Ed Barrett meets a man with a lifetime's experience in the Ultra movement, Jonas Gabler.
In the summer I attended the Football Supporters Europe annual congress in Copenhagen. One afternoon we had a bit of spare time, and I ended up catching the train back to the city centre from Bröndby with Jonas Gabler. The train journey turned into a little walk to the hippie commune „Christiania“, followed by getting trapped in a cafe due to a monsoon (there are worse places than Christiania to get trapped), followed by a very complicated journey through flooded Copenhagen to get to an even more flooded national stadium. During all of this, I bombarded Jonas with questions about ultras, which he very patiently answered, ignoring my occasional sarcasm and own bias based on which terrace in Germany I happen to stand on.
Jonas Gabler, has written a book called „Die Ultras: Fussball Fans und Fussballkulturen in Deutschland“ (translates as The Ultras – Footballs Fans and Footballcultures in Germany), based on his previous work in Italy both as part of his University Education and placement at the fan organisation „Progetto Ultra“ in Italy. The book has so far been sold successfully in Germany, but sadly hasn’t been printed thus far in English. Due to the general enthusiasm in England for the German game and its atmosphere, I thought it would be worthwhile doing an interview with him in English to at least get a bit of his knowledge out over here.
What is „Ultra“?
To give a general answer to that, is very hard. Over the years, in all corners of the world, there are groups of fans who have called themselves „Ultras“ and the differences between respective scenes in each country are often quite large. Even in terms of the German Ultra-scene, it is hard to generalise, as each group interprets their ultra-form in a different way.
The beginnings (of Ultra) though can be found in the fan culture in Italy at the end of the 60s. At the same time that the student and worker protests were taking place in Italy, the first groups of fans who termed themselves ultras, began to form in the stadiums. You can still see many of the characteristics of these street protests in the style adopted by the Ultras: the support coordinated using a megaphone, the flags, the banners. In some ways even the organisational form common with ultra groups is influenced heavily by the protest movements of the time: larger groups, often deliberately aiming to attract younger members, who in turn are brought up by the group. Likewise, clear decision making processes, generally through a so called „direttivo“ (like a board of directors), but often dependent on member-based democracy, and communication to the outside world (such as) fanzines, infosheets, and nowadays, websites.
In many countries, for example in Germany and Italy, the ultras have begun to fight against commercialisation and stress their refusal to have contact or work with the police. Ultra always had a little bit of „counterculture“ in it, however that characteristic is stronger in the Italian than in the German scene. Anyhow in the individual ultra groups these elements can also vary from group to group, and over the course of time.
How did you get interested in the subject?
Even as a young child, I had always been interested in football, but it took me much longer before I started to go regularly to the match. The first time I really encountered Ultras was when I was a student in Milan during the 2004/05 season. My friends there had already dragged me to various matches, and at the time it was impossible to go to a football match in Italy and not remark upon the ultras. The atmosphere in Italy couldn’t be compared to what I was used to in Germany. Even now I cannot play down just how much this style of support immediately fascinated me.
The key moment for me, was a match between Inter and Sampdoria in February 2005, which I watched from the away section. Some of the Inter ultras „honoured“ the player Paolo Di Canio with a banner, because on the previous weekend during the Rome derby, he had celebrated a goal with a fascist salute. To me it was beyond comprehension, that no one in the ground tried to tear down or voice opposition to this banner. The only reaction was „those are the Ultras from Inter. They are right-wing“. I found the differences in how the far-right and racism in Germany and Italy had been treated and opposed over the years, a very interesting subject. All of this also allowed me a wonderful opportunity to combine my interests with my studies. I decided to write my thesis on the subject. I managed to get a placement at „Progetto Ultra“ in Bologna, where I had the opportunity to pour over the „archivio del tifo“ (an archive of Ultra material). Since then I have used a great deal of my time observing the ultra-scene, and since my book came out, speaking and discussing the topic with many ultras.
Many people reading this may have a very negative view of Ultra. If you could only list 5 short points around why ultras (based on those in Germany) are important, what would those be?
That all sounds slightly romantic and idealistic. Of course this description of the positives couldn’t be found at every ultra group or with every individual ultra. What is also important, is that I could probably list 5 negatives about ultra-culture. Many things in this fan-culture have their contradictions.
