Italy flagWhile the 1982 World Cup victory created some temporary commonality among Italians the cracks were still there, evident in violence among increasingly extreme football fans. As Winston Churchill apparently quipped: ‘Italians lose wars as if they were football matches and play football matches as if they were wars.’

Inter-fan rivalries pre-dated Fascism’s take-over of the game and continued after the war, with a notorious match between Napoli and Bologna, in 1955, involving a pitch invasion and an exchange of shots between fans and police. Rarely premeditated however, crowd disorder was usually an impetuous, unplanned reaction to on-the-field events.

This changed in the 1960s, with pitch invasions, violence and confrontations with the police reflecting and releasing society’s accumulated tensions. ‘In a highly politicized context, the advent of young rebels in the second half of the 1960s and the consequent birth of the ultrà groups are not only the expression of a social and cultural form of behaviour, but they are also deeply related to the political situation.’

The ultras’ arrival was most evident in the coreografia (choreography) of flags, clouds of coloured smoke that covered the curva (home end), drums and loud hailers that incited the fans, plus banners that took political murals into the stadiums. Another legacy of the protest movement and its increasingly tough policing was an escalation in violence and the use of weapons, knives in particular.

Political riots brought an increased potency in the equipment and techniques of repression used by police and carabinieri. In turn, the intensification of police control inside and outside the stadia led the ultras to adopt a mode of military organization and a warlike attitude against the police. As a result, football hooliganism qua social problem has to be regarded as the legacy of such policing.

Equally serious for a country in which kinship and family ties had provided social order and education, ultrà groups began to make obsolete the traditional role of the family in the stadium; that of the father who introduced his son not only to the venue, but also to a more pacifist tradition of support. Thus, stadiums provided an escape from the constraints of the family within the ‘security’ of a more lawless, often politically extreme and certainly more exciting community.

Between the 1970s and 1990s, the ultrà phenomenon mutated further, with the fragmentation of groups and the emergence of more violent unofficial ones outside of previously recognized leaderships, leaving almost every club, down to small semi-professional teams, with its own section. Not all were necessarily political or aggressive, although some were mobilized by extreme right political groups, such as Forza Nuova.

Increasing tensions by heightening territorial awareness while conveniently identifying and collecting the enemy ready for attack, the rigid separation of fans in stadiums also forced the violence outside. But even this wasn’t indiscriminate, as the development of alliances or ‘twinning’ between fans of different clubs meant that violence only erupted against specific, enemy ultras. When incidents did occur they were usually well away from the stadium, often in motorway service stations following chance meetings between travelling fans with no previous animosity, on the simple basis that ‘the friends of my enemies automatically become my enemies’.

Often inspired by English hooligans, ultras established their own ritualistic culture of songs, clothes and lifestyle within which individuals found a faith, identity and strong collective voice. They also formed relationships with club owners who knew no limits in the pursuit of success, as former national team coach Arrigo Sacchi expanded upon, in 2007:

“Some directors began using… all possible means to win at all costs. Allowed or otherwise. They made a pact with the devil, with the most vulgar and violent groups, to intimidate the adversary, referee and sometimes their own players. These groups organized themselves in this way and, in some cases, began to ask (and get) economic advantages. At the beginning they had away travel paid for and free tickets they could re-sell. Some managed to earn a salary and others even managed to open commercial enterprises… They have become so powerful as to get almost everything they ask for from the clubs.”

While the average fan was searched and prevented from entering the stadium with a plastic bottle of water complete with its top, which would make it a potentially offensive weapon, somehow ultras made it in with huge flags, banners, drums, megaphones, flares, fireworks and distress rockets. They were also traditionally self-financed through membership fees and the sale of merchandise, which in the case of Lazio’s Irriducibili extended to the club’s official products.

After taking control in 2004, Lazio president Claudio Lotito fought a long battle to reclaim this significant source of income. One major difference between Italian ultras and British fans was the former’s complete lack of interest in the national team. With greater importance given to the sense of local belonging, aggression was directed towards internal rather than external enemies. While saving Italy from the embarrassment of fans rampaging across Europe, it further indicated the continuing strength of local identities.

And nowhere was this local identity, which occasionally turned directly against the nation, demonstrated more clearly than in Maradonapoli: Naples during the reign of Diego Armando Maradona.

Napoli’s emergence as a football force in the late 1980s came more or less at the same time as that of Milan, which we will come to in due course. Breaking the domination of Juventus, Napoli led another divisive battle between Italy’s north and south, its rich and poor.

