Gufare: Domestic rivalries on the international stage

Inter President Massimo Moratti, commenting last week on on Roma’s impressive 2-1 victory at the Santiago Bernabeu, was gracious enough to say “I’m pleased that Roma have gone through, it’s good for Italian football.” If it’s true, it’s safe to say that his generous sentiments will not have been shared by all his fellow Inter fans. On the contrary, the idea that you should support “any Italian club in Europe” is not a very widespread one. Domestic rivalry can’t be put aside so easily – and indeed even Moratti concluded that he was pleased about Roma’s victory “… especially since Milan have been knocked out.” Condolences or a sly dig? You tell me.

The debate about supporting your country’s other clubs in international competition is an old one, both in Italy and the UK. Part of the problem is that watching any match in any sport is more fun if you have a preference as to which team you want to win. And indeed often, if you start to watch a game between two sides in which you have no previous investment, you will develop over the course of the game some kind of preference for one over the other. That’s the point of competitive sport.

So if you’re going to watch a game you need someone to support. This is a debate wholly created by TV, of course, since before games were televised it was much rarer that you would be watching a game which didn’t involve “your” team. Now we are regularly offered televised matches involving teams which are not our own, and yet the psychological need to support one against the other remains. TV commentators tend to assume that everybody is pulling together in an outbreak of patriotic spirit, which if anything is deeply off-putting to many people. Not least because is illogical to spend most of your time loathing, say, Man Utd, and then be expected to support them suddenly just because they’re playing some previously innocuous Other. Especially when Clive Tyldesley is telling me to.

Football is all about Us v Them, but in international club games the lines get rather confused. Who is the ‘Us’ in a modern club side, and who the ‘Them’? Perhaps when the European Cup saw 11 Germans vs 11 Spaniards, or 11 Russians vs 11 Scots, (if, indeed, that was ever the case). At least then a patriotic argument might be about temporarily adopting a domestic rival for the night. But in the 2006 Champions’ League final, nearly as many Spaniards took the field for Arsenal as did for Barcelona (3 vs 4): who then should the disinterested Spanish fan support? (And that’s leaving aside the vexed Catalan question). Or, more pertinently, what’s so Italian about Inter that any non-nerazzuro Italian fan should wish them well in Europe?

In Italy the matter goes one step further, since not only is the idea of supporting rival Italian clubs in European competition largely unpopular, but there is on the contrary a tradition of actively supporting their opposition. The rather wonderful verb gufare means to support against, to wish bad luck upon. It comes from the noun gufo, meaning owl, since the owl in Italy (and Spain) is a symbol of bad luck. So football fans “owl” for another team.

Eagle Owl

Far from supporting other Italian clubs, then, large numbers will be gufando instead. Across Italy, Arsenal’s win at San Siro was greeted with delight and amusement by fans of Inter, Juve, Roma, and many more besides. It can be almost as important to gufare your rivals as to support your own team. Patriotic solidarity? What’s that then? In a country where the very question of national identity is so fraught, complex and frail, and where regional and local identities are so important and enduring, the appeal to support other Italian sides is perhaps doomed to failure. Club rivalries even impinge upon loyalty to the Azzurri. In the run-up to the 2006 World Cup, when calciopoli broke and enveloped Juventus in scandal, t-shirts went on sale featuring a photo of Juve hero and national captain Fabio Cannavaro under the legend “This is not my captain.” Anti-Cannavaro sentiment had two main bases, it seemed. Neapolitan: bad. Juventino? Worse.

The main exception to this phenomena seems to be in ex-pat Italian communities. My impression is that Italians, or more precisely those of Italian descent, living in the USA, Canada, Australia or wherever else, are more likely to support any Italian club vs any non-Italian club. This says something interesting about ex-pat identity, I think, which backs up a lot of sociological research suggesting that national identity and loyalty to the “home” nation is often strongest amongst emigrants, for a variety of reasons including the erosion of regional & dialectal divisions (and a different way of constructing Us V Them, of course).

