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Extract from ‘A Season with Verona’

Incanto

Hellas Verona vinci per noi! I still remember my amazement when I first heard myself shouting those words. “Hellas Verona, win for us.” It’s a kind of liturgy. Next you yell: Hellas Verona segni per noi! I yell it with all my heart. Self-control ebbs away. “Hellas Verona score for us!” Then the whole Curva Sud, the end of the stadium where the hard core fans hang out, bursts into the triumphal march from Verdi’s Aida. Only we sing: Alè, Forza Verona alè, forza gialloblù, gialloblù, gialloblù! Because the team plays in blue and yellow. The moment the song breaks up, ten thousand arms are raised: Napoli, Napoli vaffanculo. Fuck off Napoli. This ritual insult is absolutely necessary. Roma vaffanculo, Vicenza vaffanculo, Juventus vaffanculo: it’s our pre-match warm up.

You sit down exhausted, pleased with yourself and trembling with nerves. There are ninety nail-biting minutes ahead, played as ever on the brink of the relegation zone. Serie A, where we are now, is paradiso, Serie B is purgatorio, Serie C is the inferno. The Italians have a way of mixing sport, bureaucracy and metaphysics. One Sunday at half time, the guy beside me offers this word of wisdom: “There are three things a man fears in life: the horns (meaning, your wife has betrayed you), death and relegation.” He sighs: “The first two are inevitable b ut with the third you’ve got a chance.” Have we really got a chance against Naples? They’ve just won three in a row. We’ve lost two and drawn one. Hellas Verona vinci per noi!

The team was formed almost a century ago in Verona’s poshest school, the Liceo classico Maffei. The game was still new to this part of the world. Preparing for their first match, the players didn’t know what to call themselves. Then the Greek teacher, with an extraordinary sense of what football was to become, at least in Italy, suggested the name Hellas, the Greek word for patria, homeland, country. Your team becomes the expression of the community you belong to, the group that gives you your identity. And in Italy this homeland can only be local. “Did you watch the national team last night?” I ask a sports journalist. “No,” he replies, and explains, “I’m a Brescia supporter.”
So for the boys in the Curva Sud, their hellas is Verona: solo contro tutti, they shout. Alone against the world. And today, when the Napoli players come out onto the pitch in the freezing cold that’s flowing down from the Alps, everybody puts on a small white mask, the kind dentists use, to protect against the presumed smell of unwashed Neapolitans. With fantastic bad taste some fan club has provided them. It’s a gesture of isolation, separation. This is the territory of the secessionist Lega Nord.

But can this ever be my team, my home? The first times I sat in the Verona’s Bentegodi stadium, I felt cold, indifferent. I was born in Manchester. I watched my first games at Old Trafford. I fell under the spell of the Stretford End. The Italian word for enchantment is incanto, which literally means, “into song.” You fall into the song, or chant, of the fans. It’s an old story. Perhaps the best and briefest account I’ve ever read was sent to me by e.mail the day after I first published an article on Hellas Verona’s website (hellasverona.it). It came from one of those unlucky fans who live not where they love:
“My name is Eugenio, I’m from Asti, Piedmont, and my family is from Tuscany. One day, when I was small, they took me to see Juventus-Verona. I don’t remember anything about the game. I spent the whole time watching the Brigate gialloblù [the hardcore always call themselves brigate, brigades]. They sent shivers up my spine. That night I decided that I would become one of them.”

Parents should definitely think twice when they choose which is to be their children’s first football game. Enchanted by Hellas Verona, Eugenio has spent a fortune in petrol and train tickets over the last twenty years. Alè forza Verona alè, may not sound much like the song the sirens sung, but the effect seems to be the same. “Yesterday I did a blood test,” someone writes to the club’s website chatline, “and I’m Hellas positive forever.”

So how can you change allegiance, or infection? How did I find myself one Sunday afternoon, chanting Hellas Verona vinci per noi? One of the least funny moments in Ali G’s first video comes when he asks Major General Perkins whether a soldier never thinks of changing sides. “Like I’ve always been with Man U,” Ali says, “but when I sees they aren’t going to do the double, I goes over to the Arsenal.” This simply doesn’t work. There have probably been more soldiers who have changed sides this century than football fans.

Maybe the example Ali should have used was girlfriends or wives. “I sees me Julie in’t lookin’ fit so I finds meself a new bitch.” Everybody knows how to split up and divorce. It was you chose your wife, wasn’t it, so why shouldn’t you change her when she loses her charm? No one will be surprised. But switching from Man U to Arsenal would be a mutation of quite a different order. “The players can come and go,” sings the Curva Sud, “the president and the trainer, but we will always be here, rain or shine, brigate, brigate gialloblù.”

It was a game against Juventus that finally shifted something in my psyche. I’d been in Italy about twelve years by then (twenty now). For a couple of seasons I’d been a desultory spectator at the Bentegodi. I had the excuse of my son, Michele, who was now just about old enough to sit through a game. Anyhow, the ground was unusually full that day, and when Juventus scored I realised why. The Curva Nord, the ‘guest area’, exploded with joy. That was to be expected. These people had bought their tickets in Turin. But then large areas of the more expensive stands were on their feet too, cheering and waving their black-and-white scarves. These people must be Veronese, born and bred. Yet they were supporting Juventus, a team synonymous with money and power, a team, in short, like Man U.

