Should ultra groups with a history of violence be banned from attending soccer games?
Ultras are soccer fans defined by their extreme dedication to their team, sometimes to the point of violence. Such fan groups often engage in activities such as setting off flares and displaying banners, with the intention of intimidating opponents. Recently, violence caused by ultras has been increasing; a Russian politician sarcastically suggested making hooliganism a spectator sport . Other incidents include: attacks on two Arab teenagers by members of the Boulogne Boys, who chanted racist slogans ; violence at the England-Russia match in the Euros, involving French and Russian ultras ; suspension of all team sports in Greece following a pre-organized fight between five hundred fans , and many others.
Today, soccer is the biggest sport in the world. Over three billion people tuned in to watch the 2014 World Cup in Brazil , and the Barclay’s Premier League is one of the highest-grossing sports divisions in the world—the 2016/17 season is projected to earn more than thirteen billion dollars in broadcast revenue . In the Premier League, soccer games are events that anyone, from businessmen to families to labourers, can attend safely.
However, this was not always the case. Only thirty years ago, being a soccer fan wasn’t exactly something to be proud of. Soccer-related violence ran rampant; in England, a single matchday might have seen over a hundred arrests made, and large-scale fights were a common sight. For some, the fighting was just as, if not more, important than the actual game.
The turning point was a riot at a European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus. Thirty-nine people were killed and a further eighty-one were injured after Liverpool supporters charged opposition fans. The violence compelled UEFA, the European governing body for soccer, to indefinitely ban English clubs from competing in European tournaments.
After this, measures were taken to “clean up” the game. Perhaps the most important were stadium bans for soccer-related violence, which could last anywhere from months to years . These acted as a serious deterrent for fans who participated in this sort of behaviour. Ultras may have shrugged aside jail sentences, even seen them as badges of honour, but not being able to see their club for years was another prospect entirely.
As can be seen today, these policies have been mostly successful. Incidents of fan violence in England are extremely low, and soccer matches have become something anyone can safely attend. However, in times of peace, it is easy to forget the reasoning behind old rules. For younger supporters, who have only been exposed to matches shown on television for billions of dollars, where a single fan making it onto the field or a flare going off in the stands is a remarkable event, it can seem draconian to ban someone for one mistake. Maybe they believe that these sorts of fans add an element of excitement or passion to the game, an element lost when the rowdiest of supporters are pacified. But history has shown us the consequences of lax regulation, and we would do well not to repeat our mistakes. If sacrificing the atmosphere of a stadium is what it takes to ensure the safety of its spectators, then so be it. After all, it’s called the beautiful game, not the bloody one.
There’s a reason fans are called “the twelfth man.” From Anfield’s Kopites to Dortmund’s Yellow Wall, passionate supporters bring an atmosphere to soccer unrivalled by any other sport. Imagine tens of thousands of people, chanting at the top of their lungs, waving flags with the team colours—who could remain unmoved by that? A strong fanbase can turn mediocre teams into world-beaters and rattle even the iciest opposition.
At the core of the support behind many teams are groups of die-hard fans, the ultras. Mostly single young men, these are the fans who attend every game, leading the chants and creating the massive tifo displays which adorn the home stands. Without their presence, the atmosphere at many games would be greatly subdued, resembling a library more than an actual soccer match.
Sometimes, the passion of these fans spills over into violence. While soccer-based violence is never acceptable, it is important to treat ultra fans, like all others, as individuals. Those who actually take part in the violence should be brought to justice, but it would be unfair to punish the rest of the group. For many ultras, soccer is more of a religion than a mere hobby. To deny these supporters their greatest love, over violence which they may well be uninvolved in, is truly a cruel and unusual punishment.
In fact, as much as the focus tends to be on soccer-related violence, there are many cases of ultras pushing for positive change in the community. In the 2013 Turkey protests, fans of three rival clubs—Besiktas, Galatasaray, and Fenerbahce—came together to protect protesters from police violence . An ultra group belonging to Brazilian team Corinthians had a significant role in introducing democracy to the club, a powerful political statement against the military dictatorship which ruled Brazil at the time .
Even when violence occurs, it is often rooted in some greater societal conflict, largely independent of soccer. Egyptian ultras played a critical role in the 2011 uprising against Mubarak ; Italian soccer fans were often involved in various left- and right-wing clashes in the “Years of Lead,” an era of political turmoil in the 1970s . While this should not excuse the perpetrators, banning ultras does not help address the fundamental cause of this violence. Soccer fans may make for convenient scapegoats, but there are far greater issues which underlie most incidents of soccer-related violence.
In an age when most of a club’s revenue comes from marketing and television deals, when billionaires can purchase teams without an inkling of their history or traditions, when bandwagoner fans are becoming increasingly common—the ultra fan is the last remaining example of the vital passion and pride which so many teams are in danger of forgetting. Soccer needs ultras now, more than ever before.