But here there will be plenty of people gufando Inter against Liverpool (speaking personally, I couldn’t bring myself to actively support Liverpool… but that’s the beauty of it, when you gufare you focus on the team you want to lose, and can safely ignore their opponents). The importance placed on wanting your rivals to lose is by no means only an Italian concept (I would put money on Evertonians supporting Inter tomorrow, and Reds backing Fiorentina). But the Italians are blessed by a word for the concept. Perhaps it’s a reflection of a problematic national identity, or perhaps just of the many and bizarre superstitions which still abound, but that’s how much of Italy will be watching Inter’s crucial game. With a little bit of ill-will and a whole heap of schadenfreude. And an owl or two.

Photo credit: floridapf on Flickr

21 thoughts on “Gufare: Domestic rivalries on the international stage

  1. Etienne

    “But the Italians are blessed by a word for the concept”.
    I’m sure “badminding” will catch on in time.

    I wonder if there’s a word for it in Welsh, given that we spend most of our sporting moments gufare-ing our enemies – even within Wales, Cardiff City fans spent most of hte first half against Middlesbrough chanting “Are you watching, Jack b*stards”.

  2. Pingback: Davos Newbies » Blog Archive » They have a word for it

  3. Erinti

    I’m given to understand (though the fact that I speak no Serbian kind of gets in the way) that a similar sentiment fed into the beginnings of the close friendship between Red Star Belgrade and Olympiacos, one that endures to this day, when the former came up against Panathinaikos in Europe. Go figure. (And Greece’s best tend to be much heavier on domestic players than the likes of Barça or Inter, so that end of things doesn’t hold.)

    As for expat/immigrant communities, there’s a definite sense, at least in some of them, of “you are defined in everything you are and everything you do by the old country and your connection to it, and if you aren’t, you damn well should be”—maybe not among the first generation, the ones who were born over there, but definitely something that gets imparted to the second*. I’m not surprised that loyalties to the old country’s national team and to its other clubs in trans-national competition are stronger and less susceptible to interference from club loyalties.**

    * I caught one hell of a lot of flak for this in junior high for not cleaving to this principle quite as well as the Greek kids who didn’t have the…quirk? handicap?…of being half Puerto Rican.

    ** For my part, I, a Greek-American born in New York, will cheerily semi-support Panathinaikos in Europe (not OFI or Ergotelis, though***—I’m no saint!), but my Pana-supporting mother, born in Greece and living in the US only since age 18, doesn’t return the favor; she still hasn’t stopped gloating about Oly’s steamrolling at the hands of Chelsea. I suspect I’ll still be hearing about it this time next month.

    *** You’d think I’d support one of them, as a Cretan. You’d be wrong. Down Hania way, we don’t like Heraklion very much at all.

  4. j100

    Good article. Just found this website and it’s providing a welcome and enjoyable distraction from the cr*p surrounding Liverpool at the moment.

    Plus you are totally right. I gufareed my arse off watching Everton lose to the first decent team they faced in Europe. ;)

  5. historyman

    Great article, and yet again the Italian language has found a precise way of defining a concept in one word that would take English several more.

    I’ve been ‘gufaring’ all my life. From my earliest recollections, I’ve always wanted Liverpool to lose. This stems from growing up in the 1980s, when Liverpool were such a dominant team that almost everybody in the school playground supported them. I could never go along with such collective insanity, and so my ‘gufare’ was born. I often have the same feeling about the ‘Big Four’ in Europe.

    Regarding the ‘us v them’ scenario – there may be a few examples of eleven nationals lining up in the same team. One of them is the 1967 European Cup Final between Celtic and Inter Milan. Famously, all of the eleven Celtic players were born within a thirty mile radius of Celtic Park, hence all of them were Scots. Luis Suarez (Spaniard) was injured, so all of the Inter side that day were Italian. This kind of scenario is unlikely to happen again in a major club tournament.

  6. SpanglyPrincess

    Historyman: I suspected that there must have been fully national club sides competing in Europe way back – Il Grande Torino, for one – but couldn’t summon any precise examples.

    Etienne: badminding sounds so… so… American. Sorry. I never encountered it till I first began to discuss sports with Americans. Besides, in comparison to gufare it lacks romance. And a scary eyes.

    Erinti. that fits very much with my existing impressions of ex-pat sentiments, thank you

  7. ursus arctos

    Typically excellent article. I’ve always wondered how Sheffield Wednesday supporters living here approach the “gufare” issue, but have never had the chance to ask one.

