci separa,” is the motto between the two clubs – “Pescara-Vicenza: no difference. Vicenza-Pescara: nothing separates us.”
Another twinning which can claim to be one of the oldest in calcio history is between Genoa and Napoli, when the two sides played each other in May 1982, at the Stadio San Paolo. Napoli had qualified for the Uefa Cup, while il Grifone (the Griffin) needed a point to keep their Serie A status. After Napoli took the lead, and with Genoa’s relegation rivals Milan leading, the San Paolo began to rumble, the fans wanted a draw. A late goal from Genoa kept them up, sending Milan down by a point. It’s a bond which was reinforced when both Napoli and Genoa got promoted from Serie B in 2007, as when they played each other on the final day of the season; the Genoese supporters unfurled a banner reading “Benvenuto fratello napoletano”, or “Welcome, Neapolitan brother.”
Hellas Verona’s friendship with Fiorentina is another example of an apolitical bond, and was formed in the 1980s, when many viola players left to join Hellas, to win their one and only Scudettoin ’85. Despite Fiorentina being traditionally left-wing, and Hellas Verona ultras featuring neo-fascist ideas (as well as being one of the most feared groups of supporters in the 1980s), it’s a lasting friendship which has been created between the two clubs.
In Tim Parks’ book ‘A Season With Verona’, he mentions how, in these games, far from hurling abuse at the opposing supporters, small boys trade their yellow Hellas scarves for the purple of Fiorentina, with the fans embracing and even cheering each other on.
Gemellaggi is a concept which would be alien to the vast majority of football fans around the world, not least in England, where supporters seem to take great pleasure in the idea that it’s them against the world. However, the twinning is something which adds to the rich tapestry of Italian football, and a time when such partisan violence has thankfully been mostly eradicated, it’s special that it’s the sense of brotherhood and friendship formed in the difficult times which remain.
By Jack Sargeant
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona