“Atomic war is inevitable. It will destroy half of humanity: it is going to destroy immense human riches. It is very possible. The atomic war is going to provoke a true inferno on Earth. But it will not impede Communism.”
The year is 1962 and the man giving the speech is the Argentine-Italian Homero Rómulo Cristalli Frasnelli – although few would recognise him by that name. Instead, he goes by a pseudonym: J Posadas. The same year, a World Cup is held in Chile, just across the border of his home country. Frasnelli may well have wondered what might have been – his birth name would still be familiar to longer-serving fans of Argentinos Juniors, where he forewent a promising career as a centre-forward to concentrate on politics.
It’s odd, but for a sport that's been fused to working-class identity for so long, football has never mixed with socialism with much gusto. When it has, it's rarely been a mainstream and accessible kind of socialism, but instead something more fervent and militant. There is no football club or heroic number 9 for the Owen Joneses of the world. Posadas, perhaps the most far-out of all 20th century communists, didn’t have many friends in the space in the Venn diagram where footballers and communists met, but those who were there were pretty fierce about it. Years later, Paul Breitner would bring his little red book to West German training, but later still – long after the collapse of the USSR and all that it held dear – one corner of Italian football kept its support for naked, unreformed Communism as visible as it had ever been. The hometown club of the Italian Communist Party, AS Livorno.
The problem with mixing football and politics, of course, is that nobody gives a shit about your team if they’re outside the top flight. So even if the political conditions are right, it can feel like a bit of a waste if you’ve been landed with a useless bunch of cloggers. Such was Livorno’s plight in the 70s, and by the time they got together a decent team in the noughties – helmed by the Guevara-inked local hero, Cristiano Lucarelli – everything the club and its fans once purported to stand for was long gone.
Now, however, it’s possible that the two might be coming into alignment at last. Europe is in turmoil once again, extremist politics are back in vogue and Livorno are back in the big-time, returning to Serie A via the playoffs after rather shamefully losing out on automatic promotion to Hellas Verona, a team whose fans typically reside at the opposite end of the political spectrum.
With them come the red flags, but it’s not just posturing – the kind you’d get at FC St Pauli with the Guy Fawkes masks and dreadlocked white guys. (In Scotland, Celtic made a few similar gestures, but it’s hard to see any chants of “Stand up if you love Uncle Joe!” at Parkhead any time soon.) Like Posadas and Lucarelli, Livorno don’t do it half-heartedly. This is a club that takes the time to honour Stalin’s birthday each year with its choreographed matchday tifo and unfurled banners marking the death of Hugo Chavez. The kind of club that sang “Silvio Pedofilo” for the entirety of a match against the Berlusconi-owned AC Milan. The kind of club that reacts to a pre-game's minute’s silence for Italian soldiers killed in Nasiriyah with a rousing chorus of, “Give us ten, 100, 1,000 Nasiriyahs!”
The reasons behind the politicisation of Italian football and fan culture are curious. To understand that, you have to go back to the era that was capable of producing thought patterns as utterly exotic as those of Posadas. Now there was a man who thought big – his other famous contribution to far-left thought was to muse over the possibility of attracting communist aliens to the cause – but he had earned the right, fighting in the Cuban Revolution and helping to launch a new regime there. Communists were confident back then, really confident – as cocksure as white European people must have been a hundred years previously, and just as violent in proving it.
Posadas’ big talk of UFOs and nuclear holocausts spoke of all the paranoia, fear and wonderment of the Cold War, a more abstract experience to fit the European mindset rather than the reality of crawling through Latin American dirt. But Italy wasn’t as far away from Cuba as it appeared. At the time, agents for the anti-communist Operation Gladio were executing a silent coup, forcing the resignation of several socialist ministers from government. In the following years, Italy would become the boxing ring of Europe, as the Cold War fell into a lazy impasse elsewhere in the First World.
As society changed, football went with it. The sport is deeply ingrained in the urban psyche, and no mass working-class movement – be it acid house or fascism – can exist independently of football. As the Brigate Rosse – the Marxist paramilitary organisation – commenced terrorist operations in Italy, the ultra movement followed in their footsteps. Army surplus from occupying forces remained as the visible counterpart to the clandestine Operation Gladio, and as the far-right groups donned black shirts and bomber jackets, Livorno reached for the olive fatigues of the Viet Cong and Shining Path. Soon, Italian football stadiums were filled with brigate and commandos.
Going to the Armando Picchi, Livorno’s stadium today, the dress code is still visible, particularly among the hardcore in the Curva Nord [northern stand]. At times, particularly given the choreographed nature of continental support, it can feel like theatre – a giant game of dress-up. That would ignore the violence inherent in the ultra movement, but there is also more to it than that. In addition to linking up with other left-wing groups, the Livorno ultras have directly aided causes as diverse as the IRA, Palestinian independence and, latterly, recovery from the Haitian earthquake through collections at the ground and other fan events.
Many other clubs in Italy have a tradition of left-wing support, but today it mostly remains a tradition – nothing like this happens at the likes of Roma, once almost as extreme in their socialist beliefs as their local rivals, Lazio, were in their fascist ones. Society would change again in the 1980s, once again taking football with it, and as neoliberalism (and reaction to immigration) heralded a huge shift to the political right in Europe, ultras joined them. Brigades and commandos went out of vogue, the group aesthetic switching to a more English style. But not with Livorno.
The reason Livorno have survived while others haven’t is perhaps due to the idea of Livorno and Communism being inseparable, clenched socialist fists being an integral part of Livornese regional pride. Cristiano Lucarelli embodied it, taking a pay cut to stay at the club as he openly embraced the far-left politics – during his years at the club, the striker was the living embodiment of an on-pitch ultra.
With Livorno returning to the Serie A, we can expect there will be plenty of shows put on, with special attention paid to the visits of Lazio, Hellas Verona and AC Milan. How much resonance any of this pageantry has remains to be seen, but extremist politics have more of a grip on the Mediterranean nations today than they have done for years. Only last May the head of an Italian nuclear engineering company was kneecapped in a flashback to the days of the Brigate Rosse.
Last week, events in Turkey took on an increased significance when the fans of bitter rivals Fenerbahce, Galatasaray and Besiktas came together to lash out at their government. It was the continuation of a tradition which has a far longer history than the ultras movement. As far back as 1909, the Scottish Cup final was abandoned after the Old Firm fans came together to riot against the state in Glasgow. But in the current climate, it could be more significant than ever. In the past, the militancy, ideology and aesthetics of Italian ultras have looked like pantomime, but now they're starting to look like a dress rehearsal for a far more serious play.
Follow Callum on Twitter: @Callum_TH
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