    Pedantry: Il Grande Torino never played in “proper” European competition. Superga was in ’49, five years before the birth of the European Cup, and just before the Mitropa Cup had been re-started after its wartime hiatus.

    To someone from a country (the US) that has very little experience with international competition between clubs, the whole question has always been an interesting one to me. In particular, I’ve always been struck by the obvious disconnect between media attitudes and those of real football supporters. No matter what European country is one, the commentary on a European match will nearly always be based on the explicit assumption that all viewers want the “local” team to win, when in fact many (a sometimes a majority) want the opposite to happen. The British media probably take this to the most ridiculous degree (yes, I’m looking at you Tyldesley), but it happens to some extent everywhere I’ve lived (France, Belgium, Germany and Italy) or regularly peruse the football press (Spain).

    I think that was part of the reason why I, as an American experiencing European football in the flesh for the first time after having read about it for four or five years was initially taken aback by how deeply guffismo ran, especially in more traditional football countries like Italy. When I travelled (as a journalist) with the Liverpool supporters to the European Cup Final in 1984 (sorry, Spangles), pretty much the entire train was surprised to see that several hundred Lazio supporters had turned out at the railway station to welcome “us” and wish “us” the best of luck against their hated local rivals. I’m sure that Spangles would do the same if the situation was reversed, but then the idea of Lazio being in a European Cup Final is inherently ridiculous.

    Looking at England in the 80s, I would say that there was perhaps more of a sense of “getting behind our lads”, but that may have more to do with the fact that English club support at the time was much more diverse. If you didn’t support Everton, Man Utd, or maybe Leeds, you probably didn’t have really strong feelings about Liverpool, and therefore would tend to favour the players you recognised against the unknowns from say, Moenchengladbach. In countries where support has always been more concentrated (Italy, Spain, Portugal), the likelihood that a team playing in Europe is one that you actively hate with a passion is much higher, and that dynamic has been on the increase in Britain in line with the growth in a “Big Four” mentality. The dynamic is also is in operation in countries where there is one dominant domestic side which pretty much everyone in the country who doesn’t support that team cannot stand (cf. Bayern Munchen, Anderlecht in the 70s and 80s).

    One of the few examples I can think of a club side with true national appeal is the St. Etienne team of the mid 70s, which famously got a parade down the Champs Elysses after they lost the European Cup Final to Bayern Munchen, and were generally loved throughout France with the exception of Lyon, Marseille and football hotbeds in the Northeast. But France wasn’t really a “proper football country” at the time, and no subsequent French team has ever been able to capture the national appeal of Les Verts.

    I also cannot tell you how genuinely thrilled I am to see a long post and seven substantive comments without anyone feeling a need to mention Inter’s relative dearth of Italians. It’s a very refreshing change.

  8. ursus arctos

    Hmmm, more typos than usual; sorry.

    One more thing. It may be an age issue, but I never heard of “badminding” until I started hanging out with Brits.

  9. roswitha

    Delighted at such a long and involved post on the ‘gufare’ phenomenon. Just coming off a good long chuckle at Berlusconi’s stated support of Inter tonight [those elections must be pretty close, huh?] and this was great to read.

  10. alex

    What confuses me is how the UK media, particularly Clive “that great night in Barcelona/Istanbul” Tyldesly, can have so little idea that a fair portion of people watching United in Europe will probably want them to lose. Last week, when three of three went through it was painted as a “great week for English football”. Not really guys, no. Even worse was all the talk of a Man Utd-Chelsea “dream final” last year. Just. No.

    I’ll tolerate bias towards our various national sides, but not towards club sides that 99% of people who don’t support them despise.

  11. Sam

    An interesting post, and particularly pertinent to those of us who also have an affiliation with a (big) club in another country. I’ve got two half-Catalán cousins, so have ‘supported’ Barcelona for almost as long as I have Man United, albeit in a very disconnected fashion until I discovered the delights of Sopcast and was actually able to watch their matches now and then. When Arsenal reached the 2005 Champs League final, my best friend – who doesn’t even support Arsenal – was amazed to hear that on the night itself, I’d be shouting for a club I’ve always liked (Barca) against one I’ve always, if not quite disliked, then hardly felt friendly towards. I should stick up for ‘our league’, I was told.

