Run-ins with the Ultras

As a student in 2000, Nick Clark saw up close the passion and chaos of Italy's most hard-core fans

See Naples and die, runs the old saying. What was once praise for the beauty of the city in Vesuvius's shadow could now be taken – if some media reports are to be believed – as a direct threat to visiting football fans.

It is a city that leaves an indelible mark on the visitor. One cliché at least is accurate: this is a city whose heart beats football and whose blood runs sky-blue. For many Neapolitans, Societa Sportiva Calcio Napoli is life.

And now the generation of Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi has brought hope to a giant that has suffered appalling mismanagement on and off the field, relegation and bankruptcy in the past decade.

The violence of recent games against Liverpool and Manchester City is almost unheard of in Serie A nowadays, but it was a different story a decade ago. Arriving in Naples as a student on the Erasmus programme, I found optimism for the 2000-01 season high.

The team had returned to the top flight three years after being relegated with a dismal return of just 14 points from 34 games. A new owner had taken over, an experienced coach in Zdenek Zeman came in and there was a vast outlay on new players who would cement their position in Serie A.

However, it was to be a season that proved defining for all the wrong reasons, from appalling performances to appalling violence. It prompted hand- wringing in parliament, complaints from police that Italy's stadiums were out of control and articles bemoaning the racism, hooliganism and corruption of a once-great league.

The optimism was already wavering by the time I first made it to the 60,000-seater San Paolo. Napoli were rock-bottom after games against Juventus and Internazionale but, with the visit of Bologna, the fans were looking to kick-start their season.

The stadium was a crumbling coliseum that spoke of former glories and contemporary decay. My flatmate and I negotiated the chaos outside and found our season-ticket seats on the halfway line. It quickly became clear that the action was behind the goal in the two Curva sections, A and B. The stadium, draped in banners and vast flags, produced a thunderous noise.

The San Paolo was as close to a gladiatorial arena as football gets. Fences keep the baying fans at safe remove.

Flares fizzed and burned all around. The sky-blue smoke enveloped the crowd and, by the time it had cleared, Napoli were trailing. The football was dire, with the home goalkeeper adding to the gloom with an own goal and an assist, rocketing it in off a defender's backside as Napoli went down 5-1.

The crescendo of whistles, spitting and obscene gestures erupted into violence at the final whistle. Fans scattered as riot police came in after them. Those around us began to rip the chairs from their iron brackets and hurl them at the pitch. The scene was a 21st-century apocalypse: police helicopters circled against the pink skies of the autumn evening, flames rained down as fans lit sheets of newspaper and sent them towards the pitch.

It emerged that 10 policemen had been injured, and seven fans were in the cells as the media started a season-long debate about hooliganism. The police later described the experience to a judge as "going into war".

The next game was to provide my introduction to the Ultras, the hardcore support whose battle cry runs: "Ultras will always search for trouble/And an ideal that never dies." It all ended in tears: a riot in a late game against Roma and relegation.

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