As the Curva Nord chastise their Captain Mauro Icardi, the Gentleman Ultra looks back at his own experiences with the Ultras of the Nerazzurri
I can’t remember the restaurant’s name. It was a grey Monday afternoon and we had rushed from the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, from an interview with Giuseppe Bergomi, to a little place not far away.
Despite being captivated by one of Inter’s iconic captains for over the allotted hour, and the thrill of being able to film with Mario Corso also, the main thought in my mind was "Don’t be late, by God don’t be late".
I had been shooting a short film with the Guardian, ‘Internazionale: The revival of a fallen giant,’ and we had been given permission to speak with Franco Caravita, one of the main men in Inter’s Curva Nord. He shook my hand outside on the street and then walked through a crowded restaurant (everybody knew him) and went into a darkened room below.
The empty restaurant below was small and oozed character, which was magnified by the middle-aged man with glasses who amazingly commanded a great presence. His persona seemed to be a cross between a spokesman, organiser, historian and altogether well-rounded business man. He spoke eloquently and passionately about how well organised the Curva were, and they truly understood what it meant to be an Interisti.
This was a man who was taking the Ultras in Milan into the modern day, and he expected them to still hold influence despite the change in ownership. Soon he would be proven right.
I had heard little from or about Franco after that, until the debacle that played out over this weekend in Milan.
Then came this: "In principle, we’re against this decision, we need to see what the club’s reasons are," Franco Caravita told SportItalia. "Icardi the player is dead to us. We hope he’ll withdraw this book, and then that would probably close the matter for us.
"Until the day before yesterday he greeted me, and hid that he wanted me killed. There are some things in life that a man can’t bear. So if he’s a real man, he’ll withdraw the book, but given the attitude he has I don’t think he will."
The situation Franco was referring to was the incident between Icardi and members of the Curva Nord. Back at the Mapei Stadium in 2015, the striker passed a child in the crowd a shirt and apologised for the loss. The shirt was taken by a Capo Ultra and thrown back at the striker before insults were exchanged. Over the years that followed, the incident seemed to have fizzled out fairly quickly, but with the publication of the 23-year-old's book Sempre Avanti, he recounted how he was disgusted with the Ultras, and how he was lauded as a hero for standing up to them by his team mates. His rage at the time was recorded, as he reportedly said:
"How many of them are there? Fifty? A hundred? Two hundred? OK, record my message and let them hear it. I will bring 100 criminals from Argentina who will kill them on the spot."
Icardi noted in the publication that he may have been a little dramatic in his words, but he will undoubtedly regret them. Even in his open letter, issued as a reply to one by the Curva Nord, he admitted as much. The banners labelled him "a bastard" and said: "You use a child to justify yourself and throw mud in our faces. You’re not a man … you’re not a captain … you’re just a cowardly piece of sh*t", were there for all to see.
He would see even more when he returned home, as 40 or so of the Curva Nord had placed more banners saying that "we are here and waiting for your Argentine friends." With all the advertising, money, glitz and glamour of Serie A, it was clear that, even today, lot of power sits with the Ultras.
The Ultras' influence was apparent during a game against Torino a decade ago. Image: Tony Marshall EMPICS Sport
The personal experiences I have had in Milan and on the Curva Nord have showcased the power of the Ultra groups over the years, and it is no surprise that things have not changed. Although the stories are many and varied, two come to mind above all others.
In the Internazionale v Torino game in 2006-07, the Nerazzurri were two goals up (they would go on to win 3-0). A penalty from Marco Materazzi and a superb goal from Maicon had sent the San Siro into raptures. Then Internazionale won a second penalty in front of the Curva Nord.
Materazzi placed the ball on the spot; he was the penalty-taker for this game after all. It was also evident to the Boys San on the Curva, that this might be Luís Figo's last game, as he was considering leaving for the Middle East and they wanted to honour him. Messages were passed round as one of the Ultras in front said something in Italian. What happened next was incredible.
The entire stadium in unison erupted with the chant "Luís Figo, rest in Milano" (that was the translation from the man on my right) over and over again. This was done with such passion that Figo stopped an applauded. Moments later, the chant rose again, but changed, and this time I couldn't understand it. These moments are so well orchestrated that if they change immediately, they do not filter through.
While I was battling with understanding the new chorus, Materazzi looked up, moved away from the penalty spot and began applauding. He pointed to Figo, then at the Curva and then he walked away. The Curva had demanded Figo take the penalty, and he wasn't going to argue.
When he scored, he celebrated only with us and in a soundtrack of fireworks and cheers. Figo went on to stay with Internazionale until 2009, partly because of José Mourinho's arrival, but I also think partly because of the fans.
Another incident took place in the season just finished against Sampdoria in Milan. After a disappointing 1-1 draw, a good friend of mine in an Ultra group bought me a drink after the game in the bar near Gate One. He knew I had traveled a long way, and was a bit disappointed with the match. He beckoned for me to follow him. He walked to the entrance of the underground car park (players only) and passed through fans, security and then the media.
Nodding and waving to various people, we walked unquestioned, through the police into the car park and to my astonishment, accidentally ignored Marco Andreolli, the Internazionale centre-back. While I was looking back at Andreolli, my friend shouted "Il Capitano" and waved.
Incredibly, Javier Zanetti responded with his name, and came over to us so I could speak to him. We were not the only people around, and players and their families happily conversed with leaders of the main Ultra group outside of the stadium. How did this happen? How have these groups been formed and what power do they hold at the club?
Their history has now become even more important, and was amplified again this weekend. The fact that this latest incident has seen Zanetti (now the Technical Director at the club) and the Suning Investment Group seemingly back their fans and punish Icardi - seemingly to make an example of him - represents the power they hold in modern day Italian Football.
Franco did say, on the restaurant on that grey Monday afternoon, that players, coaches, boards and presidents come and go but the Curva is the only constant. I suppose, in some way, he is right.