    But first of all, the Prem is NOT ‘our’ league, as Game 39 has emphatically proven. Secondly I don’t like it anyway. The football, for the most part, is pedestrian and the circus that surrounds it is tedious in the extreme. So when Belletti broke through the score the winner, I gave myself a very, very sore throat that lasted the next few days. Now, I just stick up for whichever team I like more, and nationality doesn’t come into it.

    The issue arises even in international games, though. You might expect Argentines to take some pride in the fact that they had a representative on the winning side in the 2006 World Cup – even more so since Mauro Camoranesi said during the tournament that he didn’t know a word of the Italian national anthem, and didn’t think of himself as at all Italian in his own mind. They take more pride in the fact that the refereeing team for the final were Argentine. But then, only one of Italy’s four World Cup wins (1982) has come without at least one Argentine in the team.

    Club-wise in Argentina, when Boca Juniors reach the Copa Libertadores final (which, so far this century, has been almost but not quite the same as saying ‘when Boca Juniors play in the Copa Libertadores’), it’s not uncommon to see River Plate fans attending their side’s league match prior to the second leg, wearing the shirt of whichever team Boca are facing in the final a few days later. They actually go out and buy the things, despite the fact that football shirts in Argentina are considerably less affordable (as a proportion of income) than in Europe, and that in some cases – Once Caldas were Boca’s opponents and indeed conquerors in 2004 – they’re not by any means easy to find.

    Now THAT’S gufaro.

  12. SpanglyPrincess

    haha Sam that’s brilliant, about River fans and the shirts. I think you have all collectively demonstrated the universality of gufismo at any rate.

    Etienne, Ursus: is “badminding” an exclusively OTF thing perhaps?

    meanwhile pedantry is of course welcome. Il Grande Torino were on their way back from a friendly against Benfica, I think in my mind I had turned it into a competitive game. Careless.

  13. Etienne

    Spangly, yeah, I’ve only heard it used on OTF.

    It was introduced by TG (and the speed with which it has spread shows the usefulness of the concept, I reckon) so it may be a concept that’s of African origin rather than American.

  14. The Liquidator

    Badminding is a term that is essentially black London slang, from what I’ve heard. I think it’s true roots lie in Africa rather than the West Indies, but an American term it’s not.

  15. Antonio G

    Great article, Spangles.

    A small point about ex-pats. My impression here in Canada is that the ex-pats actually can’t be bothered much about club football – it’s only the azzurri that get the hearts racing. I think this is because most of the Italians here are Calabrese or Siciliani and have nothing much to shout about in terms of “home” clubs. The northerners who went abroad were much more likely to go to Argentina, I think. I’ve no idea if they still follow “home” clubs, or if they adopt a local club in Argentina, or if they just watch Palmeiras in Brazil (traditionally the Italian club there, I believe).

  16. Erinti

    You’ve probably hit the nail on the head as to at least one of the causes of that; in my experience, Greeks, who have a tradition of throwing their support behind one of the Athenian Big Three if their local team is crap or nonexistent, carry their club loyalties with them wherever they go. (Olympiakos, Panathinaikos, and AEK Athens all have large and active fan clubs in New York, for example.)

  17. ursus arctos

    Antonio is right about northern Italian emigration patterns, which is why the fans of Boca Juniors are called the Xeneizes (Genovesi in Genovese dialect); La Boca having been the port area of Buenos Aires in which many of the early Italian immigrants settled after arriving on ships that departed from Genoa.

    He’s also right about Palmeiras (which were even owned by Parmalat before they imploded and have a history of Italian sponsors, including Pirelli). Audax Italiano are (unsurprisingly) the “Italian” club in Chile.

  18. Vesselin

    Palmeiras had different name until 1942 – Società Sportiva Palestra Italia . Renamed because of the Second World War and fascism.
    Vasco da Gama is strongly Portugese. One may think not only of ‘old country’ sentiments, but of colonial too.
    Australia demanded renaming of their strongly ‘ethnic’ named clubs some years ago in an effort to stop ethnic hatred disguised as support for ‘our’ team. You can imagine what really means nowadays a match between, say, FC Croatia and Partizan (whatever city except Belgrade).
    And since I mentioned fascism – Inter Milano was renamed during Mussolini years too: Ambrosiana apparently did not sound Socialist…