calcio è al cuore di tutto - football is at the heart of everything.
Wise words from the 95-year-old regular at my local coffee bar,
where I stopped off every morning on my way to Sampdoria's
training ground. He meant that in Italy, politics, religion,
business and even relationships were governed by events on the
In A Season with Verona, Tim Parks takes us through all
aspects of football in Italy, and examines what it shows us
about the national character. He captures very well the passion,
the bravado, and the downright rudeness, though he
occasionally stretches the truth - in line with the perceptions of
many Italians themselves - as to the advantages that big teams,
such as Juventus, Milan, Internazionale, Roma and Lazio, are
given over their less illustrious adversaries. Historic stories of
match-rigging and biased refereeing decisions have been passed
down through generations of supporters of provincial teams such
The truth is probably less exotic: these clubs have better
players, and are therefore entitled to win more, though it is true
that they also have "bigger" presidents who have more political
clout. But in my four years in Italy I can honestly say that I was
never exposed to any football-related scandal, either against me
at Bari or Sampdoria, or for me at the more powerful Juventus.
But enough of the preaching. Parks's account of a season
travelling with his club in Italy's Serie A gives insights into all
levels of Italian football culture: he infiltrates the club hierarchy,
mingles with the "normal" supporters and, with more passion,
becomes a "Brigate", a member of the club's diehard fans - in
Italy known as the "Ultras". The key to the book is that Parks
gets you involved, while offering different things to different sorts
You could enjoy it as an evocative piece of travel writing. I
myself, being of an addictive nature, read it as an Ultra. I had
been long enough away from Serie A not to know where Verona
finished in the league this year and, although I yearned to look
at the back page to find out if they had managed to have a good
season, I resisted the temptation, for fear of ruining the emotions
you feel as you are carried from game to game, looking at the
league table at the end of each chapter. Parks manages to
entwine the seriousness of Italian life with the "seriousness" of
Italian football extremely well. He understands the most
important fact of life in Italy - that without taking football into
account, you cannot understand what passes for normality in
almost every Italian household.
At the provincial clubs such as Verona, all supporters think that
every facet of Italian politics and officialdom is against them.
This goes way beyond the pitch: believing that they are
considered to be the poor relations in life, they rally against
power and money. It is ironic, therefore, that these resentful
people can associate so freely with the players themselves,
revering them as gods, oblivious to the fact that their heroes are
earning money and gaining power that they can only dream of.
I had one taste of this extreme form of hero-worship. Suspended
for a game, ironically against Verona, while I was playing for
Bari, I was invited to watch the game with the supporters in their
curva (end). My dilemma was that the president of the club had
also asked me to sit next to him to watch the game. I made the
tactical decision to spend just 15 minutes with the supporters,
before taking my seat next to the president. For this simple act,
I am now given a hero's welcome whenever I revisit Bari. It made
me a Bari Ultra.
I had the same affinity with the Sampdoria supporters, but could
never really manage it at Juventus. Was this because I didn't
play particularly well or because, at clubs like Juventus, the
supporters are used to winning? Hard to pin down, yet the
warmth shown by the provincials was much greater than that
shown by the big club.
Whether you buy this book as a football fan wishing to know
more about Serie A, or to learn of Italian life and culture, I am
sure you will not be disappointed. By the end of it, you will
understand why my coffee-bar friend was so sure that il calcio è
al cuore di tutto.
David Platt is a former England captain and is currently manager
of the under-21 team. He played in Italy for four years.
In many respects, all football hooligans are alike but none, surely, is
as complex as the Italian
hooligan. Tim Parks, who alternates fiction with quirky commentaries on
his adopted country
(Italian Neighbours, An Italian Education) is more sensitive than most
to their peculiar,
puzzling and, bizarrely, endearing characteristics, having spent the 2000-2001
following the ebbing fortunes of Verona, a low-hope club, like Hearts or
Partick Thistle, who
are the perennial makeweights of SŽrie A, Italy's premier league.
Early in the campaign, Parks recalls returning by train from Vicenza, where
a draw against their local rivals. A teenager rushed into the compartment,
slammed down the
window and hurled abuse at the rank of policemen standing only a few yards
Worms! Turds! Communists! Go f*** yourselves!' he yelled. In normal circumstances,
Parks, if a young man were to do this in the street in a northern Italian
town, he would be
arrested immediately. But on this occasion the police stared back impassively.
Slavs! Kurds! Bastards! Terroni!'
The youth was nothing if not persistent as he ran through his thesaurus
of insults. Then he
realised his mobile phone -- his telephonino -- was ringing. He pulled
it out of his jacket pocket
and, in a sweet voice, devoid of tension or anger, said: 'No, Mamma, we're
still in the station
at Vicenza. No, we didn't have much homework this weekend. I've already
finished.' As the
train pulled away, he put his hand over the phone and gave the police another
volley of abuse.
'Sorry, Mamma,' he said, 'the butei [supporters] are making a bit of a
racket. We're just
leaving the station now, so if you put on the pasta round, what, 6.30,
I should be back when
it's cooked. Ciao, Mamma.'
That, in a nutshell, rather sums up Italy, a country where emotions are
turned on and off like
gas. Parks, however, is not an impartial observer, an anthropologist with
a government grant
sent to study the animals cavorting on the terracings. Unashamedly, he
is one of them, a
rabid, zealous convert to Verona's cause. Over the course of the year,
he religiously follows a
team whose only raison d'tre is survival. Come the end of the
season, they will not be
challenging the likes of Inter Milan or Juventus for a place in the Champions
League. The best
they can hope for is to avoid the drop into the dreaded Serie B -- purgatorio
would then allow the possibility of the unthinkable, a further descent
in the Serie C
inferno. Their aim is to remain in Serie A -- paradiso.
It all starts promisingly enough with a trip to Bari in the deep south
of the country. Parks
turns up at midnight at the Zanzibar, a cafŽ bar on the outskirts
of the town, for the
550-mile trip. Only the hardcore supporters, the brigate, are prepared
to make such a long
journey. Drugged and drunk, their obscenities word perfect despite the
summer hiatus, they
are literally fighting fit. Any sleep is out of the question. Such conversation
as there is on the
bus centres on the case of a man called Marsiglia, a Uruguayan Jew born
to Italian parents
who was fired from a local school claiming racism and alleging he had been
To the rest of the country, this confirms what they think of Verona and
its inhabitants. They
are incorrigibly racist, uncultured bigots, workaholics, crude and gross.
As Parks points out,
while the tourists ponder the splendour of 'one of the few places in the
world that has
managed to preserve the centuries-old elegance of an impeccable Renaissance
everyone else has written off this part of the peninsula as 'a national
disgrace, a pocket of
the most loathsome and backward right-wing dogmatism.'
In part at least, the accusations can be explained by rabid local rivalries
which in a young
country like Italy are still intense. In part, too, they have a historical
basis. And in part,
there is no smoke without fire. But they are also, as Parks patiently explains,
a figment of a
biased media's imagination, a handy stereotype with which to beat one's
Unpicking Marsiglia's story, which the newspapers neglected to do when
it first surfaced, it is
revealed that his account is seriously flawed. He has invented his persecution
attention from his lack of qualifications.
But to the regulars of the curva, Verona's equivalent of the Kop, the story
is merely a
diversion from the main attraction. To these people, whose lives are measured
out in the
weekly results, the performance of their team of hasbeens and wannabes
is everything: life,
death and bottles of potent limoncello.
To the brigate, Parks is known as parroco -- parish priest. To be given
a nickname, however
insulting, shows that after living in Italy for 20 years he is accepted.
It is a mark of respect;
now he is a fellow traveller, supporter and sufferer. And how Verona make
their fans suffer.
Their habit is to score early and hang on, a northern trait. In contrast,
southern teams such
as Lecce and Reggina only come to life late in the game. It is symbolic
of the country as a
whole, suggests Parks, almost convincingly.
As the season progresses, it looks as if Verona are heading for purgatorio.
They are in a
dogfight to avoid relegation. What makes it worse is that Chievo, with
whom they share a
ground, look as if they will be promoted from SŽrie B. Meanwhile,
the coach is reading
Ken Follett. For comfort or inspiration? Can things get any worse?
