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.

 

The Ugly Game

Europe’s other cup – the Europa League, continued its group stages today, but not without some off-field problems.

Tottenham Hotspur was in Rome to play Lazio, which should have been a chance for two teams to celebrate a fan favorite that happened to play for both, Paul Gascoigne. Instead, all the news focused on the bar “The Drunken Ship” where visiting Tottenham fans were attacked by a masked mob of about 40 men armed with paving stones, metal bars, and anything else they could get their hands on. The mob attacked from multiple directions, trapped the Spurs fans, some American tourists, and others in the bar and proceeded to beat and attack the fans until they were through.

The immediate reports after the attack focused on the idea that it was a group of Lazio supporters that attacked the Spurs fans. On the surface this is of course the most simple explanation: the two teams were scheduled to play, Lazio has known fascist elements in its ultra groups and Tottenham fans relish their Jewish connections as the “Yid Army” and roots in a Jewish section of London.

While the last part is likely part of the reason for the attack, there is a problem with conflating all violence against football fans as football fan violence. It later came out that one of the suspects arrested in the attack was not a Lazio supporter, but an AS Roma supporter instead, which makes the Lazio vs Spurs story a less satisfying explanation.

In a meeting with my supervisor the other day we discussed the idea of whether a fan could be a member of multiple groups. My response was that to support two local rivals risks being seen as a traitor to either of the groups. Fan loyalties, if they are divided, reach outside the main rivalries and perhaps divisions so as to preserve the ‘other’ that your core loyalty defines itself against. My loyalties are divided between Arsenal (top choice) and Barcelona: Arsenal has the strongest pull on me, but Barcelona is a comforting fallback when Arsenal continually sells off its best players and then fails to win a trophy (again). As I’ve stated earlier, my biggest problem in Canada is TFC and Vancouver, as I am caught in an awkward position of liking both teams for my attachments to those cities.

Going back to Rome now, the arrest of an AS Roma fan undermines the idea of it being a straight case of fans vs fans. Just a couple of weeks ago the Roma-Lazio derby was its typically violent affair both in the crowd and on the field. These two groups of fans are not going to sit down and sing kumbaya together just so they can beat up some Brits. Instead, my theory is that there is a smaller group that happens to be united, but keeps connections in both ultra groups that is instead responsible. Rather than looking at this as football violence, this should instead be considered a hate attack. Fascist groups often recruit from ultra groups, but after reading Gabriel Kuhn’s Soccer vs the State, I will make a distinction between ultras and hooligans. Ultras fight for their team, whereas hooligans just fight. It is a difference of having a unified purpose (ultras) and nihilism and anarchy (hooligans). Now this attack becomes one directed by a fascist group containing football fans, rather than by football fans who are fascist. Spurs fans become a visible and easy target as both foreigners and as “Jewish”.

It is a subtle difference in the story, but one that is important in understanding the violence as not just a product of the sport of soccer – which is too often the conclusion in North America. Instead, the violence has deeper societal causes that are expressed in the highly combustible cultural experience of sport.