We woke up early today.
After some bitching and moaning and wistful looks at the clock hoping we had been lied to, we dragged ourselves out of bed. First me, then Brigid but only after I had sicced the cat on her.
I fed the cat, we dug out blankets and flags and kilts and extra layers to stay warm in the 30-ish degree weather on a cloudy Detroit morning. We filled the car, piled in, got out to grab a forgotten phone, then headed to the gas station. Brigid grabbed donuts, I grabbed cash from an ATM then stopped to fill up the car.
Then, around 8:00, we hit 96 East into Detroit – following a path we both knew well past Motor City Casino and Cass Tech into Corktown, which proudly calls itself the “Oldest Neighborhood in Detroit.”
It was about a quarter ’til 9:00 when we finally pulled into the parking lot behind the local IBEW headquarters. It would be a little longer before the coffee and liquor would start flowing. Until then we had donuts and Mama Cass’ homemade breakfast puffs (16,000 calories guaranteed) to tide us over.
It would be many hours before any real reason to be there made itself known as we drunkenly and hoarsely made our way to the parade line.
None of this should come off as particularly exciting, nor is it meant to. The life of an Ultra is the life of many: a terrible job, good friends, one thing on the weekend that keeps you going. The poker player might think about cards, the musician about the next track, the gamer about the next level, the Ultra thinks about the next game. The next stick of smoke. The next tifo or the next two-stick.
What drags a man out of a warm bed at seven in the morning on a cold, cloudy Sunday in Detroit, Michigan?
A chance to let loose? Aye.
What about all of those? What if friends, family, booze, sports, and a chance to tap into that primal part of your brain all came in one shot?
That’s why an Ultra gets up.
That’s why an Ultra paints tifos.
That’s why an Ultra gets tattoos, and buys banners, and stands for ninety minutes, and screams and sings until all wind has left their body.
Then they go home and dream sulfury dreams of when they get to do it all over again. It never ends, the cycle of working on the next game and living the previous. Before they know it the season is over and it is all pining for the next time they can get into the stands and do it all over again.
Before we go much further, I’m going to cover my tracks and say “yes, this article will inevitably offend some people.” My last Fans v Supporters v Ultras page constantly either gets rave reviews or people trying to piss on it because they are a special flower that doesn’t… blah blah blah.
We’re all human. Definitions don’t fit people well because we can constantly redefine what makes us who we are. So take this all with a grain of salt. Think of this as representing that 70 to 80% of people who are encapsulated by a definition and therefore is painted with broad strokes.
In the end, don’t get offended because this is a blag written by a nobody. Or, actually, get offended. Give me more traffic.
I’ve always thought that the motto of the Ultra should be Plus Ultra, Latin for “further beyond.” That’s what an Ultra is – more and beyond. Whatever is “normal” for a fan should be too little for an Ultra. And I’m not knocking average supporters or fans. Trust me, the crazier they get the better. But an Ultra should be further beyond. They should be further beyond paper signs and crayons. They should be further beyond “the wave”. They should be further beyond shouting “de-fense clap clap de-fense clap clap“.
But the word “Ultras” comes with baggage. And it comes with detractors, especially here in the United States. It is important for the budding Ultra to know when to stand their ground and when to understand the fears and apprehensions of the average supporter. When the Ultra is willing to stand their ground, but make their message known, the state of supporter culture in the United States will improve. When the average fan understands that their Ultras are there for them, there for the team, there to make a great game something that goes into the history books.
But too often I feel supporters and Ultras are at odds and it is important to make sure everyone on a side marches to the same drum, even if some people march a little slower.
First, and this is a big one for us Ultras. Being an Ultra carries baggage in the United States. Baggage of hooliganism, baggage of discrimination, racism, and other isms that we might have anything to do with. There are going to be Ultras that we disagree with. Whether we disagree on which team we root for (the minimum, I guess), whether it is okay to light flares off in the stadium, or as far as the bigger issues like if it is okay that blacks and whites support together or if beating up opposing fans is okay.
When we try to shove the dirty, unwelcome, truth to the side we don’t seem above it, we seem blind to it. It is important to tackle those issues head on. Make bold statements. Don’t just say “well, we wrote some rules down and it is up to the different groups to enforce that.”
No, that is not okay.
If you have Ultras pushing people out of a subway train for their race, kick them out. If you have Ultras molesting women, kick them out. If you have Ultras starting fights, kick them out. Make it known that on no terms is violence, homophobia, racism, or sexism acceptable. Stamp it out.
Ultras can make a political point, but the best political points to be made are those of acceptance of our players and our fellow fans.
But when someone says “Well, I saw some Ultras in Randopia and they were being racists” the right answer isn’t some mumbling and then a “no true Scotsman” bullshit. The right answer is, “Yeah – that happens, and they are cunts. But here in America we can be above that. Our Ultras work hard to remove and find ways to deal with the problem safely and quickly.”
And the key word is “can” it is also “should.” In America we don’t have 150 years of history in our teams, which can be a bit humiliating. But it also means that racism and divisive politics are not okay. We can’t sit and hide behind “well, we’ve been racist for 150 years so give us a break” (as if that is any fucking excuse). We have a chance to elevate the throne of Ultra further beyond bullshit petty politics into a powerful force for bettering our communities and everyone’s enjoyment of sports.
But I also want to respond to some criticisms and concerns that I’ve heard from self-proclaimed “non-Ultras”.
