The following story explores neo-radicalism during Italy’s Years of Lead and the era’s impact on contemporary football.
The Phoenix of Fascism
On 2 August 1980, young Angela Fresu shifted her toddler feet, trying to hide behind mum’s leg in the morning rush. Bologna Centrale was a hub for connecting the multitude of national and international tourists between Italy’s North and South. Angela’s mother, Maria, had planned a nice holiday for them to Lake Garda, away from the city’s steaminess and muggy air. That particular summer was a scorcher – so hot that it convinced the city to install an air-conditioned waiting room inside the station. Naturally, it became an oasis for travelers.
Moments later, a suitcase under them exploded. Parts of the corpses would not be found until months later. In total, 82 other people were murdered on that tragic morning, in what became Italy’s worst tragedy in contemporary history.
The massacre, whether the truth will ever be solved in a court of law, was used as a method to usurp the government – a statement to pave the way for a far-right dictatorship.
President Sandro Pertini arrived seven hours later by helicopter and his words captured the severity of the threat the nation was facing: “I have no words. We are facing the most criminal enterprise that has ever operated in Italy.” He was indeed correct. The Italian Communist party immediately blamed responsibility on Nbeo-fascists without much evidence, yet it was believed the attack could have as easily been orchestrated by the far-left.
Just two years earlier, there was a warning – a precursor to the events in Bologna. In 1978, Prime Minister Aldo Moro was abducted by extreme left group, Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades). He had been in transit to give his supporting vote to Christian Democrat Giulio Andreotti, who for the first time, was also being supported by the Communist Party.
Suddenly, the Roman street was blocked. Moments later, Moro’s five bodyguards laid dead on the ground. Moro himself was shoved into the back of a vehicle.
Over the proceeding weeks, the Italian government took a hard-line position on negotiation. Pope Paul VI pleaded with the kidnappers to release Moro, even offering himself in exchange. Moro was then told he was being transported and had to be concealed in a blanket. Soon after he was murdered – shot 10 times – and the Pope was officiating his funeral-mass a few days later.
This tumultuous era became known as the Years of Lead (Anni di Piombo) – a period during the late 1970s and 80s when political tensions between factions on the left and right spilled into regular violence and extremism became the norm.
While chaos erupted throughout the peninsula, certain cities had a historical identity that intertwined and resurfaced with the contemporary plight. This was exploited and channelled through the birth of football fan groups in Milan, Rome, Verona, and Livorno.
While the State had more pressing matters of organised violence in the streets and alleyways, the emerging ‘Ultras’ of Italian football were underestimated. They were allowed to occupy these spaces and political extremism had found a safe haven in Italian football.
By the end of 1982, radicalism had been temporarily defeated by the State. Italy entered a golden period following the success of the Azzurri at the 1982 World Cup and its contemporary issues were put on hold. Economic stability increased and the economy shifted from one ruled by trade unions and manufacturing, to one of fine materials, fashion and export.
But the ‘Years of Lead’ had taken their toll and left a lasting legacy. And by the end of the 1970s, the extreme left and right had established their own boutique political “headquarters” inside Italian stadiums. The foundation built during this period would act as the catalyst for the political manifestations and social unrest that we see in stadiums today.
Political strife has intensified around Europe following the economic collapse of 2008, with Italy as a focal point. Its stadiums are once again being used as fertile ground for politicisation, fueled by the far-right Lega Nord and anti-establishment Movimento 5 Stelle parties. Racism has run rampant, Ultras group leaders have been killed in mafia-style murders, fan-on-fan violence has made international news, and even the Holocaust is being used as a tool of provocation. To understand why modern Calcio is facing these ills today, we must first examine the sociological foundation of these groups.
Calcio: Politically Charged
During the Years of Lead, borderline anarchy destabilised society, pushing groups of young men in search for an identity and structure. Football stadiums started to replace churches on Sunday afternoons, becoming hubs where fans could unite and express passion, vent frustration and even voice their political fervor.
The tension mobilised football fan groups who began to align themselves with political parties and belief systems. The socio-cultural chaos acted as a paradigm for the politicalisation of Italian football fans. Some of these groups were a form of counterculture, challenging the democratic values that were enshrined post World War II. This led to Ultras groups adopting beliefs from both sides of the political spectrum – with violence becoming the end to their means.
