…….Noi vogliamo vincere, noi vogliamo vincere, noi vogliamo vincere, vincere……
Sorrento, a city famous for its lemons, Sofia Loren (an honourary citizen), its panorama over the bay of Naples and also the song ‘Torna a Surriento‘. Even Horatio Nelson stayed here when not bombarding the French Fleet. But for its football? Aside from a single brief foray into Serie B (in 1971-1972 which resulted in an immediate relegation) the history of the Società largely resembles the taste that accompanies the citrus production lining the terraces above the town: a bitter acid only to be consumed by the experienced and foolhardy.
So it was that here we found ourselves. Two avid football fans down on our luck in obtaining tickets for the Napoli vs Udinese game due to take place on the same day-the 17th April. This game had seen a large number of tickets go on presale, a needless way to drum up interest in what was already an extremely important clash for the Serie A title. In fact, the tickets for the Napoli game had sold out in such a way that even Michael Eavis (of Glastonbury fame) would have been surprised [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-11461515].
Without a ticket for the evening’s main event, alternative forms of entertainment had to be arranged. With Calcio due for its regular forced interval, or pausa, in observance of the next religious festival of the year we had to act quickly if we wanted to see some live Italian football. I use the word ‘see’ very loosely here, for as we were soon to learn, Italian football is not to be seen but to be experienced.
Scanning the day’s fixtures we meditated on the merits of Massalubrense v Savoia in the Italian equivalent of the Ryman Premier league, largely due to my faithful companion being from the town which houses Savoia. Salernitana v Alessandria caught our eye due to the “nice little stadium”, if it is at all apt to quote oneself, located in Salerno close to the Sea and the temples of ancient Paestum. But while these had undoubted merits, there was only fixture which stood out: Sorrento vs Hellas Verona.
Hellas Verona are a perennial sleeping giant, akin to an English Preston or Derby County. They are one of the oldest clubs in Italy and have won the Serie A scudetto once, back in 1984-1985. No mean feat, when we consider that the team included no real stand out players during a period when individuals would soon come to dominate the Italian championship (Platini, Maradona, Van Basten). They have since fallen down on their luck and after yo-yo-ing between Serie A and B, financial difficulties saw their fall enter new depths, the Italian division three, referred to as C1.
The story could not have been more different for Sorrento, however, for as we have already established they only spent a single year in Serie B. Their star compared with the downturned Hellas, was on the ascendant, though and since 2005 they had seen consecutive promotions from Serie D (the equivalent of the Vauxhall Conference) and Serie C2 to sit second in the C1 table a step away from re-entering Serie B. With Hellas also lying in 5th, this clash could potentially live up to the ticket sellers description of ‘una partita “hot”‘…with the h pronounced silent as Italians are accustomed to do. This sense of heat was compounded by the fact that Hellas Verona fans are known for being among the most racist in the Italian peninsula, a status they more than relish in and is most akin to that awarded to Millwall and even Leeds of the 1970’s.
So there we found ourselves in the centre of the Curva Sud. There is an interesting circularity here: the ultra’s of Hellas usually sit in the Curva Sud of their home stadium the Bentegodi, as explained by the writer Tim Parks-a Hellas fan and Verona resident, who had followed i Veronese around Italy and recorded the teams exploits in his Season with Verona book. There is an obvious disparity between the two respective Curva, that of the Bentegodi lies within a stadium of just under 40,000 capacity, a stadium which still features Serie A football, in the form of Chievo Verona, much to the chagrin of every Hellas fan throughout the peninsula. The Curva Sud in the Stadio Italia, Sorrento, is however, a series of swings in a children’s playground by comparison. The stadium holds a mere 3,600 supporters, a size surely contra regulations for a Serie B club and thus counting against Sorrento’s possible promotion. Did this mean there was nothing to play for? Assolutamente, No!
Nor did the size detract from the atmosphere: this childrens playground was actual a cauldron, not for the fainthearted. Nor were we lacking in the courage department. From the moment the steward bemusedly examined my British passport with a wry smile to the moment we realised the cheaper tickets we had procured were not for the tribuna, the seating reserved for the silent supporters, but the Curva, the very heart of the cauldron itself, we relished the challenge of the battle that was to come.
