FOOTBALL IS A SPORT FOR THE PEOPLE, and supporters have organically provided its never-ending heartbeat for well over a century. Over the years, fan culture has, in its own right, become a separate entity that provides just as much entertainment as the game itself.
Whether it’s 75,000 dancing to the samba beat in the Maracanã or a chorus of chants sailing away on a sea of flares in Poland, there is a worldwide fascination with the phenomenon of football fanatics; the electricity certainly provides an extra ingredient to the allure of the beautiful game. Central to its absorption is the movement of ultras fan groups.
For generations, fanatics across the world have displayed passionate gestures of loyalty by providing some of sport’s greatest ever atmospheres. However, back page headlines and television news reports have been equally dominated by scenes of fighting, vandalism and other negative actions which constantly bring the reputation of football supporters into disrepute.
To the uneducated outsider, it is almost incomprehensible to fathom how or why football supporters could possibly get this worked up over what is essentially a game. However, in several parts of the world, the sport is more than a choice between colours.
For millions around the globe, the choice of football team encapsulates identity both on a united and individual level. Clubs often symbolise a way of life and are institutions regularly steeped in decades of historical context, whether that be political, religious or economic. Football is a forum for fans to demonstrate their feelings and, particularly in the case of ultras, is a massive factor behind the passion-fuelled adrenaline that surrounds match day.
Europe and South America are two football mad regions. Unsurprisingly, they are the two areas where the ultra movement enjoys its tightest grip.
Football is a social mainstay across the two continents and serves as a backbone to the cultural DNA of many regions. Whilst there are significant differences from country to country, there are literally hundreds of cities across Europe and South America that become transformed on match day thanks to the stranglehold that the sport enjoys. It doesn’t matter where you travel, people’s relationship with football is monumental and its omnipresence can be felt 24/7 – this is especially true for the ultra groups.
In many cases, being part of an ultra following doesn’t simply cover the match experience. Rather, it becomes a family united in everyday life and the club becomes the beating heart of their very existence. It might not be commonplace in Britain, but in mainland Europe – particularly the eastern echelons – football is supplemented by professional teams in various other disciplines.
The fact that fanatics will regularly attend the club’s fixtures in sports such as volleyball or basketball underlines that loyalty to the entire institution and everything it stands for both on and, perhaps more significantly, off the pitch.
To borrow the old cliché, football is their religion and the club is their place of worship. That sentiment is perfectly exhibited by the fact that ultra groups around the world will have dedicated pubs, bars and clubhouses around the stadium vicinity. In Europe, the Netherlands is just one nation where ultras venues are commonplace. PSV’s techno-pumping, beer chugging party hall is one that I’ve been fortunate to enter and the atmosphere inside is a glowing testimony to the passion and adulation felt towards their team. Likewise, a decor that consists entirely of football-related memorabilia will verify their absolute commitment to following their side.
PSV is by no means a unique situation either, with clubs across the Netherlands and mainland Europe enjoying similar venues kitted out as shrines to their respective clubs in order to further validate the ultra passion. In Greece, Panathinaikos boast a huge multi-storied clubhouse that even hosts a recording studio. Whilst the ignorant would tarnish ultras as mindless thugs, that could scarcely be further from the truth. On the contrary, unity is a central component throughout the entire movement and, rather than a love of physical brutality, it is positivity towards a specific team that serves as the glue holding each band of brothers together.
That’s not to suggest that violence doesn’t play a role within the ultra lifestyle both in Europe and further afield.
Even those unfamiliar with the fan culture of South America will be aware that its two football giants are riddled with acts of brutality. Hostility between rival clubs has been a foundation of the Brazilian and Argentine scene for the best part of a century and unlike Britain, where the problems have been largely extinguished, the situation doesn’t appear to be getting any better.