Some of these teenaged and adult fans transgressed from just celebratory choruses, whistling, and occasional skirmishing. They became “UltraS” – a term coined by Dr. Alberto Testa, author of Football, fascism, and fandom to denote those supporters groups whose political ideology was at the core of their identity. They became the guerilla-inspired political aggressors, valuing their political allegiance more than their club.
Milan’s leftist group Fossa dei Leoni (Lion’s Den) were the first group to demonstrate elements of this mentality, forming in 1968. They were followed by the Brigate Rossonere (Red and Black Brigades) in 1975, adopting their name from the group that would later murder Moro. Flags continued to unfurl around Italy’s top clubs.
Meanwhile, the radical right had its own host of clubs to counterbalance the scene. Boys SAN of Inter followed shortly after Fossa’s emergence, forming an alliance with Lazio’s proudly neo-fascist supporters. SAN adopted their name due to a fragmented fascist group that existed after World War II, showing that while Mussolini had been conquered, the mythos still appealed for the new generations. Typically, groups adopted philosophies based on their area’s experience in World War II.
Livorno’s civil foundation brought its curva to the far-left. The city is home to some of the first unions, as fishermen and dock-workers banded together for protection against their Medici boss back in Renaissance Florence. In 1921, the Communist Party even stationed its headquarters there. Guerilla-clothed supporters wore the green garb of Joseph Stalin and Che Guevara. The hammer and sickle was a staple in the banners of the Amaranto faithful, who openly supported the IRA and liberation of Palestine. They became prototypical for the radical left.
Certain fans became more militarised, evolving into UltraS by the next century. Football became secondary, with violence even piling out into the public sector.
Lazio has embraced neo-Fascism in a linear and continuous practice since its first groups popped up around the late 1960s. Even in the early 2000s, their captain Paolo Di Canio (who himself used to follow Lazio with the Ultras on a Sunday whilst being part of the club’s youth set up) yelled and gave fascist salutes towards the Curva Nord, claiming that he was a “fascist, but not a racist.”
In late 2017, those in the same circle distributed stickers of Anne Frank, wearing a Roma kit. The group stated that “Mocking and teasing are not crimes.” This overt expression of anti-semitism not only trivialised the Holocaust’s most recognised victim but also the tragic event itself.
Irriducibili, the recently disbanded extreme-right leaders of Lazio’s UltraS scene, have a history of using football stadia to express their far-right ideology and in particular, racism and discrimination. The recent murder of their infamous leader, Fabrizio Piscitelli, aka “Diabolik,” also had all the hallmarks of a mafia style hit, bringing home these groups close ties to wider criminal organisations. ‘Diabolik’ grew up in the stadium during the Years of Lead as a teenage street-fighter, and became Capo-Ultra of Irriducibili – the group he helped found. He was part of the generation that turned football and extremism into a business under the company name Original Fans, creating a net value of millions of dollars.
During his leadership, Swastikas and anti-semitism became common place in the Curva Nord. In just five years, Irriducibili became Lazio’s most powerful group due to their willingness to engage in combat. A couple years before Diabolik’s death in 2019, he had an estate worth 2.3 million euros confiscated from him. Rumors bounded over alleged ties to the Comorra and Albanian Mafia and his lavish lifestyle eventually tipped off the authorities.
Then there was the Roma “players” hanged by the Colosseum? That was Diabolik too. Irriducibili distastefully teased Roma fans after a derby win, hanging mannequins of Daniele De Rossi, Mohamed Salah, and Radja Nainggolan over a bridge. The sign read “A piece of advice without offense… sleep with the lights on.”
Cross town, a small group of UltraS named Boys located themselves in the Stadio Olimpico’s Curva Nord (traditionally the stronghold of Lazio supporters and away fans). They represented a growing neo-fascist stance in an otherwise socialist and communist-leaning Curva Sud of AS Roma. They were an immediate force due to their drums, megaphones, and presence at away matches..
Coinciding with the Years of Lead, another of Roma’s principle Ultras groups, Commando Ultra Curva Sud, formed in 1977. They united Boys with other fierce groups of Roma supporters. Announcing their union with the largest banner football had yet seen, Boys and left-wing Fedayn put their differences aside. “CUCS” fought for the Giallorossi rather than a political ideology.