I have a disability or issue that prevents me from doing X, Y, or Z and ergo cannot be an Ultra.
This is bullshit, if you care so much that you are digging up legitimate excuses to why you cannot Ultra, you are probably an Ultra. I think of it this way: Ultras are there for their fellow Ultras. Ultras know their own like family. Family understands and doesn’t need or even ask for excuses for why you miss activities or perhaps don’t partake in others.
You’re a devout Christian? You don’t drink? A fellow Ultra knows that. They don’t care.
You’re recovering from surgery and can’t dance? A fellow Ultra knows that. They don’t care.
You have a disease that forces you out of the stands to a place where getting in and out is more convenient? Your family doesn’t care. The only people who care aren’t worth being called your family.
I sat in the Ultras’ section and was bothered a lot because I didn’t dance/sing/complained about smoke.
This is a two-way misunderstanding and both sides have very legitimate reasons to complain. So I’m going to try to tackle the obviously side (the non-Ultra) quickly and then move into the Ultra’s perspective of the issue.
Smoke/dancing/singing are not normal in the United States. It is not surprising when someone gets tickets at the last minute and ends up in the Ultra section without understanding what that means. It is up to front offices and ticket vendors to make sure that customers are aware of what is involved in getting a ticket to the supporters’ section.
Supporters’ sections might be standing-only and might be cheaper on a seat map, that can be attractive to someone just looking for a quick thing to do. If someone doesn’t want to sing or dance, leave them alone.
BUT. Big but (-s and I cannot lie) here. Ultras are in the right for being pissed. Remember there is one section in the entire stadium where we can sing and dance and light off smoke for 90 minutes a game. One section. That’s it. Pull out a flag in the main stands, say good-bye to three nights of hard work. Light off a smoke bomb in the nose bleeds? Say hello to a domestic terrorism charge.
We get that one little area and when we see people sitting on their phones no singing and dancing we don’t see a stick in the mud (even though you are one) we see one Ultra over in the family friendly section NOT having a good time.
You can sit quietly anywhere, we can only party in this one section. Please be understanding when we want you to make the most out of it.
The flags, smoke, and singing detract from the game. You should be there to watch the game.
Okay? We do watch the game. When we do specific chants for corners, cards, tackles, players, and scores that isn’t because of a really good streak of random chance. We know to do those things because we watch the game.
Obviously you aren’t because you’re watching us having way more fun than you.
This is going to become even more subjective than the rest of this already is – but we don’t think what we do detracts from the game. We think sitting around politely clapping detracts from the game. Ultras work with front offices as much as we can to come to mutually beneficial agreements on where we can set up shop, what is and isn’t acceptable, and for the most part it works out really well.
Notice on any major team’s website the shots of the crowd rarely are of the people sitting down talking about the weekend with their spouse while their kids are mildly entertained by the game.
Ultras provide a lot of atmosphere to the crowd and we are very much helped by the legions of supporters who do everything they can to help disseminate this out into the other parts of the stadium. The smoke and the noise contributes to the home field advantage. It gives our team a boost and the other team a weight to carry. Any player will tell you that they love coming onto a field with Ultras – people singing their heart and soul out for ninety minutes. It gives them someone to work for, someone to impress, and in return Ultras give them love and respect. We put them on two-sticks, sing chants about them, and are the first to defend them when the refs won’t.
I don’t like that Ultras are “ultra” and I’m “just” a fan. Why am I expected to contribute?
You aren’t expected to contribute, but you need to understand that that’s why an Ultra is “ultra” and you’re just a fan. We are all on the same side, we all want to see our team win, and we both probably want to see it just as badly. But an Ultra goes further beyond. For us it isn’t enough to just show up, we want to make sure our support is heard and felt throughout the stadium.
It is okay that you don’t want to participate to that level and I’m sure the front office appreciates you coming in.
But this idea that your presence is equal to our weeks of hard work and planning is bullshit. And we’ll tell you it’s bullshit. What made you think this wasn’t the case? Since when was just showing up to the test the same as acing it?
I don’t like being defined by other people.
Okay, this is another perfectly acceptable reaction. Not everyone enjoys every label that is applied to them, especially when they aren’t choosing to have that labeled applied to them.
Please trust me when I say I understand and that I can commiserate with you on this.
But it is important that people are labeling you every second of everyday. Humans like to do that, it is just sort of an innate part of who and what we are as social, tribal animals.
I’m not labeling you as an Ultra out of anything other than togetherness. I define myself as an Ultra so please don’t be offended if I define you as an Ultra. If I don’t define you as an Ultra and you want to be defined as an Ultra, that’s okay too. I’m not a sole expert on Ultra-ness.
Some other group uses “Ultras” in their name and we…
Shut up. Just. Shut up.
Who fucking cares? Really? An I suppose if there was a rival group called “The Fans of Windy City” you’d be shitting all over yourself to not be called a fan?
Words mean things and we are all free to use them. If a group uses a word that has is relevant to what they are talking about, then they get to use it. But so can you. Because words are not a limited resource. (Looks at current word count – trust me, I know).
Obviously there is much to the life of an Ultra, just as there is much to the life of anyone willing to take themselves further beyond what any sane or normal person would do.
I cannot cover every fractal fold of what makes any two groups or even individuals similar and dissimilar. I have neither the time nor the patience to do it.
So I hope this has been an interesting and enlightening read for you, as there will be plenty more soccer to come in the future. But there is where I’ll end for today.