Ultras, a word in football that immediately brings to mind certain negative images. However, a new movement of 'Ultra' fan groups are organizing themselves in a different way, intimidating through artistic displays of support for their team. Martyn Fisher reports
“A picture paints a thousand words” - Frederick R. Barnard, Street Railways Advertising Company advertising manager, 1921.
In 1996, Graeme Souness notoriously planted a Galatasaray flag in the Fenerbahçe pitch. As landmark snapshots go, it’s not quite up there with Neil Armstrong on the moon, yet those seeking an education on football-fan culture wouldn’t be wrong in studying the abrasive’s Scot’s undiplomatic action. As manager of the club Souness knew full well the flag symbolized the collective identity of Galatasaray’s fans. With noise not always fully articulating the passion held for their club, many supporters regard visual representation as the most vital tool of communication. This is especially the case for groups known as ultras.
The word ultra roughly translates as ‘beyond’ in English. Renowned for their elaborate pitch side displays, this translation resonates. Although fans on several continents call themselves ultras, the movement began in Italy during the 1950s. “Like the Palio in Siena, many small districts in Italy have their own symbols, and that tradition soon extended to football,” explains Italian football journalist Giancarlo Rinaldi. “As the Ultras used to get free tickets to games, they could afford to spend time and money on flags and choreography."
Geographical politics have always been an issue in the boot-shaped peninsula, so people use their region’s premier sports outfit as an identity outlet. In a similar vein, ultra sects in Argentina abound because clubs were formed as representatives of communities at opposite ends of the class scale.
On the whole, British clubs weren’t created in such circumstances, and therefore they aren’t vehicles with a particular cause in the passenger seat, but football is omnipotent in the UK and it’s not a lazy generalization to say that fans in this part of the world live for the game. So why the lack of visual support? Michael Brunskill of the Football Supporters Federation believes there are a number of mitigating factors –
“The British are apathetic towards politics and organized action. We feel uncomfortable with co-coordinated displays. There's also the ‘one last pint’ culture - squeezing in one last pint before nipping into the ground just in time for kick-off isn't conducive to mass, orchestrated displays. Plus, the health and safety rubbish spouted prevents people from bringing in flag poles longer than 1.5m, and clubs insist fans fire-proof flags, which is costly."
Price doesn’t have to be an obstacle and fans of both Brighton & Hove Albion and Cardiff City have purchased costly giant flags during the last few seasons. However, the flags went missing after a few uses; a builder chucking out Albion’s after mistaking it for rubbish, and Cardiff’s eventually being recovered from amongst the rubble at Ninian Park. In contrast, ultra groups abroad liaise with the club owners on a regular basis, and some clubs provide safe storage rooms for flags and banners.
There are ways around off-putting time and financial constraints as well, and ultra groups in some of the world’s poorer nations prove this. Joachim Franzén belongs to Fabriken, a group devoted to Swedish side Djurgårdens IF. Upon creation, Djurgården were the cheapest team to watch in Stockholm, and accordingly, a fan base attached themselves.
“Fabriken is a group of 20 people who voluntarily spend time in producing various kinds of flags and tifo [Italian for the phenomenon of supporting a sports team via spectacular supporter-led choreography displayed on the terraces],” Franzén explains.
“We spend hundreds of hours each year to produce the artworks, and it’s the group's decision about how a flag looks, what it represents, and what it means. We do it for free because we love the club. Money used to buy materials is collected from the stands in buckets. Fabriken also have warehouses and lockups with materials from previous events, and stuff being stored for future events. I suppose you could draw parallels with the hooligan firms and Fabriken. But the crucial difference is that we don’t fight - we paint flags instead."
Flags aren’t just used to show affection to the cause, club, and region either. “Teams in Italy have one key game each season where they put on their best show,” explains Giancarlo Rinaldi, “It's called ‘Bella Figura’, which basically means looking better than your opponent.”
As hooligans have shown down the years, becoming fixated on one’s opponent can make things messy but is proactive fan participation in the UK now veering down a different a path? Michael Brunskill believes the Internet has influenced change: “The ultra culture hasn't 100 per cent caught on over here yet, but it’s growing fast because young fans see their counterparts on the continent on YouTube,” he says.
Celtic FC fan group The Green Brigade were formed in 2006, and are keen to hold the loaded term ‘hooligan’ at arm’s length. “Ultras add colour and vibrancy to encourage their team - we don’t go looking for trouble,” Bert, the group’s spokesman, says.
He adds: “We produce 10-12 large banners a season, plus smaller ones, message banners, 'two-sticks' and flags. Similarly, we produced 12,000 flags for our League Cup final with Rangers last year, and had members working away on them for weeks in the run-up to the game. Labour hours were probably in the high hundreds, and that's before you factor in the work to finance and organize it.”
Specific skills are particularly valuable to the production process: “For banners, we have lads sourcing materials, lads who do our sewing, and then paint nights for members to do the artwork. Most banners are done in a night,” Bert says.
“Flags and all other materials are paid for from our own group funds. Funds are raised from membership money, fundraising nights, selling merchandise and donations. We think what we do both vocally and visually inspires the team, but being involved with the group is a major commitment and involves a lot of work that's done purely out of a love for the team.”
Although the biggest operating UK ultra group - The Green Brigade - aren’t trailblazers, nor are they anomalous.
York City’s Jorvik Reds were established in 2004, while fellow Blue Square Premier side Barrow are backed by Ultras Barrovia. Crystal Palace has an ardent support group named the Holmesdale Fanatics, and similar ultra groups formed in the last decade include Newcastle’s Toon Ultras, and Accrington Stanley’s Stanley Ultras.
The trendsetters were the Red Ultras - fans of Aberdeen FC. The group disbanded in 2010 after 11 years of visual support. “[In the 1990s,] the stadiums were becoming soulless…” Stephen McCormick, Red Ultras founder, tells the fan site UK Ultras, “…so to boost the atmosphere, we organized flag days in which fans were encouraged to bring flags, confetti, and streamers to games to improve it.”
As the Aberdeeners found - and as their heirs are discovering - pictures do paint a thousand words, but only if you can get the staff. With fans having little regional or political ties to their clubs, it’s no surprise there are so few ultra groups in the UK.
Martyn is site editor for the excellent Defensive Midfielder and you can follow him on Twitter @bundesliga_wrap