Gemellaggio: When Ultras Come Together

We confirm the intention to end the rapport of friendship that has seen us tied to the people of Genoa for circa forty years”. Last month, Napoli’s Curva penned an open letter announcing the end of their gemellaggio with the ultras of Genoa.

Until this point, the relationship between Napoli and Genoa had been one of calcio’s finest examples of “twinning” between supporters groups from different clubs. The friendship began one afternoon in May 1982, when Genoa visited the San Paolo needing only a draw to ensure Serie A survival. Napoli themselves had little to play for, but knew that Genoa’s survival would spell certain relegation for their long-time rivals AC Milan. Sure enough a 2-2 draw was played out and, as tifosi from both sides rejoiced, a friendship was born.

The fans would routinely honour each other with banners and chanting on the curva, paying homage to their friendship. But everything changed on 7th April, when the visiting Genovese displayed a message in memoriam the deceased ultra Daniele ‘Dede’ Belardinelli, who had died amidst a failed ambush of Neapolitan ultras in Milan in December. Although simple in content, this premeditated act was a snub of the highest order by Genoa’s ultras.

Ultras have a sacred place in Italian football. They are the hard core support, the most passionate fans renowned for producing spectacular visual choreographies, pyrotechnic displays and fierce chanting capable of rocking the foundations of the stadium. Their primary – and undeniably worthy – aim is to support their team. These groups are responsible for creating the unique atmosphere that draws so many people to Italian football.

However, it is the more unsavoury aspects of ultras’ behaviour for which they are synonymous – conflict, criminality and racism. There is a long history of violence stretching back more than half a century, when burgeoning socio-political tensions manifested themselves between rivals groups of supporters. Tensions would even surface between rival groups supporting the same club. Thankfully, instances of violence are now much rarer, yet it is a reputation these groups cannot shake.

The term “ultra” has frequently, though erroneously, been used by commentators as a by-word for “hooligan”. Those immersed in the culture understand it differently. If violence does occur it is rarely gratuitous; certainly in the eyes of the perpetrators. These are fundamentally groups of honour, where behaviour is governed by formal hierarchies and strict unwritten codes.

However, the relationships between different groups of ultras are complex and dynamic, shifting and shaping in response to emerging events. New rivalries surface, whilst old ones can wither. Rivalries can be temporarily suspended and solidarity can be shown; most commonly in unison against the authorities. Very occasionally, gemellaggi can emerge too.

Such friendships are an entirely alien concept within most other football cultures. Certainly, many in England would find the idea of forging a bond with the supporters of another domestic team baffling. Whilst a club may be referred to as “everyone’s second favourite team” – this is an ephemeral and intangible status rather than an enduring relationship.

These gemellaggi come to life in the stadium, in the form of choreographies, chanting and banners exhibiting their mutual admiration. When twins face one another, the supporters mix freely in and around the stadium – in contrast to the usual strict segregation – and the atmosphere can take on a festival-like quality. Before and after the game, tifosi will take time to cement and celebrate those friendships – sharing food and drink or even playing a football match themselves. On other occasions, twins may attend the other’s match in solidarity, standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the curva to support their brothers. Most recently, clubs have levered these relations for charitable ends through the production of limited edition merchandise.

The majority of functioning gemellaggi exist between teams in different strata of the footballing pyramid, perhaps because the paucity of tensions on the pitch allow relations to establish and flourish on the curva. There are relatively few gemellaggi between current Serie A teams, and one fewer following the acrimonious divorce of Napoli and Genoa. So, how are these curious relationships created and what sustains them?

Shared Political Beliefs

Lazio’s Irriducibili – the Unbreakables – have a reputation as one of Italy’s most fearsome ultra groups. They wear on their sleeve the right-wing political principles for which the club has become renowned. This was brought into the public eye in 2005 when former-Irriducibili member Paolo Di Canio celebrated a goal for his childhood team with a fascist salute to the Stadio Olimpico’s baying Curva Nord.

Since the 1980’s Lazio’s ultras have maintained a friendship with Inter’s Boys-San, a group similarly known for harbouring right wing sympathies. In 2010, this relationship translated from the curva to the pitch. Inter were locked in a two horse race with Lazio’s fiercest rivals Roma for the 2010 Scudetto. When Inter met Lazio towards the end of that campaign, Lazio capitulated beneath the Curva Nord banners of their own fans reading “Get out of their way” and “If you win, we’ll beat you up”. Inter recorded an easy victory which gave them a crucial edge as they went on to win their 18th Scudetto.

At the opposite end of the political spectrum, alliances can also be observed between left-leaning Atalanta and Ternana. However, there are no hard and fast rules – the political leanings of any particular curva may be heterogeneous. Where a strong political identity does prevail it is neither defining nor limiting and alliances can cut across political lines. Fiorentina are famously apolitical, but have a strong friendship with right-wing Verona that arose as a consequence of the contingent of former Viola players that helped Hellas secure their unlikely 1985 Scudetto.

