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The Greatest Rivalry in Sports: How Extreme Soccer Fans Combat the State

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Professional soccer looks and feels similar around the world. A 115 by 75 yard field is surrounded by a seething mass of fans that sometimes surges beyond the confines of the stands; officials turn their backs on the game to cautiously monitor the more precarious action around them. During matches, a passionate faction of these supporters can be found bellowing chants, holding banners, and lighting flares. Often, their seemingly innocuous behavior belies extremist ideologies which can degenerate into violence. These fanatic groups are known as ultras.

What characterizes ultras above all else is their defiance. In the words of one ultra: “We go to the stadium and articulate our ideas because the State does not allow the individual to freely speak out because of rampant political correctness … but when the State allows us to express our values, we also send constructive and positive messages.” While ultras form fierce rivalries over their support for competing clubs, and often represent vastly different political views, they unite over their shared opposition to perceived oppression by the state. 

The politicization of ultras originated in Italy during a tumultuous period of unrest between 1969 and 1982 known as the Years of Lead. Influenced by the political groups behind the reform movement that occupied the streets and squares, soccer supporters began organizing with the goal of controlling the stands. Unlike the anarchy of English hooligans, Italian ultras coordinated political banners and slogans at matches and formed rivalries principally over conflicting ideologies. As the protest movement declined in the late 1970’s, terrorist acts like the infamous Bologna train station bombing became more pervasive. Ultras responded by embracing the guerrilla groups’ names and violence. The police, in turn, countered fan bellicosity by militarizing the stadium, exacerbating ultra hatred of the state and provoking greater politicization among their ranks. This dynamic contributed to the rise of neo-fascism in soccer in the 80’s and 90’s, and still persists to this day.

Resistance to the state via soccer, especially in such a politically charged context, is not limited to Italy. Across the Middle East, ultras have also resisted regimes or political groups that they believe restrict or threaten their freedom of expression. They will even support the government in power if they feel threatened by opposition parties. 

Ultras in the Middle East share Italian ultras’ violent political ethos. La Familia, a far-right racist group composed of supporters of Israeli club Beitar Jerusalem, formed amidst the anger and frustration caused by the security crisis and incessant terrorist attacks of the Second Intifada in 2005. According to Ben-Gurion University professor and La Familia expert Sophie Solomon, “the tradition of extreme views against the Arab population” is ‘innate’” amongst Beitar fans. In the 1930s, shortly after the club was established, some Beitar players joined Etzel, a Jewish underground group whose retaliatory attacks against Arabs and the British sometimes devolved into terrorism.

Today, La Familia retains the tradition of violent political activism. La Familia embodied their mantra “forever pure” in 2013, when the group pressured Beitar to remove two Muslim Chechen players who were signed to improve the club’s image and signal a shift away from its racist past. Ultras, like those who make up La Familia, perceive attempts at diversification as an attack on their identity, so they use violence to perpetuate their discriminatory culture. Heightened surveillance and restrictions on ultras’ stadium activities because of their overt intolerance further incite them to militarize and agitate against the state. 

In Egypt, ultras similarly exhibit politically charged ideals, especially when the government undermines their ability to do so outside of the stadium. However, Egyptian ultras do not share Israeli ultras’ right-wing views and instead associate their anti-corruption stance with human rights advocacy, promoting protest as a means of resisting state oppression. Ahmed Fondu, a founder of one of Egypt’s ultra groups, makes this connection when he explains how the ultras were able to relate their conflicts with police to the revolutionary currents within Egypt in the 2010s: “We were fighting for freedom in the stadiums. The Egyptian people were fighting for freedom. We invested our ideas and feelings in revolution.”

During the Arab Spring in 2011, Ultras Ahlawy and White Knights, the leading ultra groups of the two most prominent Cairo soccer clubs, set their rivalry aside and allied with Egypt’s pro-democracy movement, spearheading the protests against President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. In the 18-day occupation of Tahrir (Liberation) Square by the anti-Mubarak demonstrators, ultras made use of their experience with police confrontation to coordinate the demonstrations by controlling entry points and designating different roles for protesters. Ultras were ultimately a core component of the public pressure responsible for deposing Mubarak in February 2011.

La Familia’s violence, although much more disorganized and racist, is also a response to perceived state oppression. The group is mostly associated with religious Mizrahi Jews who relocated to Israel (many forcefully expelled) from Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and faced serious discrimination and socio-economic inequality once in Israel. Today, members of La Familia still feel alienated from mainstream Israeli society, which they view as dominated by secular Ashkenazi Jews who they feel wield disproportionate economic and political power. 