The Curva Sud rose as one man, besides themselves with rage, hurling their bodies against the perimeter fences. “Bastardi” they shrieked “Traditori.” My son too, in his shrill voice, was shouting, “Bastardi!” He meant it. Verona is a small club, it needs all the help it can get. “We know your names!” the fans began to chant. “We have your addresses!”

Then, caught up in the intensity of the emotions, I made a weird association. I have their addresses too, I thought. They are the addresses of all those well-to-do families whose children I gave English lessons to when I first arrived in Verona, families who paid late, cancelled at the last minute, asked if you had a proper hanger for their fur coats, departed without warning for Cortina or Buenos Aires and, in general, lived lives of enviable and obtuse complacency. People like that, I told myself, can’t bring themselves to support a team that might go into Serie B, so they whore after the interminable success of the wealthy giants.

It was a ridiculous association of course. There is no reason to suppose that there is any relation-ship between the kind of families who hire an English teacher as a fashion accessory and people so insecure they need to support a big team far away, or who merely, as tiny children, got taken to their first game in the wrong town. But, however absurd, the thought served to forge a sick link between an old personal resentment and the fortunes of Hellas Verona. In a moment I was on my feet beside my son shouting Juve Juve vaffanculo. Very soon I would stop bothering to tune into the World Service to see what United were up to. Verona had become my destiny.
Today’s game begins. Napoli are sharp and eager. They have the look of the team who know they can win. In the Curva Nord opposite us their fans unfurl a banner that says: “Veronese, laboratory mice.” No one is quite sure what this is supposed to mean. The Veronese respond with an enthusiastic rendering of Bruciare il meridione, Burn the South, this despite the fact that half of our players are southerners and quite probably many of those singing.

By half time, with the energy of desperation, Verona have taken over the game. On a sodden pitch, Napoli resort to the catenaccio, eight men back in the box. They’ll be happy with a draw. Their goalkeeper saves once, twice, three times. But football is par excellence the sport of those who thirst for injustice. Twelve minutes from time, just as Verona’s pressure has reached it’s climax, Napoli at last hazard a counterattack. A shot from thirty yards curls just inside the t op corner. One-nil. “Serie B, Serie B, Serie B,” shriek the Neapolitans.
How many times have I asked myself whether I haven’t invested too much emotion in this sport? What gloom! I can’t believe it. The circus of substitutions and time-wasting fouls begins. Betrayal, death, relegation. Until, to everybody’s amazement, when all seemed over, in a goal mouth scramble, Verona equalise. And in the second minute of injury time, they snatch the winner. Total euphoria. One Veronese player (Sicilian) is sent off for throwing his shirt in the air, another (Romanian) for punching an opponent. Meantime I and my son tumble over in a vast group embrace. Gialloblù, gialloblù, gialloblù! Never do I feel more at home in Italy than at the stadio Bentegodi.

Sfigati

After Verona’s game with Atalanta (Bergamo), the police kept us on the terraces almost two hours in sub-zero temperatures. There is an ancient enmity between these two cities and we had to be protected from their fans. Or perhaps precisely this keeping us numb and shivering in the cold was the authorities’ way of expressing that enmity. Stamping our feet, we huddled together and sang songs insulting the departing Bergamaschi: “Sempre di meno,” we called mockingly, “O siete sempre di meno” – There are less and less of you. It’s the song you sing when you’re winning and the opposing fans start to leave early, whereas in fact we had lost 3-0. Then no doubt because it was November 1st, Day of the Dead, someone made a crucifix of plastic flag poles, the chorus leader spread his arms, let his head fall to one side and everybody sang the church hymn, Risorgeremo – We shall rise again.

At last all the Bergamaschi were gone, only the carabinieri were left. Since one of their helicopters had crashed only a couple of days before, the fans launched into an old Fascist song that celebrated the modern and mechanised army, but with slightly altered words:

E gira gira l’elica, romba il motor,
L’elicottero dell’arma è tornato al creator

Turn propeller turn, out roars the motor,
The policemen’s copter’s gone back to its maker.

How can one laugh at such bad taste? Ten men had died. Everyone laughed. I even saw a carabiniere smile. “Verona merda!” the Bergamaschi shrieked as we were escorted through the narrow streets back to our bus. An ancient man leaned one arm on his walking stick to give us the finger raised high with the other. His face lit up in a wild goatish grin.
In the San Nicolò stadium in Bari, high on cocaine and sodden with beer, a young Veronese went on and on shouting: “Albanesi! Kurdi! Scafisti!” The scafisti are the unscrupulous men who bring in illegal immigrants on their rubber scafi or motoboats. “Albanesi! Kurdi! Scafisti! Your mothers are whores! You live off our taxes.”