Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

From the pitch to pitched battles

For better or for worse, the Ultras came to the fore as the most significant force in local sports — as well as a political power to reckon with, reports Inas Mazhar

From the pitch to pitched battles
From the pitch to pitched battles
Al-Ahram Weekly

Many criticise them, many hail them and the majority do not understand them. They are known at once for being good and being evil. Of all the things they are, or have become, the football fans known as the Ultras have, above all else, turned into a powerful force in Egyptian society.

Six years ago, Egyptians were introduced to a new, at that time unfamiliar word: Ultras, who with their colourful stadium performances, brought life to football stands.

But following the Egyptian uprising of 2011 which brought down the regime, the Ultras left the pitch for the pitched battles with riot police. These avid and sometimes fierce football fans took their show from stadiums to streets, in the process making an appearance on the political scene.

Then came Port Said. On 1 February this year, 74 football fans, mainly supporters of the Ahli club, were killed in a horrific soccer riot during a league game between Ahli and Masri in Port Said.

It was the worst football tragedy in Egypt and one of the worst in history. The Ultras of Ahli stood beside themselves and have since promised what they often call retribution for the victims in the face of what they term trials of the perpetrators which are agonisingly slow.

But since the Port Said disaster, the relationship between the Ultras Ahlawi and their team has had its ups and downs. They believe the squad has forgotten about those killed by continuing to play in African tournaments. The Ultras have since boycotted the team’s matches, attacked the club’s headquarters and invaded the team’s trainings on the pitch several times to prevent them from taking part in official matches. They have raided the Egyptian Football Association more than once to protest against possible resumption of football in Egypt, especially the national league. As such, the event has been suspended indefinitely.

During this time, in the championships Ahli have played in, the Egypt Super Cup and the African Champions League, they won both and dedicated the trophies to the Port Said victims.

Despite being at the forefront of the demonstrations that brought down Hosni Mubarak as president, and consistently calling for the rights of the Port Said victims not to be lost, the Ultras are not universally liked. Some support them, some don’t. Some sympathise with them, others do not. The Ultras are synonymous with damage and destruction to public and private property. Consequently, they often find themselves accused, unwelcome and severely criticised.

The Ultras are known worldwide but are a relatively new people in Egypt with their own fans and detractors. Ultras are predominantly European and South American followers of football teams, but who have invaded Egypt with various names — the Ultras of the Ahli club, White Knights of Zamalek, Yellow Dragons of Ismaili, Masri’s Green Eagles and Ultras 300, supporters of Tanta.

“Ultras” is a Latin word derived from beyond in English, with the implication that their enthusiasm is “beyond” the normal, a form of sports team supporters renowned for their fanatical support and elaborate displays. The behavioural tendency of Ultras includes the use of flares, primarily in tifo choreography, vocal support in large groups, defiance of the authorities and the display of banners at football stadiums, which are used to create an atmosphere which intimidates opposing players and supporters, as well as encouraging their own team. Consistently rivals with opposing supporters, Ultras are often identified with their respective team.

This particular fan subgroup appeared in Italy in the late 1960s when football teams reduced ticket prices in certain stands of the stadiums.

Since the early 1990s, the Ultras subculture has increasingly become similar in style to hooliganism. Violent acts of hooliganism by groups of Ultras have led to some deaths, as have police reprisals.

The Ahli Ultras were introduced almost six years ago. The group felt they needed to improve the club’s support bloc. They began with less than 10 members and in April 2007 the new Ultras Ahli banner was unfurled in the North stand. In the first six months membership grew to about 60.

Zamalek’s Ultras White Knights made their debut in March 2007 when their team was playing against Sudan’s Hilal in the African Champions League. Within weeks the Ultras’ mentality began to spread across Egypt and the number of members rapidly increased.

“Ultras of Egypt, especially the leaders, are very well educated and come from high class families,” says sports critic Amr Kamal. “They have been exposed to Ultras in Europe and are trying to copy what can be applied here. They are not media-friendly people. They don’t talk about themselves but deliver their message of loving their teams through their strong support in the stands.”

Interestingly, Ultras groups help each other. For example, Ahli Ultras helped Zamalek fans form the White Knights Ultras.

It is an Ultras rule not to speak to the press or TV. But these days they have had to come out, or at least their leaders, to defend themselves against what they claim are unfair accusations. They use their Facebook page as a tool to broadcast their statements.

