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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