Who are the ultras who inhabit the world of football? Q&A with an ultra who explains how things can get out of hand during matches.
By Nicolas Challal
The Euro 2016 football tournament got off to a violent start with clashes in Marseille between Russian and English supporters. England fans fought with Russian ultras, and witnesses said a group of ultras from Marseille joined in. But who are ultras and how did this particular category of supporters develop?
The movement is said to have started in former Yugoslavia in 1950, with the Torcida Split, the oldest group of supporters in Europe. The development of the ultras began in Italy at the end of the 1960s during a period of acute political tension. Groups of supporters became more and more organized in order to back their teams and established particular styles. The phenomenon spread across Europe in later years, even reaching the farther shores of the Mediterranean from Egypt to Turkey.
Here, Bookwitty interviews a young French ultra, Theo (not his real name), 21, who for the past five years has been a supporter of a team playing in the first division. Although the societal phenomenon of ultras is not as prevalent in France, it is extremely widespread in Italy, Germany or Russia for example. It is also present in the United Kingdom where it co-exists alongside hooliganism, the first appearance of which dates back to the late 19th century.
Bookwitty: When did you become a football fan and how did you discover the ultras?
Theo: I merely started supporting my team with my father at the stadium as soon as I was able to stand up. During the matches, the ultras were the most proactive groups of supporters. They sang in honor of their players, they danced, played drums and shouted their teams' name. I remember being both fascinated and amazed by these people who were so demonstrative supporting their team in victory as well as in defeat. I think I always wanted to be an ultra. If you are part of the core you can experience wonderful moments. I have spent some of my happiest days with the ultras.
Bwitty: Can you explain exactly what this core is?
Theo: Ultras are very organized. As a sports association, there are different levels of responsibility: the president leads the ultras during the game, the vice-president and the treasurer are in charge both of the global administration and of the new ultras who have been affiliated with the group for less than a year and are in the stands. If you want to be a member of the core, you have to be proactive and be there when tifos (large visual animations during the match) or drums are being prepared, when songs are tested or when it is time to clean the supporters’ space. Of course you have to be [physically] present supporting the team, attending all matches, at home or away, whether it is raining or snowing. This is clearly the most important part because if you want to have more responsibilities, you have to show the other members of the group that you deserve it and that you earned it due to your hard work and loyalty to the ultras.
Bwitty: The ultras seem to be highly organized structures even with someone in charge of the administration and the general budget. How the ultras groups are financed?
Theo: Ultras, like companies, need funding. But contrary to rumor, football clubs do not fund ultra groups. In fact, even if clubs tried to donate, the ultras would refuse. This allows the ultras to keep their independence from their club, because keeping financial independence is the only way for the ultras to be credible when they express their concern about the club’s situation. Indeed, the club and the ultras can have divergent views on a subject, sometimes leading to conflict and even to violence. This is why the ultra groups are self-financed. At the beginning of the season, ultras have to buy their membership cards, which gives them access to the ultras space. This costs around €10. It represents the most important means of funding even if the sales from derivative products also represent significant amounts. Ultras also organize football and poker competitions in order to earn money and make both ends meet. An ultra's life can be very expensive with all the traveling during the season. If you are an active member, it can cost you €4,000 a year.
Bwitty: To be an ultra requires a tremendous amount of involvement and some sacrifice involving your personal life. You have to share a number of values if you want to be well integrated in the group. What are these values, what makes ultras unique supporters?
Theo: An ultra is a supporter who is ready to pledge his love for his club during all matches and let other supporters know that they cannot be better supporters than them. The most important values for an ultra are showing your pride as a team supporter, your pride being from your city, and showing that your ultra group is better than any other ultra group. As soon as the first ultra groups were born in France, with the Commando Ultra in Marseille in 1984 or the Boulogne Boys for the Paris Saint Germain, in 1985, the concept of prestige was essential to our groups. Bringing prestige to our group is what an ultra enjoys most, even more than winning a game. It is like there is a championship within the championship, between the ultras themselves. If another ultras group “wins” at home, we can still beat them for the return match.
Bwitty: During the recent England-Russia match the Russian ultras showed a level of violence that we hadn’t ever witnessed before in France. How do you explain the violence that occurs within the ultras movement, one that you have described simply as a gathering of sports supporters?
Theo: Violence is an inherent part of the ultras movement. I wish it weren’t, but I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge it. However it is more complex than it seems. As ultras, we can be responsible for violence but we are also subjected to it. The group effect gives you a very strong feeling of power and invincibility. When you and a thousand people, mostly young men, eager to show their absolute support to their team, with clichéd virility, walk together in someone else’s city street, you feel the power to do anything with complete impunity. And this is where the lines can get crossed. It becomes extremely difficult to separate your identity from the group’s identity. You feel so integrated to the group, experiencing enthusiasm, enjoyment but also pain and hunger amplified by the one thousand ultra “brothers” standing around you. Among ultras, we know who is violent. In my group, we have a guy who has beaten up a cop with a fire extinguisher. That’s why we keep an eye on them at matches that can be risky because we know that if the supporters get aggressive with each other, we have to show solidarity and fight along with our violent members to protect them from the other ultras, even if we don’t want to fight anyone. But I also know that some other groups promote violence as a way of showing their supremacy over others supporters. Indeed, in Eastern European countries, ultras are almost always linked to violence, whereas in France the vast majority are non-violent. For me, the way ultras express themselves reflects the level of violence that the people are used to in their countries.