This dynamic undergirds the year-long protests over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul. While the stated intent of the overhaul is to restructure the judiciary to ensure that the will of the people is represented, roughly half of the Israeli public denounces Netanyahu’s actions as a selfish move to immunize himself from corruption charges. One of the most contentious reforms would shift the balance within the judicial appointments committee to favor the ruling coalition—currently led by Netanyahu, whose voter base is mostly Mizrahi. This proposal resonates with groups like La Familia, who have violently defended the reforms in altercations with pro-democracy demonstrators and journalists. On several occasions, La Familia has joined riots organized by extreme right-wing politicians in the Israeli Knesset like Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s minister of national security, who has repeatedly given the group his tacit endorsement.

It might appear as though the differences between Egyptian and Israeli ultras can be reduced to one irreconcilable distinction: Ahlawy and White Knights oppose the state, but La Familia supports it. In fact, ultras operate similarly in both countries precisely because they both resist perceived oppression, whatever its source.

La Familia is anarchical and simultaneously supports Netanyahu, who has been Israel’s prime minister for 14 out of the last 15 years, because they conceptually disconnect the current government from the edifice of the state. Politicians like Ben-Gvir, notoriously supportive of annexing the West Bank (and also a Beitar Jerusalem fan), are trusted as the protectors of their interests. On his end, Netanyahu is compelled to appease the extremist elements within his coalition because he needs their support to maintain a majority in the Knesset in order to remain prime minister. 

Instead, ultras feel most threatened by current opposition leaders like Benny Gantz, who they view as a representative of the established elite. Gantz, as Minister of Defense, said in 2022 that “the time has come to consider designating La Familia… as [a] terrorist organization.” Ultras have turned to right-wing politicians as a possible refuge for their ideology in hopes that the affiliation will afford them some measure of protection and legitimacy.

Egyptian ultras currently feel most endangered by the Egyptian military. Led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the army temporarily ruled Egypt after Mubarak was toppled in 2011, and then returned to power in July 2013 by ousting President Mohammed Morsi, who had been democratically elected in June 2012 to replace it. During the military’s initial rise to power, in February 2012, 72 Ahlawy ultras were killed as opposing fans stormed their section with knives, unchallenged by police who refused either to halt the violence or open the gates which would have allowed Ahlawy supporters to escape. The military likely even enabled violence in Port Said, Egypt because of the ultras’ continued demonstrations against military rule. 

In contrast, Morsi promised to reopen the cases of those responsible for the Port Said attacks, though this occurred in the aftermath of an attempted constitutional re-write which he justified as necessary to protect the “goals of the revolution,” but opposition parties saw as caving to Islamists. Since el-Sisi overthrew Morsi, the government has continued to crack down on ultra groups, going so far as to outlaw them as terrorist organizations. And although ultras also protested Morsi’s “coup against legitimacy,” as the head of the Egyptian Lawyers Syndicate labeled it, many ultras later supported him as a better alternative to el-Sisi’s brutal oppression. Morsi’s actions subverted the rights of all Egyptians, as did the policies of el-Sisi. But whereas Morsi strove to appease ultras, el-Sisi systematically decimated their way of life, rendering him irredeemable in their eyes. 

When ultras perceive a person or group as threatening, that person or group becomes the focus of their ire. Max Weber famously defined a state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory,” which can be extended to assert a monopoly on political power as well. Ultras’ terrorism challenges the state’s absolute right to violence, which it exercises to suppress them. If political freedom is the true basis of the state’s legitimacy, as ultras believe, then their sole recourse is to resist. Egyptian ultras were even willing to protest someone like Morsi once he undermined the validity of democratic ideals they had fought for. In the same sense, Israel’s democratic institutions have suppressed La Familia because of the destabilizing consequences of their violence. This context explains why the ultras welcomed Netanyahu’s current coalition, which more closely aligns with their extremist beliefs. 

Ultras bring to bear the constant tension between governments and their populace over the dissonance between their expectations and the way things actually happen in politics. Ultra violence, even when it represents a small minority—as in Israel—has the capacity to find greater consensus—like it did in Egypt during the Arab Spring. It’s no coincidence that renowned philosopher Jürgen Habermas observes that in Italy, “political culture is less stable than elsewhere, historically less well anchored, and therefore more prone to extreme reactions to the same cultural phenomena than other countries,” an uncertain quality which Deborah Cook attributes to Israel and which can be extended to Egypt as well. Ultras resist their perceived oppression; the threat they pose to states rests in their potential to galvanize others to do the same.