- Ultras are a type of ‘ultra-fanatical’ football fans, occasionally using violence, hate speech and pyrotechnics.
- The Ultras movement is most active in South America, North Africa and parts of Europe.
Their reputation as diehard supporters precedes them, with a notorious synonymity for stirring antagonism with rival fan groups through hateful chants and slogans.
The typical traits of an Ultras group is to generate a frenzied atmosphere of passionate support; encouraging their own team and intimidating their opponents. This ritual commonly involves flares, percussion and occasionally elaborate displays in stadiums:
Violence is often associated with football Ultras and is a stereotype frequently endorsed within mainstream media outlets. There’s no smoke without fire however and there are certain fixtures that guarantee friction between rival Ultras groups.
It is widely understood that political ideologies and views on racism are an influential factor within the ultras phenomenon and are typically the root cause for much of the fighting and brawls within the scene.
But do football fans really understand what it means to be a member of the ultras?
Whilst I cannot speak for the entire movement, I do have some insights into the actions of one particular ultras group. As sheltered as my adolescent years were, one fateful week I found myself marching towards a line of police, scarf covering my face and anti-establishment club banners in hand:
This is my German ultras experience.
But first a brief history lesson and I promise it will be brief. When I joined the ranks as a guest of no-honour, the group were known simply as Ultras Darmstadt.
To give you an impression of what the group were like – they were forced to disband and rebrand after being banned (bonus points for rhyme) from numerous stadiums within the league during the 2011/12 season. This left the ultras movement in Darmstadt in a fragile state, as described by Darmstadt ultras leader Tim Strack:
“…it was internally divided: Some wanted more politics in the stadium, while others did not. Some wanted an “experience-oriented” conflict with the enemy, others do not. After half a year contemplation the fragments formed into one of the more active group “Ultra de Lis”, together with the large fan group “Usual Suspects”.
These are the present-day ultras for SV Darmstadt 98, split into two harmonious groups Usual Suspects and Ultra De Lis (The Lily). It is generally recognised that Ultra De Lis take the helm when it comes to organising choreography and boast some of the most politically challenging banners seen within the entire German Bundesliga.
Whilst Usual Suspects certainly contribute towards the stadium displays and demonstrations, they generally represent the more imposing side of the ultras lifestyle – not afraid to stand up and fight for SV Darmstadt 98 when challenged. They provide the “experience-orientated conflict” described earlier.
So how did I come to be an ‘honorary’ German ultra?
I studied German at school and was in the 1% of English teenagers who enjoyed it. Myself and a handful of friends were invited to participate in a German exchange to Darmstadt organised by my school. As part of the programme, I was required to fill out a ‘match-making form’ that would ultimately pair me with my ultras comrade to be.
I imagine our pairing was a result of the word football and fußball appearing on both of our respective forms and not a lot more than that. As any disgruntled online dater will tell you: one shared interest does not a match make.
He came to England for the first leg of the exchange and it quickly dawned on me that we were not at all alike. He was 3 years older than me, dressed like a hells angel and was built like a steam train; smoked like one too. I dressed in the clothes my mum bought me from GAP and had barely hit puberty. For reference, this is what most of our photos together looked like (won’t use his actual image for obvious reasons):
My exchange partner did not share my enthusiasm for the English game, dismissively stating that: “the only team German’s care about is Liverpool, they have proper fans.”
A bit of a generalisation maybe, but it’s certainly interesting to note that English football is a rare example of a footballing culture in Europe which hasn’t been heavily influenced by the ultras movement.
He didn’t much enjoy his stay in England. The countryside village that I grew up in was a far cry from the lifestyle he was used to…
Return Leg in Darmstadt
3 months after my German friend left the U.K, I was on a plane heading to Darmstadt not really knowing what to expect.
Darmstadt is renowned as the City of Science, yet I can’t say I was exposed to a great deal of Darmstadt’s culture. Within 4 hours of my arrival, I found myself in a smoke filled social club surrounded by intimidating looking German men speaking too quickly for me to understand.
I realised later that I had been in attendance to an Ultras Darmstadt pre-match meeting. As my German friend later explained to me, the group had been organising proceedings down to the finest detail.
This included: preparing a march route to the stadium, where they would meet, the different routes they’d take to avoid police attention, which banners would be unveiled, where they’d aim to confront rival fans and most importantly… who was bringing the beer kegs.
Do not doubt that ultras are organised – these are not just opportunist thugs looking for trouble. Whilst there are undoubtedly characters in their midst who are unquenchably thirsty for a brawl, the hierarchy within the groups prevents the warmongering individuals from jeopardising the entire operation.
The level of organisation within Darmstadt’s modern ultras groups has now evolved to a stage of self-governance. There is absolutely zero establishment presence in the ultras stadium block, Block 1898:
“The fan scene regulates itself, there are no policemen in the fan block. The tickets for Block 1898 are sold by the fans themselves”, describes Alex Back, a member of Darmstadt’s Ultras De Lis group.
