The ultras often polarise opinion when it comes to calcio but they are ingrained in Italian football culture, Conor Clancy asks if the widespread negative portrayal of them is entirely fair?
The ultras movement began in the early 1960s and reached its peak in the 1980s when almost every club had an ultras group following them passionately. A common misconception of the ultras is that they are akin to stereotypical English hooligans, which is far from the truth. It cannot be denied, however, that violence does often arise between rival ultra groups, but this is more a consequence of their existence, rather than the sole purpose of it.
They tend to locate themselves in the cheaper areas of the stadium behind the goal or the ‘curva’ and can be heard and seen every week with their loud chanting, flares and smoke displays, banners and most impressively, their ‘coreografia’ or, choreography, which is a sight to behold and is seen as a work of art.
Politics is also deeply rooted into the world of the ultras, with most groups either holding left or right wing views and it often leads to two sets of fans becoming twinned in what is known as ‘gemellaggio.’ However, politics is not always the cause of two sets of ultras forming bonds.
Pierre Corneille – a 17th century French tragedian – said that “Peace is produced by war,” and this is certainly the case with some of the friendships in the world of Italian football ultras, granted, the war in question takes on an adapted meaning.
I am going to take you through some examples of this strange phenomenon, which will hopefully lead to you seeing a new side to the often unfairly upbraided ultras.
Bound by political beliefs
Perhaps the most famous case of this friendship is between two of the countries biggest clubs, Lazio and Inter. The Lazio Ultras are well known for their extreme right wing views, with Swastikas and white power flags (sadly) not uncommon in the curva nord among the ultras. Due to their right wing sympathies they have found themselves twinned with Inter ultras, who are not known for holding as extreme views, but have links to right wing groups in Italy such as ‘The Black Heart’.
Banners such as ‘Da sempre fieri del nostro gemellaggio alla nord di Milano rendiamo omaggio’ is just one of many examples of the great amount of solidarity and respect between the two sets of fans. For you non-Italian speakers, the above translates to “We are proud and pay homage to our twinning to the North of Milan.”
The extraordinary alliance between these two clubs was evident in remarkable fashion during the run in for the 2010 scudetto, when the Nerazzurri needed a victory to keep alive their Scudetto dreams and – more importantly to the Lazio fans – crush the Biancocelesti’s capital city rival – Roma’s – dream of a league title. The Aquile put up almost no fight and Inter recorded an easy victory, going on to claim their 18th scudetto weeks later.
Milan and Brescia, and the consequences with Atalanta
One of the oldest standing friendships is between AC Milan and Brescia. Traditionally brought together by their politics, the friendship is still strong today even with the political change in the Rossoneri’s curva. They often visit each other’s curva where they come together to support their team.
This type of camaraderie has its knock on effects, however, with AC Milan getting a less than warm welcome when they visit Bergamo to face Brescia’s archrivals Atalanta, due to their relationship with the now Serie B side.
The Bergamese club themselves have some of the most infamous ultras in the country and are known for their left wing sympathies. As a result of their political beliefs, they have found themselves twinned with fellow left wingers Ternana. The two enjoy one of the most amicable relationships on the peninsula and the black and blue of Atalanta has often been spotted alongside Ternana’s green and red in one another’s curva.
Despite politics being a major part of the ultras’ world, teams can become twinned even with contrasting politics, albeit, this is rare. Fiorentina are traditionally left wing, while Hellas Verona are seen to be right wing, but the two groups of fans put their political differences aside to forge a strong relationship.
Coming together in Hatred
Political beliefs are not the only reasons behind two sets of ultras coming together in unicen. Relationships forming because of a mutual hatred for another club is not unusual, and is often how these relationships begin, as will be seen.
Torino and Fiorentina have found themselves paired partly due to a common enemy in Juventus. Both sets of fans have a strong dislike for the Bianconeri and it has led to a good rapport between the two, with the ultras welcoming each other with banners such as “Il popolo Fiorentino saluta la vera Torino” (seen below) which, in English, means “The Florentine public salute the true Torino.”
Juve, funnily enough, are somewhat a loner club in the sense that their ultras have not really formed a bond with those of any other club. There are a number of reasons for this, mainly their stature as Italy’s biggest and most successful team, as well as their shady history and involvement in scandals such as Calciopoli. As a result of this, the Old Lady’s strongest friendship is with Dutch side ADO Den Haag.
Commitment to Gemellaggio bonds
Two lesser known cases of this quirk of the Italian game is between Parma and Sampdoria, as well as Napoli and Genoa. The relationship between Parma and Samp ultras is not as well known, but dates back over 20 years. When the Blucerchiati played Lazio in the Coppa Italia final in 2009, their cousins from the Parma curva also made the trip from Emilia-Romagna to the Eternal City to cheer on their Genovese relatives.
The pairing between Genoa and Napoli dates all the way back to an encounter in 1982. It was the last day of the season and Genoa needed a solitary point to stay in Serie A. However, the Grifone were losing 1-0 to Napoli, when there was a change of mood in the San Paolo as they wanted an equaliser to send AC Milan down to Serie B. Needless to say the game ended in a draw and Genoa survived with the Rossoneri getting relegated instead and the rest was history between the two sets of fans.
These strong and seemingly unbreakable bonds don’t always last, however. Inter and Hellas Verona were paired in the 1980s until 2001 when the Gialloblu’s curva was taken over by a new capo (head ultra) and the ‘treaty of friendship’ was broken, which led to tension between the two hardcore groups of supporters.
The 2012-13 Coppa Italia tie brought the now enemies together for the first time since the split and the tension was palpable. Between 7,000 and 10,000 Hellas fans made the short trip to Milan with trouble on their minds.
The concept of gemellaggio is something that is unique to the Italian game, and adds to the beautifully romantic story of calcio. While some ultras rightfully receive a bad name, gemellaggio is proof that there is much more to being an ultra than what is often reported in English media.
Additional reporting by Jordan McGregor