Every country has a different fan culture. Every country has different conventions when it comes to the relationships between fans and clubs.
But Italy’s relationship with ‘ultras’, the fans that make up their most vocal, influential and often most intimidating group of fans, is among the most fascinating.
Which is why the latest edition of Golazzo is a two-part look at the culture, conventions and influence of the ultras, with help from the man who quite literally wrote the book on the subject, Tobias Jones, author of ‘Ultras: The Underworld of Italian Football’.
“It comes down to belonging,” said Tobias. “It’s all about an expression of rootedness and pride about where they come from, which I think is a lot stronger in Italy than it is in Britain. You can go to a tiny village anywhere in the peninsula and find a bit of graffiti that says ‘caput mundi’ – capital of the world.”
Gab Marcotti added: “It’s the notion that every town – even though to an outsider the town next door might look identical – feels that they’re so different from the people next door, and they feel they’re genuinely unique.”
The culture is in many ways very different to the hooligans of Britain in the 1980s, but there are big similarities, particularly in their attitude to the actual sport they are following.
“Very often they’re not that into the football,” said Tobias. “It’s all about brotherhood, and colours, and our suburb or town or city or whatever it is. There’s this strange paradox where they are obsessed by the football, but at the same time they don’t care about [the game].
“Most ultra groups now refuse to chant the name of an individual footballer, which is unthinkable in Britain. In the last ten or 15 years there’s almost been an injunction against chanting any name, because – and this is one of the things that has given the ultras a lot of power – if you are in an industry like football which is more or less rootless, if the chairman or owner isn’t from your town, if the players aren’t, then the only people that are from your neck of the woods are the ultras. They’ve become the most faithful expression of that team, more than the players.”
One thing that feels extremely strange and alien from a British perspective is how much power ultras wield.
“I think it’s ‘Dangerous Liaisons’” said James Horncastle. “When owners buy clubs, they want to get the ultras on board, for very obvious reasons – they play to the gallery. We’ve seen how many times they’ve just been given tickets to sell, and too often owners have created monsters, by giving audiences [to the ultras], allowing them to make money and all of a sudden you have to keep satisfying this group and it becomes very difficult to control.
“One of the issues Lazio had, when Claudio Lotito bought the club, was that he had to take some of the privileges away from the ultras in order to run it as a business.”
You can order Tobias’s book here.
This is from part one of two on ultras – make sure you don’t miss the next one by subscribing to Golazzo here. If you wish to reproduce any of the material in this article or from the podcast you are very welcome to, but please credit The Totally Football Show and include this link.