We all know that guy. (Or girl, but probably guy.) We’ve all had one in our lives. You know the one I'm talking about, that guy where you always find yourself starting sentences with, "Seriously, he's really not that bad..." whenever he comes up in conversation. Usually he’s a particularly "colorful" friend from way back, either your crazy days of college or deep into your childhood. You’ve had irreplaceable experiences with him, and you’ll always fondly remember certain moments you’ve shared. But the older you get, the more you find yourself apologizing for him, or not inviting him to events where you think you might run into coworkers. Your romantic partners all seem united in not wanting to be around him. Other friends call you up before a party and ask, "you didn’t invite….him, did you?" You start to wonder if he'll ever grow up. And finally, after the 12th time he's gotten you kicked out of a bar when all you wanted was to grab a quiet glass of sangria, you start to face the fact: This guy is just an asshole.
That’s basically where I’ve been with Inter’s ultras for some time. There’s lots about ultra culture to like, from the coreografie to the chants, the matchday energy, the call-and-response roar of players' names after every goal. The history of Italian football would look very different without them, and at best, they serve as a palpable link to the sport’s fetishized pre-modern history, the innocent days before TV rights and multinational investors and sponsorships on every blade of grass in the stadium. And on the deepest possible level, there’s something almost religious about knowing they’ll always be there in the same curva. The same way seeing the orders of nuns and monks and priests sort of allows everyday Catholics feel better about their relative lack of commitment, knowing that there are people whose lives literally revolve around your favorite football club makes you feel better about your own casual fandom.
But let’s not mince words: So many of the absolute worst aspects of Italian football, the tendencies that often make the peninsula feel like it’s stuck in a holding pattern next to so many other European leagues, are the fault of the ultras too. Whenever we read of yet another fine for racist chanting or territorial discrimination – and seriously, how does this still happen? – the blame almost always lies with a group of fans in the curva. Fan violence still exists, and continues to be phenomenally stupid. We’ve had so many frankly embarrassing spectacles where the ultras exceed every reasonable constraint of acceptable behavior, from attacking team buses to even, in the case of Genoa, literally holding an entire match hostage. But more to the point, their relationships with the clubs have morphed over time from symbiotic to parasitic. So many club owners still bend over backwards to accommodate and placate their ultras, and all it tends to get them in return is an extremist fanbase that demands more and more accommodations.
(And that’s what the problematic ultras are – a tiny, extremist faction of an overall fanbase that wields completely disproportionate power. Obviously, I'm not talking about everyone in the curva, or everyone who self-identifies as an ultra. I've been to the stadium, I know these are mostly reasonable people. But sometimes, being the reasonable guy standing silently inside the mob makes you culpable too.)
So anyway, let’s get to the obvious reason I’m writing this. Mauro Icardi, as we all know, is a moron. A very, very talented moron, but a moron nonetheless. There’s absolutely no reason for him to be writing a memoir at 23 years old, when he’s just barely starting to establish his own legacy. Any manager with an ounce of sense would have told him, "why don’t you just endorse a sandwich shop and buy yourself another velvet self-portrait instead?" And when that manager with an ounce of sense saw that he had, however obviously hyperbolically, threatened to call 100 criminals from Argentina to come wipe out the ultras, that manager would have secretly uploaded a virus to Icardi’s computer, destroying the draft of the book.
So yeah, Icardi’s a moron. But the thing is, while I have no idea why he possibly could have thought this was a good thing to say publicly, I can completely understand why he would have thought it privately. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of his teammates actually did regard him as a hero in the locker room after he and Guarin cursed out that ultra years ago. And the reason for that is that pretty much every Inter player has been the target of intense, and weirdly personal, hatred and threats from the ultras who are nominally there to support them. Pro footballers are used to hearing insults, but when it comes from their own fans, in match after match after match, it must be absolutely miserable. Sometimes this hatred is only tangentially related to a player’s individual performance or actions. Recall how Cambiasso – one of the most selfless servants of the club that Inter has ever seen – was reduced to tears by fan nastiness. Or even the Sampdoria match in question – as I recall, Icardi came on at the very end of the match, and scored our only goal. He was literally the last person that anyone should have blamed for the loss. And then he shook off the disappointment of the defeat enough to come and greet the fans, and this is how they treated him? Even a moron like Icardi didn’t deserve that.
Which brings us to the intolerable self-involvement that the ultras tend to show in these situations. So many of these ultra controversies have only had tangential relationships to what happens on the pitch. I think about that vile incident with Juve’s Drughi insulting Gaetano Scirea’s widow when she pointed out that her husband wouldn’t support discriminatory chanting in the section of the stadium that bears his name. Great hill to die on, Drughi. Or the large-scale ultra protest over fan ID cards a few years back. It’s so narcissistic – none of these things have anything to do with wanting to see your football club do well. And that applies in this case too: Remember, Icardi did not disrespect the club in this last incident. He didn’t disrespect his teammates, or the fanbase as a whole, or even necessarily the ultras as a whole. He expressed poorly-worded anger toward a few specific figures who he thought were behaving inexcusably. But to the extremist ultra hive-mind, this disrespect trumps all concern for the state of the team. They actually applauded Icardi’s penalty miss, and clearly got into his head. How does that show respect for the club? You’d rather have Inter lose than see a player who hurt your feelings give the club a much-needed three points? Who are you in this for, anyway?
And then, of course, the ultras took it to a whole new level when they camped out and hung threatening banners outside of Icardi’s home. This is something else, something entirely uglier than even the nastiest matchday heckling. This is making a man feel in danger while in his own home, the home where his small children live. This is an echo of the darkness we saw in 2004, when angry Inter fans firebombed restaurants owned by Cannavaro and Vieri. This isn’t normal fandom, it’s violent psychosis.
And for what? I would never suggest that the hostility expressed by Inter supporters is responsible for any of the club’s failures in recent years, but man, it sure ain’t helping. How could it? How is constant cruelty supposed to motivate players to give that extra 10% for the club? Why would players want to go the extra mile to make people who destroy their property and threaten their lives happy? All it does is create an atmosphere of toxicity that will probably make our most talented player – moron that he is – happy to take a transfer somewhere else.
And the reason this pisses me off, is that in the popular imagination, these idiots somehow speak for me. Because they’re the loudest, most unreasonable voices in the room, the ones who are always present at the stadium, they can sometimes exert a real pull at the club. This is something that happens in fandom a lot – movie fandom, comic book fandom, all kinds – where the crazed minority opinion, very loudly expressed, ends up drowning out the far more rational majority who don’t have time to write angry letters, or tweet 20 times a day, or make giant, needlessly lengthy banners and hang them in the stadium hours beforehand. And so a company (or a film studio, or a football club) ends up making unwise decisions about issues that the majority of its customer base either doesn’t care about, or feels very differently about. Because all they can see is the guy frothing at the mouth with a pitchfork outside the gate.
So now, no matter what any of us think about it, or what the Inter-supporting Milanese mom who takes her kids to five home matches a year thinks about it, or what an Icardi jersey-buying teenager who lives in Sicily thinks about it, Icardi is now officially on poor terms with "the fans." His drop in form is going to be due to bad blood with "the fans," and when he goes to PSG or wherever in the summer, it’ll be because his relationship with "the fans" had reached a breaking point. And it doesn’t even matter what fans like us might think, because a few dozen thin-skinned, perpetually angry ultras have spoken for us all.