You have written a book about the subject. What was your motivation for this?
I'd refer back to my previous answer: I am convinced that ultra-culture has a great deal of positive potential. Sadly in the mainstream media this is hardly ever taken seriously, because bad news sells. This means that the majority of people only associate Ultras with violence and vandalism. My aim was to show a different side of this often inconsistent fan-culture. This is also partly down to my fear, that the current approach to ultras from the side of the (German) football association, the clubs, politicians, the police and the media create a genuine risk that the ultras will begin to become isolated and more radical, which is similar to what happened in the Italian scene.
Has the subculture changed since you wrote your book?
Quite a lot has happened. As my book came out in Germany, it coincided with the Ultras organising the fandemo in Berlin, which of course was just a coincidence! The astounding thing about the demo, was the self-reflection and willingness to criticise their own scene where necessary. Since then we have also seen the start of the „Kein-Zwanni-“ campaign and the campaign to legalise the responsible use of pyrotechnics in stadiums.
Perhaps it’s just my subjective opinion, as I must admit that my studying of the scene has increased in its intensity, but I feel that the ultra-scene (in Germany) has matured and become more earnest.
I have the feeling that the general public and the media don’t really understand the subject. Is that true? Can public opinion be changed?
I’ve mentioned that earlier. I think that in the public mind, a rather one-dimensional view of Ultra dominates. I believe, that it would be difficult to change this view. I’ve noticed that the majority of people (in Germany), particularly people who aren’t interested in football, or rather those who don’t go to football grounds, don’t have any interest in taking a more serious look at the subject. Many people, who haven’t been able to use personal experience of the subject, would prefer to stick with their simple pigeonholing and prejudices, because it’s easier. That’s nothing new, we see that in other elements of society too. Just look at the debate around integration in society by ethnic groups. There too, people are only too willing to suggest a particular ethnic background, or rather religious background, means less willingless to integrate in society.
I think that realistically, the ultras can only help to establish sympathy and understanding for their culture amongst people who go to football, and who share the same passion for their sport and team.
You suggested in your book that the Ultras have a clear set of rules. Respect and rules play a very important roll. But is that even possible, when we, as football fans, are quite used to seeing a rather biased view of reality?
I don’t mean that ultras have ONE set of rules that applies to the whole German Ultra-scene. I do however believe that all groups develop sets of rules that help form their own scene. What the contents of those rules are, can of course differ and isn’t necessarily something positive. A rule for one group could be that any fan of an opposing team must be physically attacked. A trend that can be seen though, is that many ultra-scenes have developed and enforced rules that are far more comprehensive than anything set by the previously dominant fancultures such as hooligans, or normal fanclubs.
Of course, these rules may not always be followed. However that is partly because, no independent institution exists to ensure this. Nevertheless there are many examples of where these rules have regulated the behaviour of the people on a terrace. For example if we look at the üyrotechnic campaign (mentioned earlier). Since its inception the use of bangers and throwing of flares (both outlawed under the pyrotechnic campaign's rules) have reduced dramatically. The use of pyrotechnics in general has also become far more responsible. At least if you have a look at the ultra-scenes involved in the campaign.
The Pyrotechnics issue is covered a great deal in your book. Many ultras want to have them legalised. Is that even remotely realistic? It’s not like they are completely without danger. Even if they were legalised and used with greater responsibility, it runs the risk of looking slightly underwelming in comparison to the spontaneous (and illegal) use currently?
I would hope for a legalisation of pyrotechnics, alongside a more sensible approach to the dangers by the ultras. That would reduce, or even stop, the uncontrolled and dangerous use of pyrotechnics. It would also remove one clear conflict point between the police and fans/ultras.
Obviously pyrotechnics aren’t without their dangers, however other pyrotechnical products are sold every year at New Year and are set off in their millions (it’s worth pointing out here to the reader, that in Germany at New Year, fireworks and bangers are set off by everyone in the street and that this is seen as perfectly normal, both by the public and authorities).
