Exploring the dark world of ultras that is taking football to the extremes
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Legendary Celtic manager Jock Stein once said, “Football without fans is nothing.” The statement holds true especially today when soulless empty stadiums play hosts to football matches around the world. Football is more than just a sport, for many it's a lifestyle and the fans have a tremendous contribution in making this sport the beautiful game that we know today.
However, it’s not all passion and support at the terraces of football stadiums, there exists a darker world of ‘fans’ who refer to themselves as ‘ultras’. You may have seen the headlines over the years of incidents occurring at some of the fiercest rivalries such as racist abuse, violent clashes or even death.
We’re exploring the world of football ultras and delving deeper into the 5 most craziest ultra groups. Let’s just say that you wouldn’t want to encounter them in a dark alley during a match day.
What is a football ultra?
The word ‘ultra’ originally implied ‘other’ or ‘beyond’, similar to the Italian word altro or oltre. In the world of football, being an ultra is often associated with insurgency, right wing, fascism, anti-semitism, revolutionary, radical, violence and much more. For a casual fan, the word ultra when associated with football has a dark meaning such as blind loyalty, tribal association, organized crime and brute muscle, but for those living in this world, it’s a sacred term that is more important than being a fan itself. Very often, being an ultra isn’t about watching a game of football in the stadium, but watching each other.
Being an ultra is considered a way of life, but it’s a world of many contradictions. Ultras insist on politics be kept away from the stadiums, but are the ones who encourage chants that are heavily politicized. The ultras propagate an ‘us’ against ‘them’ ideology, but have also built an inclusive space for many. For all it’s associations with violence, theft and mafia, the ultras have also been responsible for charitable acts when the government has been ineffective. Their existence for over 50 years has been a reflection of society and the many issues that plague it. It’s a culture based on rootedness and belonging that first emerged as a subculture in the 1960’s and 70’s.
Here are the football clubs with five of the craziest ultra groups in the world.
1 Olympique de Marseille
The Olympique de Marseille’s ultras are known by several different groups such as Commando 64, South Winners 87, Yankee Nord and Fanatics. If you have ever experienced the Vélodrome on a big matchday, especially during the champions league or against PSG, the atmosphere is unrivalled compared to any club in Europe. The OM ultras are known for their antifa politics, pyro shows, constant clashes and tifos.
The birthplace of the ultras movement, Napoli’s fans were the first ones to use firecrackers inside the stadium. Divided into two ultra groups, La Curva A and La Curva B, the latter is the oldest ultra group at the club, having been founded in 1972. The Napoli ultras also have a notorious reputation due to their knife wielding gangs and attacks on other fans, particularly in European cup competitions.
Known as the UltrAslan, the Turkish club’s ultras were formed in 2001 and have quickly established themselves as one of the most intimidating ultra groups in the world. The fan base holds a record for being the loudest in the world by Guinness World Records and have been involved in the news for all the wrong reasons with casualties and injuries being reported against fans of rivals Fenerbahce, Leeds United, Besiktas and Arsenal.
Paulo Di Canio once called the Lazio ultras the most intimidating in the world. It’s believed that none other than Benito Mussolini himself was an infamous supporter of a football club whose ultras openly display Neo-Nazi affiliation and have featured numerous violent clashes against arch rivals Roma. In recent years, there have been terror activities reported against anti-nazi supporters and racial abuse is a common feature of not just opposition players but also their own.
5 River Plate
The ultras of this Argentine football club have been involved in numerous criminal acts including murders. In 2004, a clash between River Plate and Boca Juniors was suspended after a fan was shot and an ambush of a bus full of Newell’s Old Boys supporters left two dead and many injured. When the club was relegated for the first time in its 110 year old history in 2011, violent clashes erupted with the police that left 65 injured. There has also been in-fighting between rival ultra groups within the club in a fierce power struggle, highlighting the dangers the River Plate ultras possess, not just to others but also themselves.