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Alexander Wolff
February 01, 2001
The rivalry between Bologna's two pro basketball teams—and their wild fans—makes Duke versus North Carolina look like a lovefest
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February 01, 2001

Italian Heroes

The rivalry between Bologna's two pro basketball teams—and their wild fans—makes Duke versus North Carolina look like a lovefest

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I scarcely speak Italian and only fitfully understand it, so to my ears the two sets of fans in Bologna's Palasport Casalecchio were lustily serenading each other with perfect pitch on that Sunday afternoon. Tip-off for the game between Virtus Bologna and Fortitudo Bologna was still an hour away, and already their followers were in full throat. Only later would their words be translated for me.

"We are Bologna!"

"You are white-and-black bastards!"

"Oh, and did you win the title?"

"Let's kill Danilovic, let's sodomize Nesterovic; then it's your turn!"

Stalwart language that it is, Italian has a word for this kind of parochial zealotry. It's campanilismo, literally, fealty to one's bell tower—loyalty to your neighborhood. In Bologna, the city's passion is divided between two huge camps of fans, all animated by the knowledge that they're cheering on one of Italy's wealthiest and most storied teams. Every time Fortitudo and Virtus play each other, renewing what is known as the Derby, they whip this city of 400,000 people into a froth.

The teams are scheduled to meet only twice a season, but because both are among Europe's elite, they run into each other far more often. During the season before my visit the two hooked up a psychologically torturous 10 times. It would be accurate to say that Fortitudo fared well enough, winning four of those meetings, but it would also be misleading. For while Fortitudo beat Virtus in the semifinals of the Italy Cup and went on to win that title, Virtus won the Euro League and the scudetto, the tricolored patch emblematic of the Italian championship.

Virtus began as a fencing club in 1871, and its following includes many of Bologna's lawyers, managers and entrepreneurs. They turn out in their Armani sweaters and Zegna slacks, with cell phones chirping in their pockets and midwinter tans hinting at ski weekends in the Alps. Austere and elitist, Virtus flies black and white as its colors and charges nearly twice what its rival does for season tickets. Virtus won its 14th scudetto in 1998, a total worthy of the Boston Celtics, with a victory over Fortitudo in a decisive fifth game. That tide came after Fortitudo led two games to one; after Fortitudo lost the fourth game by two points following a tantalizing missed three-pointer at the buzzer by its expensive American ringer, Dominique Wilkins; after Virtus trailed by four points with 18 seconds to play in the final game. Fortitudo's owner, Giorgio Seragnoli, was born into a family of Croesusean wealth. He is said to have signed Wilkins as a birthday gift for his 10-year-old son. And after that season, he made like Giorgio Steinbrenner and cut Wilkins.

Catholic priests founded Fortitudo at the turn of the century as a youth center for the city's working-class west side. Fortitudo partisans like to say that their team still attracts students and workers, when in fact many fans turned to Fortitudo during the 1980s simply because Virtus was punching out the house. Fortitudo's hardcore partisans, the Fossa dei Leoni, or Lion's Den, are louder, more numerous and much more outrageous than Virtus's fan club, the Forever Boys. Ironic and self-mocking, famous for the elaborate choreography of their routines and notorious for their lapses in taste, they embody the Bolognese sense of humor and zest for life. "Fortitudo is a faith," they say. "Virtus is a fancy."

The Fossa dei Leoni pulled off their most inspired bit of pageantry before a game in 1995, when Virtus was sponsored by Buckler, a nonalcoholic beer. First they unfurled a giant banner reading TO LIVE A LIFE IN BLACK AND WHITE.... Then they rolled out another: DRINKING NONALCOHOLIC BEER. Then came the Fortitudian alternative to so spiritless an existence—one last banner, COLORS, followed by a cannonade of streamers of every hue launched from the arena's top row. No one who tells this story fails to add the kicker: Fortitudo won the game by a point.

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