The San Paolo is another one of Italy’s great stadiums that is shrouded in nostalgia and drama. It has seen the highs and lows of football in Italy, hosting Napoli games from Serie A to Serie C. Despite the faltering performances of the team over the years there has always been an ever present Neapolitan crowd in the San Paolo cheering the team on.
Even in Serie C they drew a crowd of 51,000 which stands as a record. It has always produced a hostile environment and has been at its very best as Napoli made their way into the Champions League. The San Paolo was often near full capacity and seemed to bring the entire city to a stand still on those hazy European nights.
One thing about this structure that is particularly nostalgic, is that it is heavily linked with Maradona at his best. The great Argentine plied his trade here for seven years and was nothing short of a demi god to the population of Naples. Even when he infamously asked the Neapolitans to support Argentina instead of Italy in the 1990 World Cup Semi final they still loved him. An interesting fact is that Italian law was the only thing preventing the renaming of the Stadium after Diego Maradona, as he needed to have been dead for ten years first.
The atmosphere in the stadium on match day is electric, the Neapolitans as a people are passionate to the extreme and lead by the Ultras they make the third biggest stadium in Italy a cauldron that is feared by away teams and loved like a church by its populas.
Key Ultra Groups: CUCB (Commando Ultras Curva B), Ultras Napoli, Fedayn.
Other Ultra Groups: Masseria, Blue Tiger, Nucleo, Old Clan 91, South Boys, Cobra, Wanted, La Iene, Mastiffs, Teste Matte, Vecchi Lions, Brigata Carolina, Ultra Girls, Ladies Napoli
On the afternoon of May 1oth, 1987, a deathly quiet fell over the city of Naples. The streets were desolate, prompting Italian anthropologist Amalia Signorelli to write “The world had changed, the noisiest, most crowded and most chaotic city in Europe was deserted.”
But on occasion, murmurings could be heard. They were the cheers and jeers of the Stadio San Paolo. The world may not have changed, but S.S.C Napoli were on the brink of winning their first Serie A title in 61-years. A 1-1 draw with Fiorentina secured Napoli’s triumph. The city erupted. Exultant Neapolitan’s poured onto the streets. Days of partying began. Fans danced on rooftops, fireworks exploded, cars and buildings were draped in sky blue.
In his book, Calcio, John Foot observed that “During the celebrations, Napoli fans displayed all the classic traits of what has become known as the Neapolitan ‘character’: irony, parody and a sense of the macabre, obscenity and blasphemy.” On the walls of the city’s graveyard, graffiti appeared in vernacular ‘Guagliu! E che ve sit pers!’, ‘Guys! You don’t know what you are missing.’ Satirical funerals were arranged for Juventus. The supporters paid homage to their heroes and one man stood above all others as the saviour of Naples – Diego Armando Maradona.
The use of religiously infused language here is no coincidence. To this day, Maradona is awarded god like status in the city. During the Argentinian’s spell at Napoli the club won their only two Scudetti as well as a UEFA Cup in 1989. This prompted cult like adoration. Thousands of babies were named Diego or even Diega while streets and neighbourhoods also took the revered name. Murals were made comparing him to the city’s patron saint San Gennaro. One even depicted him in the arms of the saint himself.
His humble background and ‘rebellious’ nature struck a chord with the Napoletani. His passion, volatility and footballing genius reflected Neapolitan character. In a sense, Maradona became an adopted son of Naples.
But perhaps more importantly, the Argentinian had helped Napoli break the overwhelming dominance established by the affluent Northern trio of Juventus, AC Milan and Inter. At a time when the hostile, anti-southern politics of northern regionalist parties such as Lega Nord were taking hold in the terraces of northern clubs, Maradona restored pride to the ‘downtrodden’ city of Naples. The Napoletani now had a riposte to the anti-Neapolitan rhetoric. It was smug and simple: ‘May 1987, the other Italy has been defeated, a new empire is born.’ And Napoli’s fanatical support still revel in the memories of a time when the giants of the North were humbled by a resurgent Naples.
