26 April 2012

The allure of Ultra culture

Scenes during Genoa’s defeat to Siena at the weekend saw football’s chattering classes united in their condemnation of the struggling Serie A side’s Ultras who, shamed by the performance of their XI took the game hostage. Their demands: the shirts from the players’ backs.

Putting aside the general stupidity of firework flinging, football fans the world over will be forgiven a moment of guilty satisfaction at the fleeting shift in power from millionaires - in shorts and in boardrooms - to the terraces.

Now, flexing their muscles in this way is a pathetic and flouncy response to a poor run of form, and Genoa’s Ultras are more than worthy of the scorn pool in which they currently swim. But among modern football’s dejected voyeurs across Europe, you may yet spot an envious glance towards the direct action fan-power of the Ultras.

Subcultural exchange across European football terraces is nothing new. 20th Century examples include Liverpool fans returning bedecked in looted Italian and French leisurewear from their European travels in the 70s and 80s - igniting England’s casual movement. In Manchester, City fans regularly bounce to the Poznan while United fans rarely return from Europe without a new ditty for football league clubs throughout the land to rip-off ad infinitum.

During a pre-season Luton friendly vs Ajax a few years ago I stood among visiting Dutchmen (enduring a mini-tour before their Emirates Cup duties down the M1) sporting Burberry caps and singing songs in English, seemingly at ease with our particularly refined brand of Bedfordshire banter.

In England - and specifically Luton pubs - we often dream, misty eyed, of the collapse of the modern game as the foundations of the Premier League’s corporate castles sink further into their sandpits of debt and deceit - while supporters groups lay in wait to save the day.

More than once at Luton we’ve ousted dodgy owners with organised supporter campaigns to withhold season ticket money. At one stage it looked set to become an annual activity. And the following season or so the terraces saw the customary flurry of ultra-esque branding appear - the flags, T shirts, website, facebook group...

At FC United they call it punk football and I don’t know what they call it at Ebbsfleet, but down in the Conference you are never more than a fixture or two away from some incarnation of the Ultra aesthetic on the terraces - Latin slogans blazed across flags made in Yorkshire. Ultra culture has become the calling card of football's downtrodden.

While the coming UEFA regulations and recent events at Ibrox seem to signpost a future of realistic ambitions and financial fair play, as supporters we look enviously at direct attempts to force football’s powerful few to recognise that it is us, the supporters that really count.

Trading songs and knock-off jackets aside, more and more estranged supporters now look to Germany and the seemingly bygone utopia of cheap tickets, standing areas and a future of fan owned clubs that many are currently enjoying in the Bundesliga.

While we secretly dream of an Ultra revolution to take back the game for ordinary supporters, it’s got to be the slightly less firework-y German model that we aim for. Even if we do it wearing Italian Jackets, singing Spanish songs and doing a Polish dance.

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