Excerpt: Ultras by Mark Doidge, Radoslaw Kossakowski and Svenja-Maria Mintert

Excerpt: Ultras by Mark Doidge, Radoslaw Kossakowski and Svenja-Maria Mintert

Ultras: The Passion and Performance of Contemporary Football Fandom investigates the social, political and emotional lives of fanatical football fans

In this detailed history of football fandom, Mark Doidge, Radoslaw Kossakowski and Svenja-Maria Mintert investigate how the culture of the ultras has swept from Europe across the world. 

In comparison to the football hooliganism more typical of British football, ultras tend to be organised collectives with specific codes and behaviours. Starting in France and Italy, ultras culture has spread globally to places like Egypt, Turkey and Ukraine.

To be an ultra means far more than loving football. It is a way of life. Learn what defines an ultra—from their notorious pyrotechnics in the stadiums to fierce club loyalties—and how their love of the beautiful game has changed society. 

In this extract, Doidge, Kossakowski and Mintert describe how ultras have been instrumental in several political movements and demonstrations, particularly the Arab Spring.

The extract

Ultras - The Passion and Performance of Football Fandom book cover

Even though intense rivalries can exist between football fans, extraordinary factors can lead to friendships or the temporary formation of alliances.

As has occurred with some left-leaning groups, friendships can be formed on ideological lines (Doidge, 2013). This was spectacularly highlighted in 2013 during the Gezi Park protests in the Beşiktaş neighbourhood of Istanbul.

Members of Beşiktaş’ Çarşı group attended the protests, and were soon joined by members of Tek Yumruk of Galatasaray and Vamos Bien of Fenerbahçe, both of whom expressed leftist tendencies.

Under the banner of "Istanbul United", these fan groups sought to mobilise around political interests that were not confined to football. In so doing, they sought to make history in different ways.

Ultras groups uniting in the face of wider politics had a more significant impact in Egypt.

The Italian language influenced the early passionate fans in Egypt. Until the 1990s, such supporters were called the terso, a name deriving from the Italian word terzo meaning ‘three’ and denoting the fans who sat in area of the stadium reserved for third-class tickets (El-Zatmah, 2012).

The composition of these fan groups changed from the 1970s, particularly thanks to a growing Islamification within Egyptian society, and fewer women attending matches.

By the 2000s groups of young men were identifying as ultras and including pyrotechnics in their matchday displays.

"Ultras as a more political and rebellious force tend to have developed under democratic political systems"

The first organised ultras groups were established in 2007 by the fans of the two Cairo giants, Al Ahly (Ultras Ahlawy) and Zamalek (Ultras White Knights). This was quickly followed by the formation of groups at clubs elsewhere in the country, like the Green Eagle Ultras in Port Said and the Blue Devils Ultras of Ghazl El Mahalla.

It is clear that these groups follow the tradition of incorporating the team’s colours into their name, while also including strong or graceful animals or mythical beasts. Each symbolises the strength and power of the (masculine) fan groups.

What characterises the Egyptian ultras is how they emerged and grew under an authoritarian regime. As shown elsewhere in this chapter, ultras as a more political and rebellious force tend to have developed under democratic political systems, especially just after the collapse of dictatorships.

"Ultras in Egypt precipitated the fall of an authoritarian regime"

In contrast, ultras in Egypt precipitated the fall of an authoritarian regime.

For El-Zatmah (2012: 802): "It is no coincidence that the rise of the Ultras’ fan movements in Egypt came at a time when political activist groups, especially youth activists taking advantage of digital technology, had started to organise themselves into political and social movements in opposition to [President] Mubarak’s regime." 

The broader ultras ideology, as expressed through the mantra of Against Modern Football, manifests in an anti-police, anti-media, anti-football federation, anti-corporate stance (El-Zatmah, 2012; Doidge, 2015a; Perasović and Mustapić, 2018).

This approach dovetailed neatly with a wider disenchantment with Egyptian politics and society.

Members of Zamalek's Ultras White Knights in Tahrir Square on Friday, 9 September 2011, taking part in the mass protests against police brutality and military tribunalsCredit: Hossam el-Hamalawy via Flickr, CC BY 2.0. Football ultras were instrumental in protests across Egypt, including this demo against police brutality in Tahrir Square on September 9, 2011

Similar to the case in Istanbul two years later, the ultras of rival football teams united in a square hosting the protests against the Mubarak regime. They were particularly important on 29 January 2011 during the decisive "Camel Battle" on the Qasr al-Nile bridge, the main entrance to Tahrir Square (El-Zatmah, 2012; Raab, 2012).

Supporters of Mubarak armed with swords and chains rode on horses and camels into the protestors in an attempt to disperse them. Years of engaging with the police had taught the ultras about police tactics and teamwork.

"It was the Ultras," El-Zatmah (2012: 808) argues, "that broke through the lines of police forces that attempted to close the bridge to stop the demonstrators from reaching the Tahrir Square." 

Dozens were killed and many more injured. This clash gave confidence to those taking part and many more joined the protests. Mubarak resigned eleven days later.

"Years of engaging with the police had taught the ultras about police tactics and teamwork"

This incident, like the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, demonstrated that in exceptional circumstances rival groups can join forces to great effect. Their role has not gone unnoticed, as the new El-Sisi regime has banned ultras from football stadiums, effectively neutering their power.

Putatively, this was due to the deaths of 74 Al Ahly fans in clashes at Port Said in 2012 and 22 Zamalek fans who died in a stampede at the Air Defence Stadium after police opened fire.

A similar crackdown has occurred in Morocco.

The fertile political climate across North Africa that precipitated the Arab Spring also helped the ultras to grow. Although not as dramatically affected by the Arab Spring as their North African neighbours, Morocco also recognised the power of the ultras.

Green Boys football fans wear green t-shirts and wave football flags while green smoke bomb goes off in backgroundCredit: Looking FC via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0. A government crackdown on ultras in Morocco hasn't deterred football fans from putting on visual spectacles in the stadium

In 2016 the authorities prohibited the use of label "ultras", as well as bringing flags, banners and drums into stadiums or making choreographies.

In Morocco the first ultras groups formed in 2005 with the Green Boys at Raja Casablanca, Winners at Wydad Casablanca and Ultras Askary at FAR Rabat.

Despite attempts to crack down on the ultras, the passion and intensity of the emotions in Moroccan stadiums is supplemented with spectacular choreographies, as well as the use of smoke bombs and pyrotechnics.

A significant development has occurred in neighbouring Algeria, where choreographies by ultras have influenced political protests away from the stadium as protestors created large tifos on buildings in public spaces (Mezahi, 2019).

As elsewhere in the world, the ultras represent one of the rare opportunities to see significant numbers of people organise large-scale public activities. It is for this reason that many authorities have sought to regulate or prohibit their conduct. 

Ultras: The Passion and Performance of Contemporary Fandom is out now, published by Manchester University Press

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