Initially, and probably naively, as an Englishman, I assumed that regardless of the location of our seats, I would be able to sit and observe the contest in a civilised manner as per that usually experienced watching my own club QPR in London. This was not to be. From the off, I realised this was different. As the ground slowly started to fill up the Curva became filled with loudly screaming fans “Rossonerr’, Rossonerr’, Rossonerr'” they sang at the top of their voices: “Red and black, Red and Black” which referred to the colour of the home team’s strip and not a repackaged, slightly more economical version of a luxury chocolate box. In front of us stood a middle-aged guy of around 50 who unfurled a large red banner. On this banner was a small image of a Templar knight and the numbers 1945 individually filled each of its corners to denote the year the club had been formed. An elbow in the ribs followed by a nod and a glance to the right, and the bright eyes of my colleague informed me we were in for a very interesting afternoon.
The away fans took a while to arrive. I initially took this to be due to many of the Veronese preferring the essence of the colour yellow of their dual strip (gialloblu) as their colours of the afternoon, which through its connotations of bravery to stay at home in Verona to read Romeo and Juliet; but I had missed the mark. The game kicked off and only a handful of Veronese faced us in the Curva Nord opposite. At this moment Italian politics seemed to have materialised itself into our actual polar positions: the few Veronese stood in the North while the mass of the south filled the Curva Sud. The lack of opposite counterparts at this stage did not deter the crowd. The Curva Sud broke into song “ale, ale, ale, ale, ale, ale, Forza Surrientt’ ale” in thick Napouletan voice: Go on Sorrento, they screamed.
The game was fitting of its 3rd division level, for even at this stage, the few attacks for both side broke down outside each area, largely the fault of the artificial pitch, which even caused the home team to frequently fall over the ball and their own feet. Verona seemed from the off a stronger side, and duly threw their weight around. For Sorrento, although having most of the ball, seemed as though the sleepy sunday afternoon had taken full effect and all eleven were still contemplating their pranzo or lunch, all 5 courses of it. Then it happened. A bright blue flash from the other end of the ground, which intermittently repeated itself and initially met with confusion. What could these be? It then dawned that these were lights from police vehicles and slowly, slowly the delayed Hellas fans spilled into the stadium, and boy were these “sons of giulietta” in full voice.
This incited the already animated Sorrento fans into an electric response: “porta o munezz fuori da citta”, they sang. A song which works on two main levels, firstly the word “munezza” is Neapolitan for rubbish, a reference to the mountains of refuse which have recently piled the streets of Naples and many Campanian towns, due to recurring political problems to long to describe here. Secondly, the “munezz” in this case were the opposition, arguably the most detested fans in Italy, a set of ultra’s who have even racially abused their own black players in the past and visit every away game with a banner unfurled to insult the local populace for some past idiosyncratic trait.
No banners this time, however, merely a collective voice, and this spoke up in opposition “voi siete tutti Teroni…” which as anyone who understands Italian politics directly references Meridionalismo: the idea that the south of Italy is inherently inferior to the North. The “Terroni” tag implies that those of the South are inferior, literally meaning “of the earth”, which is possibly a more polite way to say “munezz”. Again, not to be discussed here, but the fact remained that this is generally insulting to all Italians south of Rome, especially as most northerners who lament the south’s defects, forget to do so when holidaying in places such as Sorrento. The pips in the northern lemons on such occasions rarely squeak, but this time a bitter flavour lay in the air.
The bitter flavour of the occasion met its match in the form of three key players in the match, not found amongst the twentytwo but from within the Curva Sud. These three characters faced not the game, but the crowd itself. But more than this, they were selecting and directing every song that the crowd should sing. Examining the eyes of each and every one of us to test or verify our support they directed our every vowel. As an Englishman, who nonetheless speaks very good Napouletan, I soon realised that I needed to learn the songs and quick. I did not want to be accused of being a Veronese in their very midst!
My colleague also shared my sentiments but benefitted from the fact that he could simply substitute the word Sorrento into songs used by football supporters up and down the peninsula. I unfortunately had only learnt the “seven nation army”song of White Stripes fame, the monotonous vowel motions of which had been the 12th man behind the Italian World Cup win in 2006. This song was out of date and no use here. Thinking on my feet and using all my resources I threw myself into songs which through repetition gradually became second nature: “figli o’ puttann, Veronese figli o’ puttann‘“, “giuliett’ zoccola” (lit. sons of bitches, Veronese sons of bitches and Juliet=dirty old slapper) and “chi nun salta e’ Veronese” to the tune of an old Partisan song of the second world war. The “chi non salta…” really struck a chord around the stadium and even the usually seated and civilised tribuna took up the call to arms.
