Football’s relationship with Italian politics became apparent for the first time when Mussolini and his Partito Nazionale Fascista (National Fascist Party or PFN) began using the sports as a means to win popularity, to control the Italian citizenry and to promote the fascist way of life. Football was used to encourage Italianization, which is the spread of an Italian identity, pride and culture, throughout the society
Mussolini’s government decided to ban all English terms from football, which was made official in a law named the Carta di Viareggio. These new rulings of 1926 are often mentioned as the start of the connection between football and fascism in Italy as the regime restructured the sport and recognised football as a tool to form a national identity.
This legislation did not just impose the Italian language on the traditionally English sport of football, but foresaw the establishment of the first Italian national competition—with the goals of making the Italian national team more competitive. Once Mussolini established a close connection between football and Italian identity, foreigners were not welcomed to the sport anymore, and Italian football clubs were no longer allowed to field foreign players—the effect of which lingers until today.
The fascist regime gave the popularity of football a massive boost and its influence went even further than the implementation of new rules and new football terms. During Mussolini’s reign, Internazionale had to abandon its name as it was almost the same as that of the communist movement, Internationale. The club became Ambrosiana, named after the holy saint of Milan.
New clubs were established to represent big Italian cities, such as AS Roma in Rome and Fiorentina in Florence, football clubs that in 2019 still play their games in stadiums built during Mussolini’s fascist regime. Football was used as a means of propaganda, and if there was a lack of news, papers could fill in this gap with articles about football matches. The strong Italian competition provided players for the Squadra Azzurra that won the World Cup in 1934 and in 1938. The success of the national team brought people together and made the fascist regime even more popular.
Whether the fascist influence on football is seen as positive or not, there is no doubt that it was the beginning of the interconnectedness between football and right-wing politics that we still see in Italian football stadiums in 2019. Right-wing politics and Italian football have been heavily entwined with each other since the introduction of the Carta di Viareggio of 1926 that banned any foreign influence from Italian football. During Mussolini’s reign, football became Italy’s number one sport.
In 2019, football is still an important playing field for political statements, which are visible in the behaviour of the football supporters. Most of the time, ultra-groups, a group of the most fanatical supporters of a football club, are the initiators of racist chants in Italian football stadiums. Sometimes, acts such as the Roman salute, which was used as a fascist salute during Mussolini’s regime, are made in plain sight. As a result, it is important to know just who are the preparators of ethnic racism and territorial racism within the Italian football stadiums and what their political views are.
First of all, it is important to make clear when the term ‘ultra’ can be used. It is often stated that the term has been applicable for 30 years. This defined an ultra as a football fan who has played an important role in riots with rival fans and police around matches. In other words, ultras are hard-core fans who do not behave as an average football fan. Others write that a normal football fan is someone that is emotionally connected to a club, team or venue.
A team’s success and matches become part of a football fan’s identity. Ultras differ from normal supporters mostly through their aggressiveness towards opposing football teams and fans. The political expressions of football clubs’ ultra-groups—traditionally placed on the curva, the terrace behind the goal and considered the ultras’ territory—had been visible in stadiums since the 1970s. The curva became a place for political expression and provided an opportunity to criticise Italian politics and society. Over the years, the curva became a self-regulated place in the Italian football stadiums, where the football ultras did not allow police to enter.
An ultra is often generalised as an uneducated and unintelligent thug, a criminal or hooligan. However, this not always true, as the leaders, especially, of the ultra-groups were politically oriented and capable of expressing these viewpoints in an intelligent and well-thought out way and had nothing to do with violence or criminality. According to others, the ultras form the bridge between the fascist football in the 1930s and the racism we see in modern football stadiums today. It is then stated that the establishment of football ultras have taken political unrest and viewpoints to the football stadiums since the 1960s.
The political orientation of football ultras often is dependent on the political history of the home city of the football club. In Livorno, where the Italian communist party was established in 1921, the football club’s ultra-group was known to be communist as well. The political orientation of ultra-groups often is apparent in their names. For example, on the curva at AC Milan—where Fossa dei Leoni was established in 1968 as the first group of ultras—banners of the Brigate Rossonere (Red and Black Brigades) were visible in the 70s. In Perugia, the curva is occupied by the Armata Rossa (Red Army).
Photos of Mussolini
Initially, the representation of the political left and the political right were equally represented among the Italian football stadiums. Banners and chants from the whole political spectrum were visible on the grounds. With the collapse of the left movement in the Italian politics in the 1980s, however, renewed fascist viewpoints became more and more visible in the football stadiums. With stadiums as places where masses of people come together, the curva became one of the most important places for recruitment of right-wing extremists.
In more and more stadiums in the 1980s, photos of Mussolini and Nazi flags were displayed weekly by football club ultra-groups when matches were played. This was often related to the presence of politically extremist recruiters on the curva. Right-wing political parties such as Forza Nuova and Movimento Politico often had people in the stands to recruit people for their extremist group.
The political shift on the curva towards the right was also supported by developments in Italian politics that were influenced by increasing immigration into Italy. The flow of foreigners into the Peninsula started in the 1980s and triggered open reactions of dissatisfaction. Since the curva had become a place of political expression, racist and sometimes even fascist and xenophobic behaviour in the stands became more and more visible.
The establishment of the nationalist and separatist political party Lega Nord in the 1980s had an influence on the shift to the right, as its hostility to southern-Italians and foreigners was visibly displayed on the Italian curva in the football stadiums, where the chants sometimes included vulgar terms as ‘negro di merda’, which translates to black shit in English. The insults, however, did not only come from the curva, however. Others in the stadium sometimes joined the ultras in their racist and xenophobic chants and standpoints. It is important to mention that right-wing beliefs are not only directed towards the opponent’s players. Sometimes even their own players become the victims of their racist chants.
Many of the read articles agreed that the 1980s and the 1990s were periods in which anti-Semitism, nationalism, xenophobia, and extreme right-wing and even fascist behaviour took over the Italian ultra-culture. In these decades, the foundation of the football culture of the 21th century was formed. In 2018, there were 40,000 Italian ultras divided among 386 groups. Of these ultra-groups, 111 are known to be politically oriented. Forty-three of these groups are right-wing oriented and an additional 38 express right-wing extremist views. These 81 ultra-groups include around 10,000 football ultras.
The exhibition of political viewpoints is often adopted by the normal Italian football supporter, but racist chants often start in the curva where the ultras are found. The ultras are then joined by the people sitting in other areas of the football stadium stands. Among average Italian football fans, the non-ultras, almost 38% would identify themselves more with the right spectrum of politics. This is significantly more than the 25% that identify themselves with the left-wing side of Italian politics. As a result, the political orientation of the majority of Italian football fans is one of the reasons that ethnic racism and territorial racism are still often visible in Italian football in 2019.