Suddenly the strong wind blew his hat off. It was a precious, authentic 1985 hat, the year of the miracle, the year when tiny Hellas Verona won the Italian championship, against the opposition of Platini’s Juventus, Altobelli’s Inter. There was a gale blowing. The hat sailed over the fence segregating the visitors area. “Give me my hat back,” the man began to shout. “Please! It’s a 1985 hat. It’s an original!”
Lined up in their riot gear, the police were impassive. Some Bari fans with their red and white scarves pressed forward. They were turned back. What in God’s name have I done?” the Veronese boy began to yell. “Give me my hat back. It’s a champion’s hat.” Finally a supporter made a break from the Bari side. He ducked through the police line. He had the hat. I fully expected him to take a lighter to it and burn it before our eyes. Instead, with a huge effort, he managed to throw it back against the wind over the fence. “Bari, Bari!” the Verona fans cheered appreciatively. ” Lecce Lecce vaffanculo,” responded the Bari boys and we joined in the insults of their nearest local rival. “Lecce, fuck off.”
“Thanks!” The boy had his hat back on. He strode across to the other side of our compound and began to yell at another group of Bari supporters. “Albanesi! Kurdi! Scafisti! Merda! Your sisters take it up the arse!”
In Bologna we lost 1-0. After taunting their black players with monkey grunts the Brigate gialloblù, as the hardcore fans call themselves – the Yellow-blue Brigades – bought Coca Colas from an adolescent vendor at half time, slapping the boy on the back and chatting away cheerfully. He was black. “Communisti!” They shouted at the Bolognese. “Rossi di merda.” Shit reds. Verona played terribly, as if the players didn’t really want to be there.
In Perugia, the local fans had a strung up a banner: “A NON-RACIST TOWN IS ALWAYS IN SERIE A.” The Veronese felt such provocation too banal to deserve comment. “Merda siete,” they began “e merda resterete.” Shit you are and shit you’ll stay. It was routine stuff, ordinaria amministrazione, as they say. Likewise the game which we lost 1-0.
In Lecce it was the Verona fans who hung up a banner – CIAO NICOLÒ, EVEN ABSENT YOU WILL ALWAYS BE AMONG US. One of their community had died of cancer. Such commemorations are part of stadium ritual. Oltre la morte – beyond death – it says over the central gate to Verona’s famous curva sud. “Ciao Nicolò!” There was a slow hand-clap. Then they got down to it: “Acqua e sapone, ci vuole acqua e sapone.” Soap and water, it takes soap and water (to wash a southerner).
In the north eastern town of Udine, half an hour before the game, one of the chorus leaders, a handsome man with salmon-pink shaven scalp and wrap-around blue sunglasses, said: “Kids, the first chant is the most important. It sets the tone. So what can we sing that will make them really mad?”
It was a tough question. When your down south, it’s easy: you tell the opposition they stink. When you’re in Turin they’re gobbi – hunchbacks, because they’re bent over Fiat’s production line all day. The Bolognese are reds. That’s obvious. The Vicentini are magnagatti – cat eaters, a poor peasant race. But what on earth can you say to the affluent, clean-living folks of Udine just a windswept stone’s throw from the Slovenian border?
“Come on,” the chorus leader challenges. “What can we sing?” His voice is that of the amused teacher, waiting to see if any of his pupils is especially clever.
“Slavi di merda?” someone suggests. Slavs?
The leader shakes his head. “It has to be something that will drive them completely crazy.”
Nobody knows. We’ve no idea.
“Terremotati!” he declares.
Of course. A ‘terremoto,” is an earthquake. Terremotati are the victims of an earthquake. In 1976 the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia of which the Udine is the capital, was devastated by a severe earthquake that caused thousands of deaths. We are going to insult these people by reminding them that they have been profoundly unlucky. No doubt there will be some here who lost loved ones in that quake.
There is something fantastically atavistic about this. For a moment it’s as though we’re back in one of the Sicilian novels of Giovanni Verga, full of the peasant community’s choral contempt for those who have been born poor, or fallen fatally ill. The contemporary rhetoric of compassion dissolves in the acid of this cruel glee. If the final truth about the world is that it is a struggle for survival, a struggle that football endlessly re-enacts, maximum derision is reserved for the loser.
“This’ll get them going,” the chorus leader laughs. He raises his red face; the blue wrap-around sunglasses gleam. His hands are cupped round strong, well-moulded lips. The voice is huge, the tune the ever-serviceable Guantanamera. Now! “TER-RE-MO-TA-TI!” he sings and shouts together, “O siete terremotati. Terremota-a-a-a-ti, o siete terremotati.”
Everybody joins in. There are only a few hundred of us, but the stadium is fairly quiet. Or rather was. We have barely started a second round before the place explodes with rage. “Veronese figlio di troia! Son of a bitch. Serie B. Serie B.”
The chorus leader rubs his hands and congratulates everyone. “That’s got ’em going.” And I realise he’s actually done the Udinese fans a favour. He’s united them. They are feeling properly angry. The game will mean more for everybody.
And so it did. It meant disaster for Verona, who played unusually well and lost against the run of play to go deep into relegation territory. A generous crowd of Udinese fans waited a good forty minutes to scream their contempt as we were escorted onto our buses.
“Sfigati!” Unlucky ones!
“The civilising passage from blows to insults,” wrote the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, “was no doubt necessary, but the price was high. Words will never be enough. We will always be nostalgic for violence and blood.”
Strange, it occurs to me, as the bus accelerates through the jeering crowd and somebody hurls a tin can, strange that a Romanian would not have thought of football as a possible solution.