The unbridled passion of Sunderland supporters never fails to amaze me - people from all over the world go to some extraordinary lengths to follow the lads, and I often feel that I take for granted the fact that I live and work a stone’s throw from the Stadium of Light, where going to games and generally being involved with the club is a lot easier for me than it is for so many others.
That is why the story of Sunderland’s Italian Branch, ‘the Black Cats of Italy’, fascinates me so much. Their origins are almost three decades old, and to this day they still retain a passionate, burning support for the club despite being thousands of miles away from Wearside.
You won’t meet many groups of fans prouder than the lads from Brescia, who travel over to England to watch Sunderland play multiple times every season - at a presumably high personal expense. And even when they aren’t on these shores they’re spreading the good word of Sunderland across Italy, taking part in charity events in the club’s name and playing in football tournaments adoring the red and white stripes and the club’s badge.
With that in mind I sat down for a chat with Enrico, who heads up the branch, to gain some insight into their operation, how things work and how he became such a massive lads fan.
RR: Hi Enrico! How did you come to start the Black Cats of Italy Branch, and how long has the branch been going?
E: Our group was founded many years ago, back in 1990.
We started the branch with only five members - me, my dad, my brother and two of our friends. Now, 28 years later, we have a strong group of 55 members. The biggest group hails from Brescia in Northern Italy, but our members come from all over the country.
RR: It’s never been more exciting to be a Sunderland supporter. With the club becoming far more inclusive, how important is it to you to feel a part of what is going on?
E: We really are very proud to be part of this great fan base.
We supported Sunderland AFC in Premier League, in the Championship and now in League One. Our passion is for the colours of red and white, and nothing else really matters.
RR: How did you become a Sunderland supporter?
E: All the way back in 1990 I saw a programme on television about English football, and in it I saw footage of Roker Park and the passion of the mackem supporters.
So, from that moment on there was only space for Sunderland in my footballing life.
In 2015, to celebrate my twenty-five years as Sunderland supporter, I rode my bike from Italy to the Stadium of Light! [Ed’s note: Enrico arrived on Wearside to watch us play Norwich... we were 2-0 down after 37 minutes and eventually lost 3-1 in what was one of the worst Sunderland home performances in recent memory. An authentic experience!]
RR: Do you manage to get to many games?
E: Yeah, we normally come over to England for five or six matches every season.
The next one that we’ll be on Wearside for will be the game at the Stadium of Light against Bristol Rovers on the 15th of December. That day, we’ll be having an Italian party at Fans Museum after the match!
RR: What are your hopes for your branch in the future?
E: Well, we hope to continue organising meetings, charity events and football events. From the 31st of May to 2nd of June 2019 we will be holding the second Sunderland fans party in Italy, and have hopes that more than 100 Mackems will arrive here on Lake Iseo.
RR: How can fans in Italy get involved with your branch?
E: We have a Facebook page which you can like and follow by clicking here, and on there you’ll be able to keep up with all of our latest updates and events and meetups. People interested in joining our group can contact me via email - click here for that.
In Sarnico, on the lake, we have our club house. It’s a stress-free pub, with flags, badges and shirts of Sunderland and the Black Cats of Italy. It is a small pub but fantastic.