They can't get any more complicated, that's for sure. With one game of
the league left, any
one of five teams could be relegated. It's Judgement Day. All watches are
ensure all games start at the same time to ensure nobody has an unfair
advantage. Parks can
barely bear to watch. His enthusiasm and knowledge are conspicuous on every
As the league progress he sucks us in, until -- absurdly -- we want at
the end to be with the
brigate, part of the collective outpouring of unadulterated emotion, as
they chant -- to the
tune of Guantanemera -- 'Non si capisce ma come parlate' ('We can't understand
what the f***
you're saying'). They are nutters and he's a nutter but, for 90 minutes,
anything goes. It's a
game of multiple epiphanies.
'Please don't write a sad book about football,' Verona's marketing man
implored Parks. He may
rest assured he hasn't.
of the pleasures of being a football fan is that it gives you a
faith. This is implicit in the word: 'fan' comes from the Latin
fanaticus, meaning 'a worshipper'. Your team is your god, and
on match-days you become a fundamentalist - you become
what Tim Parks calls 'a weekend Taliban'.
It's an alluringly uncomplicated faith, too. Cast in the Manichean
light of fandom, the world divides neatly in two: two halves, two
teams, two goals. Right and wrong are marvellously clarified; as
distinguishable as the colours of the players' shirts.
Tim Parks, who has been a fan of Hellas Verona for nearly 20
years, is contemporary English literature's Italian connection. He
lives with his Italian family in Verona, and he writes, translates
and broadcasts in both Italian and English.
In English alone, since 1997 he has published three collections
of essays, two novels - including the Booker-shortlisted Europa -
a travelogue, and three translated novels, as well as a torrent of
journalism. He seems able, as Martin Amis observed of the even
more prolific John Updike, to blurt out a book before breakfast.
In early 2000, Parks decided that he would travel to every Hellas
match in the upcoming season, home and away, and write
about his experiences (this is more of a time commitment than
it sounds: Italy is a long country).
With the aim of better understanding 'how people relate to
football... how they dream this dream at once so intense and so
utterly unimportant', he also decided to spend much of his
match-time with the self-styled brigate gialloblù - the
'yellow-and-blue brigade', the hardcore Verona fans who turn
matches into a 24-hour carnival of substance abuse, barracking,
Parks would join the tribe, in other words: the anthropologist
would go native. A Season With Verona is the result of this total
immersion. There were 34 matches in the season, there are 34
chapters in the book. Each chapter combines an account of a
match with Parksian musings on crowd psychology, nationhood,
authority, influence and all the other ideas that make up the
myth of football.
After each chapter/match are printed the results of Serie A
across the board, and Verona's consequent position in the
league table. Quickly, even if you don't know anything about
Hellas, and even though the season in question wound up a year
ago, you start to care about what happens in the next game.
Almost irresistibly, you become a Hellas supporter.
In Serie A terms, Hellas are a struggling team. In 1985, 'the year
of the miracle', they won the scudetto, the league title. Since
then, however, they have been commuting back and forth
between Serie B and Serie A.
Failure is in its way as powerful a gelling agent as success, and
Hellas's sustained poor form partly explains why their fan-base
is renowned for being so tight-knit and so ultra - so extreme.
Hellas fans are the pariahs of Italian football, deplored
countrywide for their racism and vandalism. This antipathy
serves only to consolidate their group identity, however: the
brigate thrive on an inverted elitism, proud to be the worst of the
Parks admits early on in the book that the brigate are 'not a
savoury bunch'. Too right. They make monkey-noises whenever
a black opposition player touches the ball. They sing celebratory
songs about the Juventus supporters killed at Heysel. They
compose admiring hymns to murderers and serial rapists. The
question Parks wants to answer in his book is why? Why do
they do these things, when the team itself - composed of
imported players, none of whom is a native of Verona - is so
remote from their lives? Why does fandom activate such a
ferocious rush of feelings in people?
One answer, of course, is that it neuters boredom, that
definingly modern disorder. Being fanatical makes life interesting
again. Among the brigate boys we get to know is Forza, who
works with disabled children during the week, and then gets
pissed up, coked up and beaten up every match-day. He clearly
loves the elation of transgression (though he wouldn't call it
that): of having a weekend Hyde to his weekday Jekyll.
Another answer is that following a team offers what Parks calls
'the close ties of an undying community'; a pseudo-family. 'Can
we imagine a fan on his own?' Parks asks. No, of course not.
