Suits and Soldiers
Celtic’s tumultuous late win over Lazio on Thursday night demonstrated why there are few places in Europe which can match Celtic Park on those European occasions. The noise which pours from the stands onto the pitch at times is incredible and there is no doubt that it lifts the players to greater exertions. Make no mistake about it this was a victory gained against a streetwise and very professional side who know well how to break up the play and interrupt Celtic’s rhythm. They are also defensively strong and tactically astute so Celtic’s win was earned the hard way. There were times in the middle of the game when Celtic sagged a little but the team never stopped fighting, pressing and harrying the Italians and in the end got their rewards.
The Italian sporting press was generally complimentary to Celtic and their supporters with leading newspaper Gazzetta Dello Sport saying…
‘Before the starting whistle there was a unique show, a display of lights to illuminate the stadium. White and green are the only colours and a shiver runs along your back when the whole stadium raises the scarves and sings ‘You'll never walk alone.’ It was an explosion of emotions that many Lazio people immortalized with smartphones. Then the choreography of the Green Brigade paints area 111, where the heart of the green-and-white fans resides. Then the deafening and frantic scream of Paradise is heard. Not surprisingly one of the three hottest stadiums in Britain.’
The Italian press were quick to pick up on the political nature of the day’s events and most were critical of the ‘Roman salute’ Lazio fans had engaged in as they marched through Glasgow to the stadium. One report stated…
‘We again saw Roman greetings in Glasgow, before the Europa League match against Celtic. The ultras of Lazio, on the road, were immortalized by a user - who shared the video on Twitter - while they were singing the chorus "Avanti ragazzi di Buda"(an anti-communist song about the Hungarian uprising of 1956) in the city centre. All seasoned with Roman greetings much to the perplexity of passers-by. What has happened is not surprising, given that the Lazio region has always had the reputation of being linked to extremism on the right.’
The reaction of some Celtic supporters came in for comment too with the ‘Lazio F**k off’ banner and one depicting Mussolini hanging by his feet after his execution by partisans in 1945 particularly prominent. One Italian newspaper said that the Celtic fans obviously knew who was coming to town and were prepared in advance. It was too good an opportunity to miss in terms of demonstrating the anti-fascist and anti-racist sentiment at the heart of the Celtic ultra-culture.
The rise of the ultra -groups among most of the big clubs in Europe combined with the ease of modern communication has meant that fans are much more aware of the political leanings of elements of each club and have developed loose alliances as well as arbitrary lists of those clubs whose supporters think very differently about politics. Thus Celtic’s ultras having fraternal links with the likes of St Pauli, Livorno or Feyenoord but are unlikely to have much time for the likes of Lazio, Hamburg or Ajax. Of course when viewed through a political spectrum such black and white reductionism ignores the fact that all clubs have a wide view of political opinion among their support base. Lazio do have a problem with racism and fascist attitudes among some of their fans but to say all of them are fascists is not borne out by facts. Similarly there are Celtic fans who don’t always agree with the messages on banners they see at Celtic Park. To the unthinking though the messages they see and hear from ultra-groups defines their opinion of a club and all of its fans and that can have consequences.
In two weeks upwards of 10,000 Celtic fans will descend on Rome for the return match with Lazio. It will of course give many a chance to visit a fascinating city and I’m sure places like the Vatican, Colosseum and Forum will see their share of hooped shirts. There will also be a huge police operation to ensure those visiting the city remain safe. Violence is not something Celtic fans go looking for at football, especially their trips around Europe but it is a sad fact of life in Italian football. Tobias Jones, a British author who specialises in writing about the dark world of Italian ultras wrote….
‘As with many Italians, the ultras are fixated on appearance and pageantry; for major games they spend tens of thousands of euros on stadium mosaics, taunts, flags and flares. In that sense the ultra-world seems folkloric; the ultra-world view in Italy is a faux-medieval defence of their ‘campanilisimo (attachment to the local bell tower). In fact many ultras say they care nothing for football, it’s about territorial defence, the colours, the fights and the mentality.’
Italy was only unified in 1871 and remains a country of fierce regional rivalries. This finds expression in football rivalries as well as politics and the many Italian ultra-groups are overtly political. They are also organised on scale as yet unseen in the UK. Some have their own clothing ranges while a few have their own radio stations. Italy’s parliamentary anti-mafia committee concluded that some ultra-groups use ‘mafia methods’ and are involved in petty and serious crime. The head of Lazio’s ‘Irriducibili’ group was recently convicted of dealing hundreds of kilos of cocaine.
Ticket touting is also an issue as some clubs actually give Ultra-groups tickets to keep them ‘sweet’ as they can do without problems with UEFA when they misbehave. One Juventus capo-ultra was said to be making £25,000 a game on tickets given to his group by the club. The ultras make money and the club is untroubled by hooliganism. It’s an arrangement between ‘suits and soldiers’ which seems to suit them all.
The goading and taunting which went on between some Celtic and Lazio supporters at the game last week was a minor distraction to the majority of fans who were there to watch the football. Hopefully there are no problems in Rome when Celtic visit in a fortnight but it is wise for supporters travelling there to be careful and be aware of their surroundings. Spurs fans were attacked there 2012 for being ‘Jewish’ and abhorrent Anne Frank stickers were used to insult rival teams only a year ago. Most Lazio fans will be there for the football but a minority will have seen the display of banners at Celtic Park and will have taken note. This is where fan groups need to be careful with displays as they can cause problems for others who had nothing to do with them.
I hope the match in Rome is remembered for the football, the passion and colour of the Celtic support and nothing else. Well, maybe a good result for the Hoops too.