Stadium: San Siro (Stadio Giuseppe Meazza), capacity 80,074
Not many cities can boast two giants of the European game. Milan certainly can. Internazionale and Milan are two titanic teams not only in Serie A but in the history of football. These giants also share one of football's most iconic footballing structures, the Giuseppe Meazza, which stages the passionate Derby della Madonnina.
When Internazionale take on Milan, this stadium comes alive with a mix of flags, flares, fireworks and huge banners. The ground is not full for every match and it needs some updating, but in its current state it embodies the raw passion of the early 90s Italian football experience.
This colossal stadium has been instantly recognisable since its World Cup refurbishment in 1990. An extra tier, which is supported by no fewer than 11 spiral towers, and a roof with huge red iron girders were added.
The San Siro has become a Mecca for football fans and it remains one of the must-see grounds in Europe. Quite simply, its atmosphere and vantage points are second to none.
Milan, the modern heart of Italy, is a city that needs little by way of introduction. The metropolis is at the vanguard of the fashion world, combining glitzy designer stores with businesslike modernity and historic landmarks. The most eye-catching of these is Il Duomo, an imposing gothic-styled cathedral which is the hub of the city and at its peak, a statue of the Virgin Mary (the Madonnina) surveys Milan. The city is not only a pilgrimage for fashionistas but also a home for football aficionados, boasting two Italian behemoths, Milan and Internazionale. The latter represents the black and blue half of this prodigious city.
It is within this setting that my fascination with the Ultras began. Back in the 2006-07 campaign I travelled to the San Siro to watch Internazionale's final game of the season against Torino. They would be crowned champions that day and I would spend six hours on the Curva.
The personal experiences I have had in Milan and on the Curva Nord have showcased the power of the Ultra groups and created my passion for the subject. Although the stories are many and varied, two come the 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 again changed and this time I couldn't understand it. The chants are so well orchestrated that they change immediately, they do not filter through.
While I was battling with the new chant, 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 say no. 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.
The second 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 travelled 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 is equally as exciting. This is their story.
In 1908, following a schism within the Milan Cricket and Football Club, a group of Italians and Swiss (who were unhappy about the domination of Italians in the Milan team) broke away and formed Internazionale. The club has won 18 league titles and is now the joint-second most successful in Italian history, tied with none other than Milan. The Nerazzurri have a global and nationwide following and, although they may not have the same clannish mentality adopted by the supporters of smaller provincial clubs, this does not detract from the formidability of their Ultras.
The origin of their organised support was allegedly inspired by former coach and Catenaccio partisan Helenio Herrera, a man who enjoyed major success with a team that became known as "Grande Inter" during the 1960s. This saw the inception of organised fan groups such as I Moschettieri (the Musketeers) and Aficionados. However, the club's first official Ultra group, now known as the Boys-San, were formed in 1969. Along with a group called Vikings, the Boys-San remain the protagonists of the Curva Nord today and, in tandem with their Nordic inspired companions, they are capable of producing an explosive atmosphere.
The Boys-San were originally named 11 Assi – Boys Le Furie Nerazzurre (11 Axes – the Furious Black and Blue Boys). The name was inspired by a mischievous character called Boy in a cartoon published by the Internazionale magazine during that era. During the 1970s, while the Ultra movement was still in its infancy, the Boys stood out due to their organisation and unity. These were pioneering years for these Ultras and it was during this period that fierce rivalries were born, in particular with Atalanta, Torino, Juventus, Sampdoria and Milan.
In 1979, a restructuring of the Giuseppe Meazza meant the Boys-San made the heart of the Curva Nord their stronghold. Not long after the Boys also changed their name to Boys-San, (Squadra d'azione nerazzurre – Black and blue action squad). In 1984, the Vikings replaced a group known as the Skins on the Curva after they were allegedly forced to disband due to police repression. The Vikings have at times been accused of holding far right sentiments, but they and the Boys-San have enhanced the reputation of the club's Ultras through impressive support, with flares, smoke effects and giant flags.
In more recent years, especially the mid-2000s, the club enjoyed untrammelled success, especially after the relegation of Juventus in 2006 for their involvement in the Calciopoli scandal. The Ultras have remained loyal and one of the Boys-San slogans encapsulates the passion for the Nerazzurri: "Football is fever, support and passion … not television."
Internazionale have a plethora of fan groups but it is also worth mentioning other influential Ultras on the Curva Nord. One particular circle called Forever Ultras (1975) took prominence in the Curva until 1995, while a group known as Potere Neroazzurro (Black and Blue power) were supposedly forced down to a lower section of the Curva following an internal dispute with the Boys-San. Following their fusion with Zona Nera (Black Zone), the Irriducibili (whose banner appeared in the 1988-89 season) became renowned for their organisation as well as their tendency to provoke chaos and violence. That said, the atmosphere has cooled in recent years and never is this truer than in the Milan derby.
The Derby della Madonnina is an ongoing civil war between two cousins vying for the title of ruler of the city, a rivalry that is made truly colossal not by the icons on the pitch but the fanatics in the stands. This derby used to be marred by violent skirmishes, particularly in the 1970s, when the Ultras were positioned next to each other in the stadium (A key reason for the Interisti moving to the Curva Nord and Milanisti to the Sud.)
