The extreme nature of Ultra fandom often reflects an equally extreme political position
In July 2013, fans of the Italian football team Atalanta drove a Sherman tank over two cars painted with the colors of two opposing teams. The cars, which were spray-painted with epithets insulting the teams (Roma Merde!), were completely crushed. After the tank passed, fans rushed in to continue beating the cars or, if possible, grab a piece as a souvenir. Though the Italian media responded to this particular incident with fascination and outrage, rolling out the tank during pre-season street festivals is apparently a years-long tradition. Episodes like this illustrate the theatrical excess characteristic of football superfans, the most infamous of whom are known as Ultras.
Ultras are formally organized support groups for association football teams iconic for their elaborate pyrotechnic displays and bitter rivalries. In Italy, the fans are referred to as the “12th man,” evening out the eleven players a team has on the field. As the popularity of football has spread all over the world, so too has this Italian institution of fandom. Teams all over Europe, the Middle East and Latin America have affiliated Ultras.
Perpetually attempting to outdo each other, Ultras assert their presence through constant singing, flag-waving, colored smoke flares, choreographies and other gestures of collective jouissance. More than spectators, they are partisans, unafraid to express disagreement with their own team’s strategy. They have been known to storm the field or linger long after a game, burning cars and fighting each other or the cops. They are also prone to “hooliganism”—vicious insults, brawls and coordinated attacks on rival Ultras. Their rivalries sometimes take on grandiose proportions: One supporter of Robur Siena, explaining his hatred of Florence, invoked a thousand-year antagonism between the two cities, bragging about “exterminating the Florentine army” in 1260, in a battle that Dante described as “a terrible day” where the Arbia river was turned into a “river of blood.” The volatility they introduce to the game has long been a PR problem for football leagues, leading to recent crackdowns.
Somewhere between a fan club, a gang and a social movement, Ultras have a long history of politicization and aggression. During Italy’s Years of Lead—a tumultuous period of political terror, perpetuated by left- and right-wing paramilitary groups as well as the state, that lasted through the 1970s—Ultras from the far left and extreme right battled in the streets, often far removed from the context of football.
These political alignments precede those turbulent years by at least a decade, extending to the origins of the Ultra phenomenon in the early 1960s. The first Ultra group was La Fossi dei Leoni, “The Lion’s Den,” supporters of the team AC Milan. At the time, Milan had strong working class militancy, mostly among railway workers, and the group, drawing from this fanbase, was explicitly leftist. In response, members of the Movimento Sociale Italiano, a now-defunct neo-fascist party that emerged from the fallout of the Mussolini regime, started the “Inter Boys” in support of Inter Milan, a rival breakaway team from AC Milan identified with the middle class. A poll taken in 1975 found that 86.8% of Italian youth identified with the left, while a mere 7% identified with the right; yet at the time, among the Ultras, for every hardcore leftist group, there was a far-right group to match them.
As the phenomenon spread, Ultras developed a reputation for being a potent resource for organized violence. In the early 1990s, members of Delije (“The Strong Ones”), fans of Serbian sports club Red Star, acted as nationalist shock troops carrying out ethnic cleansing in the Yugoslav wars, organized by the notorious club leader-turned-warlord Arkan, at Slobodan Milošević’s request. In their telling, it was they who fought the first battle of the war, in 1990, when they rioted against the Croatian team Dinamo. Ten years later, the pendulum swung the other way as Delije started agitating against Milošević, chanting “Do Serbia a favor, Slobodan, and kill yourself!” at games.
In recent years, some Ultra groups have garnered attention for their participation in leftist and populist movements. During the Egyptian uprising that led to the fall of the Mubarak regime, Ultras from various, and sometimes opposing, clubs stood out as particularly tenacious in the fight against the state security forces. They were at the forefront of many of the street battles, defending the more vulnerable protestors from the front lines of riot cops and resisting the attempts to forcibly disperse the sit-ins at Tahrir Square. They deployed a range of tactics familiar to Ultras anywhere: smoke flares, fireworks and intimidating songs. The Ultras, particularly the “Ultras Ahlawy,” are widely credited as providing the force that broke down the police forces, leading to the fall of Mubarak. This culminated in the 2012 massacre at Port Said stadium, during which Al Masry Ultras attacked Ahlawy in their partitioned stand while the police blocked the exits, leading to the death of 72 Ahlawy Ultras.
In the occupation of Gezi Park in Istanbul, Ultras rapidly mobilized to join in the struggle against state repression, setting up barricades around the camp. Unlike in Egypt, where the Ultras repeatedly insisted that they were fundamentally apolitical, Turkish Ultra groups, particularly from the Çarşi club, have a noted history of leftist sympathies. In the past, Çarşi Ultras have protested the Iraq war. After Armenian-Turkish writer Hrant Dink was murdered, Çarşi Ultras held up signs at games saying, “We are all Armenian!” In each instance, Ultras brought their militancy to liberal or left-radical causes, using their abundant stage presence and fighting experience to further these aims.
