Ultras and Uprising in Ukraine

Soccer again is at work in organizing protests, this time at EuroMaidan in Kyiv. The protests at Independence squre have been going on for months, yet the media coverage this has received in Canada has been minimal at best. Surprising, considering the amount of coverage the Orange Revolution received nearly a decade ago, and that even then the strong historic ties between Canada and the Ukraine were invoked by both the press and the Canadian government. As the crackdown in the last few days has at least been mentioned in passing in media reports I started to get curious about what was happening and turned to the ol’ web to find out what was going on.

EuroMaidan protester. Jan, 2014

EuroMaidan protester. Jan, 2014

Not surprisingly, one of the first photos I came across was from an Al Jazeera photo gallery of the protest, with a protester hurling something while standing in front of a burned out vehicle with the single word “ultras” sprayed across it. I don’t know the exact context of the “ultras” here, but again it reminded me of the importance that soccer’s ultra supporters have played in protests over the past few years in Egypt and Turkey. I have already written about the organizational capacity of these groups, and their experience in battling security as key reasons they have been at the front lines of these protests. No doubt the political leanings of these groups and tendencies for them to support anarchic causes has also played a factor in their involvement in protests. Of course, being supporters of specific clubs that have their own historic identities in some way influences the outlook of the ultras as well. I doubt Lazio ultras would rush to the barricades to support a socialist revolution in Italy, just as St. Pauli fans wouldn’t be joining in a right-wing protest in Germany (well, they might, but on the other side).

So a quick search through other sights quickly showed me that the “ultras” photo, while not definitively linked to soccer ultras, likely has some tie to them. A December counter-protest organized by the Party of Regions (President Yanukovich’s party) was described by one witness as farcical as they attempted to mock the Maidan protests not far away (from Maidanua.org):

The program of the Party of Regions demonstration was somewhat comical. I watched the very long (20 minutes) and boring speech by Parliamentarian Oleh Tsariov on Ukraine’s First National TV channel (the state-owned broadcaster). He attempted to ridicule the Euromaidan demonstrators’ chant “Khto ne skache, toy Moskal”, but many in the crowd misunderstood, and actually started jumping. The chant that Tsariov was ridiculing originates from the “Ultras” wing of the Ukrainian National Football fan club, and roughly translates as “who is not jumping is a Russky” (“Moskal” is a term that connotes Russians, but is about as demeaning as “Yankee” or “Newfee”). During the original Euromaidan demonstrations (prior to November 30), the chant was popular among students, and playfully used by them as a way of keeping warm. Clearly, some Party of Regions Parliamentarians missed the young peoples’ humour.

Here the counter protest mistakenly seized on a chant of the opposition that itself originated from soccer ultras. Considering the history between Russia and the Ukraine you think the officials would have been more careful in their selection, but seeing that it was a demonstration composed largely of Russians from Eastern Ukraine I wonder if language was a cause of the misunderstanding.

But I do not mean to imply that this is simply a division between the two main ethnicities of the Ukraine. While the east tends to support the government, it is not definitively so. The ultras of Metalist Kharkiv, Dynamo Kyiv, and Shakter Donetsk issued a statement that, “All anti-Maidan supporters are whores.” Bluntly put, but they have made it clear to their members not to participate in any actions against EuroMaidan. Again, as in Cairo, as in Istanbul, the groups of ultras that are normally bitter rivals have found common cause in supporting public protest. Note that both Donetsk and Kharkiv are cities in the supposedly pro-Yanukovich East.

As I write, the government has announced concessions. I don’t know what the short term or long term prospects are based on how rapidly things seem to have changed over the past few days, but as the protests begin to spread to other cities and if this draws into February, it will again touch on soccer. Both Odesa and Donetsk are taking part in the Europa League – where the eyes of football fans and the media will be on the game and the stands of two Ukrainian cities.

 

Opiate of the Masses?