Of course you are right, the complete legalisation is unthinkable at the moment. The campaign's aim though was to begin a discussion around the pro and contra arguments, and to make it clear that flares don’t mean violence and fighting, but are a key part of the visual support for a team. In this respect, the campaign has been relatively successful.
Another positive effect is the increased consideration by the ultra-scene of the dangers of pyrotechnics, which in turn can be seen in the behaviour of many groups since then. With this is mind, the campaign can also be seen as a test to see how far the ultras can go with their „self-policing“. I think that so far (following a deal by the German FA, where they agreed to enter into talks, if the ultras would uphold a short, self-imposed ban on pyrotechnics*), the campaign has shown that the ultras are a reliable negotiating partner, i.e. they can be taken seriously by the authorities and a dialogue can be entered into.
*the ultras kept to their word and did not use any pyrotechnics during the period agreed. The German FA then went back on their promise and declined to enter into further talks.
I’ve noticed that many of the younger ultras seem to regard the capo (the person who leads the singing with a megaphone) as their hero, rather than the players on the pitch. Could it be that ultras (or at least the younger generation) are less interested in the sport and more concerned with being an ultra?
I’m pretty sure that even in the olden days, the younger fans on the terrace used to cast reverential glances at the older „terrace legends“. Additionally the players nowadays are often very distant from their fans. Not only do they rarely come into contact with the fans, but they are often extremely rich, and lead a life far removed from the matchgoing public. Is it any wonder, if the younger generation of football supporters nowadays look for heroes who are perhaps more tangible and who lead a similar lifestyle?
Now to the key point in the question: I don’t think your impression is entirely untrue. For some of the younger generation of ultras, their group and their existence as an ultra may well be more important to them than the sport. Whilst the first generation of ultras grew up being fans (of a team) first, and that then led them to establishing or joining ultra groups, it’s now happening more often that young people join the ultras because the subculture and being a member of a group fascinates them. It shows just how attractive the ultra-culture is to young people. Obviously though this does open up a potential conflict with regards to the relationship with other fans. However if you think about it, hardly anyone (at least in the terraces behind the goals) goes to a football ground because of the sport. Even compared to the best view of the match obtained from the seats in the mainstands, you can still see the game better on tv. On the terraces you see very little of the game. Those are the places where people (not just ultras) go, because they want to support the team, to let go, to enjoy the special atmosphere, to meet up with friends, or even (in Germany) just to get drunk.
Your book makes it very clear, that „ultra“ can be of positive influence. However many elements within some groups remind me more of fascism. Performance culture, territorial, peer pressure in the group, membership requirement, the way the group’s flag is almost of holy importance. Do you think that Ultra can improve our society (or at least that of the matchgoing public), or will the political views and behaviour of an ultra group simply mirror the society outside the ground?
As mentioned before, I think that there are many contradictions in „ultra“ and many problematical „ideals“ or behaviours. Sometimes, particularly when I think about the relationship between ultra and politics, I feel there is huge contradiction at the very beginning point of ultras: The participation, sometimes autonomous, egalitarian and liberal ideals of the protest movements of ‘68, that in the football context then meet with the war-like rhetoric, fighting metaphors, melodramatic local patriotism (in Italy the so-called „Campanilismo“, a common theme in Italian society in general) and „friend/enemy“ mentality of football. There are fragments of all of this in just about all ultras, even nowadays. The so-called „Ultra Mentality“ fluctuates between these two polarised points and is at a different fixed point along the scale for each group.
The second element of the question: I do not believe that the Ultras can change our society. I understand the ultra-culture as being more of a subculture, that creates its own freespace and through this can draw something out of the society outside. That is the countercultural centre, that has remained from the beginning of ultra.
For the majority, being an ultra is just a phase. Nevertheless some of these ultras will take some of the useful social experience they gained from this phase and use it in life outside. For example with many of the ultras that I have got to know, I have the impression, that they are socially sensitive and community-orientated people. To my mind that is the most realistic offering the ultras can provide in improving our society.
