Interview with the North Terrace’s Andrea Sanini

More Than A Game caught up with Andrea Sanini, a senior member of Melbourne Victory’s fan group ‘North Terrace’ to speak about the Ultras movement in an Australian context.

Here’s what he had to say…

MTG: Australia has never been considered a place that has an ‘ultra movement’. Is the North Terrace trying to change that and begin Ultra-style support?

AS: I’m not so sure that we’ve never had a complete ultra movement like they have had in Europe, I think it would be wrong to say that we don’t have ultras in Australia, especially the fan groups who supported clubs like Melbourne Croatia and South Melbourne Hellas in the NSL (National Soccer League). I’m old enough to remember guys in those groups who reminded me completely of the ultras over in Europe.

Yes, we want to help establish a continental-style of football support. The use of big flags, banners and chants is something we want to achieve here, but it’s very difficult due to Australia’s ‘sit down shut up’ attitude of other sports. The soccer-type of support is very different to AFL and cricket and every time there is a minor incident like one flare being let off, the media makes it look ten-times worse than what it was. We don’t encourage the use of flares, but really it’s not the end of the world.

MTG: Does the North Terrace have a certain political stance?

AS: No, we are completely apolitical as a whole. However of course this being Australia you have a melting pot of cultures within the group and there are different political ideals that come from that, but at the end of the day they keep it to themselves. We had a problem a few years back when members of Melbourne’s skinhead community were trying to become part of the group, but there is no way we could have allowed that. Politics has no place for us, we are there because we love our city of Melbourne and we love our football club.

MTG: One thing you do share in common with European ultras is that you have had problems with the police. Is that a fair statement?

AS: Yes and no. We have had problems with the police in the past, but we believe it has been because of a result of overzealous policing that has put our members in danger because they don’t understand what we are trying to achieve. In Australia, people jumping up and down and singing is seen as causing a problem, when in all honesty we are just trying to create a better atmosphere and as far as I know jumping up and down wasn’t illegal. Our relations with the police have definitely improved in the past two years as we have sat down with them in meeting and told them what we are trying to do. I can’t even remember a major problem occurring since because they understand that we are not troublemakers and they keep a low profile, as I think before when they were inside the terrace it developed a bad atmosphere between them and us.

MTG: Apart from the North Terrace, are there any other groups in Australia that have anything close to an ultras-style of support?

AS: There is, but I’m going to be biased and say we are the closest! (laughs).
Our closest rivals in our league are probably Sydney FC (The Cove) and the new mob, Western Sydney Wanderers (Red Black Bloc). However there is no doubt the MCF (Melbourne Croatia Fans) of Melbourne Knights who play in the Victorian Premier League are the best in the country. They don’t have the numbers like we do, but quality wise they are just as good. A lot of them have spent time with Croatian ultras groups overseas so they know the score.

MTG: Thanks for your time and good luck!

AS: Not a problem at all.

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Politics and football, forever one.

Fireworks being lobbed in the stadium, banana’s showering the pitch and Che Guevara flags being openly burnt in the terraces.

Welcome to Hansa Rostock v St. Pauli, or as it’s known in Germany, the ‘fear derby’.

It was March 2010 and although I was warned not to attend this game by locals, the lure of a massive European football derby was too big to turn down despite its long history of violence.

With news being that there would be one police officer for every fifteen fans, I soon found out the seriousness of the hatred between fans of both clubs.

What could bring upon such hatred between two sets of people who live no more than two hours driving distance away from each other over a game of football?

The answer is simple: politics.

Rostock, although a relatively small city, is a flourishing hub for Neo-Nazism. St. Pauli on the other hand is Germany’s Amsterdam – a very liberal left-leaning city whose football fans are more than happy to display their love for Che Guevara and various other leftist ideologies through banners and choreographies.

Although the Hansa Rostock ultras aren’t as extravagant in their showing of their far right-wing beliefs as St. Pauli’s are with their left (it is a criminal offence in Germany to do anything that promotes/supports Nazi ideology), little hints appear as I cast my eye over the home fans end of the stadium.

I could have been wrong, but the amount of men with shaved heads suggested something more than a boldness problem in the city of Rostock. If that didn’t give it away then it was the same guys with the shaved heads all wore black hoods with a massive number ‘88’ emblazoned on the back probably did.

To those not in the know, Neo-Nazis use the number 88 as a code to symbolise the slogan ‘Heil Hitler’ as the letter H is the eighth letter in the alphabet.

Although there were only minor incidences before the game – probably due to the massive police presence – a late St. Pauli goal triggered a violent response from the Hansa Rostock ultras, who began to pepper the celebrating St. Pauli away end with fireworks and flares as well as throwing banana’s at St. Pauli’s black goalkeeper.

From amongst the smoke appeared a twenty-metre long banner in the away end, with “St. Pauli Antifa – Red or Dead!” painted on concrete underlay. Antifa being short for Anti-Fascist, this only angered the home crowd even more, who continued the barrage of missiles on the St. Pauli fans until the match was stopped by the referee.

As well as being the winners of the derby that night, the St. Pauli Football Club has become somewhat of an icon for Anti-Fascists around the world, with popular Icelandic rock band Sigur Ros known to wear St. Pauli ultras t-shirts at many of their gigs.

The ‘fear derby’ definitely isn’t the only fixture in Europe to be plagued by political-related violence.

Perhaps the most notable was the infamous Dinamo Zagreb – Red Star Belgrade riot of 1990, which many in the Balkan region suggest was one of the main precursors to the war that broke up Yugoslavia.

