Whether Elseid Hysaj understood the significance of Bella Ciao when he stood up in front of his new Lazio teammates to sing it is unclear. Perhaps the Albanian international sung it because he had heard it in the Netflix show Money Heist and it was the only Italian song he knew.
Or perhaps he did secretly know that the song is the anthem of the partisans who fought Benito Mussolini’s regime in the 1940s and has been adopted by the left as their own.
The reason Hysaj sang Bella Ciao on his arrival at the club quickly became immaterial. He sang it and that was enough for the Lazio Ultras, a hardcore fan group that congregate on the Curva Nord (North End) of the Olympic stadium.
The Ultras flew a banner from a prominent bridge in central Rome which simply read: ‘Hysaj is a worm, Lazio is fascist.’
This was followed up by one of their leaders, Franco ‘Franchino’ Costantino, telling the Adnkronos news agency “Historically, our fans have always been to the extreme right, and I say that with pride. Someone singing ‘Bella Ciao’ with a Lazio jersey on is just completely insane. Hysaj was wrong, there are no excuses.”
Lazio has one of the most notorious fascist followings of any team in Europe, caused by drawing much of its fan base from the Rome suburbs and the connected countryside – areas of strong support for Benito Mussolini back in the 1920s and 1930s.
In more recent years, the fascist leanings of Lazio’s supporter base has come through its Ultra groups, and most famously of all the Irriducubili, (the Die Hards).
Formed in 1987, the Irriducubili quickly earned an unenviable reputation for violence, choreography and fascist politics. Right-armed fascist salutes, antisemitic banners and monkey chants at opposing black players became the norm.
After the Serbian paramilitary leader Željko Ražnatović, better known as Arkan (see page 111) was murdered, the Irriducubili hoisted up a banner which read: ‘Honour to the Tiger, Arkan’. The demonising of arch rivals Roma as a Jewish club with chants of “Auschwitz is your country, the gas chambers are your home”. The banning of fans from the stadium in January 2020 after just the latest incident of Lazio fans racially abusing opposing black players.
For most football supporters who have come across the Lazio Ultras during European cup competitions, the enduring memory is one of violence, particularly when they have played matches in Rome. And all too often, knives are the weapons of choice.
For most of its existence, the Irriducubili was led by Fabrizio Piscitelli, who operated by the name Diabolik. Piscitelli was 21 years old when the Irriducubili was formed, but it was not long before he was a leading figure in the group.
“I grew up in a red neighbourhood and directly across the street in front of me was the head of [Roma’s Ultra group] the Fedayn,” Piscitelli was to tell James Montague, who went on to write the excellent 1312: Among the Ultras. “He was a far-left activist and I grew up the opposite, far-right Lazio. That was a response to Roma being a leftist team in a leftist neighbourhood and Lazio having some of these fighters who were of the far right.”
Under Piscitelli’s leadership, the Irriducubili became even more violent and political. Like many other Ultra groups, they also had amazing power over the club. When Beppe Signore, a Lazio forward who was adored by the Ultras, almost signed for Parma in 1995, thousands of the Irriducubili rioted. Any prospect of Signore leaving the club were quickly ended.
When hundreds of Irriducubili turned up at the clubs training ground after a heavy defeat to arch-rivals Roma, the club captain, Alessandro Nesta, pulled Piscitelli aside for a chat and a formal meeting was agreed between players and Ultras.
Piscitelli’s reign as Irriducubili boss finally ran out in 2019 when he was gunned down on a park bench in Rome in what is was believed to be a feud with a rival drug gang. To mark his death, the Irriducubili Ultras put on a special display for their fallen leader.
The Ultras emerged in Italian football in the 1950s with the emergence of the Fedelissimi Granata of Torino, but it was in the late 1960s that the modern Ultra groups really began to take hold in Italian football, with the formation of groups like the Fossi del Leoni of AC Milan and Boys San of their bitter rivals Inter.
The term ‘ultra’ was first used by Sampdoria’s Ultras Tito Cucchiaroni with an acronym of Uniti Legneremo Tutti I Rossoblu A Sangue (“all together we will beat the rossoblu fans to blood”). Other existing gangs soon changed their names to incorporate the word ‘ultras’ in their names, so, in 1970, Fedelissimi Granata became known as Ultras Granata.