In fact, Brazilian football saw its highest ever death count in 2012 with 29 cases being reported. Just twelve months later, that was eclipsed as the total for 2013 hit 30. Additionally, there were hundreds of injuries sustained over the course of the season. When comparing the violence in South America to Europe, generally speaking there tends to be a much greater frequency of confrontation in the stands of the former whereas altercations in the latter tend to spill out onto the streets. That isn’t necessarily the case in all regions – it is almost impossible to summarise an entire continent without giving an unfair reflection of certain parts – but it could be argued that policing in Europe is far more stringent than the likes of Brazil and Argentina.
If you take Britain as an example, there are very few spontaneous tussles within stadiums, and fights are often more organised. Countries like Russia and Poland are affected by an underground organised fighting scene known as ‘Ustawka’ in which groups of rival fans plan gang battles in fields and other secluded areas away from the threat of arrest. Whilst the Ustawka movement isn’t limited to football fans, supporters of the region’s biggest clubs play a prominent role. On the other hand it also shows that young men, especially in locations where war has been a major part of the recent history, will find a way to fight regardless of whether football is involved.
It is worth noting, however, that in spite of what certain sections would want the public to believe, not all football-related violence is down to ultras and not all match day altercations are rooted by sporting matters.
Of all the safety issues affecting Brazil in the build up to World Cup 2014, none were greater than the protests seen outside various stadiums. However, the opposition in these cases weren’t primarily football fans. Instead, the antipathy was coming from sections of the public who were outraged at the Brazilian government’s perceived waste of much needed money. The stadium in São Paulo was central to the altercations and, having been there myself, it isn’t hard to empathise with the locals. Visible from the stadium’s vicinity is one of the country’s largest favelas – a powerful reminder to the financial problems that face such a large percentage of the population.
Brazil is a country plighted by poverty, even in cities like Rio de Janeiro where there are of course areas of extensive wealth.
On this occasion, the economical climate had been central to a row between football organisations and non-football supporting members of the public. Naturally, though, financial problems can also infiltrate the sport itself, sparking hatred between rival clubs and fanatics.
It would be too simple to attribute ultra violence to sporting rivalry alone and the situation is far more complex than that. Economics does play a huge role, which is something Italy’s football culture provides an honest insight into. In economically struggling areas such as Naples, the local population can feel alienated from the more financially stable northern territories; whilst that emotion isn’t exclusive to football, the Stadio San Paolo is one of the best outlets to vent those frustrations.
Opposing economical statuses aren’t only central to rivalries between competing cities, they are regularly one of the key aspects of local battles. Argentina capital Buenos Aries is arguably one of the greatest footballing cities on the planet and is home to one of the most fascinating derbies in the world. For outside supporters, the Superclásico offers an ongoing war of attrition between two of South America’s most iconic teams. However, the battle between River Plate and Boca Juniors is another steeped in cultural history.
There is a long history between the Barras Bravas – a common term to describe South American ultras – but it is best summed up by the fact River Plate are recognised as Los Millonarios while Boca remain a club notoriously synonymous with the working-class, something a brief walk around the La Boca area surrounding La Bombonera will attest.
Money naturally plays a huge factor, especially for those who don’t have it, and being a leading figure in the Barras Bravas can provide opportunities. In many cities, the impact of fanatical groups is felt even by non-football supporters. For example, the gangs can have a huge say on outside proceedings such as political votes by persuading members to choose one candidate or another. An aura of tribalism transcends the South American ultra scene to an even greater level than Europe and in an environment as saturated by football as Buenos Aires, it is no surprise that the movement’s grasp on the city is so firm.
Therefore, ranking well on the hierarchy of the ultra firms leads to a level of respect and authority that is hard to obtain away from a life on the terraces – and in some cases that can lead to in-house altercations. In July 2013, two sets of Boca fans opened fire on each other in a clash that is believed to have emanated over the control of the club’s La 12 faction. In other cases, in both South America and Europe, disagreements can lead to splinter firms being launched.
Essentially, power and finance provide the crux of most human altercation and it is inevitable that football isn’t exempt from that.
