What motivates a supporter to spend every game with his back turned to the action on the pitch? To spend the game imploring other supporters to sing, chant, jump in unison? To be the man on the stand, above the fray, to be recognised by all in his end of the stadium?
That man (I’ve yet to hear of a female capo worldwide) is typically known in ultras circles as the capo, which is (roughly speaking) Italian for “leader”. The use of this term can cause confusion: some say there ought to only be one ‘capo’ (the leader of the group) and then a squad of lieutenants who rotate to lead chants during games. But capo seems to have become the pervasive term in ultras culture for whoever is leading the ultras curva or section of the stadium.
Either way, usually the Capo stands alone above hundreds or thousands. His sole goal should be to direct the entire crowd into unified support of the team. To achieve this, he must ironically draw their attention from the pitch to himself periodically: to keep supporters in line, on beat, to start a new song, to have scarves or arms raised at the same time, or to jump around as one body.
Sometimes Capos stand on expensive, custom-made stands permanently affixed to the terracing. Sometimes they have to perch on a railing, or grab hold of a fence, to raise themselves up.
Capos must sometimes, especially in newer football cultures, deal with blank stares and occasionally even open hostility. Capos can be driven to despair by the crowd’s failure to respond his exhortations. But a strong capo will manage to get every arm in front of him raised in unison, the stand seemingly his toy.
But the Capo must earn his own authority. He might do it purely on charisma and his physical presence; he might do it by singling out an individual and humiliating them as an example to all. Like a political demagogue, the Capo must find a way to spellbind the masses into obedience. His power may be based on nothing more than the look in his eyes that none dare defy.
Capos most often must ignore what is going on in the game and in the stands around him, aside from certain rare situations, such as a goal or a tifo display. Sometimes a capo must stand in front of a wall of flames, and he must keep his head while all around are losing theirs.
Capos can be found worldwide; whilst several continental European countries have the strongest culture of following a capo, they can be found as far afield as Indonesia — where apparently pink shorts are the apparel of choice.
Yet in many countries, such as England (even back in the days of standing terraces), capos are very rare indeed: songs and chants come and go on a more organic basis. Why do capos thrive in some soccer cultures and not others, where the idea itself almost seems laughable to locals?
What is it that makes a strong capo? And why does a capo do what he does? Is it driven by ego, vanity, desire for power? Or is it a self-sacrifice — the capo misses much of the game — out of passion for the team, to drive the supporters on as one?