S.S. Lazio Ultras, a forerunner to the Irriducubili, emerged in 1974 – in the team’s championship winning season – and it too already aligned itself to fascist imagery, chants and behaviour.
Early Ultra culture was a youth reaction to Italy’s sedate supporters’ clubs and went to stand, and sing, behind the goal in much the same way as punk and skinhead culture in the UK.
“At its foundation,” the sports writer Tobias Jones has asserted, “the movement were largely far left, with names inspired by global partisan struggles. Petty criminals and political extremists were drawn to the terraces’ carnival atmosphere and the huge consumer base.”
The Ultra movement was quite different from the British hooligan counterparts. While the former admired and even adopted some of the aggressive and violent characteristics of British hooligans, there were many obvious differences. While the British hooligans avoided wearing colours, the Italian Ultras wore them with pride. Inside the stadiums, the hooligan hardcore moved from the ends, normally behind the goals, to the more expensive seats in an attempt to avoid police scrutiny and show off their wealth. By contrast, the Ultras took over the ends, or ‘curves’ as they are known in Italy, and put on well-rehearsed displays and songs. Banners and flags were often hand-painted, and for big games often planned well in advance.
To the Ultras, these stadium displays were to demonstrate support for their team and to intimidate their rivals.
The Ultras were to become an integral part of the Italian game, often controlling certain gates at grounds so only supporters of their group would gain entry and sometimes even being consulted on key club developments.
It was the Ultras who organised the travel for thousands of Milan fans to get to the 1994 European Cup final in Athens, where the Italian team beat Barcelona. The club did not organise any travel itself.
The birth of the Ultra movement coincided with the surge of political violence and terrorism in Italy. From the left there were the Red Brigades, who kidnapped and murdered former prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978. From the far right, there was the Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari, who in 1980, planted a bomb outside Bologna railway station which killed 85 people and injured over 200 others.
Italy’s political turmoil in the country spilled over into the rest of the society, including the football terraces, as rival fan groups adopted the names, slogans and even images of the terrorist groups they most identified with.
Many AC Milan fans identified with left-wing politics and in 1975 the Brigate Rossonere was formed, with many followers wearing berets and face scarfs to replicate the imagery of the Red Brigades and Latin American communist guerrillas. A flag of of Che Guevara would regularly fly in Curve Sud, AC Milan’s home end, until the mid-1990s.
Other left-wing Ultra groups emerged at Roma, Bologna, Sampdoria and Livorno.
There were others who, like Lazio, identified with the far right. Among them were Inter Milan, Juventus and Verona.
However, political allegiances shifted over time, with some previously left-wing Ultra groups becoming apolitical and others, like Roma, becoming increasingly right wing. While there has never been complete political hegemony within each fan base, there has been a significant shift to the right of the main Ultra groups.
“Fascism seemed perfectly aligned with an “ultra” form of fandom, which delighted in paramilitary uniforms and violence,” says Tobias Jones.
“The worldviews were also comparable: partisan fans have a simple, Manichean worldview of them-and-us in which hatred of outsiders is normalised. The stadium is a setting for warfare, where territory is defended and conquered. Inevitably, as happened this week, martyrs fall and – as in fascism – death is thus fetishised, almost yearned for. In that bleak world, words like “tolerance” and “multiculturalism” have absolutely no meaning.”
The dominance of fascist support within Italian Ultra groups has coincided with declining crowds, partly driven by rising violence and soaring costs. Hooligans, racists and fascists are driving ordinary supporters away and by doing so reinforcing their dominance.
As one Lazio fan succinctly put it after the death of the Irriducubili leader. “Piscitelli ruined the image of Lazio in the world. Lazio now implies racism, fascism and collusion with the Camorra. His was a rabble of criminals.”
Lazio’s pro-fascist reputation is being challenged by a group of fans who have joined together to form “Laziale and Anti-Fascist” (LAF).
Established in 2011 (LAF) aims to “destroy the stereotype of the Fascist Laziale in Italy and throughout the world.”
LAF claims several thousand followers, several hundred active members, and says it pursues a two-fold aim: “to erase from the name of Lazio any infamous political label” and “to prevent neo-fascist movements from continuing to use the Curva Nord (North Stand) from indoctrinating young people who have entered the stadium only to support Lazio”.
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