New insights into the complex subculture of the ultras movement

Lise Joern
University of Southern Denmark

Mark Doidge, Radosław Kossakowski & Svenja Mintert
Ultras: The passion and performance of contemporary football fandom
223 pages, hardcover.
Manchester: Manchester University Press 2020
ISBN 978-1-5261-2762-4

Ultras are a type of football fans who are renowned for their passionate support. The concept of ultras is a highly controversial one, and one that is often misunderstood. They are often portrayed in a negative manner due to instances where violence has taken place. But just like every other culture in the world, a few negative incidents do not determine the entire culture.

The book Ultras. The passion and performance of contemporary football fandom by Mark Doidge, Radosław Kossakowski & Svenja Mintert sheds light on the very complex subculture of ultras, which makes it a highly welcome addition to the existing sociological studies on ultras and football fandom.

In the introduction the authors present some of the concepts utilized in the book. The book draws on a wide range of theories—there is a lot packed into the 223 pages. But most of the concepts are applied with a light touch and for readers who are new to the approach taken, the text might serve as a useful introduction to ways that sociological ideas can be applied to football fandom.

The first chapter discusses the performance of the ultras in the stands. Football fandom is largely about performance, especially when you get into the culture that the ultras embrace. Ultras’ performances can be defined as a vocal and visual way of demonstrating the most important cultural values of the subculture. It is a style that demands commitment and extravagance and requires considerable outlay in money and planning. The ultras pride themselves on their ability to create such displays—massive hand-painted banners stretching across the shorter end of the stadium, sometimes with multiple layers and moving parts. Performing football fandom goes beyond tifo and chanting, however. The authors describe the performance of the ultras in the sense presented by Erving Goffman, a performance of everyday life, or in this case fan life. Like in any fan group, there are acknowledged ways to perform one’s fandom. Outside of the theatricality of the game, there is performance in dressing, acting, and communicating fandom and fan identity.

In the second chapter the authors turn their attention to the role of emotions. While the role of fandom and fan behaviour has long been a part of the sociological study of sport, academic studies have primarily focused on violence and hooliganism. Consequently, other dimensions of fandom have been relatively neglected. While this focus may stem from a concern for the antisocial aspects of fandom, a turn to such meaningful aspects of fandom as rituals and emotions is important for a more holistic view of this social phenomenon. Fundamental to understanding fan behaviour are the meaningful rituals and emotions experienced by fans. The authors use the theoretical works of Jack Katz, Stjepan Meštrović and Emile Durkheim—amongst others—to examine the outcomes of emotional energy, collective effervescence, and solidarity among fans.

However, the ultras do not limit their political and social actions to football stadia alone. Many of them, both as individuals and collectively, participate in or collaborate with different social movements.

Chapter 3 explains the emergence and development of the ultras movement in different national contexts.  Whilst the ultrasmovement emerged in Italy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, then spread across Southern Europe into Northern Europe, it has now become truly global. The authors describe the subculture of the ultras by using Eric Hobsbawm’s concept of the invented tradition that has every appearance of being an actual tradition in that it repeats images and symbols drawn from the past (real or imagined), but is in fact both of relatively recent origin and artificially created, and also Benedict Anderson’s idea of communities as socially constructed, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group. The chapter is very informative. I would, however, have preferred to read this account of the emergence and development of the movement in the beginning of the book.

Chapter four explains how social media have created new opportunities for fan expression and collective performance outside the stadium.

The fifth chapter explores the reproduction of hegemonic masculinity in the ultras movement. Just like the subculture of football hooligans, the ultras also seem to aspire to a hegemonic archetype of masculinity.

Chapter 6 focuses on fan violence. There are a lot of negative attitudes associated with football fans, in particular the die-hard fans who are involved in well-known rivalries. Violence appears not to be too far away in the line of conversation when discussing football supporters. This is also true for the ultras. The debate on football crowd violence has concentrated on the violent dispositions and conflictual norms of fans. These authors, however, correctly argue that this perspective is limited in its ability to explain how violence generalises, the precise conditions under which it originates, and the form that it takes. In order to account for these phenomena it is necessary to broaden the scope of enquiry and explore the diverse contributing factors to football related violence.

The final chapter explains in what sense ultras can be understood as political actors and examines how political beliefs are articulated, displayed and enacted among the ultras. An area of common struggle among the ultras is the commercialization of football. Ultras organize campaigns and activities to show their rejection of the growing commercialization under the slogan ‘Against Modern Football’. It has been stated that the ultras are a non-political group and their political power remains limited. However, the ultras do not limit their political and social actions to football stadia alone. Many of them, both as individuals and collectively, participate in or collaborate with different social movements.

Overall, this is a highly recommendable book that offers valuable insights into a complex subculture. It will be of use to both scholars and students, containing ideas that I think people who are interested in nuanced and multi-faceted examinations of football fans might want to read.

Copyright © Lise Joern 2020

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