Every Ultra I know, speaks often about this „freespace“. They talk about how they have achieved this and how important it is. However does this freespace really exist? The Bundesliga or the English professional leagues are booming and as a result the regulation of fans is much more stringent, with the possibility of freespace being very limited. If we look at Germany, we travel to the ground with a police escort, we are allowed to see at most a carpark or a trainstation, we must register our banners in advance, we are watched constantly by CCTV and then we have to pay an entrance fee. That doesn’t sound like freespace. Would we not be better setting up an autonomous centre instead? Could you perhaps explain the Ultra view of freespace?
Freespace in the context of ultras has two dimensions in my opinion. The first is less ultra specific and is more to do with the design of terraces. In a small space, thousands of people come together. Three characteristics sum up this collection of people: 1. They are made up of predominantly young people, particularly young men. As a result we are dealing with a group that is generally more extrovert and aggressive than average, and are prepared to deviate from the norm in their behaviour. 2. The anonymity of the group allows more deviations from the norm in terms of behaviour, because the consequences of punishment are less likely. 3. The group of (potentially?) more aggressive, young people (particularly men) have a certain threatening effect on stewards and the police. This is then strengthened through the solidarity which exists in ultra groups and fan-scenes against the police and stewards.
This all leads to this group managing to counter state control. In the past this was even clearer: the use of pyrotechnics was tolerated, and rightwing behaviour was ignored by the authorities. Over the last twenty years though there has been an attempt to bring this freespace under control, through the (social pedological work through the so called „Fan Projects“) and other methods (control and other repressive measures). Nevertheless certain rules on behaviour or laws cannot always be enforced on the terraces, particularly with regards to things such as pyrotechnics or drugs. The terrace was, and to an extent is still, a freespace where the rules are set by the people present rather than the laws of the land. The ultras haven’t so much fought for this freespace, rather they have, sometimes with success, sometimes without, attempted to defend it.
The other dimension of the freespace has less to do with the stadium and the terrace. Freespace, in my view, is not just about whether you are allowed to do something, rather whether there is the possibility to do something. For example: everyone has the right to set up a website or a fanzine, to make a flag or create a choreo, to make a film, to organise a protest, to open a bar, to run a concert or event, or to collect money for a social cause. However in order to do that there is a need for structure: A room, support (both physical and intellectual), the network of distribution, sometimes money and more often than not an audience. All of this can be offered by an ultra group. Many groups can offer a room or hall to their members for events, the groups offer a pool of motivated helpers, the members of the group have good connections and can generally offer excellent communication channels in order to communicate to inside and outside the group. Membership charges and the sale of merchandise generally will provide a little budget which can be used. Finally the ultras have a terrace as a platform, and with the rest of the fanscene (and other ultras) an audience to whose attention something can be brought to.
I don’t want to dwell on the negatives, but self-reflection is always important, so, what is the main negative element of this subculture?
As I’ve said, the ultra-culture is very contradictory and so the many positive elements like emancipation and democracy are often offset by negative elements. These occur to different degrees in each ultra group, but are always present in some form in the „ultra mentality“. An example would be a somewhat arrogant attitude, sometimes against all people outside the group, but generally against other ultra-scenes. Almost everywhere, you will hear the sentence „There are only around X (less than 15) scenes that I would take seriously in Germany". But then each person will name completely different groups and the criteria for who should be taken seriously is always different (support, creativity, political engagement, violence). What lies behind this is a constant need to compare and rank each scene. This behaviour of always thinking in hierarchies and aiming to dominate, is part of the friend/enemy complex which is so deeply engrained in European Football Fanculture. It’s not just something found with ultras.
Other problem elements in the subculture, I’ve already mentioned earlier. And of course there are group dymamics, which allow individuals anonymity and protection which can encourage violence, theft and vandalism. This however is something that can be found in any large mob, or group. Afterall there are plentiful examples of excessive violence by soldiers and police forces.
All in all this arrogrance amongst ultras means they can come across as elitist, which when allowed to get out of control can become more and more of a problem.
Apart from the ultras from your own club, which other groups do you find particularly good and why?
From a scientific approach, I would have to keep my distance from this question and so I wouldn’t call any ultra group particularly special. Nevertheless I really like the groups where a real positive potential exists. I’d rather not create a ranking though. That would only assist the ultras in their desire for macho comparisons! ;-)
The Ultra scene in Germany is now 10-15 years old. The choreos have got better, the other characteristics of Ultra e.g. streetart or fan-related politics have also been present for a while. What can Ultra now offer in terms of progression? Must it offer more? In what sort of direction do you think it will now develop?
