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Ultrasel striving for sustainability in 2019 - theirs and Selangor's

03:21 GMT+3 21/01/2019
Ultrasel, 2018
The Red Giants are undergoing a rejuvenation process from top to bottom ahead of the 2019 season, but what about their most vocal supporters?

BY        ZULHILMI ZAINAL       Follow on Twitter

It was no small feat trying to convince the ultras supporters' group of Selangor, Ultrasel to agree to a sit-down interview with Goal , but they eventually relented.

After its founding in 2010, following the boom in the ultras movement in Malaysia, as well as Malaysia's first ever AFF Championship title that year, the boys in red and yellow have established themselves as one of the most vocal and prominent supporter groups in the country.

While their singing, away travels and colourful matchday displays of banners, tifos and flags have earned them praise from fans across the country, they have also raised a few eyebrows and drawn the attention of the law through their fiery match protests.

But their activities have extended beyond only matchdays. Ultrasel has always shown their desire to see Selangor advance beyond only domestic competitions; pushing the team to target qualification to the AFC Cup by winning the Super League or the FA Cup, while voicing out the importance of modernising the running of the club, to the board.

They too have been influential members of the Malaysia national team's own ultras group Ultras Malaya, who recently drew attention from across the Southeast Asian region with their lively home and away support for the Harimau Malaya 's 2018 AFF Championship campaign, in which the one-time champions finished as runners-up.

But their national duty is over, and it's now back to club football for the Selangor ultras. 

Under the new management and president Tengku Amir Shah Sultan Sharafuddin, their club have recently drawn the praise of many for the rejuvenation process they are undertaking in the 2019 pre-season. On top of the signing of quality players and the appointment of head coach B. Sathiananthan, the Red Giants have also been striving to better engage their fans, through inventive social media activities and by offering memberships and season passes.

But ever the hard-to-please customers, the Ultrasel members met by Goal a week ago in Shah Alam chose to refrain from praising these initiatives just yet.

"It's way too early for us to praise or condemn the new management's efforts. Why do we say that? Because the initiatives that they've started are things that all proper clubs should have; they're nothing extraordinary. 

"Every Malaysian club should have done it a long time ago. What the club have started doing are basic programmes," said Adli, the eldest of the three Ultrasel members met by Goal around a week ago. (They declined to have their real names used in this article.)

When asked whether there is a benchmark that the new club management must meet before Selangor are considered successful to the supporters, the ultras are adamant that it is the same gauge they have always used all this while.

"It's sustainability. Admittedly, it's not something you can see within months or even a year. It's something that can only be gauged after five, or ten years.

"Only then can we praise or criticise the current management. Now is the time for them to do their work, and it's also the time for we the fans to do ourwork," responded Adli.

On the topic of the fans' responsibilities, they let on that they are preparing for the 2019 season by recruiting more members through their sub-groups.

To better organise their members all over the state of Selangor, around five years ago Ultrasel formed sub-groups all over the state of Selangor.  

"We always try to identify solid, younger guys in our organisation to take on leadership roles and bigger responsibilites," said another member interviewed, who only wanted to be identified Alis.

"But recruitment work is also taking place, and now it's done differently as compared to when our group was first formed back in 2010. We have sub-groups now, and they do recruiting and promotional works locally. That way, they can undertake recruitment according to the trends and flavours of their own localities. For example, fans in Shah Alam have different sentiments and preferences to those in Kuala Selangor, and our recruitment needs to account for this diversity.

"What we demand from them is to move together, in the same direction. They can't claim to be one of us if they want to do things differently," Adli added.

And this unity is paramount to the group as they head into the ninth year of their founding, a bitter lesson that they perhaps have picked up from an infamous incident over three years ago.

During what is arguably their peak back in 2015, Ultrasel consistently gathered a strong matchday following, packing the stands under one of the two Shah Alam Stadium scoreboards when Selangor played at home, and travelling in hundreds everytime the team played away, a healthy figure for Malaysian club football.

But it all came crashing down in September that year, following a fiery protest during Malaysia's World Cup qualification group match against Saudi Arabia, an incident that led to the abandonment of the match, and the visitors being awarded with an automatic 3-0 win. Their members, as well as well as their Ultras Malaya comrades, were among those who were apprehended and charged by the police.

The aftermath of the incident was devastating, causing several disillusioned top members to step away from the movement and the dissolution of a number of their sub-groups. And when combined with the power struggle taking place within the executive committee of the club and declining team performance in the following years, Ultrasel never quite reached their previous heights again in the next three years in terms of following, while more and more Selangor fans shied away from attending matches.

"The most important lesson from that, as well as from our early days is the importance of brotherhood, of togetherness in moving forward. When it's decided that it's 'A', everyone needs to be on 'A'. No one can be on 'B', 'C' or 'D'. Dissent will only hinder our growth.

"We don't want to talk too much about what has happened, and frankly, you're asking too many questions! But what's done is done, we need to learn something from it, and to constantly remind our comrades about it," explained the other Ultrasel member present during the interview, who only wanted to be known as Muhammad.

And just as they want Selangor to achieve sustainability in the future, the group too wants to expand in a sustainable manner beginning this year.

"Sure, we may have peaked in 2015 in terms of number, but in the end it was for naught as we couldn't sustain it in following three years. This year we want to learn how to maintain it.

"We're never really too bothered with our number, to be honest. Sure, we want to be as grand and as big as the ultra groups in Europe eventually, but what matters most for us now is the quality of our comrades, as opposed to our number," remarked Adli.

They are however happy to see the causes that they and the other Malaysian ultras have been championing, such as closer fan engagement, are being taken more seriously by Malaysian football administrators.

"The football officials have begun noticing the importance of fan engagement. Take Perlis for example, they have been engaging their fans because the club know that the supporters are an organic way of attaining sustainability," said Muhammad.

"No club can continue existing without having fans, except those Arab teams, I suppose," chimed in Adli. "That's why both sides need to move in tandem."

According to them, their own club too have realised the reason behind another of their protest, one that's probably the longest-running in the country, but thankfully less aggressive.

Since 2015, the group has been shunning their team's Malaysia Cup matches. The reason? They think that the club, the Malaysia Cup kings with 33 titles, have been neglecting the push to reach continental competitions, by focusing on the playoff compettion. Although more prestigious and historic, the Malaysia Cup offers the winner no spot in AFC competitions.

Coincidentally, the first year of their Malaysia Cup boycott was also the first time that Selangor have won the cup since 2005.

"Everyone initially bashed us for opting to give Selangor's Malaysia Cup matches a miss, but nobody asked why. They never tried to understand that we've been doing it to send a message tothe management, to tell them to get their priorities straight," said Muhammad.

"But now they've seen it our way. Last season Selangor reached the FA Cup final; they accepted the challenge of trying to qualify for Asian competitions again.

"We didn't mind that the team lost in the end (2-0 to Pahang), at least they made an effort instead of dismissing it altogether," noted Alis.

As the interview came to its end, Goal asked if they had any message to the Selangor fans for the coming 2019 season.

Adli's response was brief and straight to the point: "We're not asking for too much; just for all Selangor fans to pack the Shah Alam Stadium."

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