Dinamo Zagreb’s Bad Blue Boys and Red Star Belgrade’s Delije ultras groups clashed in running battles both inside and outside the stadium in which over 60 people were wounded.

The riot took place just weeks after Croatia held its first elections under Yugoslavian communist rule, in which the people voted for an independent Croatian republic. The BBB, fierce Croatian nationalists, fought against the Yugoslav-controlled police who protected the Red Star fans throughout the fighting and just months later the Croatian ‘War for Independence’ began.

Many BBB fought and died for Croatia during the war and now a large monument stands at Dinamo’s Maksimir Stadium in remembrance of the men.

Although not ‘traditional’ ultras, fans from massive rival Egyptian clubs Al-Ahly and Zamalek joined forces during the Arab Spring in an effort to help overthrow the Mubarak government. The main supporter groups were pivotal in organising the rallies in Tahir Square.

They say that politics and sport should never clash, but a sport as big as football in Europe cannot escape it; they are and always will be intertwined.

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Fandom first, football second…

The beautiful choreographies, stupendous pyrotechnical shows and passionate singing that many of us have come to expect from fans when watching football (soccer) is what sets the game apart from any other in the world.

The atmosphere in stadiums across Europe is incredible at best, but downright scary at worst. Having myself attended some major club football games in Europe, I’ve seen both sides.

Behind the haze of flare smoke lays a dark side to the so-called ‘beautiful game’. The self-proclaimed ‘Ultras’ – who are responsible for turning stadiums into intimidating cauldrons from both opposition fans and supporters – are swayed by extremist politics on both sides of the spectrum creating tension between opposing groups, which far too often leads to violence both on the terraces and in the streets.

Who exactly are the Ultras though?

To be frank the Ultra phenomenon is a very peculiar one and one most people just simply cannot comprehend, especially those who are non-followers of football.

Put simply, they are fanatical supporters who are known for massive displays of flags, banners and pyrotechnics as well as vocal support designed to not only give support to their own players but to intimidate the opposition.

However their ideals are somewhat more complex.

Many Ultras groups – not all – are influenced by extreme political views to the point where it has become the main driving force in the very existence of the groups in that the actual support of their team has become almost secondary.

One of the key ideals of the Ultras movement over the past twenty years has been the fight against the ‘commercialisation’ of football. A majority of groups around Europe will have a banner in Italian that reads  ‘Contro Il Calcio Moderno’ or ‘Against Modern Football’ which will generally hang off the fence in which they stand behind, clearly stating their viewpoint.

The origin of the Ultras movement is disputed, with many different fans from different clubs and countries claiming to have been the first group. Hajduk Split’s Torcida of Croatia are generally recognised as being the oldest active supporters group in Europe having been established in 1950, however the start of the true Ultras movement is said to have begun in Italy in the 1970’s.

Part of the ‘anti-establishment’ agenda the Ultras hold is a general disdain for the police and governments. They believe they are being repressed and that the freedoms that the Ultras enjoyed in the 70’s and 80’s are being taken away from them as all-seater stadiums (Ultras refuse to sit during matches) and overzealous policing becomes the norm.

This all came to a head in 2007 when 25-year-old Gabriele Sandri of Lazio’s Irrudicibli was shot dead by a policemen after a confrontation between Lazio and Juventus fans at a motorway service station. Although police said the shooting was accidental, Ultras groups around Italy invaded pitches in pockets of violence across the country demanding all games be called off, as the Italian football federation had not done so. A report later found out the shooting was intentional and creating even more tensions between Ultras and police which still pose massive problems in Italian league matches today.

After attending games in Germany, Poland, Croatia and Italy in early 2010, I saw first hand the power the Ultras had both in the stadium and over their clubs. Although they can be of massive nuisance to the clubs, they simply could not survive without them.

The first indication I got of this is when I stood next to Dinamo Zagreb’s Bad Blue Boys (more about them in my next blog) in a league match against Osijek. Crowds have dwindled over the past 10 or so seasons in Croatia’s domestic league, however the Ultras still remain in numbers as strong as ever.

Despite the constant illegal pyrotechnic use, fascist insignia on banners and right-wing nationalist chanting, Dinamo Zagreb could not afford to lose the BBB as if they do not turn up, really nobody would. The crowd for the first against third match was a poor 2,500, with Dinamo’s Ultras making up about half of that number.

It was the same deal in Poland, where Legia Warsaw’s intimidating group has such a reputation that police are simply too scared to enter their section of the stadium behind the goals and after seeing them I really could not blame them.

In Italy, I witnessed some of Sampdoria’s Ultras Tito Cucchiaroni intimidate stadium officials and security and walk into the ground en masse without paying for tickets during an away game at Udinese.   

It quite obvious the Ultras carry an ‘us against them mentality’ not only towards each other, but in the direction of higher authority as well.

But it isn’t all doom and gloom.

In the same matches that I attended, Legia Warsaw produced a mind-blowing choreography (see here), whilst Sampdoria’s ultras handed over a $15,000 cheque to a local cancer charity. These things don’t cancel out the fact that violence is a regular occurrence, it’s reassuring to know that they aren’t all complete psychopaths.

Without the Ultras there simply wouldn’t be the incredible atmosphere that adorns stadiums right across Europe, from the mass group of 25,000 that stand behind the goals at Borussia Dortmund games right to down to the 50 or so for Arezzo in the Italian third division.

Despite the violence that continues to plague the movement, the Ultras are here to stay.

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