Kamal says Ultras groups are usually based around a core group (who tend to have executive control over the whole group), with smaller subgroups organised by location, friendship or political stance. “They tend to use various styles and sizes of banners and flags with the name and symbols of the group. Some Ultras sell their own merchandise such as scarves, hats and jackets.

“Because of their deep loyalty to the players and their teams they have become friends with the players and the technical staff. They even meet with them and sometimes agree on certain songs,” adds Kamal.

The Ultras culture is a mix of several supporting styles, including scarf-waving and chanting. An Ultras group can number from a handful of fans to hundreds and thousands, and often claim entire sections of a stadium to themselves. Ahli Ultras are usually located behind the goals in the west stands whereas the White Knights are based at the east end.

Kamal says Ultras usually have a representative who liaises with the club owners on a regular basis, mostly regarding tickets, seat allocations and storage facilities. Some clubs provide the groups cheaper tickets, storage rooms for flags and banners, and early access to the stadium before matches in order to prepare the displays.

Karim, aka Kiko, is a founding member of Ultras of Ahli. “Ultras around the world have four core points and we here in Egypt have the same,” said Karim: never stop singing or chanting during a match no matter what the result; never sit down during a match; attend as many games as possible [home and away]; attend regardless of cost or distance.”

Karim explained that each group has a leader called “Kapo” who leads the group and is usually a senior member of the Ultras.

Ultras sing popular Egyptian and foreign songs, write their own lyrics and sometimes compose their own songs.

They usually prepare their own tifos in secret. “Only about 20 people know about it. It should be a surprise when the teams enter,” says Karim. “We use balloons, huge banners, flares, drums and dolls.” The displays, which can be expensive to make, often take months to prepare. “But we bear all the expenses from donations from members of the groups. We sell our products — T-shirts, scarves, caps — among ourselves to raise money to help us in our support.”

The Egyptian media, and some spectators and officials have in many cases not taken the Ultras to heart. They criticise — or perhaps envy — them for having a good relationship with the teams, for never sitting during matches, and for displaying banners and flags which hinder the view of those sitting behind them. Others point to Ultras’ physical assaults and the intimidation of non-Ultras fans.

Egyptian Ultras are trying to clear up the misconceptions. “Some believe we are evil people, hooligans, have no morals, are violent and lack patriotism,” complains Karim. “But we are none of these. We are loyal fans to our club and to the national team and now to our country.”

“We are not thugs. We have been criticised for being violent and troublemakers which we are not,” said Youssef Al-Gharib, a member of the Ahli Ultras. “People are against us now all the way. All we ask for is the rights of these victims. We need to know who did it and ask for quick and fair trials. It has been more than 10 months now and the trials are moving slowly. We need the court to announce those guilty and punish them.”

Mohamed Tarek from Ultras Zamalek said that Ultras in general are not violent people. “We are enthusiastic in our support and we always stand peacefully as a means of putting pressure on officials when we have a right.”

But sports TV presenters Medhat Shalabi and Ahmed Shobeir have built an enmity with the Ultras. Two months ago, the Ultras invaded the Media Production City in 6 October, reached the studios of the Modern Sport Channel were both presenters are on air daily and prevented them from presenting their shows.

Shalabi had previously sang the praises of the Ultras to Al-Ahram Weekly. “The existence of the Ultras is very healthy in Egypt if it is non-violent,” he said. “No one can deny that the Ultras have made our stadiums lively and have created a legacy by bringing supporters to the stadiums. They have shown how powerful they are and their support will create more competition among the teams.”

Friction with the police has always been an Ultras trademark in Egypt and abroad. Karim Al-Wakil, a member of Ultras Ahlawi from the Haram group, says that the relationship with the police did not change after the revolution. “It has always been there. Even when members of the Ultras participate in the political scene, police deal with them as they would in the stadium. And the Ultras the same. They will never forget how they used to treat us.”

One thing which has changed, according to Al-Wakil, is their chants and songs, “according to the vibe of the street and the scene. We use different lyrics now to suit the event. It’s not a stadium anymore.”

Al-Wakil told the Weekly that at the beginning, participation in the political scene was a personal choice. “Those who wanted to take part in demonstrations or marches would do it personally, not in the name of the group. But now it has changed and the group has been taking part sometimes in the name of the group in some events.”

Al-Wakil said there was an idea of forming an Ultras movement, not a party, which could take part in the political scene. “Myself, I joined for the sports and will continue supporting sports. Since the Port Said disaster I have stopped joining any other activities until football resumes but still under our conditions, until those guilty are tried and we claim justice for the victims.”

