Italian football games, especially the further south you go, are renowned for their lively atmosphere and volatile supporters. Think of big derbies in Italy and you imagine flares, megaphones and lots of hissing from the crowd. I figured that Palermo vs Napoli, hosted in the Renzo Barberi stadium in the Sicilian capital, was a good place to find these ingredients.
I stressed about getting tickets online and worried they might sell out for a big game between two relatively local southern sides, but didn’t manage to do so due to there being strict ticket controls over online purchases so as to stop banned hooligans buying tickets under different names. I got myself a fan’s card which enabled me to get tickets, but as I was going with friends, I needed ones for them too. In the end, I gave up and decided to buy tickets in Palermo’s official club shop on the day before the game.
Which was dead easy and I don’t know why I even bothered trying to get tickets online. While in the club shop, Palermo’s unique pink shirt was pretty enough to convince me me to part with a decent amount of euros so as to wear it in the Ultras section: Curva Nord Inferiore, which supposedly housed the rowdiest fans in the stadium. Just what I was looking for.
To match day and getting to the stadium is pretty straightforward. A bus leaves from the back of the Central train station and you get a ticket for about 1.50 euros at the station or in a tabacchi. The stadium is definitely not walkable from the centre and the bus journey took about 20 minutes.
Upon arriving, there is an array of pre-match food to choose from, set up on a kind of car park with temporary catering vans. I treated myself to a sandwich, a ricotta-filled cannolo and a tidily-priced beer. We’d arrived quite early, so hung around for a while before entering the stadium. Contrary to being patted down several times and having to pass through loads of security, getting in was really smooth and quick, and the stewards friendly. Be aware that they check your names against your documents and certain items may be confiscated e.g. a friend of mine had her cigarettes taken off her.
Into the stadium itself and we chose some decent seats kind of central in the lower tier we were in behind the goal. Thinking it might be difficult to see during the game, the girls wanted seats above the tunnel where you come in so as to have nobody stood in front of you, but not soon after, the regular fans rocked up and perched themselves in front of us sitting on some metal bars. Mr. Megaphone was also there, and the ultras were stood right in front of us, effectively on our toes, so we moved back a few rows to near where we had started.
To the game and despite the stadium being less than half-full, the Palermo team were welcomed to raucous applause and encouragement, and Mr. Megaphone instructed everyone to stand up, clap and repeat his songs in unison. As we were in the Ultras section, everyone obeyed, and we didn’t want to look out of place, so went along with it too. One of his commands involved holding your hands out until he saw it fit to start the chant, and then clapping and singing. This continued for at least the first half an hour of the game, and combined with huge flags being waved in front of me, I barely saw any of the game until out of nowhere a penalty was awarded to a Napoli team who had dominated possession until then. Higuaín, who would go on to the break the record for most goals in a Serie A season with 35, dispatched the penalty down the middle, though it didn’t quieten down the Palermo fans who continued to try supporting their team, very difficult in the circumstances, as from what I’d actually seen, they had barely put two passes together and had put in one of the worst performances I’d ever seen live.
The half time whistle came and boos rained down from the home terraces in disgust at their team’s performance.
Palermo came out for the second half and somehow contrived to be even worse than in the first, looking technically and tactically inept, physically unfit and lacking any kind of motivation to chase the game. Consequently the Ultras’ patience lasted no more than ten minutes. Flags stopped waving, Mr. Megaphone became less vociferous and fans’ frustration and anger began to shine through. A sudden burst of rain was probably the last straw, and with the team playing ever worse, Mr. Megaphone ordered us to chant ‘No Dignity’ and something along the lines of ‘Chop all their balls off’, before taking it another step and making us turn our backs to the game. We were facing the wrong way for at least fifteen minutes, although some people, including myself, were tentatively peeking over their shoulders at the game.
The anger directed towards them didn’t change the players’ performance levels and the final whistle was met with hisses and negative chants. It seemed liked the players came over to remonstrate, or even apologise to the fans, but they were met with louder howls of derision and had a range of objects, from plastic cups of water to coins and whatever else fans had lying in their pockets tossed at them.
It was truly one of the worst performances I’d ever seen, and Napoli played as if on the training ground, not even straining to look for a second goal. I could understand the supporters being furious, and that game would be the last for what had been the seventh (7th) manager of the season, who left them hovering above the relegation zone on goal difference. An eighth one was appointed soon after and Palermo somehow picked up 11 points from their last 5 games to scrape to safety on the final day of the season.
The game had started at 20.45, so we didn’t get out until almost 23.00, and we’d not considered that buses might not be running after the game. As it happened, while we trying to negotiate with a taxi-driver (mini-Satans reincarnated all over the world) who was trying to overcharge us, a random gentleman called us over and offered to give us a lift back to where we were going in his car. We didn’t turn down his offer and were back a lot quicker than we’d imagined, though disappointed not to find any food establishments open near where we were staying.
All in all, though the quality of football had been horrendous, I’d thoroughly enjoyed being an Ultra for a game, and by the end of the game I’d learned most of the chants, even the negative ones. It made me wonder why fans in England dismiss singing sections as tacky, as it really does generate a great atmosphere, especially when various sections are competing to make the most noise. However, I saw that Italian fans can quickly turn against their fans if they aren’t satisfied, and perhaps explains why chairmen are often so hasty to dispense with managers that hit on a bad run of results.
Fan power is certainly a big factor in Italian football games. And passion certainly isn’t lacking, even if quality sometimes is.