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


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

Now, switching gears from historical events to the present, when Celtic hosts Lazio tonight in a Champions League match, the legacy of Benito Mussolini and his name will once again take center stage. While this may seem like an unusual introduction to a football match, it’s essential to highlight that the clash between Celtic and Lazio goes beyond the game itself; it represents a confrontation of two distinct fan cultures.

When these two clubs faced off in the Europa League four years ago, Lazio ultras caused controversy by marching through Glasgow and making Fascist salutes. Their actions took an unexpected turn when they arrived at Celtic’s stadium, Parkhead, only to find a local banner featuring an upside-down image of Mussolini with the words “Follow Your Leader.”

Celtic vs Lazio

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

From my recollection, the reaction within the stadium was one of celebration,” remarks Paul McQuade, who oversees the Celtic-curated Shamrock website. “It featured Mussolini, aimed to unsettle Lazio fans, and aligned the support with anti-fascism. It was well-received.”

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

In the realm of football fan politics across Europe, there exists a spectrum of opinions, with Celtic and Lazio occupying opposite ends. While acknowledging that discussing large fan bases inevitably involves generalizations, we can assert that Celtic supporters lean towards the leftish side of this spectrum, while Lazio’s fanbase tends to align more with the far right. Of course, there are individuals with varying political leanings in between, but their voices can often be drowned out in the midst of passionate gatherings of predominantly young and middle-aged men, fueled by a testosterone-charged atmosphere, as they traverse the streets of foreign cities, seeking to temporarily claim that ‘turf’.

This phenomenon is known as ‘ultra culture,’ a term encompassing a wide spectrum of elements, ranging from fashion to flags to forest brawls. As Montague explains, it originated in Italy during the 1960s and 70s, experiencing significant growth in the 1980s and 90s. Ultra culture transcended being merely a cultural and sporting expression; it also became an economic force. In Italy, it carries a depth of meaning and daily impact that surpasses that found in many other countries.

Montague, the author of “1312: Among the Ultras,” who has spent time with Lazio’s ultras, including their former leader Fabrizio Piscitelli, provides insights into its origins: “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.”

He further explains the concept of “campanilismo,” which emphasizes local identity above national or city identity: “You get groups finding identities in an increasingly atomized 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.”

Montague highlights the historical context: “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.'”

He continues to describe the emergence of ultra culture in the late 1960s as a representation of supporting one’s bell tower and its evolution throughout the 1970s. By the 1990s, Italy had the best league with the most colorful fan culture, drawing global attention and followers who were fascinated by the ultras.

“So it’s a selling point for Serie A, as much as the great Milan team or Lazio with Paul Gascoigne,” Montague notes. “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 culture expanded, so did the influence of those involved. Figures like Fabrizio Piscitelli, known as Diabolik, climbed the ranks to lead groups like Lazio’s Irriducibili, who were known for their right-wing politics, anti-Semitic views, violence, and intimidating presence in the Olympic Stadium’s Curva Nord.

Celtic vs Lazio

From the 1970s onwards, Lazio’s ultras, known as the Irriducibili, adopted a far-right, neo-fascist identity, as explained by James Montague. It’s essential to understand that in Italy, unlike Britain, fascist politics has never been entirely ostracized, and it has remained part of the political landscape.The political identity of ultras can change over time, reflecting the constituency they come from. Montague cites the example of AS Roma, which in the 1970s and 80s had a left-wing, almost Communist identity due to its location in central Rome, a Communist stronghold. However, as political landscapes shifted globally, so did the identity of the ultras. This transformation is exemplified by one of Roma’s oldest groups, the Fedayn, named after the Palestinian resistance, which reflected the politics of its time but eventually disbanded.

The Irriducibili, too, have undergone significant changes. Their former leader, Fabrizio Piscitelli, known as Diabolik, was murdered in 2019, shortly before their trip to Glasgow. Piscitelli had a criminal background, including involvement in drug trafficking and connections to Rome’s organized crime scene. His influence allowed him access to Lazio’s training ground, where he even held meetings with players and the club’s owners.

In the 1980s, Lazio’s ultras, among the first to realize their power and influence, saw their role as legitimate. They recognized the financial value of the atmosphere they created at matches and believed they deserved a share of it. This perspective led them to engage with the club’s management over various matters, including tickets and merchandise.

Notably, not all Lazio fans share or shared the ultras’ far-right attitudes. Lazio has a complex history, with its initial independence from Mussolini’s political influence. Nevertheless, figures like Giorgio Vaccaro, a senior Fascist, played a role in maintaining a relationship between the club and Mussolini.

Despite efforts to distance themselves from their far-right past, the identity of the Lazio ultras has persisted. Their curva was closed as a punishment for ongoing racism, and they responded with an ‘official statement’ criticizing FIFA’s decision to hold the World Cup in Qatar due to what they described as a “bribe ring” in football’s corporate world.

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Celtic vs Lazio
Celtic vs Lazio
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)

Unlike in many other countries, ultra culture has never fully taken hold in Britain. However, there is an exception to this, and it’s Celtic Football Club. According to James Montague, who has studied ultras extensively, “Celtic’s ultras are considered legitimate” in terms of organization, numbers, power, and choreography.

The core element of Celtic’s identity, as explained by Paul McQuade, is its Irish aspect. The club was founded by Brother Walfrid, an Irish teaching Brother (often mistakenly referred to as a priest). Brother Walfrid and those who helped establish the club were all of second-generation Irish descent.