The Partenopei are the fourth-best-supported team in Italy and their following also extends to various corners of the globe. According to Italian sports journalist Domenico Carratelli, Napoli is a club that “…brings people together from all walks of life, rich and poor alike. It is the people’s team.” Surprisingly, barring their transient success in the late 1980’s, there is a paucity of major honours. Nevertheless, this has rarely detracted from the devotion of their support and even after the club went bankrupt and were relegated to Serie C1 back in 2004, they broke divisional records for attendance, with numbers in excess of 50,000. One urban myth claims that the roar of the crowd celebrating a Napoli goal at the San Paolo has occasionally been registered on the seismographs at the cities Federico II University.
The story of Napoli’s Ultras is perhaps best summarised as a tale of two Curva’s, Curva A (the north bend) and Curva B (the south). Over time, the Curva A has assumed a more prominent role and has been home to a variety of groups including: Mastiffs, Vecchi Lions, Teste Matte and Brigata Carolina. Yet, a divide has always characterised the relationship between Curva A and B, with the former being notoriously riotous and the latter more ‘tranquil’. This, however, only serves to rouse one of the most charged atmospheres in Serie A.
The Azzurri’s first Ultra group to create match-day choreographies were the Commandos Ultras Curva B (CUCB). Founded in 1972 by Gennaro Montuori, AKA ‘Palummella’, the group quickly established themselves by creating their own newspaper and television programme. During their existence, CUCB allegedly denounced violence, a sentiment reflected in a banner they unveiled back in the 1980’s: ‘Violence divides us, our passion unites us.’ According to Signorelli, who authored Popular Culture in Naples, this period also saw the inception of women’s Ultra groups, including Ultra Girls and Ladies Napoli, the latter formed by University lecturers.
Unsurprisingly, the CUCB ‘glory days’ came during the Azzurri’s Scudetto winning years. The archaic San Paolo would bounce to the rhythm of ‘Porompompero’ while the Ultras ubiquitous presence at away games would ensure that a pocket of an Italian stadium would be transformed into a mini-Naples for the afternoon.
However the departure of ‘Palummella’, supposedly due to the death of his brother, caused CUCB to disband. As a result Fedayn (1979) and Ultras Napoli monopolised the Curva B. The two have lived an uncomfortable coexistence, with both refusing to chant in tandem. Fedayn’s more belligerent reputation saw them receive an invitation to join the Curva A, their slogan ‘Estranei alla Massa’ – ‘Outside the Norm’ encapsulating their intransigence. Indeed the Fedayn’s reputation makes the Curva B’s more ‘serene’ tag somewhat risible.
While Napoli’s ultras have often declared themselves apolitical, the historic and cultural divide between North and South has dictated some of their fiercest rivalries. Historian Nicholas Doumanis, has argued that the northern and southern halves of Italy appear in social, cultural and economic terms to be two very different countries. Parties like Lega Nord have even advocated secession from the south altogether. The Napoletani are frequently subjected to territorial discrimination and insults range from the city being destroyed by their neighbouring volcano Vesuvius, to the people being dirty and carrying cholera. Fixtures against Juventus, Hellas Verona, AC Milan and Inter are particularly explosive.
That said, irony is not lost on the Neapolitans and regional rivalries can always be put to one side when there is a chance to decry the Italian authorities. Thus when supporters of their Northern foes were hit with stadium bans for territorial discrimination during the 2013/14 Serie A season, the Partenopei faithful mocked the Italian Football Federation’s decisions with a banner reading “[We are] Naples cholera-sufferers. Now close our curva!”
For all this bravado, these rivalries also reveal the more sinister elements of Italian football and Napoli’s ultras have been involved in some deplorable violence. On May 3rd, 2014, people tuned into the Coppa Italia final between Napoli and Fiorentina only to witness scenes of anarchy and chaos. Violent clashes between opposition fans had delayed the games kick-off. Three Napoli fans were hospitalised. One, Ciro Esposito, would die from gunshot wounds after weeks in a critical condition.
