‘A fantastic and elaborate carnival’

Tim Parks, author of A Season With Verona, talks to spiked's football columnist about the passion and ritual of Italian fans.

Duleep Allirajah

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British novelist Tim Parks moved to Italy in 1981. His latest book, A Season With Verona, charts his travels around Italy in support of his football team Hellas Verona, as they fought a nail-biting battle against relegation. spiked‘s football columnist Duleep Allirajah interviewed him.

Duleep Allirajah: You say that football today ‘offers a new and fiercely ironic way of forming community and engaging with the sacred’. Can you explain what you mean by this?

Tim Parks: I hope the book as a whole explained that. At its simplest, all I mean is that people invest in football the same emotions that once tended to be invested in all kinds of religious credo. A community is formed around a cause or a belief, with a strong sense of who their enemies are, and so on.

But at the same time, it is ironic, because fans know well enough that there’s nothing metaphysical about football and that the community of my team against yours dissolves Monday morning, or at least Tuesday. They sing, maybe, ‘Crystal Palace is the best team I’ve ever seen’, knowing full well that it isn’t. I think this is particularly true of your ‘full time’ fan, who is not as likely as the part-timers to completely lose his head. He’s seen his team lose too often not be ironic.

DA: You say that writing the book has given you a new take on the Italian character? Yet the book’s appeal to me was precisely that it captured the obsessive passion and ritual abuse which are universal to all football fans. What would you say is specifically Italian about the way the brigate gialloblu follows its team?

TP: Well, if the stadium is the kind of place where you can finally express all the things you have to repress day to day, it is obvious that every community will betray itself in the stadium. Verona, for example, is a desperately Catholic place, where people stick up posters everywhere saying ‘blasphemy is cowardly and vile’. The fans, who form a sort of alternative culture, at least for the weekend, rebel by using the wildest blasphemies, which seem entirely tame or meaningless to an English person, but within the dynamic of Veronese life are extremely potent.

Or again, all Italy’s old regional quarrels live a sort of ghostly second life in football, resuscitating animosities of four or five centuries ago. Even the racism in the stadiums shows how Italy is in a different position with regard to immigrants and multiculturalism than England. That said, it’s obvious that the emotions of winning and losing, attachment to the colours of your team and so on, are the same the world over.

DA: In his review in The Times (London), Brian Glanville said that you seem ‘to have been seized by some strange nostalgie de la boue‘, and that you are ‘strangely fascinated by the riffraff’. How would you respond to these criticisms?

TP: The only reviews I’ve read are the three the publisher sent me for my website. I have an aversion to reviews, good or bad. So this is new to me. What can I say? Glanville is clearly a courageous person to write off vast numbers of people as riffraff.

I find the fans fun. I enjoy being with them. My suspicion is that Glanville just wants to limit the phenomenon of football to the very small area he feels competent to talk about. Probably he hasn’t travelled with away game supporters for some time, and maybe he is actually a bit scared of books that remind him that his living depends on all kinds of emotions he’d rather pretend don’t exist.

A guy who uses ‘strange’ twice, but then isn’t curious to investigate, especially when the answers are amply provided in the book he is reviewing, is clearly a nervous chap. Funnily enough, a couple of days ago a publisher sent me an audiocassette (they wanted a quote!) written by Glanville called The History of the World Cup, or some such. No doubt the riffraff don’t feature. I haven’t got round to listening to it yet.

DA: You have been accused of being ambivalent about the racism of Verona fans. What do you think about the official anti-racist campaigns against racist chanting and monkey grunts?

TP: Duleep, I’m beginning to be amused by your style of questioning, which seems to consist of inviting me to respond to damaging accusations, as if I were some kind of politician or something.

Anyhow. There’s a culture of insults inside the stadium. It’s fun so long as outside the stadium we know that there’s no real animosity. We insult people from Vicenza, they insult us, then we spend the week working together. Likewise for the north-south divide in Italy, and so on. But, alas, the immigrants in Italy are still very much at a disadvantage. They are simply not part of regular society yet. So it’s unforgivable to insult them in the stadium, pretending that it’s just a football joke and they can insult us back on equal terms. I’m entirely against it.

On the other hand, some good souls seem to have a vested interest in imagining that the fans are running a race war. The curiosity about Italy is that actual violence towards immigrants is almost unheard of – unlike England. I’ve noticed that the more the press report the fact that 50 people in the stadium behave offensively, the more those 50 people will do it, more to be in the papers than because they care about what they’re saying. There’s a deep complicity between the people wanting to clean up and the people determined to stay dirty. They appear to need each other.

In any event, the phenomenon is slowly dying away, as black kids are now growing up as Italians in Italy and becoming part of the community. Hopefully, very soon the problem will have gone. It’s one of the few things I’m optimistic about. You have to remember that mass immigration is a much more recent phenomenon in Italy than in the UK.

DA: In Italy, as in England, there are a tiny minority of hardcore fans and millions of casual or armchair fans. Aren’t the most fanatical also the least typical? Isn’t the armchair supporter, like the occasional churchgoer, more typical of the modern Italian football fan?

TP: It is difficult to write a book about armchair fans, or even be very interested in them, though often they’re the most vociferous when it comes to arguing whether something was or was not a penalty. These people are obviously Glanville’s territory. No, but really, I think a lot of people do a period, or periods of going hardcore, then marriage and family or work commitments, or simply moving away from their club pushes them into another mode. That’s fine. But the armchair fan needs the hardcore to be there. Even when he watches the game on TV, he doesn’t want the stadium empty. And the players themselves need the roar of the crowd to give their best. We all complement each other. Football is something we do together.

DA: Your book provides a highly enjoyable introduction to Italian swearing and blasphemy. How has this been received in Italy?

TP: The book comes out next week, so I’ll let you know. Certainly in this area of Italy, I’ve been told it will cause a certain scandal. Personally I find it fascinating that you can describe in lavish detail how a serial killer murders and cuts up the girl he’s just raped, but you can’t report word for word what the boys (sorry, Brian, riffraff) say on the bus when they go to a game.

DA: The national football team at times appears to be the only genuinely popular institution in British public life. Is the same true of the Italian national team? Or are Italian football fans more interested in their club sides?

TP: Italian unity is a sort of family quarrel. The Italians form a nation in so far as they are constantly arguing with each other. That makes supporting the national team rather less important than in the UK. ‘Did you see Italy v Romania?’, I asked one fan. ‘I support Genoa’, he replied. The plus side is that none of the Italian hooligan element follow the national team. They’re not interested.

Can I make a final comment away from the questions? I wanted the book to be festive, full of good anecdotes and passionate moments. I also wanted to dispel the Nick Hornby idea that football supporters are all somehow infantile or damaged. Far from it. The thing is a fantastic and most elaborate carnival. A brilliant way of filling part of the time we have down here. Enjoy it!

A Season with Verona, Tim Parks, Secker and Warburg, March 2002. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

Read on:

Offside, 8 March, by Duleep Allirajah

spiked-issue: Sport

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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