Ultras rise to the occasion for a worthy cause

A little bit of football history was made on Sunday when Salernitana played Benevento in Italy’s Serie B.
Ultras rise to the occasion for a worthy cause

The two cities lie either side of Naples — Benevento inland to the North East, Salerno to the South on the coast. Both date back to ancient times and once upon a time were independent states before eventually coming under Neapolitan rule.

So they are united by a resentment and local rivalry that is naturally expressed in football, especially in Italy and above all in Campania, the region that surrounds Naples.

Campania has 26 derbies, some with a history of serious violence, others which have avoided violence only by being played behind closed doors. Salerno’s historic rivalry with Napoli is one of the most bitter, but neither Salernitana nor Benevento have had much occasion to do their stuff on the pitch rather than in the streets.

Salernitana have enjoyed just two years in the top division, 1947 and 1998. Benevento have never made it into Serie B until this season.

Both clubs have suffered bankruptcy and been reformed. Even so they both have a large and amazingly loyal following, both at home and away — always assuming the police don’t prevent them getting to the ground. Which brings us to the Ultras, and to Sunday’s special match, the first time the two sides have played each other at this level.

Ultras have a bad name in Italy, and sometimes for good reason. Ultra groups provide the troops for the choreographed support inside the grounds, but also for orchestrated violence. They twin with groups at other clubs, usually some distance away, and use the twinning as an excuse to join forces and run amok against a common enemy.

Italian football economics have also bred a corrupt relationship between directors and fans at certain clubs. Ultra groups have established an effective franchise for club merchandise, and also a say in ticket distribution. They have become rivals for influence and power within clubs. On occasion they have become linked to criminal organisations, notably in Rome and Naples.

But there is another side to the story, as this season has shown. Vincenzo Melchiorre is a worker at Salerno Sistemi, the local water company, and a “mad keen” Salernitana fan. Last year his wife Simona gave birth to twins, Francesco and Marika, a joyous event that turned to sadness when Francesco was diagnosed with a rare liver disease.

Over the past 18 months the little boy has gone through three operations, one lasting 11 hours, and needs a liver transplant to survive. Medical care is all covered by the health service, but the hospitals concerned are up north, in Turin and Brescia, and the family has to cover all the other costs. Enter the Ultras. Back in July there was an appeal for financial help from local fans and there has been a huge response, including a benefit match organised by fans in Brescia, a club which by chance is twinned with Salernitana.

Last week the campaign was stepped up with a second benefit match, between Salernitana fans and players, and an appeal led by their new captain Alessandro Rosina and new manager Giuseppe Sannino, once — briefly — at Watford.

A collection at the game raised €12,000 for the cause, and among the highlights was a visit by a delegation of Ultras from Benevento, who pledged their support in advance of the derby. Over 13,000 fans turned out in the pouring rain to watch Sunday’s match, including a couple of thousand from Benevento, who arrived slightly late after being delayed by police en route. In keeping with the build-up the game felt like a celebration, despite the weather. Both sets of supporters were in full voice, the visitors buoyed by a great start to the season which has taken them to third place in the table.

Salernitana by contrast have been struggling, but the players rose to the occasion, scoring twice in an excellent first-half, and finishing 2-1 winners. At the end the fans applauded both teams off the pitch.

One of those occasions when football shows how it can rise above graft and self-interest and bring people together.

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