European fans instantly conjure up an image of flare-wielding, flag-waving, banner touting groups of fans who are in a raucous voice. It’s a bit different from our British counterpart, which in defence can be just as intimidating and loud, and mostly without the flares and flag-waving but there’s no doubt European fans are a cutting figure to behold.
Ultras as they are known, tend to dominate the goal ends and are considered to be at the more fanatical end of the fan spectrum. Whilst Ultras are found all over Europe, they remain elusive in the UK. Our version, ’The Casuals’ are a little more like the British persona, more undercover, suave but perhaps sneaky.
Ultras, on the other hand, are flamboyant, animated, and showy which is somewhat stereotypical of their European heritage especially their birthplace in Italy. Ultras formed in Torino around 1973-74 but dates vary and range from as early as 1969 and as late as 1976.
A decade before their formation in Torino, a group of fans known as ‘fedelissimi granata’ (translating as the ‘maroon loyalist’) had been founded. This set of fans is thought to be the very beginning of the Ultra movement. Torino had been going through a torrid time, relegated to Serie B and with their ground crumbling around them, they had been forced to move. In a bid to drive up support and remain loyal to their team the ‘fedelissimi granata’ engaged in forms of fan activism, creating chants and unveiling banners to spur their team on and keep morale up.
In 1970, Torino played against Vicenza. Chaos descended when the ref’s decision to award two penalties overturned Torino’s 2-1 lead, prompting fans to go after the referee. This resulted in fans following him to the airport to confront him. The media reported this particular group of fans as ‘ultras’, thus the moniker was coined and the term adopted.
On the surface, Ultras appear to nothing more than hooligans and whilst there is truth to this, much like it is for British Casuals, it’s the minority of fans that take part in this type of behaviour. The movement itself is layered and complex.
Unlike British Casuals who like to remain inconspicuous and avoid club colours, Ultras are all about displaying theirs and making their presence known. They are very much into wearing club colours, replica shirts, scarves, and clothing branded with the word Ultras and the group they belong to.
One of the main aspects of Ultras is all about creating an atmosphere at the game. Whilst vocal support, banners, and flags are common these days. The early years had few restrictions, anything and everything could be brought in; drums, flares, firecrackers, and horns, which all helped to spur on and create the atmosphere Ultras are now known for.
To create this much commotion requires careful planning. Thought out weeks in advance, displays are carefully curated. Banners and flags are often hand-painted, to a professional standard with many Ultras having a designated banner artist. Skulduggery does take place, and rival Ultras do clash away from the stadium. Stolen banners are then displayed amongst their own and turned upsides down as a badge of honour.
Songs and chants are rehearsed beforehand. Core groups of Ultras turn up well in advance of kick-off times to place the ‘Tifos’ (planned banner displays) in their correct formation. Whilst there is a stadium guy orchestrating everything, leaflets are handed out, informing supporters of the running order (choreographies).
The main focus is to create an incredible atmosphere and a major show of support towards their team, whilst obviously intimidating the opposition. Such is the organisation, the Tifos can change every few minutes. The elaborate displays make for an intriguing watch which intern puts more emphasis on the fans than the game itself. The whole movement is immersive.
Ultras typically stand and display their Tifos from the goal ends or the ‘curva’ as it’s known. The intense rivalry between Inter Milan and AC Milan always makes for an elaborate Tifo display. Often playing mind games with each other, the Tifos can be just as much of a game as the one that’s on the pitch.
In the 2018-19 ‘Derby Della Madonnina’, where AC Milan was the away team, Inter rolled out a snake motif. The snake is widely used to represent the club and has a history interwound with the city itself, making it an important part of the club. Incredibly the response from Milan was to unveil a banner displaying a snake ripped apart by the devil’s hands. Despite the game ending 0-0, mutual fans crowned Milan’s ‘Curva Sud’ the winners for their incredible response.
Such is the fascination of the Ultras they attracted attention from a wide variety of backgrounds including a young Paolo Di Canio. Di Canio, grew up supporting Lazio, and whilst he was in the youth team who played on a Saturday, the first team however played Sundays. This meant an incognito Di Canio was free to travel to away games amongst the fans. At the time, Lazio had one of the biggest Ultra groups in Italy, known as the ‘Irriducibili’. It was these Ultras who Di Canio travelled with. At one away game he was even spotted amongst them by a member of the backroom staff. Despite being warned, it still didn’t put heed to his escapees. He only stopped travelling with the ‘Irriducibilli’ when he progressed to the first team.
Whilst Ultras are an entertaining bunch there are downsides. Often Ultras in Italy are politically aligned. Ranging from far-right and fascism (a view held by both the Irriducibili and Di Canio) to the far-left and socialism. Strong views concerning nationalism, anti-Semitism, racism, and commercialisation also providing the basis for other Ultra groups. Whilst there are groups more liberal in political alignment, these are few and far between. Also, Ultras act as protest groups, voicing concerns and unrest present in Italian society and occasionally protesting stadium bans.
There has also been a tendency for a knife culture among certain groups, whilst others are linked to criminal gangs. It’s no surprise to learn there has been a fair amount of corruption in the game involving Ultras and their clubs. In 2017, twelve Juventus Ultras were arrested in connection with extortion and money laundering, among other criminal activities regarding ticket sales.
At the time, Juventus decided to stop selling blocks of discounted tickets. This didn’t go down well with the club’s Ultras, who had been ‘infiltrated by the mafia’. Alleging that if the club refused to sell the discounted tickets the Ultra group would partake in racist chanting. As a result, tickets were handed out to Ultras for free to ‘guarantee peace’ at the games.
On the flip side, friendship groups are a popular part of Italian Ultras. Whilst in the UK it’s popular to have a second team, in Italy, this rises several notches. Known as ‘gemellaggi’. These friendships show admiration for each other’s clubs, to the extent that when these teams play each other, instead of the usual segregation the ‘gemellaggi’ are allowed to freely mix creating a friendly almost festival-type atmosphere inside the stadium. Talk about opposite ends of the spectrum.
There’s no denying that Ultras especially Italian ultras have left their mark when it comes to fanatical fans and for Italy in general, it’s what has attracted many people from around the world to watch Italian football in the first place. Although whether we will a rise of Ultras particularly in ‘big’ clubs in the UK will remain to be seen.