Go magical Hellas!
“Dagliela!” shouts the girl behind me. “Pass it to him.” She’s on her feet screaming. “Dagliela BENE!”
On the pitch Martino Melis lifts his head. But he can’t hear her. She’s only one voice. Thousands of others are chanting: “Su Verona, su Verona, dai, dai!” Melis is dithering again.
“Ma DAgliela!” she weeps. “Dagliela bene!” Give it to him right!
Too late Melis sees the opening and passes. The ball runs long. The girl collapses in disappointment. A moment later she begins again: “Pull him down! Pull the bastard down, Dio povero!” She’s suffering. Mazzola can’t hear. “O mongolo,” comes the familiar call from a few rows further back, “O fenomeno, go back to cloud cuckoo land!”
On The Wall, as Sunday’s game approaches, the exhortations flow thick and fast:
“ODDO, YOU MISERABLE MERCENARY, LET’S SEE SOME BALLS TODAY.”
“PEROTTI, MERDA! ENOUGH DRAWS AND DEFEATS. SEND’EM OUT TO WIN, DIO BOIA, AND DON’T PLAY CASSETTI. HE’S A CRIPPLE.”
Why do people write messages to those they know are not going to read them? Why do people shout at players who they know can’t hear?
“Shoot, shoot, shoot, porca miseria!” The girl’s on her feet again. “Shoot now!” But never for a moment does she imagine that Bonazzoli can hear her. She knows his world is quite separate. What is going on?
The Saturday before the game there is always a full page advertisement in the Arena. Right across the top, a broad grey band bears the incitement:
FORZA GIALLOBLU FORZA GIALLOBLU
Immediately beneath are the names of the teams:
H.VERONA vs NAPOLI
Then, right across the centre of the page are two large diagrammatic football pitches laid side by side, each giving one of tomorrow’s teams and the formation they play in. Here, for example is what’s on the left diagram today:
H. VERONA (4-4-2)
Apolloni Italiano Gilardino
Laursen G. Colucci Bonazzoli
But now comes the curious thing. Right in the middle of the page, squashed, that is, between the two football pitches and their teams, there is just about room for one elongated vertical advertisement, which thus takes pride of place and becomes the focal point of the whole layout. It reads:
Z E U S
Tarot, Astrologer, Spiritist
Specialist in matters of the heart
Consult him for:
Love, Business and every forma Negativa
Placed between the two teams, in the conundrum of their eventual engagement, we have a mago, Giuseppe Strano, which is as much as to say, Joseph Strange. He’s in the right place. “Magic exists as a primitive explanation of the world,” said the anthropologist Evans-Pritchard, “and continues to flourish wherever science is unable to offer reassurance.” Certainly there could have been no reassuring, scientific explanation on that bitter cold Sunday afternoon, January 14th, when, on a sodden pitch, without having done anything to deserve it, Napoli scored fifteen minutes from time to go one-nil up. Doubtless many in the Bentegodi who witnessed this injustice felt convinced that Verona were the victims of a ‘forma negativa’, a jinx.
“As a historian of civilisation,” wrote the German scholar Aby Warburg in 1923, “what interested me was how, in the midst of a country that had developed its technical culture into a remarkable precision weapon in the hands of the rational man, nevertheless there survived a small enclave of primitive pagans who, while facing the struggle for existence with absolute realism when it came to their hunting and their agriculture, all the same went on practising with undiminished faith magic rituals that we tend to look on with contempt as a sign of complete backwardness.”
Primitive pagans? Warburg was speaking of the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, their tendency to exhort a sky that couldn’t hear them to rain, an earth without ears to be fertile, but the paragraph might as well refer to the Brigate Gialloblù, or any fan praying to someone who can’t hear. Warburg goes on to talk of magic as a stage lying between totemism and technology; it involves, that is, an intense desire to manipulate events through a process of cause and effect, but without having developed the technological means to do so. You do a certain dance to make the clouds come. You wear your old blue-and-yellow scarf for forty-eight hours before the game in the vague hope that this might prove propitious.
“This coexistence between fantastical witchcraft and rational utilitarianism seems to us to be a symptom of scission,” reflects Warburg. “But for the Indian or football fan there is nothing schizoid about it at all. On the contrary: it amounts to the liberating experience of an unlimited possible correlation between man and the surrounding world.”
“Dagliela bene!” the girl is screaming again. This time Melis passes at once, a perfect through ball to Mutu. “There,” she claps her hands, “There, see that, ESP! He heard me.”