The phenomenon of the Ultras worldwide has driven many local and international writers and researchers to produce several case studies and books. Mohamed Gamal Beshir published The Ultras earlier this year, reportedly the first book published about the movement in the Middle East.

“The idea [to write] came to me in 2008,” Beshir, aka Gemyhood, told the Weekly after his book was released. “I’ve always supported underground movements. There are lots of them in Egypt that inspire anyone to write about them. I chose the Ultras because it’s one of the many movements that have masses of supporters. If you ask any football fan about any club, he’ll mention their Ultras support, and that’s exactly what I wanted to share with people: the movements that are now linked in the mind of the fans with their own club.”

As Beshir recalls, digging up the information about the Ultras movements around the world including Egypt was no easy task. “You know there are no documented references for the Ultras movements other than stories you hear from Ultras leaders,” Beshir said. “I travelled a lot and met with many Ultras leaders from all over the world and I was able to communicate with them and learn about their start and their stories. I kept writing every single thing they told me.”

In his book, Beshir wrote how the Ultras movement started in Egypt. “It began with a small group of people supporting Ahli who called themselves ALU (Ahli Lovers Union). After they launched their first website online it started to gain the attention of many football fans. Then, around 2005, the Zamalek fans also started their first group, ZLU (Zamalek Lovers Union) after which the idea spread to other fans of other teams.

“There’s something I wish people would understand: not all Ultras movements have to follow the same rules. Here in Egypt they added to the idea of the Ultras and changed some things about it, too.”

The Ultras’ role in the Egyptian revolution was not necessarily black and white. “People,” Beshir said, “need to understand that the Ultras movement is a part of the Egyptian community. It has people who only care about football and others who care about football and politics like any other differences in the community.

“There has always been a struggle between Ultras groups and the police force. On the night of 24 January [one day before the start of the revolution] the Facebook pages of Khaled Said and the 6 April youth movement said both Ultras groups will participate in the 25 January events after they received information from sources inside the two groups of Ultras. Hence, they are a part of the Egyptian community and their presence in the revolution is based on their loyal nature to their community.” Said was killed in an act of police brutality after uncovering a drug deal. His death helped spark the uprising.

Beshir reported in his book how Ultras compose their own songs. “Ultras get the inspiration for their songs from anything that happens around them, not only football events. It’s anything that happens in Egypt as they are a part of this community. The song Hurreya [Freedom] is constantly sung in every match.”

While writing the book, Beshir involved his readers in the writing process by creating a fan page in which he communicated with the public, took their opinion about the things they wanted to read in the book, as well as the cover. He also started a hash tag on twitter to communicate more with readers.

Rabab Al-Mahdi, associate professor at AUC’s Department of Political Science, highlighted the role of the Ultras fans, how they made the transition from “a pseudo-fascist group to a revolutionary faction” and are meanwhile dubbed as Egypt’s courageous, pro-democracy revolutionaries.

In a recent study, Al-Mahdi conducted one-on-one interviews with members of the Ultras, personal observation of public events, analysis of Ultras-related statements and social media messages, as well as published and archived material dating back to 2008. Her findings revealed that the Ultras before the revolution were deeply involved in sports. Some were characterised by political indifference. They were so less concerned about politics than sports that they likely caused the Egypt-Algeria World Cup dilemma, which led to diplomatic tension between the two countries. However, during the revolution, they took on a completely different role, being at the forefront of clashes with security.

Al-Mahdi, who first became intrigued by the movement through her encounters in Tahrir Square, describes the Ultras as an identifiable group that comprises the educated and the illiterate, the rich and the poor. She also believes that as Egypt goes through this critical transitional phase, there is an indication that the Ultras will become more politically active.

James M Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, was inspired by the Egyptian Ultras and wrote in September how they have emerged as a powerful political force.

According to Dorsey, the highly politicised, well-organised and street battle-hardened fans led by supporters of crowned Cairo club Ahli have garnered public support from several political parties, including the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) of this year’s elected President Mohamed Morsi for their agenda that calls for justice for 74 fans killed in the politically loaded brawl in February, a reform of the police and security forces, taking responsibility for security in stadiums away from the Interior Ministry, an end to corruption in soccer and the removal of Egyptian Football Association (EFA) and club officials with ties to the former regime.

Reporting on the September clashes between the government and the Ultras, Dorsey said the Ultras are both hated and respected by security forces whom they regularly confronted in stadiums during Mubarak’s last four years in office.

