Since their emergence in Italy in 1968, ultras have become the most dominant style of football fandom in the world. Since its inception, the ultras style has spread from Southern Europe across North Africa to Northern and Eastern Europe, South East Asia and North America. This book argues that ultras are an important site of enquiry into understanding contemporary society. They are a passionate, politically engaged collective that base their identity around a form of consumption (football) that links to modern notions of identity like masculinity and nationalism. The book seeks to make a clear theoretical shift in studies of football fandom. While it sits in the body of literature focused on political mobilisations, social movements and hooliganism, it emphasises more fundamental sociological questions about group formation, notably collective performances and emotional relationships. By focusing on the common form of expression through the performance of choreographies, chants and sustained support throughout the match, this book shows how members build an emotional attachment to their club that valorises the colours and symbols of that team, whilst mobilising members against opponents. It does this through recognising the importance of gender, politics and violence to the expression of ultras fandom, as well as how this is presented on social media and within the stadium through specular choreographies.
Football fandom is an important area of research that covers a wide range of activities, people and places around the world. This chapter introduces the ultras style of fandom and situates it within the wider academic literature on football fandom. It highlights how fandom meets in the broader public sphere and engages politically within the wider politico-economic changes in football, and wider social world. Within the football stadium, there is a performance of fans’ identities which helps generate and sustain their emotions. Significantly, fandom is emotionally charged and this fuels the ultras’ engagement in the sport, but also their interactions, relationships and sense of individual and collective self.
Football fandom is a regular, ritualistic performance that takes place every weekend over the course of a season. These performances are recounted in conversation, social media and traditional media throughout the week. The performances help locate the individual within a broader collective, but also structure their interactions with others. Through the collective ritual of fandom, the ultras elevate themselves into a state of flow that brings the gathering of individual fans into one collective working in unison.
Football is an emotional game. Emotions are not restricted to the agony and ecstasy of victory or defeat, but the warmth of friendships and relationships built through engaging with other fans and clubs. Emotions are a primary constituent of social life and how we build relationships, yet they have been absent from the analysis of football fandom. The ultras’ performance helps generate the emotional atmosphere at matches and this sustains the emotional engagement with their club. It builds solidarity, motivates conflict and links individuals to the collective behaviour of the stadium. This emotional engagement also acts as the driver for political mobilisation around issues that affect their club, the sport or the groups.
The ultras style of football fandom emerged in 1960s Italy and has spread across Europe and the Mediterranean, to North America and Asia. This is not a history of the ultras, but an analysis of the way history has been used and incorporated into the ultras’ performance. History is an important foundation of ultras groups. It can act as an ‘invented tradition’ where ultras integrate historical narratives of their club, city and nation to present themselves to others. This chapter illustrates some of the many ways in which history has been incorporated into the development of the ultras style.
The ultras’ performance is not restricted to ninety minutes at the weekend. It lives through regular interactions throughout the week through the traditional media, conversations and social media. The last of these has become an important public sphere where the way fans and ultras should act or react are debated and discussed. Social media is an important site of the ultras’ performance as the visual style permits groups to create a lasting image of themselves that extends far beyond the stadium and can be spread across the world.
Football fandom has historically been dominated by men. The ultras style, in particular, becomes a site of hegemonic masculinity where participants perform their understandings of gender. Many performances are explicitly masculine, incorporating defence of territory, status, physical and sexual dominance, and violence. These are symbolised in images of warriors, valorised transgressive acts, or images of fraternal solidarity. Each communicates that there is one type of (hegemonic) masculinity that encapsulates the group, in comparison to their feminised rivals. Yet there is nothing explicitly masculine about fandom. Female ultras participate in the rituals, yet also have to navigate the explicit masculinity on display.
Football studies are replete with analyses of hooliganism. Yet ultras are distinct from hooligans. The ‘English style’ of hooliganism has influenced ultras through greater match attendance at international tournaments. Yet violent incidents are still relatively rare. Increasingly, violence is symbolic and displayed in the overtly masculine choreographies and chants of the ultras. The gendered dimension of ultras fandom remains dominant as masculinity underpins much of the symbolic violence in the ultras’ performance.
Ultras grew out of a politically turbulent time in Italian history: the politics of the piazza were taken into the stadium. While some ultras groups retain some ideologically political outlooks, many consider themselves apolitical. Despite this, many still see themselves as nationalist, reflecting the normalcy of the nation-state. Often these descend into racism as groups assert the desired image of their club, nation or region. Few ultras groups follow explicitly ideological politics of left or right. Yet all groups are engaged in football politics and challenging the increased regulation, restriction and criminalisation of many of their activities. This is collected under the banner of ‘Against Modern Football’, which acts as a unifying element of the ultras style. Consequently, the ultras can be considered one of the largest social movements in the world.
The ultras reflect a paradox in contemporary football. On the one hand, increasingly commercial clubs enjoy the passion, colour and spectacle that the ultras provide through their performances and this helps market their clubs. On the other, clubs and authorities seek to regulate certain aspects of ultras’ behaviour, including violence, anti-social chanting, use of pyrotechnics and anything that challenges their power. This conflict unifies and emotionally sustains the ultras and provides a critical focus for their activities. These emotions fuel the politics of the social movement of Against Modern Football. In effect, it creates what Albert Camus called a ‘fatal embrace’ where both sides are incapable of uniting and are willing to fight until the end.