Written by Ivan Laryionenka
Loud, radical, passionate and extremely organized. Unlike the rest of the group that I went to a recent Slask Wroclaw soccer match with, I wasn’t surprised to see a group of a couple of thousand youngsters gathered up behind one of the goalposts. In Europe, soccer fan culture differs greatly from the one in the US, and if you ever pay a visit to any major European league games, you are bound to spot these “ultras” – extreme fans that will sing, cheer and chant throughout the whole match, no matter what the score is. Their main goal at the stadium is to support their favorite team and give out all the energy and the voice they possess in order to help their team’s players achieve positive results. Sometimes these fans will put out motivating banners and even light up torches in order to create the atmosphere they believe is needed for their team to succeed. We got lucky because the game we went to turned out to be rather important, and Slask ultras got to show themselves in full action. Starting from ten minutes prior the start of the game until our departure they did not stop their actions for a minute. Even after Wroclaw was down 0-2 they passionately sang and cheered as if nothing had happened. In the middle of the first half a huge banner was unfurled, and minutes later I heard “cztery, trzy, dwa, jeden” and the whole tribune lit up with bright red torches, collecting applause and compliments from the rest of the stadium. Observing the passionate love for the sport of soccer and their city, it is hard to imagine these fans being a very radical indicator of overall political climate in the country.
In addition to their great passion for the sport of soccer, their city and their country, European fans groups often manage to bring politics to the stadium and use it as an outlet for spreading their ideas and beliefs. The term Ultras connotes more than just their support for a sports team. It suggests an association with the ultra right. The vast majority of European football fans who choose to stand behind the goal posts are in fact pro right wing. In some instances, they have crossed a thin line and through the symbolism on their scarfs and banners, and the words in their chants they are promoting nationalist and fascist political ideologies. Racism on football stadium became a bigger issue when soccer market became more globalized and players from different countries began to move their careers across the globe. Knowing that the crowd factor will make personal punishments practically impossible, people on the bleachers lose any sort of filter and feel like they can freely say everything they believe, even if that means insulting players or other fans based on their race, political beliefs and other factors.
Surprisingly, politics is a frequent topic of discussion at the stadiums and sports in general. From time to time, ultras will step aside from their main job of supporting their team and speak up about the main topics of discourse on the political arena, government’s policies, current events and even history. Knowing where these people stand on the political spectrum, it is often not hard to predict what their opinions will be, but what is impressive is the fact that they have such a strong platform to convey their messages through and make them popular across the country through social media and simply the word of mouth.
Polish ultras are known to be one of world’s most organized, biggest and creative fans. They are especially active when it comes to political issues and overtime managed to become a solid indicator of the situation in Polish public sphere and now their behavior can tell a lot about the political climate in the society. In 2015, WKS fans put out an over sized anti immigration banner which displayed a knight wearing a St George Cross defending Europe from approaching boats with non-white migrants. The overall message is very clear and perfectly portrays the opinions of majority of Polish citizens, which continue to elect pro right governments that fight the EU practically on every foreign policy issue. Such approach to migration issues is justified by the state by possible economic troubles that might arise from migrants along with the cultural tension that they will bring into the country.
Polish ultras push their political agenda through public demonstrations in the stadiums about select significant chapters and in Poland’s history. Legia Warsaw fans for example remembered the Warsaw Uprising by also displaying a very revealing banner portraying a little boy held hostage by a German soldier. Even though the fans knew that such actions are punishable by UEFA, they still felt like this issue was worth remembering and that Polish society did not forget about what Germany’s deeds of last century.