The deceptively surreal web enmeshing sports, history and politics in Eastern Europe and beyond was further revealed as Guardian columnist and Inverting the Pyramid author Jonathan Wilson further delineated the roles “Ultras” have played and are playing in the recent troubles in Ukraine.
To save a few of you from looking up “Ultras” on Wikipedia, they are super-fanatic followers of a particular team, far beyond the ‘fanclub’ level, to the point that their devotion has religious, racial or political supremacist overtones, or a combination of all of those. The groups stage elaborate visual displays incorporating flares and banners (‘tifo’) as their team is announced, and they maintain an unremitting chorus of chants and songs for the duration the match.
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The ‘Ultra’ phenomenon acquired its name in Italy, post-Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 futuristic dystopia A Clockwork Orange. The violence in Kubrick’s film gives a strong indication as to how the devotion of this crowd can often tend to express itself outside of the stadia, although not always. Many Ultras are quick to point out their differences from hooligans, whose primary allegiance is to violence. The Ultra culture itself has spread throughout the globe (often under different names — for instance, the San Jose Earthquakes have their ‘1906 Ultras’), but has furiously taken hold in the Balkans and European points farther east to the point that these clubs have served as political shock troops.
They played a key role in the Balkan conflict of 20 years ago, and are again playing an extremely significant role in the case of Ukraine, as Ultras from the Sevastopol and Simferopol teams joined their counterparts from Ukranian soocer giants Dynamo Kiev, Metallist Kharkiv, FC Dnipro and Shaktar Donetsk, as well as other Ukranian teams in Kiev’s Independence Square, partly in response to the provocative presence of ‘Titushky,’ paid pro-Russian ‘hooligans’ with Mixed Martial Arts knowledge who have been blamed for several deaths.
While Ukrainian League matches have been postponed over the last few weeks, squads of these ‘Ultra’ fans have faced each other instead — and these have been matches of solidarity, not animosity. This has extended to the support of Crimea’s Ukrainian League teams, and Vladimir Putin’s incursion has been accompanied by harassment and at times open battles with the organizations.
Belorussian Ultras from north of Ukraine’s border have also participated in much of this activity, reflecting the general nervousness of that country that a domino effect is imminent. Minsk, the Belorussian capital, is due to host the World Ice Hockey Championship in May, which could be another upcoming flash point.
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It would be wonderful to say that these are the good guys in this fight, but unfortunately, a message that is accompanying the stated mission of Democratic solidarity is one of racial hatred. Notably in Crimea, indications are that while the Ukrainian Ultras are urging their ethnic Russian neighbors to stand with them for independence from Russia, they would not mind if the significant, indigenous Muslim Crimean Tatar minority got ‘cleansed’ somewhere in the process — maybe by the Cossacks, whom I have spoken of before, who are also in the chaotic mix.
Of course, there is an even more significant Tatar minority in Russia itself, centered on Kazan, whose soccer team has enjoyed great success in the Russian Premier League in recent years, and where a new stadium is one of those chosen to host 2018 World Cup games. Meanwhile Krasnodar, the old Cossack fortress city just across from the east tip of Crimea that has two successful Russian Premier League teams, was strangely dropped from hosting, much to its inhabitants disgruntlement (in fact, they have carried on with building their HKS Architects-designed stadium and surrounding hotels and infrastructure).
2018 could redo the Balkans on the Black Sea in HD, and FIFA head Sepp Blatter and his cronies have stepped right into the middle. Oh, and at the behest of Putin, Russian authorities plan on lifting their ban on beer sales at the stadiums during the tournament. Prost!
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