As soon as Sassuolo fans saw Alfred Duncan crossing we jumped from our seats, just in time to raise our hands to the sky as Gregoire Defrel connected with a powerful header, making it 3-0.
I smiled at my friend, jumping and waving his black and green huge flag over his head. It was a warm and bright summer evening at the Mapei Stadium, and Defrel’s goal was significant: Sassuolo had qualified for the Europa League playoff round for the first time. But 20 minutes remained, so after five minutes of enthusiastic excitement we sat back to watch the rest of the match. Suddenly a young man in a black t-shirt, sun reflecting off his shaved head, looked to the packed upper section of the curva and started to shout with anger.
Italian football a dark side, especially when Ultras are involved. Every group has its own friends and its own enemies, both inside and outside the stadium. Sometimes these relationships can be harmless. Often – especially when it involves rival teams – the behavior of Ultras can turn ugly. For instance, in Rome the fights between romanisti and laziali can involve citizens, police and the city itself, as happened outside the Olympic Stadium last May in Rome.
But Sassuolo is different. Sassuolo is not just a team; Sassuolo is a dream coming true for a little town in the northern part of Italy of about 40,000 inhabitants. Supporting Sassuolo means going to Piazza Garibaldi to celebrate the promotion in Serie A with our players, walking down the street near the city centre and sneaking into Stadio Ricci (the small stadium where Sassuolo played back in 2012) to watch them practicing for an upcoming match.
US Sassuolo has a young squad but is a surprisingly strong club, especially considering they were promoted to Serie A for the first time in 2013. In fact, the neroverdi were promoted to Serie C1, the third division, just a decade ago. After three seasons, the majority of promoted clubs have been relegated once more, but the neroverdi remain; in fact, they’re more resolute than ever.
One of the reasons might be because of the bonds between players and their “mister”, Eusebio Di Francesco. Top scorer Domenico Berardi (52 goals in 135 attendances wearing Sassuolo colors) refused Juventus not once but twice, which few Serie A players can do, especially when the Bianconeri offer him an excellent contract and promise that he’ll play. But Di Francesco was the man who helped Berardi grow as a player, taking a very talented kid and making him a serious professional.
Team captain Francesco “Puma” Magnanelli failed at both Chievo and Fiorentina, but Di Francesco has given him responsibilities on the field and off, helping to build a more solid foundation. Having started wearing neroverde in 2005, when Sassuolo was no more than a team of amateurs, he’s now part of the club soul, a hard-working midfielder who keeps the team together.
But another reason Sassuolo is different is due to their fans. The man kept on shouting, “Alzatevi! Cosa siete?! Morti che camminano? Supportate la squadra, avanti!” (Get up! Who are you? Walking corpses? Support the team, c’mon!), looking up at our section of the stadium. Below us were Sassuolo’s “real” Ultras, who are divided int0 two groups: the Clan Curva Nord and Sasol, small clusters of men singing and shouting slogans in support of the neroverdi.
Being part of an Ultras group typically means political involvement as well, using right- or left-wing extremist symbols and messages. The big teams with long Serie A histories are often known for their Ultra groups’ extremism and violence, so much so that they are usually separated from other fans in the stadium.
But the short history of Sassuolo, combined with the small number of sassolesi, makes it hard to have proper and organized support. The vast majority of Sassuolo supporters are not Ultras, but ordinary people (most are families, small groups of friends, older people and couples) who enjoy football and love to share their passion with others.
That young man was so angry because, despite the four or five neroverde flags waving in the air, our curva is really quiet. During the Europa League match few people were constantly chanting, and sometimes we could hear the Luzern Ultras shouting.
It can’t be said that Sassuolo has a strong and spectacular fan base. We don’t cover our curva with purple like Fiorentina and we don’t chant as loudly and proudly as Inter. But when it comes to soccer, at least in Italy, it seems impossible to create an organized supporting group without relying on Ultras.
At a small club like Sassuolo, where you have to share space with Ultras, such support would mean accepting a particular set of “rules” and behaviors: if you come and cheer you’d probably end up chanting against other teams like Carpi or Reggiana. You’d likely have to be part of a group of people called “Curva Nord” which is a veiled reference to the right-wing political movement called Lega Nord, based on racism and xenophobia. You’d be directed by people who think that it’s more important to beat up a supporter from a different team than to go and support the club, as happened in 2014, before Sassuolo vs Carpi.
When I go to the stadium I don’t want to do anything else but support my team: I don’t care about politics, about teams we’re not playing, or about stadium issues – I don’t need to think about how in 2013 Giorgio Squinzi, the Sassuolo president, bought the Mapei, Reggiana’s stadium, and allows Reggiana to continue to play there for free. I don’t want to hear about how both Reggiana and Sassuolo ultras don’t feel “at home” here.
Sassuolo is my city. Neroverdi are my colors. And not being able to go to the curva without being yelled at by someone who feels “prouder” than me just because he believes in a fanatic version of what football is is a problem which I take seriously.
Neroverdi Ultras feel somehow dishonored by our attitude. They do not consider us “real” Sassuolo supporters: we carry the Tessera del Tifoso (a compulsory ID for away games refused by most Ultra groups in Italy), we chant constantly during the game and we don’t care to be associated with their political views. The majority of Sassuolo supporters don’t really want to share moments with Ultras, mainly because of their hotheaded and sometimes aggressive behavior.
The club itself encourages a friendly atmosphere, inviting peaceful fans to come to the stadium as much as they can. Family and women’s tickets are easy to obtain and you often see stands filled with people of all ages and genders, dressed in neroverde. In Italy, there are curva where organized groups who care about nothing more than supporting their team have the most glorious choreography. As a Sassuolo supporter, I hope it can happen here too, that we can make a difference.
After all, the guy stopped shouting when he noticed how people were annoyed by his words. He stopped when he realized none of us were willing to join Ultra zone of the curva.