It would be easy to account for their apparent range of politics by treating the Ultras as a mere populist substrate, capable of tactically mobilizing masses of people, on which ideologies germinate and find expression, such that it is arbitrary whether they are on the left or right. But this model of political subjectivity doesn’t acknowledge how the many Ultras view themselves or how their practices enact a particular notion of belonging. Ultras are better understood as subscribing to a deeply entrenched symbolic order, which may intersect with other social ontologies to produce politically ambivalent subjects, but who nonetheless harbor certain ideological affinities. The genuine affective power that Ultras bring with them to football games point to the layered, intersecting histories that sustain their appeal; histories that fuel strong identitarian tendencies. Throughout the revolt in Egypt, Ultras insisted they were protesting “as Egyptians”, not with any other specific program. Situated in the particular set of political circumstances of the Egyptian uprising, this position was imbued with anti-authoritarian force. In another moment, however, such a sentiment might mean something quite different. Etore, a leader of the AS Roma Ultras, stated in an interview that he felt that he and his group were representatives of millennia of history and culture. He said “we are like heirs of an emperor, or children of the Lupa [the wolf from the foundational myth of Rome], or the Roman people fierce and proud […] we go on tour to support the colors of our team, but above all the colors of our city.”
Ultras are never simply fans of football. In Rome, where Etore is from, Ultras frequently gush about the relationship between Romanità, “Romanness,” and their love for their team. It is no surprise that AS Roma Ultras are among the most notorious for being fascist. In the historiography of fascism, there have been many debates about who exactly to count as a fascist movement or regime. Since the end of WWII, numerous parties and fringe groups throughout the world have explicitly claimed to be heirs to the fascist tradition; many more vehemently deny any links to fascism, despite apparent sympathies. The ambiguity and widespread use of the term has led some to question its usefulness after 1945, or even its conceptual value in the first place. Certainly, even Italian fascism and Nazism differed in important ways. So, what does constitute fascism?
Eschewing “objective” institutional analyses, historian Roger Griffin heuristically defines fascism “from within” by attending to the historical narratives employed to justify the actions taken in its name, insisting that the term denotes a coherent ideology and therefore can be used to distinguish between different movements and phases of development. In his framework, though fascist parties might strategically ally themselves with traditionalist conservatives, clerics, or feudal-aristocratic elites, fascism is not an essentially reactionary program.
It is, instead, secular and formally revolutionary, fundamentally future-oriented and aspirational, even as it operationalizes nostalgia as an affective motor. This is because fascist ideologues continually call for society to be rejuvenated, a process that is purifying and restorative but, crucially, also creative. Griffin calls this need for renewal “palingenetic ultranationalism,” a two-part term describing fascism’s unique diagnosis and solution: The excesses of Enlightened modernity have condemned once-great nations to rootless anomie, “attributed to the breakdown of traditional community, cosmology and hierarchy,” the only solution to which is social “rebirth” (palingenesis) through strident anti-liberal nationalism. In the eyes of fascism the rotting institutions of the ancien régime, the republican populism of the masses and the rationality of the bourgeoisie are all enemies, though it constantly appropriates from and compromises with these forces and actors.
This entails the saturation of everyday life with the “affective and subjective sense of permanent revolution, of living through a historical sea-change, of belonging to a supra-individual reality” through the deployment of effervescent rituals, charismatic images and auratic spectacles of power. The populace must be made to see that rebirth is needed and is indeed happening. Cultural production is retooled for this end, perpetually staging a battle between health and degeneracy, in which “youthful new forces” claim “victory over decadence” to produce a new type of man. There was a prevailing fixation on “regenerative violence.” As Umberto Eco posited, in his description of what he termed “Ur-Fascism,” life is permanent warfare, where there “is no struggle for life, but, rather, life is lived for struggle.”
This “new dawn” is, of course, explicitly gendered and racialized. To historian George Mosse, fascism is “the climax of modern masculinity.” In fascism, white manhood was discursively infused with a system of values that would reinvigorate the men of the nation to deliver salvation. Following the Italian Futurists, this “new fascist man’”was imagined to be a “disciple of the engine,” emphasizing movement and aggression, and an heir to the war hero, at once strong, dutiful and courageous. He was to be a balance of different tensions: Independent but willing to be sacrificed for the community, deferential to authority but decisive in his actions, muscular and virile but refined and noble, this-worldly but spiritual and vital. Men were to be made more honorable even as they were perfectly dispensable to the regime, leading to an obsession with sacrifice and recovering a lost originary glory. A cult of the war dead became the centerpiece of fascist political liturgy, as wartime camaraderie became the paradigm of male homosocial bonding.
In fascist Italy, sports organizations were instrumental in actualizing these ideals. Football was believed to be a particularly amenable sport. The Catholic priest Giovanni Semeria, whom Mussolini admired, noted that football simultaneously taught leadership and obedience, as players, vying for dominance over the field, had to dynamically step up or step down as required by strategy. Intending for the game to showcase the qualities of idealized masculinity, the state invested heavily in the infrastructure to transform football into a mass spectator sport. In 1929 Mussolini established Serie A, the national football league, to foster Risorgimento—literally “resurgence”—which is what he termed national unity. After convincing FIFA to hold the World Cup in Italy in 1934, Mussolini hand-picked a referee to preside over the final game between Italy and Czechoslovakia, who promptly failed to notice an Italian handball and ultimately declared Italy the winner, cementing a reputation for athletics that the average party member could feel pride in.
