How Italy contracted ‘the English disease’

An AS Roma fan waves a Mussolini flag. But not all ultras have Il Duce-inspired leanings (Getty)

By Tobias Jones,
Head of Zeus, 288pp, £20/$25

Over the years English football hooligans have been the inspiration for a lot of shoddy books. Mainly badly written memoirs by former “top boys”, full of embellished tales of ultraviolence with titles such as Want Some Aggro? and Sex, Drugs and Football Thugs.

There are honourable exceptions. The one that springs to mind most readily is Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs, published in 1990. The American writer immersed himself in the grimy world of English hooliganism throughout the 1980s, attending National Front meetings, getting caught up in riots and receiving a hiding from police on two separate occasions. It remains an enthralling read.

In the spirit of Buford, English journalist and author Tobias Jones has written Ultra, exploring what might at first glance appear to be Italy’s version of “the English disease”. Ultras are the organised groups of Italian football fans who attach themselves to their local team. They are known for their elaborate banners and chanting, for wielding political power at their clubs and for engaging in arranged fights with rivals.

There is certainly crossover between the ultras and English hooligans, particularly a shared love of fist fights in concrete wastelands. As Jones explains, until the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985, many ultras idolised their English counterparts.

That England invented football is well established, but the ultras saw the English as being inventors of football thuggery, too. Yet, as this decades-spanning book demonstrates, the ultras are more than just a tribute act. Ultra culture is a wildly diverse phenomenon that has evolved over time with its own unique characteristics.

As Buford did in England, Jones throws himself into the ultras’ crazy world, running with a group attached to Cosenza, an unremarkable team from the south of Italy, attending their chaotic meetings and joining them on the terraces. He intercuts these vignettes with a complete history of the ultras from the 1970s through to the present day. The result is a weighty tome, bursting with information about seasons and matches past, analyses of Italy’s changing political landscape and literary references. The end result is a serious, detailed and entertaining exploration of a fascinating subject.

The sprawling nature of the book allows Jones to demonstrate one of his key points. Namely, that ultra behaviour defies simple categorisation, as it often differs greatly from one group to the next. The Lazio ultras might be far-right headcases, for example, but that doesn’t mean all ultras have Il Duce-inspired leanings.

Jones also has plenty to say about the connection between the ultras’ evolution and what was happening in the country at large. In the volatile and divided political terrain of Italy in the 1970s, they seemed to offer young men (and a surprising number of women) an escape from that polarisation. But as the decades rolled on, a large number of ultra groups became, in their own ways, more politicised. They gained power for themselves, too, holding an increasing amount of sway over their clubs and communities and, in some cases, building links with organised crime.

While Jones’s analysis of the rise of the ultras is interesting, it is the anecdotes that truly hook the reader. Among the many incidents of eye-watering violence cited, there are a few that stand out in their awfulness. These include the death of a young ultra in a train fire caused by supporters of his own team; and the firing of a flare by a Roma ultra into a stand full of Lazio supporters, which killed a man who was sitting alongside his wife and children, and only at the game because his brother had given up his ticket for him.

These bloody tales hold a grim fascination, but somehow there is also fun to be had amid the mayhem, and Jones wants to show there is more to the ultras than violence.

He clearly relishes bringing the oddballs of Italy’s terraces back to life. People like Pastachina, the mamma’s boy who always took packets of homemade lasagna with him on away trips; or Padre Fedele, the eccentric monk who turned up at Cosenza, started bossing the young ultras around and eventually ended up as a kind of spiritual leader to them, helping them open a soup kitchen and leading them on missionary work in the Central African Republic.

In his magnificent poem “Stephen Boyd”, the Scottish poet Mick Imlah writes that “sport matters because it doesn’t matter / By such a ruse, if not for long, worse things could be postponed”. In its own brutal fashion, the ultra way of life confirms Imlah’s neat couplet. Without sentimentalising the movement, Jones points out that the people who end up as ultras are often misfits who find in their clan a sense of belonging and a distraction from their daily grind. When Saturday comes, they have something to believe in and fight for.

For most people the idea of getting into a punch-up in a car park every weekend sounds hellish. For the ultras? Worse things could be postponed.