During the South Africa World Cup, Terry Eagleton described football as “the opium of the people” for its capacity to distract the masses from society’s bigger ills. But events over the last few years have demonstrated the potential power of fan movements against authority and that perhaps there is something rotten in the state of football.

#footballwithoutfansisnothing

#footballwithoutfansisnothing

Today I want to look at three events over the last month that  have demonstrated the power of football to unite and organize dissent. First, the smallest case, in English football the biggest most shiny and glamourous league in the world may have discovered that they have pushed their own fans to the limit. June 19 was an important day for the league as it released its fixture list for the next season; always a big day as fans can plot their schedules and bookies can start laying out odds and pundits can start speculating how long David Moyes will survive in Manchester. But the party was crashed by the most unlikely of groups – fans from the EPL clubs who normally refuse to see eye to eye on anything actually protested together outside the Premier League office. The #footballwithoutfansisnothing protest was not huge by any standard, but that it forced the league to have a meeting with the organizers to in some way address the cost of away game ticket prices shows the fans that maybe they do have some power if they can work together.

Ultras together in Taksim

Ultras together in Taksim

Which nicely brings me to case number two: Turkey and Taksim Square. One of the major stories of the protest – before “standing man” saved the day, was that the protest could not have lasted as long as it did or resisted the police as long as they did without the support of football fans. Not just any football fans, but the ultras of Fenerbahçe, Galatasaray, and Besiktas – three of Istanbul’s clubs that violently clash with each other on a regular basis. In addition to fighting each other, they have regular experience battling the police forces, and so the three groups finding something in common in the Taksim protest managed to unite – at least temporarily under the banner of Istanbul United to lend their tactical expertise and support to the other protesters in the park. They are borrowing a page from the Al Ahly and Zamalek ultras that took part in the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt two years ago. And so, far from being the opiate of the masses, football is now resembling Che Guevara’s assessment of the sport, “It is not just a simple game, but a weapon of the revolution.” This may give spectators more to fear in the future, as governments will now be less likely to tolerate disruptions at the matches, as it creates a mass of politically charged and battle-hardened people that can then use those experiences against the government elsewhere.

Outside the Maracana

Outside the Maracana

Which then allows me to turn to my final case today: Brazil and the Confederations Cup. As part of the World Cup, the host country puts on a mini-tournament the year before the cup to test its facilities and logistics ahead of the world’s largest sporting event. Yet the story of the tournament has not been the battles on the field, but instead the ones in the street as Brazilians protest the amount of money spent on keeping FIFA fed while neglecting the poor of Brazil. A poorly timed transit fare increase just as the tournament began highlighted to many that the billions being spent on building FIFA standard stadia around the country may have been better spent on the other infrastructure that so many Brazilians desperately need. It is a case of “bread and circuses”, but they forgot the bread. That the Brazilian Sports Minister, Aldo Rebelo, insisted that, “the security and integrity of fans and tourists would be protected,” (but without mentioning the security or integrity of the protesters) demonstrates where the priorities of the government are. Millions of Brazilians protesting against the sport that is sometimes described as their religion cannot be reassuring to Sepp Blatter and his millionaire FIFA friends who expect a shiny happy tournament that they can sell to the world. My biggest fear is that Brazil wins the Confederations Cup, as that may give the protesters a pause to think that maybe their team does have a legitimate shot at winning the cup next year and that it may prove to be the antidote to the protests – opiate indeed.

Despite that potential, while in 2010 Eagleton saw football as the dear friend of capitalism, perhaps there has been a change in the game since South Africa. And if not in the game itself (which continues to take/make obscene amounts of money), it is the fans that have changed. No longer content to consume, the English fans want respect and dare I say some control over “their” game. Fans elsewhere have seen the sport as a reason to protest over other injustices in their society (Brazil) or has given them the means to protest (Turkey and Egypt).

That opiate of the masses is currently causing one bad trip for the sport’s authorities.