Ultras groups devise their own ‘codes of conduct’ for how they expect fans to act within the fan block of the stadium. During the Ultras Darmstadt era, there was just one commandment that had to be obeyed and I was told this rule in a firm, unwavering German tone:
“In the stadium there are many seats, but you must NEVER sit down”
Let me tell you, marching for over an hour and then standing up for double that is no mean feat. Especially when you’ve eaten nothing but bread, cheese and ham for a week and are feeling the effects of malnutrition.
We arrived to the city centre 4 hours before kick off and were met by 3 men I assumed were senior figures within the group. Within 15 minutes there was over 100 ultras congregated under the city’s statue of Louis I, all chanting, all drinking; it was 11:15 am.
As numbers grew, the banners emerged and scarves were pulled up over faces. A blue and white scarf was donated to me to unnecessarily hide my identity – just in case I had any intention of throwing some molotov cocktails around! The ultras began to form ranks with military precision as we prepared to march 2 miles though the city to stadium.
I was put at the front row of the group, holding a large banner that spanned the width of the streets. In front was a single general with a megaphone; barking orders to his troops. As we began to move out of the town square the police closed in. Officers in riot gear chaperoned us towards the stadium, visibly annoyed by the disruption we were causing.
Officers began redirecting traffic as we closed entire stretches of road. People started to break ranks and we were soon an impassable object. Scenes turned slightly nastier the closer we got to the stadium, empty bottles started to get thrown at the police who were attempting to manage the crowd. I made sure to keep my head down.
The noise was relentless. 3 synchronised drummers co-ordinated seamlessly with the megaphone-conducter/general, orchestrating a deafening symphony of chants. This continued for over an hour, by which point I knew every chant in the hymnbook – I was a proper member of Ultras Darmstadt now.
Arriving at the Stadium
We were greeted at the Merck-Stadion am Böllenfalltor by a wall of police; separating us from the rival group of fans who were waiting for us to arrive. All manner of objects started flying from both sets of fans: plastic bottles and sticks mostly; nothing overtly sinister… although the guy next to me took off his hat and threw it at the rival supporters – that’ll show ’em!
The police quickly moved the opposing fans away and we were kettled into Block 1898 before I even had the chance to buy a currywurst, the ultras had come prepared for such an eventuality and had smuggled enough beer into the ground to keep everyone in raucous voice – the chanting continued.
Nearing kick-off and everyone was given a flag or banner to hold, creating an amazing carnival climate. These weren’t your tiny plastic flags – looking at you Chelsea fans – these things were pretty sizeable and they only got heavier the more they got drenched in flying beer. I’m in amongst this sea of blue and white somewhere:
When I watched SV Darmstadt 98, they were playing in the lower tiers of the Bundesliga so the quality of football on display was not the best. Fortunately, I barely saw a moment of the action. Blue flares erupted as soon as the first whistle blew and a giant parachute was passed overhead, covering everyone for 15 minutes!
You can’t help but get swept up in that kind of frenzied atmosphere, it’s a complete sensory overload. The football feels almost irrelevant, compared to the ultra’s performance in the stands. Ultras can be a spectacle in their own right, exemplified best by the fans of Polish side Lech Poznan, coining their trademark ritual; The Poznan:
“The General” never caught a glimpse of the action. He faced inwards to the crowd, perched upon the pitch-side barrier, barking chants and rallying the crowd incessantly for over 90 minutes. He was only relieved of duty when his voice was no more and not even the megaphone could pick up his inaudible squeaks.
The game ended (2-2), but Ultras Darmstadt did not; continuing for a further hour after the final whistle, chanting at an empty pitch. When the club turned the floodlights off, I must admit I was feeling weary and desperate to go. We didn’t get back to my exchange partners house for another 5 hours on from that point however.
We stayed so late inside the stadium that we missed the last bus home to the suburbs and had to walk it. He was still chanting every step of the way.
Dispelling a Myth about Ultras
Having only attended one game as an ultra, I understand that I can’t speak for the entire movement. To say that “ultras aren’t that violent” based off one experience would be ridiculous; especially considering an article I wrote recently.
As I previously mentioned, ultras have an infamous reputation for harbouring racist and far-right views but in the case of Ultras Darmstadt, now Usual Suspects and Ultra De Lis this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Despite Darmstadt’s predominantly working-class demographic, their ultras groups take a defiantly liberal stance towards politically charged debates:
Mainstream-media should not be so quick to tarnish all ultras with the same brush.
Ultras are fiercely emotional about their club and when two polar opposite impassioned forces collide there can be friction, but not all ultras groups are the same.
Generally, I feel ultras can be a force for good – their role within football is changing.
As the game becomes increasingly corporate and focussed on profit, ultras groups ensure the roots of football remain prevalent and that notable causes are properly supported within the game. This is certainly true for SV Darmstadt 98, who’s ultras reinforce their strong message in the stands with community action:
“… in principle to separate politics and football, does not work. Football was, is and will remain political, as everything is political, in terms of society. So we make it clear that we’re antifascist, anti-racism and anti-homophobia. But we just try to act rather than just appearing ‘liberal and trendy’. So not only to keep “Refugees welcome” posters up, but also to be active – we organise a weekly ‘kick-about’ with refugees.” Oliver Spengler, Ultra de Lis leader
I think English football could learn a lot from the positive attributes of the ultras phenomenon.