Experiencing The Beautiful Game In Italy

I’d just been hit with a plastic bottle of water square on the back, but I was pretty sure it was nothing personal. But moments later, when I was pelted again, I started to wonder. Another minute passed and two thugs with tattoos on their thick necks ended the suspense with a blunt, intimidating message.

Thug number one barked at me in Italian and when I protested that I didn’t understand, his colleague menacingly chimed in.

“No photos!” barked thug #2.

“Get out,” cried thug #1, grabbing my wrist forcefully, and directing me out of Lecce’s Ultra fan zone.

It was my first time watching a live soccer match in Italy’s Serie A, the country’s most exalted soccer league, and I’d been unceremoniously ousted from the curva nord, the wildest nook of Lecce’s Stadio Via Del Mare for taking photos of “Ultras” the team’s most fervent, some would say thuggish, supporters. I found the informal expulsion bizarre considering I took just a few wide-angle shots with dozens of fans in each frame and no close ups.

For reasons I now can’t fathom, I found myself reaching into my wallet looking for a business card. I handed it to the hooligan on my left, because he looked like he might have just been released from prison for something like armed robbery, whereas the man on my right looked like he’d probably taken a life or two at some point. Thug #2 held my card in his large, bear-like paw for a few moments, studying it as though it were an important ancient text.

“We don’t care about this,” he said. “You go now.”He didn’t have to ask twice. I made a beeline back to the safety of a small group of equally passionate but far friendlier Lecce supporters who had taken me under their wing earlier in the game. When I told Eugenio and Mimmo, my new friends who had their own informal supporters club called UDB, that the Ultras weren’t fond of me taking their photos, they weren’t surprised.

We were standing in the curva nord, the equivalent of end zone seats, terraces in U.K. vernacular, and while the rest of the cavernous, half-full stadium was relatively quiet, with Lecce down 1-0 to Fiorentina, our section was alive in song, derisive chants and, well, anarchy. Some of the Ultras rolled and smoked joints, drank from airplane-size bottles of Smirnoff smuggled into the stadium in ingenious hiding places, and protected their turf from fans like me who clearly didn’t belong.

You might not like soccer, but if you’ve never been to a big-time match in Italy or other parts of the continent, where the sport is a religion, you’ve missed out on a truly vital part of the culture.

Outside the stadium, security was tight. In order to buy a ticket, fans have to show their photo I.D. and known troublemakers are barred. A phalanx of security guards checked the photo I.D.’s again upon entry and fans are frisked on the way in. But once fans step onto the terraces, they’re left to police themselves for the most part.

Fans can only enter the stadium for the specific section they’re ticketed for, and high spikey fencing separates the sections. The section for visiting fans resembles a giant cage. I was originally ticketed for a normal seat, but decided to exit the stadium and buy another ticket when I saw how much fun the Ultras were having in the curva.

In Italy’s Serie A, the bottom three teams are relegated at the end of the season to Serie B, which is a bit like a Major League Baseball team being sent down to compete in the minor leagues. Lecce entered Saturday night’s contest with Fiorentina third from the bottom and needing a win in order to have a realistic hope of staying in Serie A next season. The stakes were even higher than usual for Lecce, because the team is up for sale, and its owner, Giovanni Semeraro, stands to make millions more on the sale if the team remains in Serie A.

Lecce was miserable in the first half of the season but made up some ground of late with a string of solid performances. Nonetheless, team management lowered the price of the terrace seats from 12 euros to 5 in recent weeks in order to stoke interest in the team’s fledgling campaign. On this night, the team looked completely lost in the first half, as Fiorentina jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the thirty-fifth minute when Alessio Cerci barreled in alone and buried a low shot in the corner of the net. After scoring, Fiorentina seemed content to play defense and hang on.

But it hardly seemed to matter in the curva, as the Ultras sang and partied throughout the match. Eugenio translated a few of the songs for me and here’s a rough translation of one of my favorites.