Brother Walfrid’s motivation for founding the club was rooted in charity and community. He was a head teacher in Bridgeton, Glasgow, and recognized that providing children with food would encourage impoverished parents to send their kids to school. After organizing charity football games, Brother Walfrid and others in the parish decided to establish their own football club.

Celtic quickly became known for its songs, primarily Irish songs that were not overtly political. Within a year, Celtic supporters began organized travel to away games, a practice that was unprecedented at the time. According to author David Goldblatt, Celtic fans effectively pioneered the concept of away fans.

When Lazio’s away fans arrive at Celtic’s stadium, Parkhead, they will encounter a large portrait of Brother Walfrid hanging beside the main entrance. Brother Walfrid’s legacy, marked by Irishness and charitable work, continues to resonate 136 years after Celtic’s founding.

Celtic vs Lazio

Brother Walfrid, the founder of Celtic Football Club, continues to hold significance, particularly among hardcore fans. The money for Brother Walfrid’s statue, erected in 2005, was raised by fans rather than the club itself. While Celtic’s Catholic identity has somewhat diluted over the years due to secularism, Brother Walfrid remains an important figure for the club.Celtic, despite not having ‘Glasgow’ in their name, is deeply connected to the city. The club’s fan culture thrives in Glasgow, a city passionate about football. The chant “Celtic, Glasgow oooh-oh” exemplifies this connection. Joe Miller, a long-time contributor to the Not The View fanzine, acknowledges that while Celtic is often associated with being Scots-Irish, Catholic, and IRA supporters, these are generalizations. Many fans have diverse backgrounds and motivations for supporting the club.

Celtic’s Irish identity has positioned them outside the establishment from the start, and the club has maintained a left-leaning stance, aligning with the political sentiment of Glasgow. The Green Brigade, Celtic’s ultra group formed in 2006, has used the stadium as a platform to support various issues, such as Palestine. This activism is appreciated by fans like Joe Miller, who see it as a means of raising awareness and educating young fans.

Miller points to examples like wearing a Gil Heron T-shirt to the last Celtic match, highlighting the influence of music and cultural references as a form of informal education. Gil Heron, who played for Celtic, was the father of Gil Scott-Heron, a renowned musician and activist. Such stories and references serve as educational opportunities for fans and connect the worlds of music and football.

Celtic fan Joe Miller believes that the Green Brigade’s controversial Mussolini banner in 2019 was brilliant because it sparked difficult conversations and put a public spotlight on important issues. He anticipates that such actions may recur.Ultra culture often involves the act of stealing the opposition’s banner, displaying it upside down on your side during the game, and then burning it. If this happens, the group that lost their banner is expected to disband as an unwritten rule of ultras culture.

James Montague, an expert on ultras culture, acknowledges that these unwritten rules may seem quaint, but there’s a dark side to it, as seen with the offensive Anne Frank stickers produced by Lazio’s Irriducibili ultras. The tension and animosity between the Green Brigade and the Lazio ultras, evident in incidents like the Mussolini banner, are real and sincere.

During the 2019 game between Celtic and Lazio, the antagonism was palpable. Celtic ultimately won the match 2-1, but the atmosphere was charged due to the political undertones. While some criticize the Green Brigade occasionally, they still command a substantial following among match-going fans. Even fans who aren’t overly political have been using the term “Nazio” to describe Lazio, highlighting the deep-seated animosity between the two fanbases.

Paul McQuade, who curates the Shamrock website for Celtic, suggests that while the passion of Celtic fans is admirable, it’s important to maintain perspective and not let it escalate too far.

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“It can sound negative,” Montague remarks about ultra culture in general, “but in Germany, for instance, it’s viewed as positive. You can see there how ultras act as gatekeepers of the 50+1 rule. Whether they are left-wing, right-wing, or centrist ultras, they come together because they have a common adversary in the establishment.

“In the case of Bayern Munich’s ultras, they protested against issues like Qatar and the banning of traveling fans during the Champions League. This space, in the right circumstances, can be politically progressive. Look at Celtic; it’s a potential platform for powerful movements that prioritize fan rights, such as affordable ticket prices. Sometimes, ultras can serve as a channel for young people seeking identity, regardless of their political leanings.”

Nuanced perspectives are emerging in modern football discourse.

McQuade highlights Paolo Di Canio as an intriguing figure for both Celtic and Lazio. Di Canio, once a hero for both clubs as a player, now carries a Mussolini tattoo, making him unwelcome at Celtic today, not just among the Green Brigade, while at Lazio, he is revered.

“When he was with us, we didn’t fully understand his political views, and he kept them quiet,” McQuade adds.McQuade also highlights another individual born in Rome who links the two clubs — Pope Pius XII. He declared 1950 a Holy Year, and a football event was considered a part of marking post-war peace. The two clubs chosen to face each other in a hands-across-Europe friendly were Lazio and Celtic.

Celtic’s players traveled to Rome and visited the Vatican, where the joke was that the Pope got to meet Celtic’s legendary Irish forward Charlie Tully — not the other way around.

Initially, things appeared amicable. However, when the game kicked off at the Olympic Stadium, the atmosphere changed. Two players were sent off, and when Lazio made the return trip to Glasgow, Celtic made sure they won convincingly, 4-0.

While 1950 may seem like ancient history, one of Celtic’s favorite songs contains the line “if you know your history,” and as banners, chants, and tattoos demonstrate, history matters when Celtic and Lazio meet.

(Top photo: Getty Images;)


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