Celtic vs Lazio: The Champions League tie that became a political powderkeg

In April 1945, in the last months of World War II in Europe, Benito Mussolini, the leader of Italy, was captured by Italian partisans near Lake Como. Mussolini was executed and his body was taken to Milan and hung upside down in a square where a year earlier his Fascists had similarly displayed 15 local Resistance fighters. Two days later, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in Berlin.

Granted, it’s not 4-4-2.

And this may seem an odd way to introduce a Champions League match; it’s just that when Celtic host Lazio tonight, the image of Benito Mussolini and his name will again be prominent. Celtic-Lazio has become more than a game, more than a Group E qualifier: it is a clash between two fanbase cultures.

When the two clubs met in the Europa League four years ago, Lazio ultras marched through Glasgow giving Fascist salutes; they were then mortified when they got to Celtic’s ground, Parkhead, to see a local banner with Mussolini on it — upside down — with the words “Follow Your Leader”.

Celtic fans display a banner depicting a dead Mussolini at the game against Lazio in 2019 (Rob Casey/SNS Group via Getty Images)

“From what I remember, the response within the ground was one of celebration,” says Paul McQuade of the Celtic-curating Shamrock website. “It was Mussolini, it would upset Lazio fans and it was aligning the support with anti-fascism. It was well-taken.”

“It’ll be a lot of the same people,” author James Montague says of Lazio fans in Glasgow in 2019 and this Wednesday, “and I imagine a few of them will be looking for that Celtic banner.”

There is a spectrum of political opinion among football fans across Europe and Celtic and Lazio are at either end of it. Speaking of large fanbases inevitably involves generalisations, but we can say Celtic supporters are at the leftish end of this culture and Lazio’s are out on the far right. There are, of course, individuals in between, but their voice tends to get drowned out when squads of young and middle-aged men — and it is a testosterone-fuelled environment — are pacing up and down the streets of foreign cities intent on a temporary takeover of that ‘turf’.

It is called ‘ultra culture’, a term so broad it ranges from footwear to flags to fistfights in forests. As Montague explains, it originated in Italy in the 1960s and 70s and mushroomed in the 1980s and 90s. It became an economic force as well as a cultural and sporting expression. It has a meaning in Italy, and a daily effect, deeper than in many other countries.

Montague, author of 1312: Among the Ultras, and someone who has spent time with Lazio’s ultras, including with their former leader Fabrizio Piscitelli, says, “It begins with this word ‘ultra’, which means ‘go beyond’ in Latin, and it finds a position in the psyche of Italy at a very interesting time in Italian history — post-war, a political time, a changing country.

“You get groups finding identities in an increasingly atomised world. It’s based around your club; but there is also this concept of campanilismo, which means your bell-tower — you have an identity with your district and your town above country or city.

“It’s interesting historically, because Italy is a fairly modern construct — it was said around the 1870s that Italy had been made, ‘now we must make Italians’.

“In the late 1960s, you see ultra culture emerging as the modern representation of supporting your bell tower. It was a politically fraught time — The Years of Lead — when you had far-left and far-right terrorism, bombs all across Italy.

“This protest gets dragged into stadiums and you see these flags, this pageantry, maritime flares, the use of the terraces for expression through songs and chants. It evolves through the 1970s and becomes the most fun part of the game to be attached to for many young people; by the 1990s Italy has the best league, the most colourful league, and suddenly people around the world start following it, some watching just for the ultras.

“So it’s a selling point for Serie A, as much as the great Milan team or Lazio with Paul Gascoigne.

“Something that had developed over two decades explodes in the ’90s. It becomes global, the aesthetic, the look, and you get the use of the Italian language — in Indonesia or Morocco for instance, they’ll say they’re on the curva sud or curva nord, it’s capo for leader.”

As the ultra scene grew, so did the influence of those involved. Piscitelli, known as Diabolik, rose through Lazio’s curva nord to lead the group called Irriducibili — roughly, ‘The Indomitable’. They were proudly right-wing in their politics, anti-Semitic, violent and their aggressive presence on the Olympic Stadium’s Curva Nord made them feared outside the club and warily respected inside it.

Lazio’s ultras, the Irriducibili, pay tribute to their former leader Fabrizio Piscitelli (Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“From the 1970s onwards the Lazio ultras take on a far-right, neo-fascist identity,” Montague says. “But you have to understand, in Italy, Fascist politics has never been ostracised as it is in Britain, where it seems like an alien concept.

