ROME—The trouble started hours before the soccer teams for Napoli and Inter Milan even ran out onto the pitch at Milan's San Siro stadium. The match, held the day after Christmas, was a crucial game in Italy’s Serie A on the way to the Coppa Campioni. Hundreds of Napoli fans chartered buses and carpooled in minivans for the seven-hour drive from Naples in southern Italy to Milan in the north of the country.
When a group of hard-core Napoli fans arrived at a designated parking area about a mile from the stadium, a group of “ultra” Inter fans were waiting for them with hammers, masonry mallets and pruning sickles.
The fight that ensued was brutal, to say the least. Four Napoli fans suffered deep stab wounds and an Inter fan, who had been banned from entering the stadium because of disruptions at previous games, died in the hospital after an SUV allegedly driven by a Napoli fan ran over him before speeding off.
Then things got really bad, and nobody should have been surprised. The way “the beautiful game” has turned ugly reflects darker developments in a broader segment of the Italian and indeed the European body politic.
Tobias Jones, bestselling author of Dark Heart of Italy, has spent the past year traveling with and studying the extreme fandom for an upcoming book called Ultras. He says there are groups across the country with giant posters of Mussolini in their headquarters.
“They were radical fans who were, originally, apolitical and dedicated only to the colors of the team. In the mid 1990s however, the ultras became increasingly fascist in inspiration, introducing anti-Semitism, swastikas and overt racism into Italian grounds,” Jones told The Daily Beast. “The overt and increasing racism of the ultras is merely a reflection of the society from which they come, and which has repeatedly voted for neo-fascist political parties.”
Inside the stadium at the Napoli-Inter Milan match, the tension was high as word of the scuffle outside spread. Napoli's star defender Kalidou Koulibaly, a 27-year-old Frenchman of Senegalese descent who has played for Napoli since 2014, was just warming up when thousands of Inter fans started making monkey sounds from the stands.
Koulibaly has grown accustomed to such racial abuse, especially when playing teams from Italy's northern regions where soccer racism has become de rigueur in recent years. He and other black soccer players are often taunted with insults and pelted with bananas thrown by ultras in the crowds, apparently meant to imply they belong in a jungle. It is just as common for Italian players, giving in to the ultra fans' demands, to refuse to shake the hands of black players before and after the matches.
But this match was different, somehow worse than usual. The chanting was louder and spiked with abhorrent racial slurs that reflect the ultras’ far-right fascist views. This time the insults were more personal and went far beyond telling Koulibaly to “go back to Africa” or “go back to the jungle.”
Three times, an announcer warned the ultras to stop taunting the player over the loudspeaker, but it seemed only to energize them. Non-ultra fans tried to shush them but they were far outnumbered. Carlo Ancelotti, the Napoli coach, asked that the game be suspended while the ultras simmered down. His requests were denied and he later said that the next time—and there certainly will be a next time—he will take his team and walk off the pitch. Then at the 81st minute, Koulibaly understandably lost his cool and sarcastically applauded and insulted a referee over a foul. The ref responded with a red card, banning Koulibaly for two matches.
After the game ended with a 1-0 victory for Inter, Italy's soccer federation sanctioned the team, ruling that the next two games will be played in an empty stadium and a third game would be played without Inter fans allowed to attend. But many believe that more should be done and that teams bear some responsibility for the behavior of some of their fans, no matter how extreme or how important they are to their fan base.
Ultras are not exactly the same as soccer hooligans, who are basically just looking for a brawl. The ultras emerged in Italian soccer in the late 1960s and as they have evolved from ultra-fans to ultra-right-wing thugs they’ve tended to focus their hate towards those on the field instead of those supporting rival teams. The scuffle with Napoli fans outside the stadium was a proxy of sorts, carried out almost entirely by those Inter ultras who had been banned from attending the game for previous offenses.
Italy's right-wing interior minister and vice premier, Matteo Salvini, who has been photographed with several known ultras, noticeably did not tweet support for Koulibaly after the post-Christmas game. Instead, he tweeted support for the ultras victim who was killed. “In 2018 you cannot die at a football match. At the beginning of the year I will convene the leaders of supporters and Serie A and B so that the stadiums and the surrounding area will once again become a place of fun and not of violence.”
Jones says that the ultras are tolerated because they have become such a powerful group of supporters for many teams. Their potential for violence is also so strong that pacifying them has been a matter of public order. “The ultras receive free tickets, jobs within the grounds and political support because the force of their numbers is so great, and the threat of public disorder ever-present,” he says. “By now, all the major curves or terraces of Italian stadiums are dominated by neo-fascist groups which have become criminal gangs, repeatedly involved in drug-dealing and violence.”
Ultras support almost every Italian soccer team in some form or other. Last year, ultras supporting Rome's Lazio team were scorned after producing stickers and T-shirts with their rival Roma team members’ faces superimposed on a picture of Anne Frank. Lazio was fined $60,000 and the team played excerpts from The Diary of Anne Frank and wore T-shirts with the words “no anti-Semitism” and a photo of the young Holocaust victim at subsequent games.
Koulibaly surely knows that this won't be the last time he faces insults, because the ultras are not likely to be banned from attending matches he plays in any time soon. In October, Turin's Juventus team was fined $12,000 and part of its own stadium was closed to fans for similar insults against him. “I’m disappointed by the defeat, but above all at leaving my brothers,” Koulibaly tweeted in Italian after the game, referring to his two-game ban. “But I am proud of the color of my skin. Proud to be French, Senegalese, Neapolitan: a man.”
Still, the game goes on. Napoli coach Ancelotti says he believes that given the mood in the stadium, Koulibaly should not be banned from two games, but the team will not formally contest the call.
“There was a strange atmosphere. Koulibaly was certainly irritable," Ancelotti said after the offending match. “Usually, he is very calm and professional, but he was subjected to monkey noises throughout the game. We asked three times for some sort of action to be taken, but the match continued. Maybe we have to take matters into our own hands next time and stop play ourselves. They’ll probably make us lose the game if we walk off, but we are prepared to do it. It’s not good for Italian football, seeing this.”