“Vai magica Hellas!” is Pietro’s favourite shout. “Go, magical Hellas.”
Having agreed that magic is an attempt to manipulate the world, the anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor tackled the thorny question, “Why does the believer in magic keep at it when it clearly doesn’t work, when the scarf wrapped round the neck for forty-eight consecutive hours is followed by such a miserable drubbing you feel like hanging yourself with it? When you pray to Perotti to behave sensibly and he never does.
The conclusion the anthropologist came to was that the practitioner of magic could explain away its failure only by positing the greater power of some opposing magic: We deployed all our spells, but somebody else cast a counter spell, a forma negativa. One can see the logic of this, but it has to be said of that game on January 14th, that though the Neapolitans are committed of fans and notorious believers in magic, they were nevertheless hopelessly outnumbered at the Bentegodi. How could their influence be more powerful than ours?
The anthropologist, Sir Alfred Radcliffe Brown, had a different take on this loyalty to the futile formula. More important than the efficacy of magic, he felt, was its social function, which was “to underline the importance to the group of the desired or protected event.” Writing threatening messages to Pastorello, or begging Adailton to shoot, you express how absolutely crucial it is to all of us that Hellas win.
In this regard, Radcliffe-Brown mused on, magic offers a way of ‘ritualising optimism.’ You insistently repeat what you most desire and thus tense yourself and others toward a happier future. Before each game that Hellas play, someone signing himself Zeno (Verona’s patron saint) writes to The Wall predicting the day’s result, always in our favour. “Verona 4, Napoli 1: goals by Mutu, Bonazzoli and Melis. All in the first half. Penalty to the filthy terroni early in the second. Final goal in the closing seconds from the mythical Gilardino.”
But ten minutes from time, on this miserable afternoon of January 14th, it was still one-nil to Napoli. From almost thirty yards out – their first serious shot of the game – Bellucci had struck a ball that curved hard and fast into the top left-hand corner of Verona’s goal. It was perfect. No magic of Ferron’s could have resisted it.
At despairing moments like this, what I always ask myself is: Why do people invest this enormous desire for control, for magical cause and effect, in an area where they know they can have no such control? After my week at the bank, at the school, in the factory, why don’t I choose an entertainment where I can enjoy some reassurance as to the outcome? Computer games, for example. A little wine bottling.
Or again: having chosen an entertainment where we have no control, why don’t we sit passively and just suffer or enjoy it? Why do we seek to influence events? Here I am on my feet again, screaming: “Cassetti, for Christ’s sake, don’t pass back. Fuck and shit, Cassetti, attack!” Is it that we actually want this exhibition of helplessness? Perhaps the theatre of the stadium allows us to act out our most intimate intuition: that in the end and in all the truly important things of life – where we were born, who we are, our passions, our children, our illnesses and ageing – we never had any control at all.
Down but not beaten, the curva rallies with bitter determination. Sing despite everything is the rule. “Tu sei il Verona, il mio Verona!” I make a brief attempt to join in but I can’t do it. I feel sick. Your book is going to be a book about relegation, I tell myself. That’s the bitter truth. Perhaps writing about things brings bad luck. In just a few minutes from now Hellas Verona will be third from bottom.
Support for Radcliffe-Brown’s vision of the social function of magic comes from further studies on the American Indians. “The Zuni tribe under strong pressure from Spanish explorers and Franciscan missionaries to repudiate its indigenous customs, would, figuratively speaking, draw a magic circle around their innermost belief and ceremonies, above all their mask dances.”
Masks! As we had filed into the Bentegodi that afternoon, it was to find that the brigate had provided not flags, nor tick-a-tape, as on previous occasions, but, on every single seat of the curva, a small white, surgical mask of the variety American cyclists wear in city traffic: to protect ourselves from the smell of those terrible Neapolitans. There is a local song that runs:
Senti che puzza,
scappano anche i cani
sono arrivati i napoletani
Get that smell,
Even the dogs are running
The Neapolitans are coming.
So as the teams ran out into the stadium, it was to find ten thousand people wearing small white masks and singing: “Siamo i tifosi dell’Hellas e abbiamo un sogno nel cuore, bruciare il meridione, bruciare il meridione.” “We’re Hellas fans and we have a dream in our hearts, to burn the south.”
