Is Italy a single nation, or a series of warring city states? Two weeks ago, on the train from Verona to Turin, a young man stares through the glass of my compartment, then comes in, says, ”Can I see your book?“ It‘s called A History of Football in Verona. Yes, he too is going to watch Juventus play Verona. He’s one of countless thousands of Italians who travel the length and breadth of the country every weekend to see their teams play away. This year I‘ve chosen to join them. It’s madness, but I‘ve promised myself I’ll see every away game Verona plays. ”What do you enjoy most about it?“ I ask this guy. He grins sheepishly. He seems the tamest person in the world. ”The anger,“ he says.

”Gobbi di merda,“ the Veronese shout at the Juventini. Shithead hunchbacks. ”Verona Verona Vaffanculo!“ comes the response. Verona fuck off. It‘s a feast of insults.

And sometimes it gets out of hand. On that very same afternoon, in fact, way down in Reggio Calabria, some supporters had such a festival of anger when their team lost the seventh game in succession, they invaded the pitch and tore up their own stadium. As a result they are condemned to playing their next home game in a neutral city: Catania, Sicily.

And that game is against Verona.

I’ve never been to Catania. It‘s about 900 miles south of Verona, which lies just beneath the Alps in the North. It’s been raining for months here, and today is no exception. But as my plane crosses the Apennines, the weather clears. Strands of mist shine like fresh snow on the hills, the sea is liquid copper under the morning sun. You fly right over the Eolie islands, and then, dropping down, quite suddenly there is Etna, a picture-book volcano, its high crater topped with Christmas icing. Beyond, at the bottom of the mountain‘s long, green slopes of vines and lemon trees, right on the dazzle of the coast, is Catania.

Italians will always insist on the differences between North and South. How could they insult each other if there were none? And up to a point they’re right. When I ask for a granita in Catania, I don‘t get the crushed ice of the Veronese version, but a sort of liquid almond ice cream, more an Arab sherbet. And the croissants here are always served hot. There’s more noise in the street than in Verona, and the traffic is constantly on the verge of total deadlock. Whereas Verona, through its foggy winters, has warm ocher walls and pink marble pavements, Catania, under its blistering summer sun, is lava gray, a monumental mix of volcanic rock and white limestone.

Yet overall what strikes you most is that these are all variations within the same Italian mind frame. There‘s the same glorious conglomeration of piazzas, statues and stunning facades (mainly baroque and 18th-century in Catania, since everything earlier was destroyed in the earthquake of 1693). There’s the same love of the passeggiata, the same Christmas markets full of candied fruit and cheap toys.

I take a bus east to check out the fishing village of Aci Trezza, where Giovanni Verga set his great novel I Malavoglia. Stone angels on the church facade blow their Judgment Day trumpets right in the noses of the painted boats pulled up in the port. The place is so beautiful, it‘s hard to see how Verga could have been such a pessimist. But then the distant sight of the old Norman castle, high on a rocky outcrop between the village and the town, suddenly makes me nervous. The Normans in Sicily! Now that was an away game and no mistake. Time to get to the stadium.

The place is full. I’m amazed. Perhaps 40 busloads of fans have come from Reggio Calabria, across on the mainland, plus there are all the local Catania enthusiasts who never get a chance to watch top-level soccer. Surrounded by police in riot gear, about a hundred of us have made it from Verona.

The insults begin. ”Non si capisce come cazzo parlate,“ the Veronese sing to the tune of ”Guantanamera.“ Can‘t understand a fucking word you say! Meaning, you’re not Italian like us, we speak different dialects, and ours is the real one. But in perfectly understandable Italian the Sicilians and Calabrians at once start to chant, ”Merda siete e merda resterete.“ Shit you are and shit you‘ll stay.

Italy is a nation that defines itself by being constantly divided against itself. As a foreigner, you can never quite be part of this. But you can get no end of pleasure from watching the fireworks go off in such magical surroundings.

As if to underline the similarity between these opposites, North and South, and to point up the mirror effect you get when two groups of fans start insulting each other, Verona scored just one minute from the beginning, and Reggio Calabria equalized 88 minutes later — just one minute from the end. So the fans set off home all equally happy and unhappy, equally disgruntled and relieved, equally Italian.#

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