Offside, 8 March
A Season with Verona by Tim Parks is an entertaining way of acquainting yourself with Italian profanity - and with the soul of its football.
Renaissance art aside, no visit to Florence is complete without a trip to the Artemio Franchi stadium, home of AC Fiorentina.
Last summer I saw The Viola (the ‘purples’) take on Chievo Verona, newly promoted to Italy’s Serie A (premier league). Fiorentina, heavily in debt and riven by internal turmoil, performed abjectly, losing 2-0. As the frustration mounted in the Curva Sud (south end), red-faced men would, one by one, stand up and hurl torrents of abuse at their own team, waving their arms furiously and imploring the heavens. It was like a series of small volcanic eruptions.
After a while, the theatrical rage of the fans became more entertaining than the game itself. But, while I understood the odd word – ‘vaffanculo’ (fuck you), ‘stronzo’ (turd), ‘merda’ (shit) – I couldn’t appreciate the full meaning of these gloriously rich streams of invective. No matter what the advocates of family-friendly football tell you, swearing is integral to the match-day experience. The game itself is universal, but each country has a particular lexicon of terrace abuse that remains impenetrable to outsiders.
Of course, you could take an evening class in GCSE Obscene Italian, but reading A Season with Verona by Tim Parks is a more entertaining way of acquainting yourself with Italian profanity (1). Parks is an English novelist living in Italy, who spent a season chronicling Hellas Verona’s increasingly desperate struggle to remain in the Italian top-flight. His elegant prose brings to life the hilarious vulgarity of the brigate gialloblu (yellow-blue brigades) with whom he travelled Italy ‘in search of illusion, national character and…goals’.
You can learn a lot about a nation from its obscenities. Italian insults, as Parks explains, are generally variations on the recurrent themes of sex, family, defecation, and religion. So, if you want to offend an Italian, you could say ‘Tua madre e puttana, scopa con tutti’ (Your mother is a whore and fucks everyone). Anti-southern jibes are also common, reflecting the country’s historically weak sense of national identity. The Veronese, for example, will typically greet southern opponents with chants of ‘terroni di merda’ (uncultivated shitheads).
Unsurprisingly, the foul-mouthed Hellas fans are branded as racist louts (think Italy’s version of Millwall), while plucky little Chievo are celebrated as paragons of racial tolerance. However, what Verona’s liberal critics fail to grasp is that the fans’ mishmash of prejudices has little to do with politics and is much more a function of football rivalry: the point is to offend all opponents, wherever they are from. So Juventus are hunchbacks, Vicenza are cat-eaters, Bologna are ‘comunisti’, Udinese are earthquake victims, and so on (for reasons explained in the book). And when Hellas play badly the fans turn on their own players – or the much-maligned club owner, Giambattista Pastorello.
The terrace chants are crude and frequently racist but, as Parks observes, also ironic: ‘They are truly fanatical, in the Curva Sud, but simultaneously ironic, even comic. A sticky film of self-parody clings to every gesture of fandom. We cannot take ourselves entirely seriously…. When the Haaaayllas chant ends everybody claps in self-congratulation and lots of them burst out laughing. Forza Hellas! We know we’re ridiculous.’ As somebody who frequently finds himself singing that Crystal Palace are ‘by far the greatest team the world has ever seen’, I know what he means.
The ironic nature of the terrace chanting is perfectly illustrated by an incident Parks witnessed at Bari. One particular Hellas fan has been screaming all manner of insults at the Bari supporters, calling them Africans, animals, Albanians, criminals, Kurds, smugglers, gypsies, queers, beasts and so on, when a gust of wind blows his cap over the fence segregating the opposing fans. The fan is reduced to pleading with the police and opposing fans to take pity on him and return his beloved 1985 championship cap.
Eventually, two Bari fans rush through the police lines, grab the cap, and throw it back over the fence, prompting the brigate gialloblu to burst into chants of ‘Ba-ri! Ba-ri!’. Of course, within minutes, the natural order has been restored and the insults have resumed, but this episode reveals the pantomime-like character of the exchange of terrace insults.
So, what light does the book shed on the Italian character? Certainly, particular aspects of Veronese fan culture, such as the deep-seated conviction that the authorities are conspiring against Hellas, are distinctively Italian. However, I’m doubtful that the few hundred hardcore supporters who follow Hellas home and away are typical of all Italian football fans, let alone the national character. In Italy as in Britain, the millions of armchair fans are in the overwhelming majority now.
Moreover, it strikes me that much of what Parks captures – the obsession, the passion, the commitment, the ritualistic abuse, the emotional extremes – is not uniquely Italian, but is actually the universal experience of football fans everywhere, from Bradford to Brescia. Indeed, his account of Verona’s struggle against relegation is at times so grimly familiar that it could easily have been A Season with Palace.
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