Stadium: San Siro (Giuseppe Meazza), capacity 80,074
Not many cities can boast two giants of the European game. Milan can. Milan and Internazionale are two titanic teams not only in Serie A but in the history of football. These giants also share one of football’s most iconic footballing structures, the Giuseppe Meazza, which stages the passionate Derby della Madonnina.
When Milan take on Internazionale, this stadium comes alive with a mix of flags, flares, fireworks and huge banners. The ground is not full for every match and it needs some updating, but in its current state it embodies the raw passion of the early 1990s Italian football experience.
This colossal stadium has been instantly recognisable since its refurbishment for the World Cup in 1990. An extra tier, which is supported by no fewer than 11 spiral towers, and a roof with huge red iron girders were added. The San Siro has become a Mecca for football fans and it remains one of the must-see grounds in Europe. Quite simply, its atmosphere and vantage points are second to none.
While it is never pleasant to see footballers on the end of scathing criticism, when Milan ultras castigated left-back Kévin Constant through the unfurling of a banner during their 1-1 draw with Genoa back in 2013, their exasperation was understandable. “Constant, instead of clowning around and being arrogant, respect those who watch your embarrassing performances,” read the rebuke.
Not only were his performances questionable, but his off-field frivolities – including tweeting pictures from a nightclub on the Friday before Milan’s weekend clash with Genoa – suggested he was less than committed to honouring the iconic red and black shirt. But while there was some justification behind this protest, the criticism reserved for Paolo Maldini during his 900th and last appearance for Milan against Roma in 2009 was baffling.
It goes without saying that Maldini is a club legend. A product of the Milan Primavera, their youth team, Maldini won five European Cups and seven Scudetti over the course of his 25-year career. Yet, after his final match at the San Siro, his lap of honour was soured by a pocket of ultras who expressed their dissent.
“Thanks captain. On the pitch you were an undying champion but you had no respect for those who made you rich,” read one of the banners. “For your 25 years of glorious service you have the thanks of those who you called mercenaries and misers,” opined another.
AdvertisementThe ill feelings are said to have stemmed from an angry exchange between Maldini and a group of ultras who had awaited the team’s return at the Milan airport following their loss to Liverpool in the 2005 Champions League final. The banners were accompanied by a giant shirt emblazoned with the number six, which was unveiled to the backdrop of the chant: “There’s only one captain, Baresi.”
Giancarlo Capelli, an ultras leader, later remarked: “It was not a protest. We just wanted to make it clear what we thought about some of his comments and behaviour over the past years.” Throughout his career, Maldini had not shied from condemning the ultras when they had failed to support some of his team-mates, and his defence of Silvio Berlusconi’s transfer policy also irritated fans.
For observers on the outside, it is hard to accept that a club legend would be subjected to such treatment, albeit from a minority of supporters. However, the intensity of this incident reveals the visceral relationship between ultras and their club. At times it feels like the macho response of a domineering spouse or spurned lover who feels they haven’t been awarded their due respect. While these actions are highly questionable and a flagrant offence to many a football purist, this aberrant behaviour is part of the ultras’ fabric.
That Milan’s ultras hold their players to such lofty standards is perhaps born out of the club’s success and prestige. Founded in 1899 as Milan Cricket and Football Club by English expatriates Alfred Edwards and Herbert Kilpin, the Milanisti take great pride in the knowledge that their team is the oldest in the city and one of the most decorated in Europe – facts they are keen to flaunt when they play their city rivals, Internazionale.
To honour their roots, Milan have retained the English spelling of the city’s name and this history is also celebrated by the supporters, most notably when the ultras choreographed a gigantic banner of Kilpin in his archaic red and black shirt during their match against Barcelona in 2013. The display was accompanied by the date 1899 and the message “La Storia Siamo Noi” (“We are the history”). The supporters may also have Kilpin to thank for the club’s iconic red and black colours and as a consequence their nickname, Il Diavolo (the Devil).
The Englishman is said to have arrived at this choice of colours after saying: “We are a team of devils. Our colours are red as fire, and black to invoke fear in our opponents.” Indeed, the San Siro can be one of the most daunting arenas in European football and the ultras of the Curva Sud thrive off their menacing moniker. Unsurprisingly, Milan’s status means they have a plethora of ultra groups, none more renowned than the historic Fossa dei Leoni (Lion’s Den).
The group were formed in 1968 and are said to be the first modern ultra organisation in Italy. As such they played something of a pioneering role in the nascent years of the ultra movement. Although Fossa dei Leoni originally resided on Ramp 18 of the Settori Popolari of the San Siro, in 1972 the group shifted to the Curva Sud and became the heartbeat of the Diavolo support. Accompanied by the Brigate Rossonere (Red and Black Brigade), founded in 1975, and Commandos Tigre (Tiger Commandos) who joined Brigate and Fossa on the Curva Sud in 1985, they formed a triumvirate that made the Rossoneri’s support one of the most eclectic on the peninsula.
