We embedded with Fiorentina fans to learn about supporting an Italian soccer club

Have I died and gone to hell? It’s difficult to imagine a more unbearable situation. It’s not even 11 o’clock, yet I’ve been trapped in a stuffy bus for hours, doing my best to keep down yesterday’s Chianti and lampredotto – the fourth stomach of a cow, chopped, boiled, seasoned and presented with a flourish. Strangers chant in an indecipherable language, stomping their feet and banging on windows. A persistent thought batters the edges of my swollen brain: These are not the people with whom I’d choose to die.

I knew the risks, of course. Didn’t every American-slash-northern-European anticipate that, should she attend a soccer match in Italy, she might not be coming back? But when we’d arrived at the meeting point in the hills outside Florence, I’d started to relax. None of the group waiting for the coach looked like the typical Italian fan so feared outside the peninsula: two middle-aged men wearing purple and white scarves, a thin man in his mid-20s with glasses and skinny jeans, a mom and her teenage son, and two girls in their late teens accompanied by a heavyset man. No visible tattoos. No bags stuffed with what looked to be explosives. No scarred cheeks brought on by knife fights.

Surely we’d have a laid-back trip, lulled to sleep in Tuscany, dozing through Lazio and waking up on arrival in Campania. Perhaps we’d reach Naples in time for a pizza, although I’d need to steer clear of wine for awhile.

Despite the bus showing up nearly an hour late I still hoped for the best. But the boisterous crowd already onboard, armed with beer and red wine, clearly has other plans. This is a group used to the rigors of being a traveling soccer supporter. Napping is clearly not on the agenda. Yet despite disrupting my attempts at sleep, nothing seems particularly troubling about this crowd. Fabrizio, for example — a slender man who looks to be in his early 30s — doesn’t look particularly threatening, but he was the leader of Collettivo Autonomo Viola (CAV), a group of Fiorentina ultra, from the age of 17 until the group was disbanded in 2011. His mind’s not on choreography or flares, though. Right now, what’s most important to him and the group is determining the best possible pit stop.

Napoli 21

These days, Fiorentina supporters don’t often make headlines. In Italy, that’s a good thing. They’re not chucking bananas on the pitch. They’re not breaking visiting fans’ noses. But in the ‘90s, they were among Italy’s most feared. In 1989, a group of Fiorentina ultra threw a molotov cocktail inside a train car filled with Bologna supporters, injuring fans, including a 14-year-old boy. The next decade brought regular clashes with fans of other clubs, and members of CAV attacked a Juventus team bus. Arrests following this incident thinned out the group, but it soon began to grow again, even remaining strong as Fiorentina dropped into the third division.

“It is absurd to die for a football match,” begins a letter addressed to Italy’s ultra. The words were penned by the father of Claudio Spagnolo, a 24-year-old Genoa fan killed by Simeone Brasaglia, an 18-year-old associated with a group of AC Milan ultra. Spagnolo’s death in January 1995 – a senseless death brought about by men hell-bent on waging violence – helped to curb the most dramatic instances of hooliganism on the peninsula. But what brought about the most changes was another senseless death, the killing of a police officer during the Sicilian Derby in 2007.

It was then that Italy’s soccer culture began to change. Officials began cracking down on things like banners, megaphones and choreography. Those alterations finally led to the dismantling of CAV. The climate had changed, the reasons for unity no longer existed – the sort of unity heightened, perhaps, by occasions of violence. Costs rose, particularly for away games, and it didn’t help that clubs stopped providing previously free rides. Younger fans stayed away, preferring to watch the game on television. There are those, like Fabrizio, that remain dedicated to supporting Fiorentina, but the group as a whole no longer served a purpose.

Many soccer fans can conjure a picture of a ultra in their heads: for some, he’s a hooligan, but he’s somehow more. He’s scowling. Perhaps his skin is crawling with harsh tattoos. He seems more than a little in love with violence. He’s going on the road to pick fights and indulge in racist chants. He’s standing under a banner emblazoned with vulgarities, perhaps swastikas. He’s not the sort of guy you want to run into in a dark alley.

The ultra’s image precedes him., yet much of what the ultra does is similar to those attending matches of their own beloved club. The goal is to be the 12th Man, to drive on the team to victory – be another weapon to aim at an opposing force. Flags are held high, horns blown, feet stomped, flags unveiled. The choreography – the tifo, as we all know it now – is the world’s model, from Genoa’s pop-up castle to Milan’s Barca-chomping PacMan to Parma’s now-melancholy celebration of its centenario (below).