“The ultras merely reflect the constituency they come from and that can change. Lazio’s have always been to the right, but many others have moved that way over the years. Roma are a great example — in the 1970s and 80s Roma had a distinct left-wing, almost Communist, identity. They were from central Rome which was a Communist hotbed. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Communism became less fashionable, those areas changed. So the identity of the ultras changed.

“One of Roma’s oldest groups is the Fedayn — named after the Palestinian resistance. That tells you about the politics of the time. But they have had to disband.”

The Irriducibili have also had to stand down. This followed Diabolik’s murder in a Rome park in 2019 — shortly before the trip to Glasgow. As Piscitelli, he had been imprisoned for offences such as drug trafficking. He was part of Rome’s organised crime scene.

The physical threat he carried enabled access to Lazio’s training ground. Diabolik once had a meeting with World Cup winner and Lazio captain Alessandro Nesta to question the team’s poor form — unthinkable in Britain — and dealt with the club’s owners over tickets and merchandise.

Montague conveys their logic. “In the 1980s, when the popularity of ultras was on the rise, Lazio’s were one of the first to realise how powerful they are. They see their influence as legitimate. If you look at Italian Sky TV, how are they selling their game? It’s not just through star players, it’s through the atmosphere and that has a dollar value. So why shouldn’t they get a cut? That’s their stance.

“There are videos from the 1990s of the Irriducibili turning up at the training ground as if they’re the teachers and the players are children.”

It is worth re-stating that far from all Lazio fans share or shared this attitude. In the beginning, in 1900, Lazio were a multi-sports club and even when Mussolini made football political in the 1920s, forcing three clubs to merge in Rome — forming AS Roma in 1927 — so the capital would have a sporting power to challenge northern giants such as Juventus, Lazio stayed independent. That said, the fact the club’s major figure, Giorgio Vaccaro, was a senior Fascist helped mollify Mussolini.

In 2018, Lazio signed the dictator’s great-grandson, Romano Floriani Mussolini (now on loan at Serie C side Pescara) but as the march through Glasgow in 2019 showed, the Lazio ultras’ sense of identity has not gone away. This January, their curva was closed as a punishment for ongoing racism, the Laziali responding with an ‘official statement’ pointing out the World Cup had just been held in homophobic Qatar due to “a bribe ring” in football’s corporate world.



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Anti-Fascist and anti-racist stickers distributed by Lazio fan group “Laziale e Antifascista” (From Lazio and Anti-fascist) in 2019 (Andreas Solaro / AFP via Getty Images)

There is a football country where ultra culture has never really taken off — Britain — although Montague argues there is an exception. “Celtic are the one club, in terms of organisation, numbers, power and choreography,” he says. “Celtic’s ultras are considered legitimate.”

The key element of the club’s identity, according to McQuade, is “the Irish aspect. The club was set up entirely by an Irish teaching Brother, often mis-referred to as a priest, called Brother Walfrid. He was Irish and all those who helped found the club were second-generation Irish, without exception.

“Walfrid was a head teacher in Bridgeton (Glasgow) and he realised that if they could provide the kids with food it would encourage poor parents to send their children to school. After a couple of charity football games, he saw this was a way to raise funds for the dinner table. Along with others in the parish, he thought they should set up their own football club.

“The club quickly became known for songs, Irish songs, not overly political. Within a year Celtic supporters started organised travel to away games, which had not been done before — the author David Goldblatt says Celtic fans effectively invented away fans.”

When Lazio’s away fans arrive at Parkhead, they will see a giant portrait of Brother Walfrid hanging beside the main entrance and his legacy of Irishness and charitable works resonates 136 years on.

The statue of Celtic’s founder Brother Walfrid (Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

“Especially for the hardcore, he still matters,” McQuade says of Walfrid. “It was fans who raised the money for the statue (2005), not the club. That was the first statue at Celtic Park. He’s still seen as important, although I think Celtic’s Catholic identity has diluted in recent years, because of secularism more than anything else.”

Celtic have never had the word ‘Glasgow’ in their name, but the club is inseparable from its place. There is a favourite current chant of ‘Celtic, Glasgow oooh-oh’, and fan culture in a football-obsessed city has always been strong.

“It’s a generalisation, but Celtic are seen as Scots-Irish, Catholic, IRA supporters,” says Joe Miller, who has been writing for the Not The View fanzine since 1987. “But these are generalisations, just as there are elements of Lazio’s support who are anti-racist.

“Personally I see us as a Scots-Irish club. We’ve had Irish nationalism at our ground since year dot and some say we’re ‘plastic Paddies’, but many of us are descended from Irish parents and grandparents. There are still a lot of Irish songs sung. But then I’ve many friends who just go to see Celtic play football, they’re not involved in the political side. I totally get that.”