In Greece, times of national economic crisis have brought a drastic increase in violence at football, leading to sport being put on hiatus on two separate occasions in recent years. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to attribute wealth as the main focus of the ultra movement; simply, there are far more important issues at hand. On a similar note, contrary to what some sources would have you believe, it is highly inaccurate to suggest that fanatical groups all share one political agenda.
Football is a microcosm of society and fan culture offers an honest representation of an area’s cultural and historical backdrop. In Europe, many of the harshest supporter climates come from areas that are still feeling the fallout from war and conflict.
In Serbia, for example, some ultra firms consist of former soldiers who have been fighting battles as recently as the 1990s. Inevitably, political circumstances infiltrate the mindset of supporters and that has a huge impact on the manner in which they conduct themselves. Whilst some sections may take a negative view, it is easy to understand how and why those feelings of antipathy remain.
The Serb-Albanian fiasco of 2014 is the perfect example of the hatred breaking out into violence.
Likewise, some of the most feared gangs in Poland, Ukraine and Russia also surfaced from locations where the history of war is still fresh in the memory, which is often what leads to right-wing allegiances or a tendency to evoke physical violence. Fundamentally, supporting a club is a vocation for temporary release and the passion leads to some truly explosive atmospheres, which rank amongst the best in world sport.
Irrespective of whether you condone or condemn those mindsets, the opinion that all football fans hold them is entirely false. In many cases, the political beliefs of an ultra gang are almost exclusively dictated by the social climate of the area. The impact of local backdrop can be felt across both Europe and South America, but is perhaps best showcased by the situation in places like Marseille and Hamburg.
Both the French and German cities are areas of mass immigration due to their harbours, and over the decades that has created huge segregations within certain parts of the community. At the same time, in other parts it has helped bring people of different backgrounds together as one and football has formed a key element of that harmony. Football is often a mirror of society and that is certainly evidenced with St. Pauli.
In terms of matters on the pitch, St. Pauli are forever in the shadow of their more illustrious rivals from the richer part of Hamburg and that club status is a microcosm of the cultural position of the region. The poorer province is a proud area, though, and a mongrel population of people from all walks of life is more than happy to openly display their acceptance of everyone. For decades, the Millerntor Stadion has been an outlet for public celebration of their left wing, tolerant beliefs.
In recent years the fans have pulled out all the stops to ensure their morals aren’t compromised. For this set of supporters, ideological beliefs are paramount and they’ve even been willing to sacrifice success in order to preserve them – another fine example that life as a football ultra isn’t solely about supporting the players for 90 minutes.
Their standing as a club does carry a unique sentiment as no other stadium in the world would embody such an eclectic mix of characters. Nonetheless, the punk style of St. Pauli is just one version of the ultra movement being a force of good.
Ultimately, football fanatics from all over the planet are united by a love of their respective teams and the ultra groups will do anything to stand up for both their beliefs and their clubs. Whilst it is hard to excuse some of their actions, Galatasaray’s UltrAslan are another fantastic paradigm for that feeling. The brand has become a huge business in Istanbul but when the club hit financial trouble, the ultras happily surrendered its assets (such as clothing ranges) to ensure the team can stay afloat. For football’s greatest die-hards, life without their club simply isn’t worth living.
Football is a game for everyone but its history amongst working-class men cannot be overlooked and it could quite easily be argued that fanatical groups, whether they’re European ultras or South American Barras Bravas, share the deepest relationship with it. That sentiment is omnipresent across the two continents; whilst the manner of showing it may differ between countries, passion and pride are two words synonymous with basically every group in existence.
The unrivalled levels of passion remains one of the chief factors that sets football aside from other sports, and the importance of fanatical groups cannot be overestimated. It’s hard not to be won over by the vibrant flares and tifos that sit at the very core of organised fan culture in both South America and Europe.
Football without ultras just wouldn’t be the same.
By Liam Newman. Follow @thatliamnewman