On the 27th December, an Inter Milan fan died in hospital after being hit by a van whilst fans clashed before a game between Inter Milan and Napoli at the San Siro the day before. The incident occurred at the end of a fight that involved around 60 people. It was also reported that three Napoli fans were stabbed and subsequently hospitalised.
The match itself was marred by racist chanting towards Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly by Inter Milan fans. Napoli Manager Carlo Ancelotti persistently requested for the match to be postponed because of monkey noises coming from the home end, directed towards the Senegalese centre-back. Messages were broadcasted over the PA three times, to no avail.
Koulibaly was sent off in the 81st minute, getting a yellow card for a tackle on winger Matteo Politano, then sarcastically applauding the referee and receiving a red. Whilst we wouldn’t want to condone disrespect towards the referee, Koulibaly’s frustration is understandable considering the circumstances.
Guiseppe Sala, Mayor of Milan, apologised to Koulibaly, calling the chanting “a shameful act towards towards a true athlete who wears the colour of his skin with pride.” The Italian FA have considered suspending Serie A in light of the events, Sky Sports reported. What is confirmed is that Koulibaly has received a two-match suspension. Furthermore, Inter Milan will play their next two home games behind closed doors, and a third match will see the section of the stadium that houses Inter’s ‘ultra’ fans closed.
These events have garnered collective international condemnation, and do not reflect the atmosphere in week-to-week Serie A football. And, as the folks on the Set Piece Menu podcast said on their most recent episode, when we talk about football hooliganism, we’re talking about less than one percent of fans at games. Most fans who go to games don’t go to fight or to abuse, they go to support their teams. And this isn’t a reflection on Italy as a country or Italians as a population; it’s a relatively small number of thugs who, in this case, happen to be Italian.
That said, this is another incident in a resurgence of racism in football recently. Racism in the game has never really gone away, but we had reached the point where an instance of it could be classed as somewhat anomalous. Furthermore, the events at the San Siro are symptomatic of a culture that has been a blemish on Italian football for a long time.
‘They say in Naples that when a man has money, he first buys himself something to eat, then goes to the football, and then sees if he has anything left to find a place to live.’
– Simon Kuper, ‘Football Against the Enemy’
Last year, Bleacher Report did an excellent long read on Fabio Quagliarella, a Neopolitan forward who has played for eight Italian clubs, including Napoli, Torino and Juventus, where he won three Serie A titles. The piece is only secondarily focused, however, on Quagliarella’s footballing career. The main angle of the story concerns a stalker that Quagliarella was victim to for a number of years, which included the sole season that he spent at Napoli, the team he has supported throughout his life. It’s a deeply troubling and fascinating story, and I’ll let you read it yourself.
The reason for its mention in this article, however, is that Quagliarella’s plight forced him to move to Juventus, Napoli’s closest rivals. The treatment that he received from a portion of Napoli fans upon this transfer does well to be only the second worst treatment of Quagliarella in this period of his career:
“You’re a whore!” Quagliarella’s mother, Susanna, would hear.
His parents read the comments members of their own community posted on social media about their son: “WHEN YOU COME BACK IN NAPOLI WE WILL F–K YOU UP IN THE ASS, BASTARD!” read one Facebook post. … “Judah of our times” … ” “PIECE OF S–T QUAGLIARELLA!!! WORM!!!!!!!” … “you are a s–tty mercenary, i hope you will have a good championship with Juve with a serious accident to [your] tibia, fibula and a broken ass.”
When Quagliarella transferred to Napoli, he was hailed as a prodigal son, a Neapolitan player representing his club. He was the first player that Napoli fans rewarded with his own chant since Diego Maradona. In the space of a single season, and because of who he transferred to, the Napoli ultras turned on him. 80% of Neopolitans follow SCC Napoli, and when they won their first Serie A title in the 1986-87 season, an 8-day holiday was called. It is by all accounts a city whose heart beats football.
Since the reason for the transfer came out, there has been collective remorse from these ultras regarding how they treated him, but the fact remains. The ultras love their club with the same passion and depth that they hate their rivals. When a person is perceived to be a traitor to the former in favour of the latter, they become fodder for often inexorable hatred. To suffer such contempt from a portion of a fanbase of which you are also part must be excruciating.
As Simon Kuper points out in the aforementioned Football Against the Enemy, the number of people who go out to watch football is second only to the number of people who go out to church. In the same way you get extremists in religion, you get extremists in football fans. Whenever there are so many people involved in something, it’s inevitable that a portion of them are going to be nutcases. C’est la vie.
It’s inevitable that when so many people gather for one thing, the thing itself becomes over-glorified. It becomes about more than religion, more than football. It becomes tribal. It becomes about race, about politics. It becomes about what separates the tribes rather than what unifies them.
This isn’t a specifically Italian phenomena, it’s global. It happens in England, in Argentina, in Brazil, Russia, Poland, Africa; anywhere where football is a religion, there are extremists.
Yet the fact remains that ultra culture in Italy remains perhaps the most illustrative in the world. There are an estimated 382 ultra groups in Italy, and violence has become such an issue that it has deterred players from moving to Italian teams. Unlike in the UK, where hooliganism generally tends to be in the form of spontaneous acts of violence, ultras co-ordinate extreme acts of violence in order to intimidate the opponent. Italian football violence is also often politicised; in the 1960’s and 70’s, when ultras first came about, they often appropriated far-left politics, and in the modern day it tends to be far-right, with emphases on anti-semitism and Xenophobia.
It’s organised crime; in fact, Napoli Ultras are often thought to have close links to the Camorra, the mafia that have an unnerving influence in Naples. In an excellent piece for The Guardian, Tobias Jones describes the extent of the organisation that goes into ultra violence; co-ordinated dress, tactics, funds for ultras who need to be bailed out of jail. He remembers seeing Juventus’ droogs (worryingly named after the gang in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange) with piles of cash and tickets, standing next to a poster of Mussolini. And this is all loosely cloaked with a layer of Omertà – Mafioso secrecy. In the same way as the tifo (their crowd coordinations, often using flares), the ultras’ violence is tightly choreographed. Often, it is inaccurate to even call them fans – many ultras could not care less about football; as well as an adrenaline rush, it’s a bona-fide business. There are a fair number of scugnuzzi, who are more comparable to English football fans, with their lairy but broadly harmless behaviour. Yet, for the police who regularly have to clash with the ultras, it’s not rounding up groups of drunk hooligans, it’s going into battle with highly organised and tactical army.
And when this happens, tragedy is what is left in its wake. There were nationwide protests in 2007 when a fan was shot (ostensibly accidentally) by police during conflict between Lazio and Inter fans before a game between two clubs. Only a few months earlier, a policeman named Filippo Raciti had been struck by an explosive device and killed during violence around the Sicilian Derby.
The primary issue with tackling the ultras is the power they wield. The clubs, and even the authorities, struggle profusely in grappling with them. Counterfeit ticketing, racketing and drug dealing have left some ultra groups with power comparable to the clubs themselves. They can boycott transfers, force games to be postponed, and execute their will under the threat of extreme violence.
I’ll reiterate once more. This is not an exclusively Italian problem. It’s a choleric part of football fandom worldwide. In a sense, it’s not even a football problem; it’s not fans fighting for their clubs, in some bizarre form of martyrdom. It’s a group of violent people using football as an excuse to be just that – violent. Yet, it is a problem for football. The events purport to happen in the name of football, and therefore football must find a way to respond. The Italian government have made efforts to curb the violence, some successful, but the true cure has yet to be found. Far too many Italian football games are becoming memorable for reasons far away from the football.