As I said, I think the ultras will get stronger and more earnest. That will reflect itself in the quality of the choreos, flags, as well as other publications such as websites, videos, films and fanzines. It will also continue to reflect groups connections to other subculture and scenes e.g. streetart, and to extent other environmental factors
I believe that the groups in the ultra-scene will differentiate themselves yet further. We have seen groups breaking away from the larger groups, likewise some others have developed local links outside the stadium in very different directions. In addition we have seen a greater willingness for groups from rival teams to work together on common problems or campaigns.
Lastly I remain interested to see whether some groups will follow a similar route to one or two of the larger groups in Italy, where it became obvious the main reason for existence was for financial reasons or priviledges. Obviously that isn’t a scenario I would hope for.
Betting scandals, the billions of Man city and Chelsea, the threat of abolishing the 50+1 rule in Germany, more influence from TV. Football is a bit rubbish really. Can Ultras do something against this all or should we just take up an interest in professional cycling?
Well, cyclists on drugs isn’t much better. And I love football too much to turn my back on it. I mean, even with FIFA and Blatter, I’m still caught up with passion for the games at the World Cup. My heart is stronger than my comprehension in this respect.
It’s for that reason that I hope that through participation in football we can still change something. I’m not sure if that’s really possible or if I’m just being naive.
Nevertheless I do hope that the ultras, together with the fan initiatives and with the support and solidarity from others in the grounds, can change something. Therefore it’s important that the ultras don’t isolate themselves from the rest of the fans.
Do you think that the British fans could pull off their own Ultra-movement? I think there are already a few groups at Celtic, Crystal Palace and Ipswich etc
I’ll be honest, I’ve never been to a match in the UK before. I don’t know much about English football fan-culture other than what I’ve read in articles. I do find it odd, that England is one of the only countries where an Ultra Culture hasn’t been established. Traditionally though new trends in youth or subcultures (even in football) have travelled from England to the continent, not the other way around. The English fanscene was the inspiration for the whole of Europe for a long time. Perhaps that’s why ultra has never caught on in Great Britain.
In the top leagues, I’d see it as being very difficult to set something up. From what I’ve heard, it’s not tolerated if you keep standing up. Likewise the ticket pricing would prevent a youthful fan culture like Ultra. On the otherhand, it may well be different in the lower leagues, where there seems to still be a relatively active fanscene. From my perspective, it would appear that where a fan-culture still exists in the UK, it’s so deeply engrained, it would be difficult for ultra groups to establish themselves. With the co-ordinated support of the Ultra style, this would come into conflict with the spontaneous and „anarchic“ nature of song choice (in the UK). As long as this still works, (the UK style) will still appeal. In Germany, that had ceased to work properly and so the Ultras had little competition from other fangroups who had a conflicting idea on the style of support to be used.
You have mentioned that you are interested in German, Italian and World Cup football. Does British football also interest you? Do you harbour a club in the UK that you are at least half interested in?
I started late with going to football and as a result I didn’t get an opportunity to go and see a match in England. Money plays a part too, as the prices are so expensive. I do regret not having been though and hope that will change.
I find England interesting not just because of the roll it played in the past with defining Europe’s fanculture. I am particularly fascinated by the intiatives of restarting clubs, like in Wimbledon, or by yourselves (FC United), in Manchester. There too, you (the English) were the inspiration and pioneers, for example for the Salzburger (SV Austria Salzburg).
My sympathy for British Football as a fan though is fairly superficial. I had a friend who was a fan of Preston North End, and my sister studied in Edinburgh so I quite like Hearts. With regards to football itself, I’m always happpy to watch a match involving Arsenal or Man United, because they are always quite a spectacle. Additionally Dennis Bergkamp was always a favourite player of mine. I will never forget his goal against Newcastle with a pass from Robert Pires. Once in a lifetime.
Our thanks go to Ed for his time and effort, and for sending such a wide-ranging interview to us. He can be found on Twitter @TeddyFCUM.