Back in 2012, as Napoli lost 4-1 to Chelsea in the quarterfinals of soccer's Champions League quarterfinal, a number of fans noticed something unusual hanging in the Italian club's end of the stadium: a Confederate flag.
Yes, a flag used by soldiers fighting for the Confederacy during the American Civil War was now being flown almost a century and a half later by a bunch of Italian soccer fans in a West London soccer stadium.
Many who saw the flag were understandably perplexed. What, exactly, was the Italian link to the American South?
Why are the Napoli fans flying the Confederate flag at Stamford Bridge? pic.twitter.com/8qvf0Jat
— Our_Arsenal (@Our_ArsenalFC) March 14, 2012
As odd as it may seem, the Napoli fans' use of the Confederate flag isn't isolated. In fact, the flag is surprisingly common in southern Italy, just one of many foreign locations where the flag has been reappropriated for local purposes.
As the meaning of the Confederate flag is debated in the wake of the South Carolina shootings (a crime allegedly perpetrated by a young American who had himself reappropriated an apartheid-era South African flag and the flag of the Republic of Rhodesia), it is worth considering instances when the flag is shown abroad – and what message it is perceived to send.
In southern Italy, for example, it appears some see a historical parallel at work, pointing toward their own absorption into the Kingdom of Italy in 1861 and the perceived economic and political problems since then.
In "Nations Divided," a 2002 book by historian Don Harrison Doyle, the author recalls the explanation given to him by an Italian colleague for the southern Italian embrace of Confederate symbols. "We too are a defeated people," an unnamed professor of American literature in Naples told Doyle. "Once we were a rich and independent country, and then they came from the North and conquered us and took our wealth and power away to Rome."
A more direct historical link can be found in Brazil, where 10,000 Confederate supporters emigrated after the end of the Civil War. The descendents of these people still gather to celebrate their heritage at the yearly Festa Confederada, an event that includes country music, Southern food and the proud display of Confederate flags.
"I am proud of the Confederate flag because it is a piece of history that I am directly connected to," 34-year-old João Leopoldo Padovese, an organizer of this year's event, told Reuters. "For us in Brazil, it has no political meaning at all."
The lack of political context may explain why the Confederate flag often appears in unusual places. Confederate flags can be seen at Swedish car shows, for example, beloved by "raggare" enthusiasts who see the flag as part of their love for kitsch Americana, or GAA sports games in Cork, Ireland, where it was apparently chosen purely for its colors (fans also fly the Japanese Rising Sun flag with the same justification).
Sometimes, the ignorance is understandable. In 2013, a school in Canada had to ban the flag after schoolchildren began wearing it. “I didn't even know it was racist,” one student told the Toronto Star. “Then I Googled it.”
However, many can't claim ignorance when it comes to the flag's connotations of racism and slavery. In fact, it's likely that for a few Napoli soccer fans – in particular the hardcore "ultras" often at the center of match-day violence – it is just another reason to fly the flag of the Confederacy. Racist and anti-Semitic chants are alarmingly common all across Europe, and fans from clubs such as Spain's Real Madrid and France's Olympique de Marseille have also been spotted flying the flag.
Outside the soccer stadium, European extremist political groups have been known to fly the Confederate flag, too. European skinheads and neo-Nazis have sometimes adopted the Confederate flag, especially in Germany, where the swastika and other symbols of Nazi Germany are officially banned by law. Many Europeans see the flag as a de facto sign of far-right political leanings: A Confederate flag that was spotted in a photograph of a French police station last year caused a minor scandal.
Bizarrely, American Civil War reenactions have become popular in Germany, with significant numbers of Germans preferring to fight on the Confederate side. "I think some of the Confederate reenactors in Germany are acting out Nazi fantasies of racial superiority," Wolfgang Hochbruck, a professor of American Studies at the University of Freiburg, once told American journalist Tony Horwitz. "They are obsessed with your war because they cannot celebrate their own vanquished racists."
Things get more complicated when the politics of the Confederate flag get intertwined with modern conflicts. For example, the Red Hand Defenders, a Loyalist Ulster paramilitary group, has carried Confederate flags during marches (they argue that they do this because many Confederate soldiers were from Ulster). Prominent Israeli journalist Arieh O’Sullivan said he took a Confederate flag with him while serving with the Israeli army in Lebanon (Sullivan was raised in Louisiana and Mississippi and has dubbed himself a "Jewish Redneck"). Confederate flags can still be spotted in West Jerusalem.
Sometimes, the use of the flag in foreign conflicts can take on a surreal edge. Consider the recent conflict in Ukraine, where both the right-wing pro-Kiev political parties and pro-Russian separatists have been seen using Confederate flags or ones similar to them. The use of the Confederate flag by foreign soldiers was even mocked in the controversial Serbian film "Pretty Village, Pretty Flame," which features a young and naive Bosnian Serb army soldier flying the Confederate flag after the ethnic cleansing of a Bosniak area.
The Confederate flag's popularity around the world is limited but notable, and it's hard to explain. To some foreign fans, the flag may be a just another historical symbol, but the flag's link to slavery and racism is clearly a factor in many other cases. And, frankly, many of the foreigners flying it likely have little idea what it actually means.
But whatever happens to the flag near South Carolina's state Capitol, don't expect Italian soccer fans to give it up just yet. Given the flag's anti-authority connotations, it may well embolden them further.
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Correction: This post originally stated that the Confederate flag was flown at Cork soccer games, when it fact it is at Cork GAA games (which include hurling and Gaelic football). The post has been amended to correct this mistake.