It was the departure of then Roma captain Carlo Ancelotti that caused the splintering of the group. Yet even so, Boys’ militaristic ideology surpassed the extent other members were willing to withstand. Fedayn also went their separate way, adopting a militant approach to fandom to this day.
Fedayn’s ideology has since become somewhat apolitical, yet its violent streak towards opposing ultras remains. In recent years they took the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, when Liverpool fan Sean Cox was put in a coma before Roma’s Champions League semi-final in Liverpool in 2018.
The two men who attacked Sean Cox were in their 20s and travelled separately from the rest of the Roma supporters. Simone Mastrelli, the older of the two, later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison in early February 2020. Fedayn responded to the sentencing with a banner reading “Fears are cancelled out if they’re faced together. Our hope is finally a reality. Welcome back.” Fedayn’s history and dedicated presence at away matches makes them one of the most notorious UltraS groups in Italy.
Racism and Discrimination
The Veneto region lies half a day’s journey to Rome’s northeast and is home to Hellas Verona. To this day, the region harbors a significant radical right-wing political base, distrusting even of neighboring regions. Campanilismo, best described as local patriotism, is strongly felt in the region. From when hilltop towns would fend off pirates and bandits during the Middle Ages, it is the backstory to the suspicion and apprehension of outsiders that still manifests itself in Italian culture. Perhaps this mentality contributed to the expression of racism among Hellas’ Ultras during the 1980s.
These years saw an influx of North African and Eastern European immigrants on Italian shores. Escaping from the Iron Curtain and political unrest, the new groups took working class and sordid jobs, often working longer hours and earning lower wages. Immigration was generally unwelcome in a country that saw itself as the antithesis of the colonial exploits of England and France. In other words, Italy’s colonial experience did not provide a socioeconomic foundation towards a foreign influx.
The Veneto region in particular is known for its insularity and fierce local identity within its cities and towns. There has been a long-standing push among some quarters in the region to secede from the rest of the country, in part due to Veneto raising a large portion of the country’s tax bill. Its largest team, Hellas Verona, has a political base which has always veered to the far-right. Born around the time of Fosse and SAN, the group quickly gained large numbers as it represented the city’s working class ethos. Skulls, Celtic Crosses and other right-wing insignia along became commonplace in its curva.
Clashing against other fans and rioting against the police were common place, as was the use of discrimination and racism against opposition players. In 1982 for example, Cagliari’s Peruvian forward Julio Cesar Uribe had a banana thrown at him whilst playing at the Bentegodi.
Fast forward and similar manifestations still rear their ugly head. Verona’s Ultras began 2020 by racially abusing Mario Balotelli, a player who has regularly suffered discrimination in his home country. Luca Castellini, Verona’s Capoultra and member of far-right party Forza Nuova, made racist claims toward Mario Balotelli after the striker was heckled with monkey chants in a game between Hellas and Brescia. Castellini went on a regional radio station to declare the following:
“Balotelli is Italian because he has Italian citizenship, but he can never be completely Italian… (he) only heard it in his own head. We also have a negro in our team who scored yesterday, and all of the Verona fans applauded him.”
Castellini is also quoted in the past as saying “How nice it would be if Rudolf Hess (deputy to Hitler) had trained us,” and “Hitler committed fewer crimes than democracy.”
He has been subsequently banned from Italian football stadia until 2030. A couple weeks later, a group of eight were banned from stadiums after trying to bring in hats with caricatures of Hitler and “Verona” printed under the image. Their ages ranged from 21 to 49 showing that a new generation of the far-right are very much alive and kicking in Italian stadia.
The grim truth is racism and violence within Italian stadia will continue as long as the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) continue to make half-hearted punishments and society at large remains polarised.
Some change has been prompted by clubs and players themselves. Some have chosen to distance themselves from the UltraS whilst others have taken a more hands on approach through social media. Roma and Milan have used Twitter to protest the ongoing racism in the game and players such as Romelu Lukaku have called for solidarity from fans and players alike. But with such a deep-rooted history in Italian socio-politics, this issue needs to be tackled at a nation-wide level from grassroots to governance.
This work would have been impossible without the research of Dr. Alberto Testa and Gary Armstrong, and Dr. Mark Doidge. It is in memory of Kobe Bryant, who preached education as the greatest tool to defeat racism.
Words by Wayne Girard: @WayneinRome