Until fifteen minutes from the end of the match it seemed that, at least in footballing terms, that dream might come true. For all the first half and most of the second, Hellas had attacked and Napoli had defended. In Napoli’s goal, Mancini had saved well on two or three occasions. Five minutes after Napoli scored, Verona won a corner. Martin Laursen rose to meet a high ball at the far post and crashed it down … against the woodwork. That’s it, I thought. We’re jinxed.
“We’re going down,” muttered Pietro.
“We’re already down,” said the pessimist who sits in front.
In the past, when I used to hear people talk of their fear of relegation, I thought it was a mere question of footballing prestige they were worried about, of seeing a high quality game. Only recently did I realise that what is really at stake is the taboo thought: what if our community disintegrates? Imagine: the club goes down first to Serie B, then to C; the Hellas fans dwindle; the Juve and Milan and Inter fans multiply. When the brigate sing, “When Hellas are in Serie C, in the stadium we will be,” what are they trying to do but ward off the terrible suspicion that maybe they won’t be there at all? The brigate will be gone, swallowed up in the world of modern entertainment where football means nothing more than an afternoon’s cable viewing. If this isn’t cultural harassment, what is?
Under threat, the Zuni drew a magic circle round themselves. I’ve often thought of the Bentegodi as a magic circle. The opposing fans are admitted into one small segment only in order to be driven out by a Hellas victory. A ritual exorcism. But today even our gas masks can’t protect us from the heavy smell of defeat. With ten minutes to go and the tension in the stadium almost unbearable, Ragioniere Perotti at last decides to take a risk. He pulls off Melis and throws in a third striker, Adailton. “Vai Ada!” shouts Pietro to the boy who can’t hear. To our right three older men get to their feet and head for the stairs. They have lost faith.
The game was drawing to a close. The Napoli players, quite naturally, were wasting time, falling over and shrieking in fake pain, raising their hands to call for the team doctor, taking forever to set the ball down for a goal kick. And at this point there came a sudden roar of pain that seemed to have nothing to do with anything happening on the pitch. At once I raised my eyes to the big screen over the Curva Nord where an electric ribbon of light was bringing the results of other games. As at Lecce last week, the news so far was all bad. Brescia were winning, Reggina were winning. But now worst of all came a revised score-line from Serie B: a team called Chievo Verona had equalised at Salerno. As one man the curva groaned. The misery was too much. And so, just as we reach this crucial and desperate moment of the season, the last five minutes against Napoli, I fear I shall have to interrupt my story to talk about an even greater threat to the Hellas community: Chievo Verona seem to be headed for Serie A.
I admit I’ve been putting off this part of my tale. I should have mentioned it way back, perhaps at the very beginning of the book. Then I could have said, “Actually the city of Verona has two football teams, one in Serie A and one, rather surprisingly, in Serie B, rather than Serie C, or D where it belongs.”
That would have done it. That would have prepared you. But the truth is I had imagined I could get right through my story without ever mentioning Chievo. Chievo are irrelevant, I remember thinking, to the scope of this book that I have decided to write about the glorious Serie A team Hellas Verona. Chievo are a quiet backwater, a bunch of parochial nobodies. You don’t want to waste your reader’s time with Chievo.
The decision was rash. For some weeks I have felt the problem creeping up on me. For some time now I have been observing, ruefully, that when you write a book as a diary, you just can’t know at the beginning what may turn out to be monstrously important at the end. Here we are nearly halfway through the season and Chievo Verona are actually a couple of points clear at the top of Serie B. While Hellas plummet into the abyss Chievo rise meteoric. Something will have to be said.
Chievo is a small suburb of Verona, sometimes nicknamed ‘the Dam” because situated by the dam that controls the flow of the Adige through the city. Their team was little more than another parish club until the 1960s. Then slowly but surely, despite boasting only a handful of fans, they worked their way up. In 1994 they finally made it to Serie B and were admitted to the Bentegodi. Hellas play there one Sunday, Chievo the next. When you go to watch the boys from the dam, you find the terraces empty and just a few old folks with their picnics of salami and polenta.
Well, it was bad enough when Hellas were relegated, having to play Chievo in Serie B. It will be even worse having to welcome them into A. But in the end even that is not the problem. The growing fear is that Chievo will get into A while Hellas Verona crash into B. And this fear is galvanised by the apprehension that the world at large, the great wide world of TV and political correctness, finds Chievo Verona a more palatable phenomenon than Hellas Verona. Chievo have a couple of black players. Chievo supporters do not indulge in racist chants. They never attack the police as the Hellas fans are about to do in ritual fashion no sooner than this miserable game with Napoli is over. Chievo fans are cheap to manage, easily dispersed and rarely irritate the authorities by travelling to away games.