Fans only exist in the plural, unified by chant and slogan. Forza
and all the other feckless members of the brigate love being part
of a gang, a tribe, a crowd; they love being assimilated into a
Parks himself is to a degree assimilated by the brigate. In the
brilliant first chapter of the book, in which he describes travelling
by coach with the fans to see Hellas play Bari away, there is a
distinct gap between the mania of the fans, and Parks's
detached account of it (to pass time on the bus, he notes dryly,
'they insult the driver and then sing, mainly in praise of deviant
behaviour'). But as the season wears on, this gap narrows.
Parks starts to lose his moral perspective on the brigate 's
One moment exemplifies this. En route to an away game
against Napoli, the train stops briefly in Bologna. A brigate
member named Nato gets off, and first insults and then assaults
a man who is kissing his girlfriend goodbye on the platform. The
way Parks tells it, Nato is just a boy being a boy. He's not of
course: he's a thug who's ruined someone's life for a while.
Parks never loses his power elegantly to analyse the 'dream' of
football, but his power to criticise some of its collateral effects
This doesn't diminish the book; it makes it even more
interesting. A Season With Verona is addictive reading, for its
acute cultural criticism, for Parks's ability to evoke the 'choral
pandemonium' of live football, and for its brilliant narrative rhythm
- each chapter is a short story, the whole book an epic. With the
wind of the World Cup in its sails, this will undoubtedly and
deservedly be Parks's biggest success to date.
First, a disclaimer: I am not a soccer fan. To
my mind, the 90 minutes it takes to watch or
play a match is 90 minutes of my life I'll never
I am, however, a fan of Tim Parks, and would
willingly spend hours following him through the
most arcane minutiae of the Bulgarian tax code
if that's what he chose to write about. Since
Parks is the object of my literary affection, and
soccer is the subject of his latest book, "A
Season with Verona," it was inevitable I would
find myself reading about Italy's national
pastime; despite my utter indifference to the
sport, I even expected to enjoy the experience — Parks is, after all, a
essayist who combines a first-rate intellect with a coruscating prose style.
But what I never imagined possible was how completely I would end up
identifying with the fortunes of the team, Hellas Verona, and its obsessive,
foul-mouthed, occasionally violent, perennially disappointed but unflaggingly
loyal fan club, the Brigate Gialloblù.
Parks makes it clear early on that supporting Hellas
Verona is a masochistic endeavor from the get-go.
Describing a particularly painful moment of
reckoning when his team is down 3-1 against the
superior Parma team, he admits: "I have embarked,
over a period of some years now, in supporting a second-rate provincial
wit Hellas Verona F.C., something I am no doubt doing to satisfy all kinds
infantile dreams which hardly bear investigation. And now the side is letting
down. The boys are making a fool of me." Then, in a series of miraculous
Verona wins and he is hooked again.
As the season progresses, however, agony vastly outweighs ecstasy:
are injured or sold; the coach is a disaster; the referees are biased;
teams than Verona have better luck and midway through the year, it looks
Hellas Verona might slip from Series A competition to the purgatory of
As Parks accompanies the increasingly despondent Brigate Gialloblù
game, away and at home, his book alternates between white-knuckle
descriptions of particular matches (including the Brigate's bellicose antics),
more cerebral meditations on everything from politics to religion.
Parks, who has lived in Italy for more than 20 years, uses soccer to illuminate
the forces at play there: Scratch the surface of this modern nation and
discover a fractious collection of ancient city-states whose denizens identify
themselves not as Italian, but as Roman, Florentine, Milanese. Nowhere
more apparent than in the soccer stadium, as the Brigate hurl invective
opposition and receive it in return. Each insult is carefully crafted to
maximum outrage, drawing on whatever events, legends or characteristics
pertain to a particular town: in Vincenza they are magnagati — cat-eaters;
Turin, gobbi, or hunchbacks. The Brigate's epithets range from the offensive
the obscene — certainly you'll learn words here you don't find in the average
Italian/English phrase book.
Yet Parks manages to translate not only the sense of the words, but
sensibility that underlies them: To the boys of the Gialloblù, soccer
business, but they never forget that life itself is just a game.
But "A Season with Verona" is about much more than soccer. Parks himself
refers to it as a "travel book" — a bit of a misnomer unless one considers
Divine Comedy" a travel book. One doesn't have to read far, however, before
begins to dawn that, like a modern-day Virgil, Parks is leading us on a
that goes far beyond the fortunes of Hellas Verona and into universal issues
race, class, faith, patriotism, politics, identity, and yes, sport. When
it comes to
the passions that ignite us, he suggests, from Burma to Bogota, we are
sport gets the literature it deserves. Baseball gets the magic realism
W.P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe and Bernard Malamud's The Natural.