It later emerged that the Napoletani had clashed with A.S. Roma fans, despite the Giallorossi not even participating in the final. A Roma ultra, Daniele De Santis, was later charged with the death of Esposito. There is no love lost between Napoli and Roma, a game which according to a life-long Napoli fan, is one of the most hostile in Italy because unlike their Northern rivals, their hatred is concentrated solely on football.
The other enduring image was that of, Gennaro De Tommaso, also known as Genny ‘the swine’. Said to be an Ultras leader in the Curva A, reports circulated that he was the man charged with talking to Napoli captain, Marek Hamsik, about having the game postponed as rumours swept the stadium that Esposito had died. The game went ahead and Rome’s police commissioner would later deny there had been any negotiation. Massimo Mazza claimed police had merely asked Hamsik to inform the fans of Esposito’s condition.
Having already been banned from attending stadiums for five years, De Tommaso was arrested in September along with four other Ultras for their involvement in the Coppa Italia final, with charges including ‘throwing hazardous materials and invasion of a pitch at a sporting event.’ The incident made for a chilling spectacle and people like De Tommaso bring shame upon Il Calcio.
While Napoli’s Ultras cannot be held accountable for the actions of mindless individuals, their violent reputation is not fabricated. Thus one is left at odds. On the one hand there is no place for such criminal behaviour, let alone in football. On the other, without the Ultras we wouldn’t enjoy the moments that make spines tingle and hairs stand on end. Moments such as the famed repetition of ‘Gonzalooo Higuaín’ nine times while the decrepit walls of the Stadio San Paolo shudder.
The famous expression: ‘See Naples and die’ portrays the beauty and excitement of this city. After playing against Napoli for Manchester City, Ivory Coast midfielder Yaya Toure observed that the relationship between the Napoletani and their team was visceral, comparable to the love shown between a mother and her son. It is this passion that produces one of the most awe-inspiring yet intimidating atmospheres in European football.
There is no debate about the fact that Maradona was the greatest player to ever play for Napoli. He was also a monumental reason for their success in that era. It should not be forgotten however, that others played their role to and in the late eighties and early nineties nobody did this more than Brazilian forward Careca
Part of the “Ma-Gi-Ca” trio of Bruno Giordano and Diego Maradona, Careca became a legend in Naples.
The Brazilian joined the Scudetto winning squad in 1987 and scored 13 goals in his first season. The Neapolitans and Careca then went on a whirlwind romance as he helped them to a UEFA Cup in 1989, a Scudetto in 1990 and a SuperCoppa Italiano in 1991. His career spanned five years and 164 games in which he scored 73 goals.
As a player Careca was one of the best at his trade. If there was a dealership for Brazilian center forwards, he would have been the model in the window. He had pace in abundance and he managed to intertwine this with breath taking skill. Tricks and flicks were not all he possessed and despite the numerous times he rounded the keeper on one on one situations, he was also known as a poacher. With a superb leap and great heading ability he was deadly from six yards and many of his goals came from inside the box. He could however, unleash a venomous strike from distance (just ask Walter Zenga)
The love felt for Careca amongst the Napoli fans was overwhelming. On February 23, 1999, he played his testimonial at the San Paolo stadium. More than 50,000 Neapolitans came to see this farewell match and it was no surprise that he chose to do this in Naples and not Brazil.
During the match the crowd slipped into delirium screaming his name and singing the famous song dedicated to him: "O Carè, Carè, Carè, tira la bomba, tira la bomba…" (come on, Careca, Careca, Careca, throw the bomb, throw the bomb…).
At the time of the game Napoli were going through a terrible spell and fans of all ages were taken back to an almost mythical time. Despite being less than a decade previous they remembered nostalgically the goals from the famous Brazilian.
Maradona may have been their God but Careca had helped create him. Countless times it was he who finished off the moves put together by the genius of the Argentinian. It could even be argued that Maradona may not have been able to achieve what he did in Naples without the talent of this Brazilian vulture leading the Neapolitan forward line.
When Calcio ruled the Careca was having the time of his life when he ‘threw the bomb’, the San Paolo exploded.
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Richard Hall @Gentleman_Ultra