A Common Enemy

The intense rivalry between Fiorentina and Juventus can be traced back to the “stolen” Scudetto of 1982. The teams headed into the final match of the campaign tied on 44 points. Fiorentina were held to a 0-0 draw at relegation-threatened Cagliari, whilst Juvenuts were awarded a dubious late penalty to snatch victory from mid-table Catanzaro. “They robbed us of the title” was the cry from Florence.

Eight years later rivalries were renewed in the UEFA Cup Final, where Juventus once again prevailed amidst claims of unfair referring decisions. The rivalry escalated further still when, in the aftermath of the final, Juventus swooped to sign Fiorentina’s talisman Roberto Baggio. A transfer that precipitated civil disorder in Tuscany. Such is the intensity of ill-feeling towards Juve, that Fiorentina’s Curva Fiesole have forged an alliance with Juve’s city rivals Torino. The groups are united in mutual abhorrence of the Bianconeri.

Along similar lines, the friendship of Milan’s Curva Sud with Brescia Curva Nord is highly unusual in respect of their geographic proximity. Residing less than 100km apart, one might typically expect a Lombardian rivalry to fester between the two. However, the two clubs are united in their hatred for Atalanta; Bergamo lying roughly equidistant between Milan and Brescia.

This is one rivalry that did not translate onto the pitch, despite the apparent preferences of the ultras. In May 1993, Brescia needed victory at the San Siro to give them hope of survival. A goal from Milan’s Demetrio Albertini was greeted with a chorus of jeers from both sets of fans. Brescia grabbed an equaliser, but it was not enough and they were edged closer to relegation at the hands of their brothers. Notwithstanding this mishap, the gemellaggio has endured.

Respectful Gestures or Deeds

The oldest and original gemellaggio is between Vicenza and Pescara. In 1977, with both teams vying for promotion to Serie A, Pescara made the 500km north. They put in an imperious performance to defeat their rivals 1-0, prompting a standing ovation from the home fans. From that simple, but profound gesture a long-standing friendship was formed, summed up by a shared motto “Pescara-Vicenza: no difference. Vicenza-Pescara: nothing separates us”.

A bond exists between the clubs of Torino and Genoa that began in the aftermath of the May 1949 Superga air disaster, pre-dating the formation of ultra groups. In the first match after the disaster, Genoa fielded a youth team to compete against Torino’s depleted team. The alliance was strengthened in the 1964 following the sale of Gigi Meroni to Torino; an Italian George Best figure who himself later perished in tragic circumstances.

This bond sustained for more than half a century until 2009, when a last minute Diego Milito goal propelled Genoa towards European football, simultaneously condemning Toro to relegation. Before the match the ultras had celebrated their friendship, but the behaviour of Genoa fans and the full scale brawl that ensued on the pitch led some to believe the relationship had ended. It remains a contentious matter which divides Torino’s Curva Maratona. Certainly, a hard core of ultras remain faithful to the twinning, displaying messages in recent years such as “Who counts, is with the Genoans” and “Toro-Genoa, friendship beyond the difficulties

Parma have a bond with Empoli that grew from a characteristically fog-shrouded evening at the Stadio Tardini in November 1984. The fumära descended during the match, leaving the Empoli tifosi virtually unsighted by the end of the game. As the referee’s whistle sounded, they applauded what they believed to be a hard earned 0-0 draw. It was only when the Parma ultras magnanimously came around to their opponent’s curva to congratulate them on their victory and performance that Empoli ultras discovered they had in fact scored amidst the fog. That gesture was sufficient to forge a friendship that has lasted for 35 years.

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Parma also enjoy a relationship with Sampdoria dating back to the end of the 1990/91 season, when the latter wrapped up their maiden scudetto and the former secured European qualification for the first time in their history. The Boys Parma group displayed a banner at the Marassi reading “To us Europe, to you the glory, the scudetto to Sampdoria”. Form there the relationship grew from strength-to-strength, culminating in the production of one-off gemellaggio shirts for the match between the teams in May 2019. Each adopted the traditional shirt design of the other, overlaying their own colours onto the template. In a true act of solidarity and friendship, proceeds from the auction of matchworn shirts were donated to children’s hospitals in the others’ city.

The existence of these twinning relationships offers an insight into the nuances of the ultra movement. It also provides evidence of a rich set of values that underpins these oft-misrepresented groups. Ultra groups have come under increasing pressure in recent years. In 2005, a decree from Interior Minister Pisanu put in place formal controls intended limit their freedom and to reduce instances of violence. Since then, we have also seen individual clubs taking steps to reduce the influence of their own ultra groups. Clearly, there is still more work to be done to eradicate the unwanted elements of ultras’ behaviour, but these groups should be handled carefully. They are the heartbeat of their clubs and denied oxygen they will cease to exist – and with them will go the stadium atmospheres that make football in Italy a unique spectacle.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, check out my Calcio Travel Notes section.

Post script: Although Daniele ‘Dede’ Belardinelli died during a failed ambush by a group of Inter ultras, he was in fact a Varese ultra. Naturally, his presence can be explained by the gemellaggio between Varese and Inter. Grazie @olivierlaval27 for the correzione!


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