Kitab Al-Ultras (The Ultras Book)
by Mohamed Gamal Besheer, Cairo: Dar Diwan, 2011. pp 222
The heroic role played by the Ultras during the 18-day uprising and during the various violent clashes that have taken place in Egypt since January between the security police, the army and demonstrators have gained legendary status.
This is the first book in Arabic dedicated entirely to the Ultras, football fans who have in Egypt gained prominence since the start of the Egyptian Revolution. Basheer, the author, presents himself as a member of the movement since its early days. In the process of researching the book, Basheer travelled to different European and Arab countries to meet and interview Ultras internationally.
The word ‘Ultras’ itself derives from the Latin ‘Ultra’ meaning super or exceptional, implying an expression of the exceptional love these fans have to their football league. Although there is no agreement as to the precise historical dates regarding the foundation of the Ultras, it is almost certain that its beginnings were in Italy with the ‘boys groups’ attached to the Inter-Milan during the 1960s. Others claim that the origins of the Ultras are to be found even earlier in Brazilian fan groups of the 1940s.
It was not long before the idea of football fan groups moved to the Arab world in the late 1970s, spreading throughout the Arab Maghreb countries. Known at the time as ‘lovers’ cells,’ these groups were attached to specific club teams. Basheer emphasises the difference between these groups and those that became the Ultras. The earlier groups were directly related to the clubs and their boards, even becoming legal entities receiving funding and support, while the Ultras are far more independent. They have no formal ties and are independent from the policies and media of the club, and thus are able to take their own stances
Basheer’s book charts the Ultras’ history in the Arab world. Surprisingly, perhaps, the first Arab Ultras started in Libya in 1989 to support the Libyan Union club, but were oppressed just two weeks after their beginnings by the Gaddafi authorities. After a period of Ultras activity in Tunisia, the movement disappeared in the late 1990s. A second push for the movement in the Arab world from 2002 onwards, saw the establishment of the Ultras in Morocco in 2005 and in Algeria in 2007.
Describing the Ultras in Egypt, the author refers to the role played by the internet in the formation of the movement, starting with the creation of small virtual fan groups. After a difficult birth characterised by various split, in 2005 the movement was established along the fan-lines of two central Egyptian clubs: Ahly and Zamalek.
Besheer insists that the movement Egypt suffered from strong repression at the hands of the security forces since its establishment; the iron hand of the security forces tightly gripped the stadium. During the past three years, the security police have routinely arrested several Ultras the night before big matches, and then released them the following day. In one famous incident, the police chased the Ultras White Knights – associated with Zamalek Club – throughout the streets when they demonstrated in memory of the Palestinian Intifada.
Eyewitness accounts and video recordings chart the role the Ultras played from the first day of the revolution. One video uploaded onto YouTube from an unknown source on 22 January, sought to reassure those intending to join the demonstrations on 25 January that they need not be scared of the police, because they would be protected by the Ultras who have experience of clashing with the police.
Since the afternoon of 25 January, Ultras groups joined the demonstrations, appearing most prominently on Qasr Al-Aini Street, then increasing their activities on 26 and 27 January throughout the neighbourhoods of Bulaq, Guiza and Shubra. The first Ultras martyr Hussein – the author does not include his full name – in Alexandra, and the next in Suez, Mohamed Makwa who died on 28 January.
The Ultras heroically defended front lines throughout different clashes, from the Battle of the Camel during the 18-day uprising, to clashes outside the Israeli Embassy in September and during the battles of Mohamed Mahmoud in November.
Internationally, despite Ultras’ anger towards modern capitalist-style football that turns it into a profitable trade with no appreciation for the feelings of millions of fans, there is also a strong fascist tendency, for instance in Italy. Other Ultras, tend towards leftwing ideology. In Egypt, the Ultras have a long history of battling the police and security forces.
Ultras around the world are united by their deep passion for the magical round ball that gets kicked around.