Dorsey also added the testimony of the Tahrir doctors about the Ultras. He said that the doctors, an informal grouping of physicians devoted to treating injured protesters, said in a statement that “we stress the need to take into consideration the feelings of the Ultras youth. We are witnesses that the Ultras’ role in the revolution was crucial, and they sought no interests or individual gains. We insist that the Ultras did not originally adopt violence, and the proof of this is that they patiently demanded the state to take retribution against the Port Said killers,” the group said. Several youth groups as well as the Popular Current issued similar statements.

Dorsey notices that the Ultras’ public support and newly gained political backing has revived debate about their political future. Empowered by their success on the street and an awareness of the power of numbers has renewed discussion about possibly forming a political party.

Two international studies highlighted the worldwide Ultras as a culture phenomenon and developments in their behaviours. In December 2009, Alberto Testa, corresponding author at the School of Sport and Education at Brunel University in London prepared a paper, “The Ultras: An Emerging Social Movement” published in the Review for European Studies Journal. Testa’s study focussed on evaluating the Ultras phenomenon via an examination of the internal and external dynamics of two nationally well-known groups located in the Italian capital of Rome (the Italian centre of political power). The groups were the Boys Roma and the Irriducibili of Lazio who enact their performances on their respective curve (football terraces) of the city’s Olympic stadium. The paper argued that the ideological alliance between the Ultras of Lazio and Roma (followed as an example by other Ultras groups throughout Italy), the death of Lazio fan Gabriele Sandri in 2007 (and concomitant violent Ultras’ reaction against the police), together with the existence of the Ultras Italia (a national organisation which unites the main Italian Ultras groups) were all elements that signified the beginning of a common meaningful opposition to the perceived repressive Italian state. Most importantly those elements appeared indicating the Ultras as an emerging social movement which never originates from a vacuum but arise from precedent experiences.

The second study was presented at an international conference in January 2012 on Ultras Good Practices in dealing with new developments in supporters’ behaviours. Professor Gunter Pilz Franciska Wölki-Schumacher, from Leibniz University in Hanover, Institute of Sports Science, presented her overview of the Ultras culture phenomenon in the Council of Europe member states in 2009.

The study provided only a preliminary overview of the Ultra culture phenomenon in Europe. According to Wölki-Schumacher, inside a scene, movements are sometimes described with reference to certain “styles”. For example, the “south European style” refers more to the use of pyrotechnics, the east European style more to the stealing of banners and scarves and the “German style” perhaps more to organisation and the operation of a fan policy.

All European Ultras have in common the fact that for them the emphasis is not only on football and the games, players or result but more on all the associated trappings. For its adherents, “Ultra” does not mean a new football fan club but an attitude to life. Although most Ultras want to provide the best and most creative acoustic and visual support for their club, they also attach importance to their self presentation and to the group experience provided by the scene during the week. Similarly, the Ultra movement’s positive efforts in the field of youth culture are a dominant feature.

Another common aspect is that the various scenes to a greater or lesser extent face challenges posed by problem areas, such as violence, as well as, in some cases, right-wing (and left-wing) politics, with outsiders often automatically equating Ultras with problem fans, perpetrators of violence or right-wing extremists — which is the impression conveyed by the media. Nonetheless, or actually because of this false perception by outsiders and the increasing problems with the police, it is necessary not only for the Ultras movement to assume more responsibility and reflect on and regulate its own culture but also for the associations, clubs, police and society to begin a rethink.

However, it is also important to take a critical look at the Ultras themselves and draw their attention to their individual problem areas. The Ultras’ perception of the police also needs improving. Not all police officers act arbitrarily and disproportionately. Ultras must not play down their problematic patterns of behaviour as a way of trivialising possible acts of violence. They must be given more responsibility and more freedoms for specific aspects of the Ultras culture.

The study also recommended that the Ultras’ positive efforts be acknowledged and recognised. New bans or stricter stadium bans will not solve the problem of violence. Although these bans might result in there being fewer violent clashes involving fans in the stadium itself, the problem is shifted outside — to the area around the stadium, the roads to and from the ground — or to the lower leagues, because most people with a stadium ban have not been removed from the football environment by these measures. They still belong to their groups or travel with them to away games.

Efforts to bring fans and the police together have proved to be an important step to bring about this de-escalation and eliminate enemy stereotypes, making it possible for the inability of fans and the police to speak to one another to be overcome. It enables everyone to narrow the gap between them without blinkered perceptions and prejudices.

While these studies tackled Europe, Ultras all over the world are the same, meaning these findings and recommendations also apply to Egypt. If done, they could accomplish results.

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