Celtic’s Irish identity meant they were outside the establishment from the beginning and in a left-leaning city, nationally that has been maintained. When their ultra grouping, the Green Brigade, was formed in 2006, they brought high-profile support for issues such as Palestine into the stadium.

“I like to see it,” Miller says. “The Green Brigade mention what the government are doing, racism, food banks — and you’ve 60,000 people there. Maybe everyone doesn’t have the same view, but these are good values.

“And if one young kid sees it and looks into it, then it’s good, it’s education you don’t get elsewhere.”

Miller wore a Gil Heron T-shirt to the last Celtic match — Heron was the father of Gil Scott-Heron and played for Celtic — and cites that as an example of informal education, the punk rock, do-it-yourself ethos.

“Stories like that are great. Music is educational, very much so. Gil Heron and Gil Scott-Heron are still discussed.”

Celtic’s Green Brigade fans arrive for a game against Rangers in 2016 (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The starting of sometimes difficult conversations is why Miller says he thought the Green Brigade’s Mussolini banner in 2019 “was brilliant. It got people talking and I loved that. It puts a public eye on it. There’ll probably be a bit of that again.”

There may well indeed be a bit of it again because as Montague explains, the greatest thing in ultra culture “is to snatch the opposition’s banner, display it upside down on your curve during the game and then burn it.

“If that happens, those who lost their banner are supposed to dissolve. It’s an unwritten rule. The reason Roma’s Fedayn disbanded was because Red Star Belgrade ultras snatched their banner, took it back to Belgrade and burnt it.”

Montague says these unwritten rules can seem “quaint”, but there is nothing soft about the shameful Anne Frank stickers the Irriducibili produced and the antagonism inside Parkhead will be sincere.

“The real feature was the antipathy between the Green Brigade and the Lazio ultras, the Mussolini banner and another saying, ‘F*** off’ in Italian,” says McQuade of the 2019 game which Celtic won 2-1.

“Despite the criticism the Green Brigade get occasionally from supporters, the fact is they carry a massive following among those who go to games, as opposed to those who just watch from home. I never hear criticism of the Green Brigade at games and the amount of Celtic fans who wear Green Brigade merchandise is incredible.

“Of all the clubs in Europe, Lazio are considered to be the most right-wing and since the draw, what I’ve noticed among Celtic fans, even those who wouldn’t be overly political, is them calling Lazio ‘Nazio’.

“I’m thinking, ‘Calm down a wee bit’.”



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“It sounds negative,” Montague says of ultra culture overall, “but in Germany for instance, it’s positive. You see there how the ultras are the gatekeepers of the 50+1 rule. Left, right, centrist ultras — they get together there because they have a common enemy in the establishment.

“You saw Bayern Munich’s ultras in the Champions League protesting against Qatar and the banning of travelling fans. This space in the right circumstances can be progressive politically — look at Celtic. It’s potentially powerful and it could have the rights of fans at its heart — ticket prices for example. It’s sometimes worth seeing ultras as a vessel for young people seeking identity, from left or right.”

Nuance and modern football discourse?

McQuade points out that Paolo Di Canio is an interesting figure for both Celtic and Lazio. A hero to both as a player, McQuade says Di Canio’s Mussolini tattoo would make him unwelcome at Celtic today — “and that wouldn’t just be the Green Brigade” — whereas at Lazio he is revered.

Paolo Di Canio appears to make a far-right salute towards Lazio fans in 2005 (Paolo Cocco/AFP via Getty Images)

“When he was with us, we didn’t fully understand his political views and he kept them quiet,” McQuade adds.

McQuade notes another man born in Rome who links the two clubs — Pope Pius XII. He declared 1950 a Holy Year and a football occasion was seen as part of marking post-war peace. The two clubs selected to face each other in a hands-across-Europe friendly were Lazio and Celtic.

So Celtic’s players travelled to Rome and to the Vatican, where the joke was the Pope got to meet Celtic’s legendary Irish forward Charlie Tully — not the other way round.

So far, so amicable. When the game at the Olympic Stadium kicked off, however, the tenor changed. Two players were sent off and when Lazio made the return trip to Glasgow, Celtic made sure they won, and won well — 4-0.

1950 sounds like ancient history. But a favourite Celtic song contains the line “if you know your history” and, as banners, chants and tattoos prove, when Celtic and Lazio meet, history matters.

(Top photo: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)