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Do we want a European-style Ultras scene or not?

Everyone admires the fanaticism of European fans, yet when supporters try it here, we mock it. Why?

Image: Jasper Juinen-Anp

The entire concept of an ‘Ultras’ is something English football fans aren’t too familiar with. Is it Pete Dunam and his hooligan outfit from the awful film Green Street Hooligans? Or is it Borussia Dortmund supporters, jumping up and down in unison at their infamous Signal Iduna Park?

Whatever it is, when we see it from visiting supporters here, we’re all in total admiration. Yet when English or Scottish clubs try to do something similar, it’s laughed at. When Paris Saint-Germain supporters were jumping around with flares in Manchester city centre, social media was flooded with statuses and tweets like ‘Why can’t we have this here!’ Just a few days later though, when Crystal Palace’s ‘Holmesdale Fanatics’ were creating a terrific atmosphere at Doncaster in the FA Cup, the same people scorned at them.

Just how the ‘Ultras’ movement developed is a source of debate, but it most likely emerged from Italy in the 1950s. To be an ‘Ultra’ means to show intense loyal support to your team; chanting non-stop and incredibly loudly throughout the game, displaying banners in stadiums, and having a distinct identity associated with your team.

In English football, Crystal Palace supporters are perhaps the closest we come to this. The ‘Holmesdale Fanatics’ have come to fame in recent years, making Selhurst Park an intimidating place for teams to go, epitomised back in 2014 when their fans roared them on to an incredible comeback against Liverpool. Whether it be home or away, win or lose, the Holmesdale Fanatics sing non-stop, wave flags with passion and provide a brilliant atmosphere.

In Scotland, Celtic have their ‘Green Brigade’, who even have a safe standing section specifically for their supporters’ group. Their bitter Glasgow rivals Rangers have the even more timidly named ‘Union Bears’, who were established in 2007. Both have intense, passionate support, although this often crosses the line into sectarianism.

Other clubs have tried to create similar features too. Huddersfield Town’s ‘North Stand Loyal’ loyalty and passion is admirable, especially this season, given how hopeless their team has been. If you look outside of the football league, two non-league, semi-professional sides are famous across Europe for their support. Dulwich Halmet and Clapton FC, both based in London, have their own small Ultras movements, which are associated with left-leaning political views and displays.

So why do we mock these groups? All they’re trying to do is create an atmosphere, have fun, and give their team the best support they can. If you spend a few minutes looking through social media, you find people in awe of the crazy scenes that accompanied Boca Juniors and River Plate in the Copa Lipertadores last term, or the huge European fixtures like the Belgrade Derby. They claim that the English game has gone, and that there’s no passion left in our leagues, that it’s far too corporate and middle-class. Yet when Liverpool fans surround the team bus on its arrival to Anfield, or Crystal Palace fans set flares off at an away tie with Doncaster, the exact same people call them out.

There are endless tweets calling these supporters ‘pathetic’, ‘embarrassing’ and ‘cringey.’ We need to make up our minds then, don’t we? Do we want stands full, with supporters passionately getting behind their team, and making English football matches an exciting occasion? Or do we want to continue with our stadiums getting more and more dull, whilst at the same time continuing to admire those abroad?

The influence Ultras groups can have is massive. In Italy, Roma and Lazio played out their world-renowned Derby della Capitale in an almost completely empty stadium in 2015, as both supporters groups agreed to skip the game, in protest of tightened security measures at Italian stadiums. Controversially, Lech Poznan’s supporters boycotted several fixtures, in protest over ticket money going towards helping refugees. Even in the Premier League, supporters staged protests and stadium walkouts over the increasing costs of away ticket prices. This led to a cap of £30 being set on how much visiting supporters were allowed to be charged.

As football in this country becomes more and more corporate, we shouldn’t mock these ‘Ultras’ supporter groups, we should celebrate them, and encourage more to be formed. They’re standing up for ordinary supporters and making football grounds up and down the country exciting. The blatant hypocrisy of mocking some in England and drooling over others in Germany and Eastern Europe needs to stop.

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