Danger if you come into Salento
Be ware of the Ultras from Lecce
Every day here in St. Martin’s Day (The Patron Saint of Wine)
We come from the south of Italy
And we love our red wine
I will always be from Salento

As the second half wore on, the fans grew more and more frustrated as Lecce blew one chance after another. Fans denounced the players from both teams using a derogatory slang term to describe sex workers, and the referees were accused of being incorrigibly corrupt criminals. But their most spiteful chant was reserved for Semeraro, the team owner. Over and over again, they urged him to go forth and multiply without the benefit of a sex partner.

The team was still down just 1-0, but the Salentini were so disorganized that the one goal margin felt insurmountable. In the seventy-second minute, the fans finally found something to cheer about, as a Fiorentina player toppled a photographer, knocking him out cold, and prompting howls of gleeful laughter from the fans.

I asked Giovanni, another fan I met, what the highlight of the year had been so far, and he said the best moment had come a few weeks before when Andrea Masiello, a defender from Lecce’s rival, Bari, was arrested after admitting that he purposely scored on his own goalie during a game last year against Lecce, after being paid €50,000 by a Macedonian gangster, who was plotting to keep Lecce, which was on the verge of relegation to Serie B, up in Serie A.

But Eugenio didn’t agree with this sentiment.

“We hate Bari, but I took no pleasure in this,” he said. “I was at the game and I thought it was an honest mistake – not a criminal act. It’s a shame, an embarrassment for Italy.”

The relegation system creates high stakes at the bottom of the table each year. Lecce has been neck and neck with Genoa, which is fourth from the bottom of the table and Genoa’s fanatical fans actually managed to halt a game last week, as fans threatened the players, who were down 4-0, and forced all but one of them to relinquish their jerseys, as they deemed them unfit to wear them. As a punishment for this farce, the team has to play its final two games at home in an empty stadium with no fans.

Craziness is not unusual in Italian football. Fiorentina’s coach had recently been dismissed for slapping one of his players.

Lecce failed to equalize against Fiorentina and the 1-0 loss means that Lecce will go down to Serie B next season unless they win their final match next week and Genoa loses. I asked Memo and Eugenio if it might not be better to be a successful Serie B team rather than a very bad Serie A one but they both rejected this logic.

“Being in Serie A is about pride for us,” Eugenio said. “We get recognition, and it’s good for tourism too. We want to be in the top league, but now, well, we’re going down for sure.”

As the final whistle blew, the red and yellow clad Lecce squad collapsed in exhaustion on the field. After all the expletives, I half expected the Ultras to storm the field and lynch the players, but instead, they gave the fans a rousing ovation for their effort.

“What’s going on?” I asked. “They lost.”

“This is the most beautiful thing,” Eugenio said. “The team has tried so hard, we need to salute them.”

Before I knew it, the fans were singing again. Their team hadn’t scored a goal and were surely about to be relegated to the minor leagues, but there were still good times to be had. That is, until the fans decided to remind Semeraro to asexually reproduce on his way home from the game.

On the way out of the stadium, I had a hard time finding the bus stop to get back to my rented apartment and a family whom I approached for directions told me to hop in for a ride. Ms. Orme insisted that I sit up front with her husband, Alessandro, as she piled into the back seat with their two young daughters. I was amazed at how trusting they were; I could have been an axe murderer, a Fiorentina fan, or even an Ultra.

Alessandro explained the fans’ hatred for Giovanni Semeraro, the team’s owner.

“They are, how do you say it, not caro (expensive), but..”

“Cheap,” I interjected, thinking that the Salentini fans had a lot in common with many of the American sports franchises I follow.

“Exactly, cheap,” he said.

But that display of hospitality turned out to be just a precursor for what came next. The day after the game, I was invited to join the Facebook group of UDB, Universita Della Balaustra, (roughly translates as the University of the Terraces) the informal supporters club my new friends were part of.

Before I knew it, I was being welcomed as the group’s first stranieri (foreigner) and it dawned on me that groups like UDB are what I love about soccer. In Italy, and in many other parts of the world, the sport inspires strong passions but it also fosters a sense of community and shared experience.

Lecce might never finish at the top of the Serie A but it doesn’t matter, because the joy is in going to the games, demonstrating pride not just in the team but in the region and in being one of the gang. For one night, I was part of Italy’s beautiful game in Lecce, and thanks to Facebook, I’m now an honorary Salentini supporter. And the next time I make it to a match, I’ll know to leave my camera at home.