Basketball, a game of superstars and individual artistry, lends itself
self-centeredness of the memoir: Bill Bradley's Life on the Run, Wilt
Chamberlain's A View From Above. And football -- well, football has no
literature. The shelf of soccer books is not so long, either. But over
it has become clear that the sport's ideal literary approach is something
the social realism of Zola.
This journalistic mode can capture the outrages of hooligans, the decrepitude
of skyboxless stadiums with the least sanitary bathrooms on the planet,
the brutal fouling on the pitch. No book embodies this spirit more perfectly
than Bill Buford's incredible 1992 account of English fandom gone awry,
Among the Thugs. And it is the spirit of dozens of other recent works,
including the novelist Tim Parks's nonfictional A Season With Verona.
Parks's book recounts a year spent with the brigate gialloblu (the
yellow-blue brigade), a particularly passionate fan club of the Italian
Hellas Verona. He picked his subject because he's lived in fair Verona
nearly two decades. But he also picked the brigate because it has achieved
infamy beyond the city's borders. The Italian press loves to depict its
members as the most racist, most violent fans on the continent.
In the course of a normal season, the brigate's antics make for compelling,
frightening narrative. They battle with police, make monkey noises when
players touch the ball, sing in praise of murder and rape and sexually
every female in their path. But Parks lucked into an especially riveting
in which to hang around Hellas. Filled with has-beens and unformed youthful
talent, the team is bad, one of the worst in the league. And in European
soccer, the race to avoid being at the bottom is as intense as the race
to be at
the top: Every year the Italians banish the top-flight division's four
clubs to the Serie B -- equivalent to the minor leagues.
Describing life among these thugs, Parks's book attempts a surprising feat:
redeem the brigate from its critics. Amid his travels, he even becomes
the hooligans himself. The brigate initiates him in its banter, calling
parocco, which means parish priest. In a way, the moniker fits perfectly:
Parks considers the brigate a religious community -- devoted, unable to
explain that devotion, lost in transcendent song. His admiration leads
conclude that they don't really mean all those racist slurs. Indeed, they
subversives with a terrific sense of humor and an awareness of their
foolishness. "It is the liberal press they are against," he writes, "the
p.c. of contemporary society."
"The brigate are vocally racist," he argues, "mainly in order to prolong
quarrel with the pieties-that-be." It's not a very persuasive explanation
vulgarity. (In fact, Parks goes overboard in their defense, referring to
strange and exhilarating cocktail of theatrical transgression and studied
an intense sense of community always ready to defend itself with
self-parody"). But his empathy pays off. It allows him to turn the hooligans
into oddly likable, fully drawn characters. One of them works with disabled
children during the week. Others call their mothers on mobile phones,
moments after taunting immigrants.
In any event, it doesn't do justice to A Season With Verona to dwell on
Parks's portrayal of hooliganism. In every chapter, he digresses in strange
interesting directions. He untangles the confusing case of a Jewish
schoolteacher who claims to have been beaten by the brigate. He spends
chapter spinning a clever exegesis of a poem by the 19th-century writer
Giacomo Leopardi, explicating it as a theory of the soccer fan's passion.
Another section transfers the insights of early 20th-century anthropology
the chauvinism of an ethnically homogeneous city like Verona. Indeed, Parks
is strongest when he acts as anthropologist himself, explaining the Italians
has lived among for so many years -- their constant sense of grievance,
patience with bureaucracy, their conspiracies.
There is another profound anthropological truth in Parks's book. He succeeds
in explaining the passion of soccer so evident in recent images of the
Cup -- Russian fans overturning cars in the shadow of the Kremlin and
distraught Argentinians crying into their beer. He shows that soccer thrives
sport for precisely the same reason that it succeeds as social realism:
violent side. In his season with Verona, we see soccer unleash frightening
passion, because it yields better villains than any the World Wrestling
Federation has concocted and more wrenching plot twists than a Jerry
Bruckheimer movie. In other words, he inadvertantly rebuts soccer's critics
this side of the Atlantic and shows it to be all-American game.