These heinous acts of violence would on spill on to the streets and sometimes into daily life. Then, following a particularly ferocious derby in 1983, a pact of non-aggression was agreed. The arrangement lives on today, which adds to the sprezzatura of the Milan derby, in which the Ultras fight artistic and symbolic conflicts through the creation of dazzling choreographies and satirical banners.
The Interisti are more than happy to remind their counterparts about the more shameful days in Milan's history. The Rossoneri's relegations in 1980 (due to the Totonero match-fixing scandal) and 1982 have provided the Nerazzurri with plenty of ammunition.
"The only reason you didn't return to Serie B is the referees let you off," is one particular example while during a derby in 2006 the Inter faithful unveiled a banner reading "38 years of the Fossa dei Leoni (Milan's oldest Ultra group), trials and relegations and you really want to talk about intercepted phone calls."
The striscione was in response to a Milan banner questioning Internazionale's innocence in the Calciopoli scandal. One of the less subtle banners produced by the Curva Nord read: "You my cousin? I have never had a whore of an aunt!" Conversely, the Interisti don't hesitate to show solidarity with their city cousins if they feel they have been unjustly oppressed by the common enemy (the Italian authorities). This was demonstrated in the derby back in December 2013, when both Internazionale and Milan ultras protested after the authorities deemed the Milanisti's banner inappropriate, preventing them for unveiling it at the derby.
Yet with this fiery support comes a volatility which bubbles and simmers and can occasionally reach boiling point. Back in 2001, during a match against Lombardy rivals Atalanta, Internazionale fans managed to smuggle a motorbike, allegedly stolen from Atalantini, into the Curva Nord. In one of the more peculiar incidents seen in Italian football, after failing to set it on fire, the fans (not Ultras) launched the bike into a lower section of the ground. Fortunately no one was hurt.
That said, when the Curva Nord of the Giuseppe Meazza shimmers with hundreds of black and blue placards and the Ultras orchestrate the unveiling of a 40-metre banner to the backdrop of their anthem, Pazza Inter Amala, there are few places more vibrant or stylish in the city of Milan.
Classic player: Walter Zenga
Walter Zenga kept goal for Italy and Internazionale for the best part of a decade. Nicknamed L'Uomo Ragno (Spiderman), Zenga's incredible agility allowed him to make remarkable reaction saves that were as aesthetically pleasing as they were important.
The club's youth academy was originally responsible for unearthing this rough diamond although they eventually let him go. He roamed the lower leagues of Italian football in search of a contract, starting out at Salernitana before moving to Savona and eventually Sambenedettese.
In 1982 he returned to Internazionale and started to push for a first team spot, eventually taking the No1 jersey in 1983. This was the start of the glory years for Zenga as his ability to allay consistency with moments of sheer brilliance started to make the rest of Serie A sit up and notice.
Zenga's positional ability was as important as his agility. He could stop shots, catch crosses and make show-stopping saves. Not only would he have a great starting position but anything that was fired quickly to either side of him was normally dealt with comfortably. When he conceded it was usually a very good goal indeed.
The Nerazzurri faithful were treated to 11 years of Zenga's fine form, gymnastic ability and dramatic cursing at defenders and the skies when something went wrong. The most successful of his 328 appearances came in the 1988-89 season when Internazionale lifted the Scudetto. With players such as Andreas Brehme, Lothar Matthäus and Ramón Díaz, Internazionale under Giovanni Trapattoni were superb that season.
They could not retain the title the following season but Zenga did pick up an Italian Super Cup. The club acquired Jürgen Klinsmann and with the squad looking strong it was a surprise that Zenga never managed to add another Scudetto while playing for the Nerazzurri.
Even so, these were the keeper's best years as he displayed breathtaking performances for both club and country. The awards followed suit as Zenga was IFFHS World's Best Goalkeeper for three years running in 1989, 1990 and 1991 and was also given the award for Uefa Goalkeeper of the Year in 1990. He went on to win a Uefa Cup with Internazionale in 1991. He moved to Sampdoria in 1994 and, after two seasons with the Blucerchiati he left for Padova, before finally moving to the US in 1997.
Zenga was one of the stars of the Italia 90 World Cup. After playing in Italy's 1984 Olympic team and the 1988 European Championship team in Germany he was no stranger to the national team. His performances for his club meant that, when the World Cup came to home soil, he was without question the No1. This was his showpiece as Italy went on to claim third spot and Zenga set a record of not conceding a goal at the finals for 518 minutes, keeping five clean sheets in a row. His countless saves propelled Italy to the semi-finals where he was beaten only once by a Claudio Caniggia header – unfortunately this was his only lack of concentration in the tournament as he was beaten in the air by the Argentinian when coming to punch. A defeat on penalties followed, but he had performed admirably throughout the competition.
Zenga's expert mind for the game and physical ability put him up there alongside Dino Zoff and Gigi Buffon as one of Italy's great goalkeepers. Italy has a tradition of producing great goalkeepers but to do this you sometimes need to break the mould. They certainly did with Walter Zenga.
Words by Luca Hodges-Ramon: @LH_Ramon25 and Richard Hall: @Gentleman_Ultra