25 March ~ For many, the word "ultra" conjures up images of violence on the terraces or on the streets around the stadiums in countries such as Italy or Greece and in some parts of South America. Incessant chanting, mass crowd participation, choreographed displays and fireworks are all integral parts of the ultra culture throughout the world. But ultras and hooligans are different things and eventually the authorities here will come to realise that. The first group to endorse the phenomenon in the UK were Aberdeen fans, the Red Ultras. Formed over a decade ago, the group announced recently that they would be disbanding with immediate effect.
From its inception the Aberdeen group met with opposition from police and officials and their group banner was twice confiscated by Strathclyde Police at Hampden Park in 2000 purely because it bore the word ultras. The announcement on their website said: "The Red Ultras were set up in 1999 by a group of supporters who wished to bring colour and atmosphere to games involving our beloved Aberdeen Football Club. It has not been easy to do this within the safety climate that currently exists in Scottish football and mistakes have been made during this time. The pictures that will remain on this site are testament however to all of our members' hard work over the years and will remain as a reminder to all of what can be achieved if you truly believe in your cause."
Just over a month after the Red Ultras folded the first international conference on ultras was held in Vienna. The conference was organised by the Council of Europe and hosted by the Austrian Federal Ministry of the Interior. It brought together academics, heads of police and security from across Europe, government ministers and advisers, representatives from UEFA and FIFA and a fan delegation headed by Football Supporters Europe (FSE) that included representatives from several ultra groups from around the continent, including one from Scotland. An official report will follow focusing on ways in which ultra groups can co-operate.
The ultra phenomenon is on the rise in the UK with small groups, fed up with the stagnant atmosphere and passive support at games, springing up at clubs all over the country. The main group in Scotland now is the Green Brigade of Celtic, who have encountered almost identical problems to their counterparts at Aberdeen. Display materials have been refused entry into stadiums, telescopic flag poles confiscated and in some instances broken; group members have been persecuted by police and stewards and threatened with stadium bans for actively supporting their team. Scottish officialdom isn't alone in perceiving the ultra phenomenon as a threat – it was plain to see on television the disproportionate policing and stewarding of the Crystal Palace group the Holmesdale Fanatics during their FA Cup match against Aston Villa.
The conference might have arrived too late for the Red Ultras of Aberdeen but hopefully it will help to usher in a climate in which fanatical supporters can support their team without fear of persecution. Michael Pringle