Mark Glanville

Tobias Jones finds in Italian football hooliganism a mirror image of Italy itself

 Ultra reviewed

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Ultra: The Underworld of Italian Football

Tobias Jones

Head of Zeus, pp. 288, £20

Ultras (Italian football hooligans) initially evolved along the same lines as their more infamous English counterparts, emerging in the 1960s and becoming fully fledged in the 1970s. Their ritual, tribal aggression supplied an outlet for youthful male violence in the relatively peaceful second half of Europe’s most savage century. At first, the curve’s semi-circular ends,behind the goals where ultras congregated were, for all their territorial violence, politics-free, but Tobias Jones notes ‘how hard certain ultras were rubbing the lamp [of fascist revivalism]before the genie appeared’.

In search of a rounded picture, Jones immersed himself in the world of the Cosenza ultras of Calabria, chiefly because they were a group that had always rejected fascism, even running CasaPound out of town when they tried to set up shop there. The Cosenza ultras, cheerfully named I Nuclei Sconvolti (The Deranged Nuclei) are good copy. Drainpipe, Boozy Suzy, Chill and Skinny Monica (their anglicised nicknames making them sound like characters in a Horrid Henry book) are colourfully portrayed.

But all are eclipsed by ‘U Monaco’, Padre Fedele, the monk who takes them under his wing and encourages them to help immigrants and the homeless in soup kitchens. He even leads the chanting, perched 100 feet up on a floodlight pylon. After befriending a well-known female porn star (the two raise money for Rwanda together), U Monaco becomes an early victim of #MeToo. Accused of raping a nun, he asserts: ‘Today is the most beautiful day of my life because I feel closer to Jesus Christ, persecuted and crucified.’ His accuser is eventually exposed as a serial liar, but it’s too late for the martyred, defrocked monk. Could U Monaco’s rise and fall have occurred anywhere other than Italy?

Italian hooliganism, too, emerges as a very different beast from its English counterpart. Jones notes that what began as ‘a playful, bacchanalian party’ is eventually ‘deludified’, with ‘violence increasingly serving the purposes it more usually does (power and money)’. While the Cosenza ultras continue to dish out soup, the ’Ndrangheta (Calabrian Mafia)-controlled Juventus ultras, I Gobbi (the hunchbacks), are busy touting tickets received from the club in a blackmail-fuelled deal, threatening ground-closing riots and supporters’ strikes if their demands are not met. An unnamed Turin lawyer told Jones: ‘The compromise between Juventus and the ultras was simply the compromise between the rules and the realities.’ ‘It sounds,’ remarks Jones, ‘uncannily like a metaphor for Italian life.’

In a sinister nod to neo-fascist politics, the Gobbi banner is inscribed with its Bs back-to-front, so as to resemble 88, fascist code for HH (Heil Hitler). Jones relates how, at the end of one season, a bigwig from neo-fascist Forza Nuova asked the notoriously extreme right-wing supporters of Hellas Verona: ‘Who allowed this party, who paid for everything, who was the guarantor? He has a name: Adolf Hitler.’

Until the 1990s, Italy had been an almost exclusively monocultural and monoracial society, but between 1981 and 1991, the number of registered foreigners more than quadrupled. Many Italians, for the first time, were forced to confront the existence of ‘the other’. Jones shows that neo-fascist ultras, their territorialism, obsession with sartorial identity and delight in order ‘perfectly aligned with the makeshift philosophy spun by’ Mussolini, are in the vanguard of the racist speech and violence that have come to the fore in Italy. When Erich Priebke — one of the SS officers responsible for the notorious Ardeatine Caves massacre, in which 335 Italians were executed in revenge for the killing, by partisans, of 30 German soldiers — was extradited to Italy in 1995 to stand trial for war crimes, ultras raised banners in honour of the 30 German soldiers: ‘victims of an anti-fascist and partisan slaughter perpetrated by vile assassins’.

Jones is fully aware of how his splendidly researched book impinges on disturbing aspects of contemporary Italian society, returning to some of the issues he confronted in The Dark Heart of Italy. He sees Silvio Berlusconi, who rarely missed an opportunity to express his admiration for Mussolini, as a forerunner of the right-wing populist Matteo Salvini. When black victims were randomly shot in Macerata, instead of blaming the aggressor, Berlusconi referred to the ‘social bomb’ created by foreigners.

‘Football has got to do with everything,’ claimed Arnold Bennett’s Denry Machin. Jones’s excellent new book holds the squalid world of the ultras up as a mirror to contemporary Italian society. Its reflection is not pretty.