The problem arises when the ultra takes his role to the extreme. “Weapon” is no longer a metaphor, but a physical object, wielded to scare, to maim, even to kill. It may have been 25 years since the Fiorentina ultra hurled explosives into a train, but the memories of Tottenham fans in Rome being attacked with stones and knives in 2012 are still fresh. And while the incidents and injuries incurred at matches may have dropped overall in the last decade, the violence is increasing once more. Perhaps Juventus manager Max Allegri was right when he claimed “only a madman” would take kids to a soccer stadium in Italy?

Parma Centenario

There’s nothing stranger than being amongst a hardcore swath of fans rooting on a team you don’t support. Sure, I was disguised in a Viola sweatshirt, and we weren’t standing in the Curva Fiesole but across, in the Ferrovia. But these people wouldn’t be too keen on learning I was a Napoli fan, so it was best to bite my lip as the group in front of me discussed how my club would be eliminated from the Europa League by Wolfsburg the following week.

Firenze 11Kirsten Schlewitz

Still, there are few finer places to be standing on a gorgeous spring evening than in the Stadio Artemio Franchi. The sky transitions from glowing blue to a deepening violet, causing fans to nearly blend into the background, human chameleons shifting to their places in the stands. By the time the whistle blows, the Tuscan hills have dropped away. The stadium is shrouded in black, but spotlights and camera flashes pop against a Viola wall, a nearly unbroken chain of supporters. There’s no chill in the air, only a nervous tension, manifesting itself in screams and songs even before the ball is touched.

As it turns out, it’s pretty easy to blend into a crowd of Fiorentina fans – provided you aren’t wearing bianconeri, of course. Right from the start, the majority of the chants weren’t about supporting Fiorentina, but rather rooting against Juventus. It’s called gufare, meaning “to support against.” Juventus, in particular, is one of the most supported-against teams in Italy. It’s a team that simply has too many medals; the team that leaves a bad taste in other fans’ mouth. Should Juve beat Fiorentina that night, it’d be on its way to its 15th Coppa Italia final – a competition Italy’s most successful club doesn’t even take particularly seriously. So when the Ferrovia chanted, “Everyone who doesn’t jump is bianconeri,” I stood. I jumped. Anyone but Juventus.

Fiorentina fans have always hated Juventus. After its founding in 1926, the amateur side would regularly lose to The Old Lady by double-digit scores. What truly traumatized Viola supporters, however, was the 1981-1982 season. Fiorentina had a chance to claim the title that Juventus eventually won, and nearly every supporter wanted to tell me how their team had been screwed over.

The story was repeated like a Bible verse children are forced to know by heart. With the two teams even on points, Fiorentina traveled to Cagliari, where a goal that should’ve counted got ruled out. Meanwhile Juve, at Catanzaro, was awarded a soft penalty, took all three points, and won the scudetto. The words seemed to carry a warning: the same could happen again, here, with a trip to the Coppa Italia final on the line.

What was the theory? Did the Italian federation (FIGC) simply favor Juventus? No, explains Michelangelo, who doesn’t look old enough to have even been alive when this all went down. With the 1982 World Cup approaching, the FIGC did not want the domestic competition to be extended into a playoff to decide the title, as it would interfere with preparations for the tournament. So, the story goes, the FIGC did some fiddling to make sure the season ended on time.

Ho, hum. Yet another story about Juventus cheating its way to the title, a reason to keep chants about bianconeri thievery floating through the stadium’s atmosphere even now, more than 30 years later. A story woven into legend, inflated through the ages. Those telling it now don’t mention that Fiorentina’s opponent needed a point to stay safe, or that Juventus was playing a side already assured of another Serie A season. There’s no description of the listless Viola play. Instead, 1982 is almost a call to arms. It is a way of uniting Fiorentina fans against the “other”: against Juventus, against the FIGC, against the Azzurri.

“Fiorentina is my national team,” declares Marina, the statement instantly transforming her laughing mouth into a steely line. Fabio, a fan for over 50 years, tells of an Italy friendly against Mexico in 1993, when the stadium rooted against the Azzurri. Real, exaggerated or entirely imagined, these fans know how to hold a grudge.