At a certain point in the first half, while I was successfully managing to blend into this Sorrentine mass of Rossonerr, the three conductors of our eclectically blended throng gesticulated with their palms face down in a motion to suggest we shhhhh. A sole voice had dared speak out, against the time and rhythm of the Curva, it had audaciously tried to start a random chant. “Ueh, sta zitt, tu! Stamm a cantann cca! Se vuliett a guardà o partitt vaje o tribuna, nuje stamm cca per supportà!” or literally, “Oi, shut your face mate, we’re trying to sing here! If you want to watch the game, go sit in the tribuna. We’ve come here to support!!”. These supporters with their backs to the field of play, with their blackened eyes focused on their own red and black brothers reflecting their colours would have brought a tear to Delia Smith’s eye. They had come here to sing their team to victory against the bitter acerbic air blowing in from the Curva Nord, and win they must, for this game meant more than football, it was a fight to assert one’s identity. They came to prove to the North that the South they derided, was alive and kicking, and kick indeed it did.
The bitter flavour was turned into the sweetest of concoctions in the second half when the small Brazilian striker, who had appeared the most likely victim of the midday pranzo, sprang into action. Until this moment he had been largely absent, an anonymous name amongst the eleven red and black giocatore. That name burnt onto our very lips when in the 55 minute, expertly taking the ball down onto his chest he produced an act of pure genius. The ball fell down from his chest to his loaded foot which volleyed towards goal, the shot swerved past the diving defenceless goalie into the uppermost angle between crossbar and post and for a second time stood still. GOOOOOOAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLL!!!!!!! I turned to my friend and hugged him whilst jumping along with the crowd, for this was one of the best goals we had ever seen. “L’abbiamm nuje, l’abbiamm nuje, l’abbiamm o Paulinho Gol“. The fans sang loud and clear, Paulinho the small striker on loan from Livorno had struck an absolute screamer. Paulinho, or little Paulie as he would be known if he were a character in the Sopranos, had produced a moment of magic [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paulo_S%C3%A9rgio_Betanin].
Still the Veronese gialloblu sang on, however, and it was shortly after that they themselves had a goal disallowed, which from our end of the field was hard to tell if it was indeed offside or fuorigioco. The Hellas fans, aside from the odd shouts of “Terroni” had kept their lemons well and clearly hidden and the bitter acid usually accompanying their banners at away games were notably absent. They seemed to be behaving themselves, but nevertheless, like a Millwall fan in his lions den, they were not to be underestimated. They fought hard and regularly foraged into the Sorrento penalty area. The last ten minutes of the game were the very personification of the cauldron that was this game, however, and in the 5 mins of injury time, the lemons were well and truly squeezed.
A long ball forward in the direction of our little Soprano saw the Brazilian fully forget his lunch and skillfully control the ball. While it was still bouncing he deflected the sphere to the right of his marker and pausing for what seems now in retrospect like an age, but was in reality a mere millisecond, waited for the onrushing goalkeeper before subtly lobbing the ball over his head and desperate hands and into the anticipation of an already bulging net and ecstatic Curva Sud. 2-0. Needless to say the Curva erupted.
Hellas tried in vain to compensate with a few more verses of “Terroni” but now in full humour and with their full sardonic armoury at hand the Sorrentine throng responded with resonance: “tornate a lavoro, voi tornate a lavoro“. Here they subtly turned the stereotype of a lazy South back on the visiting Northerners. Quite literally, if it is so good to go out to work and be part of the industrial North, then keep it. That’s right, keep it! We don’t need work, we’ve got a Paulinho goal. Not only that but as the final whistle brought the game to an end, the Southerners not only had the little Soprano, but a few lemons, which as anyone who has visited the area knows is gladly turned into limoncello. A drink to be consumed ice-cold, which is most likely the conditions faced by those Hellas fans on their Northern way home.
As they say in Naples, “Salutamm Sorre’te”, or “say hello to your sister for me”. In this sense the Romeo’s of Sorrento had the final word and giuletta was left to contemplate another crisis of the heart. Squeezing the lemons, makes the pips squeak, a shrill noise heard all the way on up to Verona……….
…….Noi vogliamo vincere, noi vogliamo vincere, noi vogliamo vincere, vincere……