Watching 11 people chasing a ball for 90 minutes might not seem like something of great political importance, but if you thought football was just fun and games then think again! Football fans are a political force to be reckoned with. They have been at the frontline of the revolutions during the Arab spring, as well as standing at the barricades in both Turkey and Ukraine.
In many countries football is politics; this is particularly true in the Middle East. Football stadiums are one of the few places where political concerns are expressed. In both Jordan and Saudi Arabia arenas have developed into a place where anti-royalist sentiments are articulated. In Saudi Arabia, princes have been publically booed and even pelted with objects during matches, this would be unthinkable in other settings. Even the head of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, a member of the royal family, was forced to resign in 2012 due to public pressure; an unprecedented event. In his place a commoner in favor of women’s football was elected.
The Ultras movement within football has also emerged as a political actor in recent years. Ultras is a highly diversified movement, which is often confused with hooligans or other types of fan associations, a connection that the Ultras staunchly oppose. The defining feature of the Ultras is their dedication. Being an Ultra is not something you do on the weekend; it is your identity. They often spend large amounts of time and money on supporting their teams, for instance creating impressive tifos (i.e. choreographed visual displays on the arena). But besides supporting their team, Ultras are in many countries increasingly seen as a political force. Perhaps the most prominent example can be found in Egypt. When the Arab Spring demonstrations started in 2011 the different Ultras, made up of tens of thousands of young men, took to the streets. With their discipline and experience in physical confrontations with the police they played a significant role in the clashes between police and demonstrators. The support of the Ultras could make or break a demonstration. The tragic events at Port Said in 2012 where seventy-four people died in a stadium turmoil also helped ignite demonstrations in other parts of the country. Many people placed the blame on the police and accused them of initiating the riot, and orchestrating the violence in order to teach Egypt’s Ultras a lesson.
In Turkey, the Ultras have also played a large role in the recent demonstrations. The Ultras of Istanbul archrivals Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas joined together, they protected the protesters, mobilized the masses and fought against the police. Especially Çarsi, the Ultras belonging to the club Besiktas, have been described as playing a pivotal role in the uprising at Taksim Square, against Prime Minister Erdogan’s coercive rule.
The same role was played by the Ultras in Ukraine. They joined together and have been hailed by many as the protectors of Euromaidan and stood at the forefront of the fighting in the recent demonstrations. Even the Ultras of Sjaktar Donetsk, traditionally the club of the regime, announced that they intended to protect the protesters. But it was not always done because the Ultras supported the political views of the protesters; many Ultras are against European integration. Instead the Ultras took to the streets in the name of the people and the nation, reacting on the violence exerted by the regime.
Ultras and other supporters are however not always on the side of the people or democracy. In Ukraine, many of the Ultras have close ties to right wing extremist movements and many do not stand for any democratic values. This is true for many Ultras; it is not uncommon for them to have racist elements and they are often plagued with an extremely masculine culture. Not many Ultras include women or immigrants in their ranks. The Ultras of Zenit St. Petersburg published an open letter in 2012 demanding that the club should only purchase white heterosexual players from the Slavic nations, the Baltic States and Scandinavia. Some Ultras in Italy, especially the Ultras of Lazio, are open fascists and Nazis. The darker side of football is also present in the Muslim world; radical mosques and terrorist organizations in the Middle East are known to have links to specific teams, and use them as recruiting ground.
Although no Ultras have violence as an expressed goal, there are often considerable amounts of aggressive behavior and regular outbursts of violence. Perhaps in this lies the key to their success in popular revolutions. Their history of clashes with the law and their organizational potential makes them a force to be reckoned with. No matter if you deem their role as being good or evil; they do have a political part to play and football appears to be much more than just a game.