Owned by businessman Corrado Ferlaino, who succeeded Achille Lauro, a mixture of talented Italians and established international stars, such as the Brazilian Careca, formed a squad capable of rivalling Milan. Napoli’s talisman was Maradona, who flew into the San Paolo stadium from Barcelona in a helicopter, in 1984, to a reception of 70,000-plus delirious, paying fans.

Their relationship with the Argentinian was intense. Besides his unquestionable status as the greatest player of the period and potentially of all time, Maradona and Napoli had much in common. Full of defects that made them infuriating, especially in relation to rules, their passion, spontaneity and capacity to amaze made them equally irresistible.

The city’s intellectuals were less impressed, with over one hundred signing a petition in protest at the immorality of such expense in a town that lacked essential structures and drains. No doubt with one eye on the potential threat to its football hegemony, the Neapolitan ‘recklessness’ was equally frowned upon by many in the north. While the demands for economic sense could not logically be refuted, with Italian football becoming highly profligate the calls for prudence appeared to be directed at those clubs that threatened the equally spendthrift elite.

After 60 years of waiting, Napoli’s 1987 scudetto victory launched one of the biggest parties in the peninsula’s history. Celebrated across Italy and the world by Neapolitans and anti-Milan fans, sales in curly black wigs rocketed in the city along with the registration of babies called Diego(a).

Suspicion still surrounds the team’s collapse at the end of the following season, which saw it go from champions-elect to runners up in the last four matches, when it accrued a single point. Despite Napoli winning the UEFA Cup and claiming another title in 1990, 1988 was the end of Maradona’s honeymoon in the city. Thereafter, being photographed in jacuzzis with Camorra bosses, hard partying, tax evasion, a contested illegitimate son, pimping and cocaine abuse were among the scandals that plagued him. The latter finally earned him a 15-month ban from football in 1991, which ended his Italian adventure.

For all of his faults, as Napoli’s leader Maradona still restored pride to the downtrodden south at a time when the rise of northern regionalist sentiment was intensifying existing regionalism and prejudices that had seen extreme anti-Neapolitan banners on northern terraces: ‘Welcome to Italy’; ‘Forza Vesuvio’; ‘No to vivisection, use a Neapolitan’; with the unveiling of ‘Neapolitan, help the environment, wash yourself’, often followed by a barrage of soap bars.

Unsurprisingly, the north reserved particular ire for Maradona. Not only because he threatened its hegemony and represented resistance to Milan, the club and city, and neither because he appeared to embody all of the customary, negative stereotypes of the Mezzogiorno (south) but, above all, for the way in which he became a footballing freedom-fighter for downtrodden, rebellious Neapolitans.

These fissures were further exposed during the 1990 World Cup where, having just led Napoli to a second scudetto after a long and bitter battle with Milan, Maradona played the bad guy to Italy’s unexpected hero, Totò Schillacci.

At the end of a championship that was everything but serene due to the polemics between the Neapolitan club and Milan, the Argentine champion who had led Napoli to its second scudetto, in 1990, was the subject of protests that projected the resentments and rivalries between the club teams onto the colours of the nation.

As holders, Argentina opened the tournament against Cameroon, in Milan, where Pete Davies recalled its anthem being ‘roundly and universally jeered and whistled’, with ‘the booing and shrieking redoubled in ferocity’ as Maradona’s name was read out. ‘The Cameroon anthem… was an altogether jollier affair… and each of their players were mightily applauded.’ Suggesting the tournament had been fixed in Italy’s favour, Maradona had hardly offered the olive branch, which only sweetened the taste of Argentina’s 1-0 defeat.

His revenge came in Naples, in the semi-final against Italy. Unsure of which way the locals would side, political leaders and sportsmen implored Neapolitans to support the national team, while Maradona counter-attacked by declaring his love for the people of the ‘capital’ of the south.

Underlining their status as national outcasts, he questioned if it was really worth supporting Italy? Nobody knows how many fans inside the San Paolo did, or did not, support the azzurri that night, but a significant minority seemed to ditch them in favour of their leader. When Maradona’s decisive penalty hit the back of net, the silence was far from golden.

The final in Rome was no spectacle, one of the worst in World Cup history with Germany winning a battle of negativity. As Roman fans this time hissed and whistled the Argentine national anthem, the camera focused on Maradona, whose quivering lips muttered ‘hijos di puta’ (sons of bitches) for the world to see.

By Simon Martin

This article is an extract from Simon Martin’s outstanding book Sport Italia published by I.B. Tauris.

If you’d like to but to buy a copy of Simon’s book, you can do so via Amazon.

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona