Football: Living dangerously among the young lions of Milan: Alyson Rudd with the ultras, Italian football's fiercest, hippest and most colourful fans

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The Independent Online
STEFANO stared at the Milan shirt in horror. 'No, no, no, you cannot wear that. I don't want a knife in my stomach.' Concern about violence at football games has long ceased to be purely a British concern. We may now all be able to share in the delights of Serie A every Sunday, thanks to Channel 4, but Italian football has its nasty side, too.

An Italian fan who has a season ticket and is prepared to travel to away fixtures will probably be an ultra. Ultras are typically aged between 15 and 30 and organise all the flares, flags and balloons we associate with Europe's finest league. Usually recognised by the club itself, they can receive financial help from it, but more often supporters' club subscriptions and the sale of scarves and souvenirs pays for the flares and flags. Internazionale started up the first supporters' club in the mid-1960s and the ultras began to spring up across the country throughout the early 1970s.

Ultras translates as extremists and they call themselves suitably awe-inspiring names. Milan ultras like to be known as fossa dei leoni - the lions' den - and Atalanta, who Milan visited on Sunday, are called 'the butchers' or 'wild chaos'. (Italians believe this is pronounced 'wild cows', which lessens the impact somewhat).

Travelling ultras require a police escort to the stadium. It is considered tactless in the extreme to separate from the core troop if adorned in team colours. Last season a Roma fan found himself in the wrong part of Milan and suffered a fatal heart attack in the ensuing fight. Only last week two Milan supporters in the wrong section of fans at an Italian Cup derby were viciously pummelled by frustrated Internazionale ultras who also vented their anger by ripping up seats, hurling them at fans below and setting fire to rubbish in the terraces.

The most hardened British fan would have been interested. Yet the ultras view our hooligans as drunken criminals. Ultras prefer to chill out with a joint not belch over a beer and none see their aggression as comparable with events at the Heysel Stadium. Even so the ultra culture owes much to British football.

The hippest ultra is wearing a chic mix of dark glasses, a Chelsea hat and a British beer mat sewn on to his jacket. The chants are very English. In Bergamo on Sunday, 'There's only one Milan' rang out. The lions' den tra-la-laad to the tune of 'Roll Out The Barrel' and na-na-naad to Bananarama hits.

The abuse was mimicked but it lacked the British bite. 'Jump up and down if you don't want to be a red and black,' the Atalanta ultras sang. 'Clap your hands if you don't want to be blue and black,' the visitors retorted.

'Go build a house,' was among the wittier chants from the red and black brigade; a jibe at the main trade of Bergamo. Genoa ultras are often taunted with 'Go catch a fish', I was proudly informed by Stefano, a mild Milan ultra.

Milan's trip to Atalanta was treated like a festival by the lions. Milan did not play well but their ultras did not care and paid a lot less attention to the game than their British counterparts do. The main concern among the fans was that Milan should stretch its unbeaten run to 56 games. If and when that sequence is broken the festival feeling will spread across the country. It might even distract ultras from their tendency to throw missiles during a match, but then, of course, coin hurling is not exclusively an ultras trait.