If Chievo go up to A and Hellas down to B, I ask myself, as the dying minutes of Verona-Napoli tick by, could this really be the beginning of the end of the Hellas community? I think it could. And don’t be fooled by pleasant appearances! No doubt many readers are thinking: how quaint to see a tiny parish getting its boys in Serie A!. Maybe. But the quaintness is only part of the truth. Like anyone else, Chievo’s managers have to pay their players salaries. How do they do this without supporters? With money given by the television channels for the rights to show the Serie B anticipo on Friday and the posticipo on Monday. Chievo are actually a by-product of modern TV football, proof that fans in the flesh aren’t essential. For anyone eager to eliminate the unruly crowds who haunt the stadiums, the promotion of Chievo and the relegation of Hellas Verona would be a most welcome event.
Today, January 14th, it had seemed that Chievo had at last met their match. They were losing at Salerno. The news of Salerno’s goal had been met with a great cheer. Perhaps one loss, people thought, would pop the Chievo bubble. But now, no sooner do we start losing than the news comes up that our execrable neighbours have equalised! Never has the gloom been more intense on the terraces of the Bentegodi.
Then someone scored.
It was hard to say at first who it was or how it happened. Napoli had taken off their one striker, Bellucci, and were packing the box. It looked easy. They had only a few minutes to hang on. But Verona were at least putting the work in today. And at last in a melée, even before the girl behind me had time to tell him to shoot, somebody finally stuck the damn ball in the net, right beneath the curva.
“Cassetti” – the name flashed up on the scoreboard. In the midst of the exultation, I couldn’t believe it. I always curse Perotti when I see he has fielded Cassetti. Every Saturday the team is announced, in the Arena, without Cassetti – it seems impossible we should need Cassetti – and every Sunday we find him there on the pitch, sweet, long-haired, adolescent and incompetent as ever. But in a sea of mad embraces, I shouted aloud: “Cassetti, I forgive you. I forgive all your utter uselessness for that one goal.” My son too was shouting, “Grazie, Cassetti, Grazie.” Then the scoreboard made a correction. “Mutu.” I felt better.
The ninety minutes were up. The fourth man produced his little glowing board to announce injury time: three minutes. But Verona couldn’t be satisfied with a draw. Not against Napoli. “Vai Verona vai,” shrieked the crowd. And when the whole curva shouts together, then there is a real psychological pressure. Then it is no longer a question of the single imprecation lost in the storm, the voice unheard. Now it is a rising tide of sound. And Napoli were crumbling. They had lost their nerve. My opinion on supporters changed again. Fans are vital! If Chievo had supporters they’d be in the Champions League! “Su Verona su!!!!” The chant was steadily deafening. Until, from the left, Mutu sent the ball in high to Bonazzoli on the corner of the six-yard box. Caught between two defenders the big boy swivelled his torso to chest down to where Adailton was storming in unmarked. He didn’t even need to hit it hard. It was so easy. Rete!
I cannot recall another moment of such complete promiscuity on the terraces. People were tumbling every which way in huge group embraces. And as they stumbled to their feet at last, the brigate began to sing. All myths and fables tell us that what the hero must do after he has killed a monster is steal its magic power, the Gorgon’s head, the aegis. So, having at first defended themselves with gas masks, the Hellas fans now stole what the Neapolitans are most famous for, their song: “Ohi vita, ohi vita mia,” they sang. Ten thousand people. Life, my life. “Ohi core, ‘e chistu core.” O heart, this heart. “Si stat’ o’ primmo ammore, O’ primmo e l’urdemo sarraje pe’mme” You were my first love, oh first and last you’ll be for me.”
This is Italy, the north singing the south. Giuseppe Colucci, himself from south of Naples, was so excited he tossed his shirt in the air and was promptly sent off. A few seconds later Mutu was sent off for reacting with a punch to a foul by a Napoli defender. Both players will miss the next game. But who cares! The crowd flowed out of the Bentegodi ecstatic. Today at least the magic had worked. In extremis. Hellas exists.
Brescia – Perugia 1-0
Fiorentina – Milan 4-0
Inter – Parma 1-1
Juventus – Bologna 1-0
Lecce – Vicenza 3-1
Reggina – Atalanta 1-0
Roma – Bari 1-1
Udinese – Lazio 3-4
Verona – Napoli 2-1