With such hatred running through the crowd, the atmosphere might have turned hostile, even frightening. But while the constant jeers thrown at the small crowd of Juventus supporters certainly weren’t friendly, the Franchi seems to discourage fear. Both curva are packed and noisy, even after Juventus takes an early lead. Below the atmosphere is more strained, with anxious fans perched on railings and pressed against glass that holds them back from the field. Yet children still dart through the crowd, teenagers still flirt, and when the final whistle goes, there are groans and mutterings, but everyone still files out in an ordinary fashion. Perhaps this is what the fans expected, and with their side’s opening goal incorrectly ruled out, they could certainly blame Juventus for yet another Fiorentina failure.

Firenze 3Kirsten Schlewitz

I’ve got my eye on the bus clock, although I’m not entirely sure why. I’ve no way of knowing just how far away Naples is. It’s been over five hours, though, and we should be nearing town. Surely they’d give us some time to get settled in, take in the scenery, allow the home fans to scream their insults. Sure enough, the bus soon slows to exit…

…into a rest stop. Not even one of the nice rest stops, either, where there’s a selection of cafes and disco-themed bathrooms. This just looks like a trampled field of grass beside a freeway. It could be an American rest stop, save for the 20-or-so cops welcoming our bus forward. The group’s leader stands and explains that the police will do a security check here, to expedite the process of getting us into the San Paolo later. She tells us to gather our bags and leave the bus so the police can give it a sweep.

We start to gather backpacks, purses, wine bottles, jackets, scarves, some of us reaching above the seats while others push forward to the exit. Suddenly from the front comes a cacophony of raised voices, and those near the door pile into seats with others or duck down to ensure everyone sees Marina. She’s raising both hands – one clutching a ticket, one holding an inViolaCard. We’re to exit the bus holding both aloft, being sure that the ID card is in our left hand, the ticket in our right.

This all seems over-the-top, but as I descend the bus steps, items in hand, multiple cameras click, and I see police helmets, batons and guns. I realize this is, in fact, deadly serious. But only the American tourist seems fazed. Most are annoyed, especially the women, as there’s a rumor going through the crowd that all bags will have to be placed beneath the bus. A few cocky souls harass the cops, flipping off the cameras and hurling insults. It’s a bit of a time-honored tradition in Italy, fans baiting the police, although in the past such behavior was much more likely to result in a violent outburst. These officers are taking care to ensure the visiting supporters have no means of attacking the home fans, but they’re also taking care to make sure none of their own, the guards standing between the rival groups, will be in danger. The stored backpacks, the opened purses and the pat-downs are reminders that yes, some soccer fans were criminals – and now all need to be treated accordingly.

After about 30 more minutes, Naples finally comes into view. With only 12 minutes left before the game starts, the San Paolo signs appear. We’re passing by those most iconic of Neapolitan institutions: apartment buildings crowded together, laundry hanging from every window and strung across the narrow, sunless lanes. This is where I start to feel profoundly uncomfortable.

NAPLES, ITALY - NOVEMBER 17, 2011: Mount Vesuvius overlooks the Bay of Naples. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

NAPLES, ITALY - NOVEMBER 17, 2011: Mount Vesuvius overlooks the Bay of Naples. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

I adore Naples; it’s part of the reason I chose Napoli as my team. I love southern cities, with their crowded streets, the friendliness, the people talking over each other, living life on top of one another, the smells of delicious foods wafting above and through it all. No matter which country I visit, the south is always more appealing – more welcoming, more laid-back, savoring food, family and friendship above all else. So when the bus starts up with a chant that continues, on and off, until we finally arrive at the stadium, I do my best to hide my face. As I look out the window, passengers and pedestrians constantly give us the bird. I try to convey my thoughts through my expression: “No. No! I’m one of you!”

“This looks like Naples” doesn’t seem, on the surface, to be an offending chant, but rather a means of poking fun at the distinctiveness of the city. But the little jokes are part of a deeper societal mindset, one that stems from before Italy’s unification in 1861. With the north generally more affluent, and the poorer south beset by organized crime, many northerners have no qualms expressing contempt for those in the south. With such a long history of north-south animosity, it’s surprising territorial discrimination amongst soccer fans hasn’t received more attention. Then again, with all the previous violence and racism, it may have been a bit difficult to care about banners advocating another Vesuvius.

TURIN, ITALY - NOVEMBER 10, 2013:  Fans of Juventus show a giant banner depicting the volcano Vesuvius with Napoli at Juventus Arena.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

TURIN, ITALY - NOVEMBER 10, 2013: Fans of Juventus show a giant banner depicting the volcano Vesuvius with Napoli at Juventus Arena. (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)

It is Napoli, one of the few teams from down south that regularly plays in the first division, that feels the brunt of this discrimination. It is near impossible for supporters to travel to a northern stadium without being subjected to chants such as “Vesuvius, wash them with fire.” The hatred emerges even in matches in which Napoli is not involved, such as when Juventus ultra were heard to chant “What a smell, even the dogs run away when the Neapolitans arrive. Oh, victims of cholera and earthquakes, you never wash yourselves,” during a match against Genoa.