To emphasise Fossa’s cult nature, the group had their own song, Leoni Armati(Armed Lions), inspired by the Italian film L’armata Brancaleone. In 1982 they featured in the Italian film Eccezzziunale… veramente, in which actor Diego Abatantuono played the role of the group’s leader, Donato “Ras della Fossa”.
The Italian ultra movement was inextricably linked with the political activism of the era but, curiously, Fossa never adopted a clear political identity. It is said that some of their members veered towards the left, with images of Che Guevara visible in the San Siro during the group’s early years, but many of the ultras on theCurva Sud have avoided political affiliation. While rifts arose from a difference in ideology between Commandos, Brigate and Fossa, the groups led the Curva for 20 years in relative harmony, until Fossa disbanded in 2005.
The reason behind Fossa’s dissolution once again beggars belief. The story goes – and there are numerous accounts – that during a game between Milan and Juventus in 2005, the group managed to steal a banner from a Juve ultra group known as Viking. Fossaproceeded to unfurl this banner in theCurva Sud as a trophy of their conquest, but it later emerged that rather than stealing the banner, theMilanisti had obtained it senza onore(without honour). The fans hadn’t physically fought to steal the banner and this went against the unwritten rules of the ultras. The Juventini wasnted revenge and a few days later a Fossa banner was stolen by Viking and posted on the group’s fanzine. The following Sunday the banners were back in the possession of their owners. Rumours spread that the swap had been organised in agreement with the police, a heinous crime in the world of the ultras and shocking news to the other groups in the Curva Sud.
Fossa ceased to exist, but the conflict in the Curva Sud went on. Internecine warfare ensued. An Milan fan was shot in the legs. Monza magistrates concluded that the attack was part of an internal war among Rossoneri ultras over merchandising and tickets. Commandos and Brigate lived on, while new groups such as Guerrieri Ultras (Ultra Warriors) – formed of ex-Fossa members – were born. Their motto – “neither red nor black, just black and red” – encapsulated their apolitical stance. The peace was eventually restored and now the majority of the Curva Sud has united under the umbrella of Curva Sud Milano. Their headquarters lie in the industrial area of San Giovanni but their members are spread across the length of the peninsula.
The infighting, the protests, their unabashed hubris and the revolving door in which groups form and disband appears rather ludicrous. It is bemusing but undeniably beguiling. In the midst of all the chaos there are codes and rules that must be followed stringently. It is madness but there is a meticulous method to the ultras madness. Imagine Italian football without them. Imagine the San Siro on a Champions League night without the Curva Sud, the match devoid of incessant chanting, flares, smoke and spectacular choreographies.
In 2010, when Manchester United faced Milan in the Champions League knockout phase, Sir Alex Ferguson was left in awe. Not by the superstars on the field but by the supporters in the terraces. “The one thing that’s so amazing is that for the first 15 minutes I felt in shock, really in shock, because the atmosphere was unbelievable,” Ferguson explained. “Coupled with the noise when they scored, it unnerved me and it unnerved my players. No matter how much experience you have got, you get drawn into that cauldron of noise.”
Therein lies the seductive power of these ultras.
Classic Player: Zvonimir Boban
Zvonimir Boban was one of the most talented players to play for Milan in the 1990s, an impressive feat considering the status of that team. When talking about Milan’s great team, Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi are just some of the candidates who were not only classic players but also bona fide legends of the game.
AdvertisementZvonimir Boban, however, was the heartbeat of this team and is often overlooked. Every accolade has been bestowed on the likes of Maldini and Van Basten (and rightly so) but this talented Croatian is often missed out. Boban combined skill, intelligence and an outstanding passing range with a devastating shot; it is sometimes easy to forget just how good he was.
Signed by Fabio Capello for £8m in 1991 from Dinamo Zagreb, he was loaned straight out to Bari. After suffering relegation with the southern team, he came back to Milan to embark on a golden journey in which he would win four Serie A titles, three Italian Super Cups, a Champions League and a European Super Cup.
His partnership with Demetrio Albertini gave the team a touch of class and complete tactical awareness. Boban was a technical genius with a devastating ability to produce breathtaking goals. These were taken from distance, with his head or from a graceful and fluid running pattern with the ball that was fuelled by his raw aggression and determination.
Boban could perform any role in midfield and that ability to adapt made him indispensable. He would not just fit in and do a job; he would play the role as well as the man he was replacing, if not better. The players around him could concentrate solely on their role and in turn produce the maximum impact.
Boban’s one downfall was perhaps his lack of goals (30 in 251 games). When he scored they were usually spectacular, but his ability to create for others was key. His temperament feisty to say the least, but many great players need this aggression in their game to make them who they are. He was always willing to fight for the cause and that aggression helped Milan sweep everything before them in the decade he spent at the club.
When calcio ruled the world, Milan were the greatest team by some distance and Boban was one of the heartbeats of the team.