Understanding the Ultra

There is plenty to admire and enjoy about the football culture in Italy without delving too far into the enigma of the ultra. The experience in Italian stadiums can amaze you, with incredible noise and creative displays from the fans on the curva. Sadly, it can also appall with violence and incidents of racist abuse.

To even begin to understand where the darker elements of calcio come from requires more than a Danny Dyer-esque appraisal of these fans and their ‘top boys’ (see this Italian episode of The Real Football Factories ).  Anyone with a basic knowledge of European football is aware that both Rome clubs have groups of fascist supporters in their ranks, but Football, Fascism and Fandom (by Alberto Testa and Gary Armstrong) reveals that some of these groups with  a sense of purpose that goes beyond painting a few banners.

For the sake of clarity, the book makes a distinction between UltraS and the ‘ultra’ that are recognised more generally as hardcore football fans. It is suggested that UltraS first appeared during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, emerging from the ultras as fan groups with a neo-fascist ideology. These gatherings developed into more established groups over subsequent decades, most recently reflected in the formation of the Ultras Italia – the first UltraS group attached to the Italian national team. In researching these groups, Alberto Testa, one of the book’s co authors, was able to again access to the heart of two of Rome’s most prominent sets of UltraS – the Boys Roma (AS Roma) and the Irriducibili (SS Lazio).

It’s immediately apparent that UltraS are interested in issues more significant than football, but due to their marginalised status, they choose the football stadium as the platform for spreading their views. One of the leaders of the Boys explained to Testa of the time they protested against the activities of the local electricity supplier in Rome’s working class districts that had resulted in the death of a resident. Another example is a social housing initiative, supported by both the Boys and Irriducibili, that sells property to disadvantaged families, offering them discounted, interest-free mortgages.

Curva Sud, home of the Boys Roma

Writing in their fanzines, both groups articulate their support for Palestine and opposition to the American and British led military invasion of Iraq. This is not the sort of thing I read about on Watford websites, nor would I particularly want to, but it illustrates a defining characteristic of the UltraS: their ideology transcends their football allegiances. It is this absolute commitment to a neo-fascist ideology that provides their justification for all the things they are criticised for, and its what makes them so determined.

Members of the Boys and Irriducibili frequent the same neo-fascist bar in Rome. One of the Roma UltraS explains to Testa that if he saw a Lazio supporting friend being attacked by Roma supporters, he would fight alongside his friend, not against him, “we are all camerati (comrades), we believe in the same ideals”.

If I’m being honest, reading the UltraS despair at the state of modern Italian politics and their loathing of self-serving career politicians, it was hard not to empathise with some of their views,  but whilst the political discourse is at times thought provoking, it does not mask the violence that often accompanies it, nor the dark side of their ideology.

The ideology of Italian neo-fascists is too complex to summarise here, but none of the arguments put forward by the Ultras justify the worst aspects of their behaviour. Lazio UltraS are responsible for some of the most notorious events on the curva in recent years, such as unfurling a banner in support of Serbian War criminal Arkan, and displaying blatantly anti-Semitic slogans. Then there is the issue of race. Racism in Italy is not exclusive to UltraS, but the overt and disgusting prejudice of these groups was most obviously revealed by the suggestion from of one of the UltraS that monkey chanting a black player wasn’t racist, it was just a way of distracting the  opposition.

The Curva Nord of Lazio

When it comes to fighting, the UltraS make no apology for their use of violence against rival fans, or the authorities, despite the fact these activities are condemned by some of the neo fascist leaders they support. Not all of the violence at Italian football is carried out under the banner of neo-fascism; Bologna and Livorno are both renowned for their extreme-left groups of hardcore support. Of course, violence is not unique to Italian football, but of all the major European leagues, Serie A seems to be locked into one of the most enduring struggles to defeat it.

If Serie A wants to ape the success of other European leagues and boost income and attendances, then it was inevitable that it would have to address this problem. I suggested to Alberto Testa that the presence and behaviour of UltraS may deter some fans from attending, a theory he doesn’t support:

“The curva is cross class; for instance, quite a few UltraS do not come from the working class. Also there are parts of the stadium [le tribune] where you can watch the match without coming into contact with the hardcore fans. Le tribune are usually the locations where the well off watch the game.”

So, what is keeping fans away? Alberto’s view, which is shared by others, is that the introduction of the fans ID card (the ‘Tessera del Tiffoso’) – introduced this season – has had a far greater impact.

The scheme is designed to prevent fans with convictions for football related offences from entering the stadium (English fans might recall a similar scheme was proposed and dropped by Margaret Thatcher’s Government). The UltraS are of course fundamentally opposed to the scheme and claim it as an infringement on their civil rights (there is perhaps an irony in fascists claiming their civil liberties are being denied, but that’s another discussion).

Other commentators, such as Gabrielle Marcotti, are less opposed to the ID card scheme if it can deliver its objective of reducing violence at football in Italy. Yet there is no doubt ID cards are having an impact on attendances this year, particular at the Rome clubs. Some of the Lazio ultra declared they would be boycotting the scheme, meaning the average attendance currently stands at 25,000 in a stadium that holds 72,000.

The ID cards are not the only change to the laws governing football in Italy; much tighter controls exist at the stadium to prevent the use of incendiaries such as flares – another defining image of the ultra in recent years.

Some feel that reform to the way the game is policed is as important as any scheme to control ticketing; Italian policing of football matches is not exactly held in high regard. What is beyond doubt in my mind is that the current trend of poor attendances in Serie A is one of the most perverse relationships in sport – a country that is obsessed with football, playing matches in front of huge blocks of empty seats.

It seems unlikely that this scheme will eradicate neo-fascist fan groups altogether. With any group that defines itself as part of a resistance struggle, efforts to silence them could make them more determined to be heard, but without access to the stadium, it’s hard to see where their platform is going to come from.

There are some things you should not compromise on, and for this reason it is hard to criticise the Italian authorities for wanting to tackle the UltraS. Watching football shouldn’t be a platform for promoting hateful prejudice. Will Italian football go too far the other way and end up with overly sanitised stadia that destroy the once famous atmosphere? I hope not. It’s surely not inconceivable that the enthusiasm of Italian fans, and the spectacular displays of the curva, can co-exist without violence, and without neo-fascist politics. As Marcotti suggests, the passion of the fans is still there. It’s up to the authorities to find a way to harness it.

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