Ultras Without Borders

From Kiev to Cairo and Tunisia to Turkey, organized fan groups have been on the front lines of pretty much every recent uprising. Can their Western European counterparts learn from the Ultras’ tactics to achieve more modest change?

By David Goldblatt

Illustration by David Plunkert

Three days before opening day of the Premier League, around 500 fans organized by the Football Supporters Federation (FSF) and marched through London to the league’s well-appointed Georgian headquarters in the Marylebone neighborhood of London. They were protesting, for the second year running, the astronomical cost of tickets and the shoddy treatment accorded to away fans, such as start times that are convenient for television broadcasts but make a day trip all but impossible. A couple dozen representatives of fan groups from across England were granted an audience with chief executive Richard Scudamore, who gave them the usual line: pricing policy is a matter for individual clubs, not the league. Compared to the hundreds of thousands who showed up to games on the first weekend of the season and paid the wincingly high prices the protestors were complaining about, the demonstration may not amount to much. However, it is just one act in a wider groundswell of increasingly organized and politicized soccer fans not just in England but all across Europe. The politicization of soccer fans, and of ultra groups in particular, has deep roots in the Mediterranean. In the 1970s and ’80s, Italian and Spanish ultras had a long and complex relationship with both the far right and the far left. Bologna’s Red and Blue Commandos were aligned with the left, for instance, and Lazio’s Irriducibili held with the far right. Imported into more authoritarian societies, the ultra model created organizations that did more than merely flirt with politics and its slogans but became the shock troops of the barricades. In the former Yugoslavia, ultra groups in Croatia and Serbia formed the foot soldiers of the hastily assembled militia and armies that fought the Yugoslav civil war and conducted many acts of ethnic cleansing in the early 1990s. After the war, ultras from both Partizan and Red Star Belgrade would lead the protests that removed the architect of the war, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, from power. This kind of cross-club alliance between ultras has emerged more recently in Egypt, Turkey, and Ukraine. In Egypt in 2011, the Ultras Ahlawy (fans of Cairo’s Al-Ahly) and the Ultras White Knights (supporters of Giza’s Zamalek SC) provided invaluable experience in occupying public space and fighting security forces as part of the original coalition that staged the Day of Rage. (Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the ultras, like much of the opposition, have been in almost continuous conflict with the security services and the enduring members of the old regime who make up the management of their clubs.) Less well known but equally catalytic was the role of soccer fans in Tunisia in that country’s uprising several months previously. James Dorsey has written about the ultras who took part in pitched battles with police in the period before the Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali went into exile in early 2011. Two years later, in Turkey, opposition to then prime minister (and, as of August 28 of this year, president) Recep Tayyip Erdogan crystallized around the occupation of Istanbul’s Gezi Park, where supporters of Turkish clubs Besiktas, Fenerbahce, and Galatasaray played a similar role.

In Egypt and Tunisia, soccer provides a rare arena in which alternative and oppositional identities can be expressed in public, the security apparatus challenged.

In Ukraine, ultras from Dynamo Kiev and other clubs were visibly present at demonstrations beginning last November in Kiev’s Independence Square against then president Viktor Yanukovych. The ensuing Russian annexation of Crimea and war between the Ukrainian state and Russian-speaking separatists in the east have seen ultra groups across the country — including in Crimea — line up with the Ukrainian cause. Fighting between fans of teams based in the west and the east of the country has been replaced by a well-observed truce and active support for clubs in the war zone, such as Shakhtar Donetsk, which cannot play at home.

That said, while these political conflicts have managed to unite soccer fans across the usual divisions of club and region against a common enemy, most ultra groups in southern and eastern Europe remain tied to a destructive and nihilistic cycle of internal fighting and a variety of racist and ultra-nationalist political programs. Last year, Bulgarian supporters of CSKA Sofia destroyed the national association’s offices — they believed the Bulgarian Football Union was making it too difficult for their debt-ridden club to merge with another, when failure to complete a merger would result in CSKA being kicked out of the top division — but were absent from the huge anti-corruption protests that had taken place two weeks earlier outside the national parliament. Romanian and Polish clubs, repeatedly sanctioned by UEFA, continue to play before racist crowds.

