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

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