The party also rapidly built fields all over Italy, with 3,280 new fields built between 1922 and 1930. It subsidized the production and dissemination of transistor radios, which broadcast the game to rural margins otherwise impenetrable to the state. Though many forms of consumerism were discouraged through heavy taxes on luxury goods, ticket prices and train fare to cities on game day were subsidized to ensure mass turnout for live games. A culture of spectatorship was cultivated, so the game would serve as a didactic spectacle showcasing proper forms of masculinity.
And the game is instructive as far as the “new man” is concerned. Two miniature armies pitched in a virtuous struggle, the reward of which is that fundamental alibi for naturalized hierarchies: victory and the attendant glory of superiority. Individual players can be recognized for the flair of their footwork and skill, but equally important is their assimilation into the machinic body of the team. The team gains ground by maintaining formations, advancing across the pitch as a platoon, but goals are scored by decisive, self-assured action. There is simultaneous emphasis on abstract strategy and rough physicality—one is always running, locating an opening, moving as an assemblage of muscle, sinew, calculation and cleats. This romantic game, properly territorialized, is the stuff of political myth. On the football field, before the eyes of the masses delivered to the stadium by the fascist state, the palingenetic dream is spectacularly rehearsed.
In part because of this inextricable lineage, Ultra culture is saturated with positive tropes about masculinity and proper ways of belonging. Expression of the Ultra identity is perhaps purest in the violent confrontations between rivals. This is what allows them to lay claim to being “true fans,” superior to non-Ultras: The fact that they would risk life and limb for the glory of their team. This discursive partition between false and real fans is a cornerstone of the enduring popularity of the Ultras. In this conception of fandom, the stakes are as high as possible, offering much more than entertaining sports spectatorship: it offers authentic belonging in an imagined community. Described this way, fandom begins to look an awful lot like militant nationalism: A psychosocial structure of sacrifice, violence, and loyalty that reflects a deep, innate but somewhat mystified “true belonging.”
Battle is the dominant metaphor in the Ultra mindset. Ultras imagine themselves as warriors in a perpetual struggle for greatness, one that only partially maps onto the ups and downs of the football league. The anthropologist Mark Dyal, who was converted to fascism while doing ethnographic work on Ultras in Rome, contends that, for the Ultras, “self-understanding is produced by an ever-present system of antagonisms,” a moral imperative founded upon “oppositions between and within town, region, geopolitical boundary, political affiliation or ideology, and historical rivalry.” Many Ultras consider away games to be an important rite, in which one “goes behind enemy lines” to fight alongside fellow Ultras, in the process forging a sense of fraternity that both transcends and roots their shared fandom.
Ultras today are haunted by a specter the Italians simply term calcio moderno, “modern soccer,” a hybrid of the self-interest of capitalist owners, whose profit-seeking cheapens the experience of the game, and what they perceive as “enforced” egalitarianism and inclusion, with increased spectatorship amongst immigrant populations and the construction of multi-ethnic teams. The urgency inspired by this implied threat propagates a sense of imminent marginalization amongst many of the Ultras, who, according to Dyal, are composed primarily of middle-class men between the ages of 16 and 38. This viewpoint conflates a critique of the rampant commodification of sports since the 1990s with the sensational narrative of white victimhood, espoused by the right, in which mass immigration will render white Europeans a minority.
The implications of the Ultras’ view of themselves as arbiters of true fandom—as “keepers of the faith” in the words of one AS Roma fan—become clear in light of this sentiment. In 2013, as Kevin-Prince Boateng, a Ghanaian footballer who played for AC Milan at the time, walked onto the field, a section of AC Milan’s Ultras began to make monkey noises. This harkens back to an incident in the early 1980s, when Hellas Verona Ultras bombarded Julio César Uribe, one of Italy’s first Black players, with bananas. These dehumanizing gestures stand out as particularly heinous, but they fit into a wider pattern of nationalist provocation and racial abuse emanating from the Ultras’ sections of the stands. Swastika flags and Nazi salutes are all periodically witnessed in football stadia throughout Europe. Incidents such as these demonstrate that the fandom practiced by Ultras—overwhelmingly masculine, fanatical, aggressive—is often predicated on exclusion, upheld by force and a sense of virtuous struggle.
All Ultras are more than just fans. Their agonistic culture stipulates that they are perpetually at war, affectively conditioned into “warriors” through mutually-reinforcing, normative tropes. That such warriors have in recent years been just as capable of fighting on the barricades of social revolution as providing fascist shock troops reveals both massive variants between local clubs and a need for organized violence within all serious political struggles. But Ultra modes of identity production reflect something darker about masculinist social organization and belonging. Through the figure of the Ultra, football fandom produces a nationalism without a nation, and provides the model for a kind of violent organizing that sees its greatest historical resonance with the far right.