Ultra vires

While Italy's authorities want to copy England's hooligan crackdown, our fans are trying to get beyond the power of police and stewards.

Duleep Allirajah

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The history of football is all about imports and exports. In the nineteenth century England invented the game and exported it to Europe and Latin America. They got quite good at it and now we import foreign players and marvel at their mesmerising circus tricks. We also invented football hooliganism and successfully exported that too. The ‘English disease’ of hooliganism has now been virtually eradicated in our domestic game but still thrives in other countries. Now it looks like we’ll be exporting our anti-hooligan expertise, following the death of a policeman in violent clashes involving Sicilian fans.

Our training methods might be 25 years out of date, as former Middlesbrough striker Massimo Maccarone claimed this week, but the Italians are looking to England for solutions to the problem of hooliganism. ‘If in England they’ve managed to beat every type of violence, I see no reason why we can’t do the same,’ said Sergio Campana, head of the players’ association. Italy’s sports minister Giovanna Melandri has demanded that clubs take immediate steps to tackle hooliganism. ‘We have four fixed demands: closed-circuit TV surveillance, named tickets, electronic turnstiles and crowd control outside the stadiums,’ said Melandri.

Italian football, we are told, is in the grip of the ultras – the hardcore fans who have been blamed for terrace violence. Ironically, while the Italians want to get tough with their ultras and copy our draconian anti-hooligan measures, some disgruntled British fans have been looking to the Italians for inspiration. If all you know about the ultras is what you’ve read in the newspapers, you might be forgiven for believing that they are some kind of hooligan mafiosi led by sinister capi (bosses). In reality they are little more than semi-official supporters’ clubs who make huge flags and banners, organise pre-match tifos or choreographies, run social clubs, arrange away travel, and produce merchandise. There are invariably some tifosi who enjoy the odd punch up but to use the word ‘ultra’ as a synonym for hooligan is just lazy journalism.

The ultra phenomenon in Britain is not a new take on the traditional hooligan ‘firm’. Designer-clad hooligans have little time for fans who sport their club colours – ‘scarfers’ as they call them. The growth of a British ultra scene is primarily a reaction by fans to the soulless atmosphere in modern football grounds. I first noticed this development last year when a group of Crystal Palace fans calling themselves the ‘Holmesdale Fanatics’ started adopting a more continental style of support, displaying flags and banners and twirling their scarves Italian-stylee.

But Palace fans are not the only ones to have formed their own ultra group. When I typed in the word ‘ultras’ on Google, one of the first search results was the website of Accrington Stanley ultras; a small group of fans with very big banners. The Stanley ultras are one of eight supporter groups who came together to establish the Ultras UK website which enables likeminded fanatics to share photos and swap stories of officious stewarding (1). According to Ultras UK, there is an ultra mentality that consists of four principles:

  1. never stop singing during the whole match, no matter the result;
  2. never sit down during matches
  3. follow as many games possible, regardless of costs or distances;
  4. loyalty to the stand that the group is located in

Strict adherence to the ultra philosophy sounds like a recipe for laryngitis, insolvency and getting dumped by your girlfriend if you ask me. Nevertheless, there’s something endearing about their monkish devotion to the cause. The ultra groups vary considerably in size and organisational capability; some enjoy the blessing of their club while others remain independent. Time will tell whether our homegrown ultras are just a passing fad, like the craze for giant inflatables that swept the terraces in the late 1980s, but it does signify an attempt by fans to forge their own carnivalesque terrace culture rather than be passive consumers of US-style sportertainment.

Amanda Matthews from the Stand Up Sit Down campaign, which was formed by West Ham fans who want supporters to be able to choose whether they sit or stand, believes that the emergence of ultra groups in the UK is symptomatic of a wider groundswell of disenchantment with modern football. ‘We’re aware of many fans who, while they can afford the ticket prices, are increasingly disgruntled with many other issues to the point that they are choosing to watch games in pubs where their every move is not monitored by increasingly over-zealous stewards and police who threaten ejection for behaviour not that long ago deemed part and parcel of the theatre of football’, she told me. Matthews is particularly resentful of ‘attempts to orchestrate atmosphere by playing music before games that drown out traditional chanting, or after goals’.

Matthews has, however, detected a new refusenik mood amongst fans. For example, in October 2006, a group of Liverpool fans set up Reclaim the Kop in order to ‘halt the decline in Kopite behaviour and traditions…and rekindle the matchday atmosphere’. One particular bugbear of Reclaim the Kop is the lack of originality of Anfield chants. ‘As Liverpudlians, we should never follow the rest of country’s trends and fancies,’ the group proclaims in their Kop Charter. ‘Whether that takes the form of lower-league grade chanting, overhead seal-clapping or the wearing of yokel-style head gear, the Kop deserves better.’ Fan groups such as the Leeds’ LUFC 04 Ultras, Middlesbrough’s Twelfth Man group and Arsenal’s Red Action are also attempting to inject more colour and life into the matchday atmosphere by organising pre-match choreographies, creating singing sections, and displaying giant flags.

There’s a strong vein of antipathy to ‘modern football’ that runs through these fan initiatives. Personally, I don’t want to turn back the clock to the bad old days of uncovered terraces flowing with urine. However, the ultra groups have highlighted a real problem in British football, namely that the drive to make football stadiums family-friendly has not only driven out the hooligans, it has adversely affected the atmosphere inside our football grounds. Italians might wish to take note. You might be able to copy our panopticon-style policing of spectators but you will pay a high price in the form of collateral damage to the spirit and passion of terrace culture.

(1) Ultras UK

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