In Italy, many working class men feel that the EU and the Italian government have abandoned them. In such desperate times, these men cling to each other, and to football (soccer), as a force that gives their lives meaning. Much ink has been spilt on the hard drinking habits of so-called football hooligans, but little has been said about the gastronomic preferences of the legions of the “beautiful game”.
Several months with a small group of Ultras (the Italian equivalent of football “hooligan”) in Perugia, Italy offered me insight into the intimate story of Italian football fans’ lives, the centrality of food and drink to masculine sociality, and why it matters to Italy’s future.
The art of football hooliganism
Italy boasts a long history of football-related violence both at home and abroad. In 2004, Daniele De Santis, a far-right Roma Ultra leader, known amongst supporters by his pseudonym, “Gastone,” strolled onto the pitch during the Roma-Lazio derby and demanded that Roma captain, Francesco Totti, cancel the game.
De Santis deemed this a suitable response to a (false) rumour that police had killed a local child. “We decide if and when you play,” he informed a baffled Totti, before turning on his heel and marching back across the field. The game was called off. The Ultras had made their point.
Going beyond filling seats in the stadium and adding flair to occasionally lacklustre games, the almost mythical status surrounding Ultras in Italy have made them as much a part of football as the game itself.
Home grown in Perugia
The landscape of the Ultra groups changes with the times. Over several spritz-Campari, Dr. Marco Milani, a University of Bologna researcher, explained,
“During the 1980s and 90s, rightist Ultra groups started to appear across the country. At first, the rightists and the leftists battled each other for control of the Curva (the sector of the stadium behind the goal reserved for Ultra). Especially in the last decade, however, the political emphasis weakened and the Ultras have joined forces against the police.”
Battles for the Curva take place between Ultras supporting different teams and Ultras supporting the same team but divided by politics. The team you support and the Ultra you join is further dependent on the team your father, brothers, and friends’ support.
Perugia, Umbria has long identified as working class and politically left of centre. The Perugia Gryphons football team, founded in 1905, has spent much of its existence in Serie B, the second division of the Italian league. Its reputation for hard, grinding football is matched by the zeal of its Ultras.
Perugian Ultras’ latest claim to notoriety came via pre-match “riots” with Lazio Ultras in the summer of 2014, and then further violence directed against the Pescara Ultras in December of the same year.
“Do you like to fight?” Fabio interrogated, clearly testing my resolve. I declined what I worried was an offer. “We used to get into some scraps with the fascist supporters. But these days,” he hesitated, “we’re too old.”
Fabio and I had known each other a total of 12 hours, since we’d met in a Perugia bar and he’d invited me to join him at the Perugia-Ascoli football match the following day.
As we unloaded from the Fiat mini for what would be round one of gin infused spritz-Campari, Fabio introduced me to around 15 men in their forties and fifties, and I was offered my first glimpse of a genuine Italian Ultras organisation.
The ritual of each home game started with drinks and was followed by the pre-game feast. Around the table during our first meeting, members of the “Lunatic Asylum Ultras” – Manicomio Magno Magnini, founded in 1991, passed carafes of Umbria red wine and traded plates of steaming handmade pasta with one another.
“Try this one – Perugina tartufo (truffle) infused pork, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese,” Fabio insisted, as he forked a bale of carbonara my way. Men who had known each other since childhood devoured mountains of local produce while prognosticating on the game to come.
Ripping up a loaf of bread, Andreo used the pieces to scoop up globs of tomato that lined his plate like wounded soldiers on a battlefield. “We call this “little shoes,” he told me, waving a little bread-shoe triumphantly above his head. I dutifully manufactured my own “little shoes” and wiped my plate clean.
“Our problem,” Mario interrupted, earnestly, “is that the Italian economy is broken and we’re in the middle of an immigrant crisis. We used to have the church, and the Italian family used to spend time together, but now that’s all gone. Football’s all that’s left. The 3M Ultras are like my brothers. We’ve known each other since we were born.”
The bonds that keep members of the 3M Ultras together run deep. For men who have grown up with each other, the Ultras group is a vehicle for reproducing a likeness of the traditional community and facilitating masculine solidarity.
Perugia vs. Ascoli
“You’re lucky, Fabio informed me, as we slipped in the side entrance of the stadium, “you don’t need to pay, you’re our guest.” Fabio and several other Ultras guided me into the throng of red and white Perugia supporters. The game had started in earnest. Chants ripe with obscenities filled the air.
The chants quickened. Rows of men tightly packed against one another swayed from side to side. Vendors selling shots of Caffè Sport Borghetti –coffee liquor–snaked in and out of the crowd. The hypnotic sight of a sea of bodies bobbing up and down in unison was accompanied by the pungent scent of marijuana, clouds of which trickled down to edge of the pitch, from where they would have a front row seat until full time. We threw back several more shots of Borghetti.
“We’re left wing, working class, and we hate fascists,” explained Giovanni, above the din. “Ascoli are fascists. It’s as simple as that,” he concluded, before gesticulating aggressively to the Ascoli supporters on the far side of the stadium.
More Caffè Borghetti. Someone in the front row unfurled a giant red and white flag.
Leading the Ultras’ chanting, a topless man with a large potbelly balanced precariously on top of a railing. Grasping a megaphone in one hand he called out chants that the Ultras echoed back to him.
More Caffè Borghetti.
Just after half time Ascoli scored. One-nil. Someone in the crowed lobbed a burning flare into the air. It landed at my feet and rolled lazily into a pile of newspapers under the stand. The papers caught alight. “Look, Markus,” came a cry. “Fire!” The flames spread under the seats, offering momentary distraction from a losing game.
Then, as if competing with the fire for our attention, Ascoli scored again. Two-nil. The leadership of the Insane Asylum Ultras headed for the exit tunnel.
Football makes family
A week later we gathered again, this time for a Gryphons’ away game. In Fabio’s apartment, outside the Perugia’s old town, ten Ultras, including Fabio’s elderly mother, the “Prima Ultra of Perugia,” jostled for space around a table buckling under the weight of piadina, asparagus pasta, and homemade wine.
“In Italy,” Fabio informed me, “women cook but men are chefs.” Ultra members arrived with arms full of prosseco. “Here we knock with our feet because our arms are full of gifts,” I was told.
Fabio hovered his glass over the centre of the table. “To friendship and to the Gryphons, Salute,” he toasted.
“Friendship and the Gryphons!” Echoed the others.
Perhaps age had mellowed Fabio and his Ultras. While the priorities of the “Old Guard” had shifted from violence to the subtleties of the perfect ravioli, their passion for the game certainly hadn’t subsided.
Who are the Ultras? And what is it that keeps them returning week after week to back their team? Food? Football? Fraternity? In his 1990 football ethnography journalist Bill Buford captured the raw energy of the hooligan; the unrestrained hatred fermenting inside the right-wing racist, and the channelled frustration of disenfranchised youth.
My experiences with the Perugia Ultras showed me that instead of violence comes family. And you can’t separate family from football. Football makes family and family continues to be held together with bindings of the “beautiful game.” Like football, in family there’s love, anger, and outbursts of raw fury. And passion. So much passion.
The Perugian Ultra’s drink of choice:
Gin infused Spritz Campari (on ice)
One third Campari (about 80-90 mls)
One third Prosecco (about 80-90 mls)
A glug of gin
A dash of sparkling water
Garnish with a slice of blood orange
Consume while basking in the Umbrian sun.