More stable cross-club fan organizations have been established in western Europe. Germany’s Association of Active Football Fans (BAFF) and Italy’s Progetto Ultra both have their roots in the first antiracism projects of the 1990s. Both continue to campaign on that issue, with the Italians staging the grassroots Mondiali Antirazzisti, as well as wider fan concerns like preserving safe-standing areas in stadiums threatened by the encroachment of all-seater plans, monitoring and challenging the overzealous policing of fans, and keeping ticket prices low.

These, for the most part, are the struggles of the poor and peripheral. Now, as fan groups from Liverpool, Manchester City, and Arsenal demonstrate against rising ticket prices, the fans of the biggest and richest clubs are getting organized and protesting, too.

In Sweden, the Football Supporters Union has helped mobilize fans against the FA’s plan to abandon the fifty-plus-one rule, which has ensured that all of Sweden’s clubs remain in social ownership — and it has been successful. In Scotland, decades of enmity against Glasgow Rangers saw expression in an unprecedented wave of fan activism over whether the newly consecrated Rangers (emerging after an epic bankruptcy) should have to go to the bottom of the league. The big clubs, which wanted Rangers crowds and TV money, were against; everyone else was for. Given that most Scottish clubs are reliant on ticket income rather than TV revenue, fans’ plans to boycott games was not seen as an idle threat. Consequently, the majority of league clubs voted with their fans and sent Rangers to the bottom of the Third Division.

In England, club-level activism has been on the rise for some time. Faced with an extraordinary array of incompetent or criminal directors and chairmen, fan groups have focused on issues of ownership and survival. Supporters trusts now own or part own more than a dozen professional teams, including Portsmouth, winner of the 2008 FA Cup. In the cases of AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester, an intolerable situation at the original club — Wimbledon departing for Milton Keynes and Manchester United’s sale to the the Glazer family, respectively — inspired the formation of an entirely new club.

Last season, the new owner of Hull City appeared determined to change the team’s name to Hull Tigers on the grounds that “City” was a hopeless brand but was thwarted by a nationwide campaign against him. The attempts of Cardiff City fans to return their club’s strip to its original blue after Malaysian owner Vincent Tan changed it to red have yet to succeed. These, for the most part, are the struggles of the poor and peripheral. Now, as fan groups from Liverpool, Manchester City, and Arsenal demonstrate against rising ticket prices, the fans of the biggest and richest clubs are getting organized and protesting, too. The FSF’s current protests on ticket prices follow the group’s widely supported campaign to introduce safe standing in English soccer stadiums.

In keeping with the cautious corporatism of western European governance, UEFA has actually helped nurture the continent-wide network of Football Supporters Europe (FSE) and holds regular official discussions with it. FIFA, needless to say, has no global equivalent. Organized opposition is confined to the online campaigns and networks like ChangeFIFA and the occasional anarchist assault, like the attack staged by Swiss activists on FIFA’s Zurich headquarters earlier this year.

It’s not quite the storming of the Winter Palace, but something is going on in the world of soccer and politics. Why? In Egypt and Tunisia, many leaders of the ultra groups formed over the last decade or so are led by sons of the elite — university educated, socially conscious, and often well traveled — who are deeply frustrated by the state of politics at home. Soccer provides a rare arena in which alternative and oppositional identities can be expressed in public, the security apparatus challenged. This generation, blocked by authoritarian control of conventional politics, has led the process. Turkey and Ukraine, where the governments have been less authoritarian, appear less extreme versions of this.

In western Europe, the increasing commercialism of the game — present in the hyper-global neoliberalism of the EPL and the moderated social market of the Bundesliga alike — has become a significant source of discontent, forcing fan groups into both symbolic displays of opposition as well as more conventional forms of lobbying. In all these cases the relatively recent arrival of mobile technologies and social media has been a vital component of the self-organization of soccer fans.

And then there is always the role of the good example. Soccer associations and club owners continue to decry the politicization of the game, evoking some kind of Arcadian fantasy world where soccer was a pristine apolitical place. They are, however, the leading political agents in the game. Does anyone imagine that the investments in European soccer by the royal houses of Qatar and Abu Dhabi have no political agenda? Did deposed Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra really buy Manchester City for sporting reasons? Of course not. These people know that soccer is a political game. Now they are, I hope, going to have to contend with a soccer public that understands it, too.