Juventus was punished with a two-game ban of its Curva Sud, yet even this minor rebuke was lessened, with the Italian football federation (FIGC) suspending the ban for a year. With other partial bans threatened at both Milan sides, Roma and Torino, the FIGC insisted it would crack down on territorial discrimination. Instead, under Carlo Tavecchio (the same man who likened African players to banana-eaters), it removed the section of the rules dealing with “offense, denigration or insults related to territorial origin.” No longer would such taunts be treated in the same manner as racial discrimination.

It was Fiorentina, in fact, that first revoked its support for Tavecchio’s candidacy for FIGC president, with the club stating, “We always condemn any type of racism or territorial discrimination, but if action is taken against fans when are involved in similar incidents, then it’s even more important that those in charge of Italian football set the example.” Clearly the memo had not reached those on the Viola supporters’ bus, with the chants growing more frequent as we took the exit and begin winding through the outskirts of town.

When we were finally released from the bus, the clock read 3:07 p.m. At least we wouldn’t need to pass inspection again before entering the stand, I thought. The murals and stadiumscapes I wouldn’t be able to pose in front of flew by as we hustled forward, only to pull up short. Of course, we’d need to have our bags checked. And our persons patted down. And some of us needed to take off our shoes, as though we were about to board a plane. Where the blades and explosives might have come from between our previous inspection and the arrival at the stadium (all the while escorted by police), I certainly didn’t know. But I’d missed 15 minutes of a game I’d been waiting months to see, and for that, I felt resentful, especially when they led us into a cage, surrounded by a giant net on three sides, lined with yet more police officers.

Napoli 13Kirsten Schlewitz

I bit my lip when Napoli scored the first goal, and when Marek Hamšík notched the second. And when Napoli finished off the Viola with a third goal, I again had to remind myself I was trapped in a butterfly net with hundreds of devoted Fiorentina fans. I’d felt nothing but safe with these people, but they could turn if they discovered a traitor in their midst. My lip was in pain by match ’s end.

Napoli 19Kirsten Schlewitz

It turned out the reason we’d been repeatedly searched stemmed from incidents over the past couple years in which small objects had been thrown at Napoli supporters, but considering we hadn’t had coins, keys, or lipsticks confiscated, the logic of the frisk remained elusive. Particularly upon discovering the Napoli fans had actually strung up a banner of welcome, reading “Long live the Viola, despite being our enemies.” Not the most gushing of statements, but a tribute nonetheless; a mark of respect for the way Fiorentina fans had handled the shocking events of the year before.

Last May, the kickoff in the Coppa Italia final in Rome played between these two sides was delayed 45 minutes while news from the streets filtered in. A Roma ultra had stabbed one of the visiting Napoli fans, who had been taken to the hospital in critical condition. The match went forward after much discussion, with Napoli the eventual winners, but June Ciro Esposito succumbed to his injuries and died. His mother is now a passionate advocate, speaking out about the need to end violence surrounding calcio.

And surrounding is, perhaps, the best way to describe what occurs in Italy. While the news of a paper bomb exploding amongst Torino supporters, injuring nine, during the recent Turin Derby made headlines, it’s become a rare occurrence. Calcio violence is much more likely to occur on the streets away from the stadiums, senseless acts of a small sector of ultra looking for a fight. That violence still needs to be eradicated; it feeds off the hatred and the racism and the territorial discrimination, and Italian soccer must do more to weed these out of the stands.

But after my time in Italy, telling anybody to stay away from calcio seems too much. It’s an idea that’s was floated by at least one prominent voice, one that added credence to headlines that harp on the worst of Italian soccer. Italy does have problems, but not enough to stay away from the sport; certainly not enough to stay away based on what we read in the media.

Men drinking espresso while arguing over Gazzetta articles, women discussing transfers on the tram – Italian soccer also has its charms, and its quirks. Its choreography can be dramatic, its natural lighting even more so, both augmenting the country’s crumbling stadia that are trying to host a final glory before they’re torn down.

Most of all, Italy has its fans, its history – the tradition, myth and lore that will be passed down to the next generations. It’s why calcio has survived thus far. It’s also why calcio, for all its struggles, will survive its tomorrows.