What is a football ultra? Serie A hardcore fan culture explained

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Inter Ultras 2018
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Club ultras are known for being the most infamous of football fans, worse than 'hooligans' and known for their racist and far-right ideas

Football ultras carry a reputation of notoriety and infamy throughout Europe and, more specifically, in Italy.

In recent decades, the movement has sprung up in opposition to the commercialisation of football, though the extreme element of club ultras is sometimes associated with nationalism and racism.

But what exactly is a football ultra, and what are some examples of the most infamous ultra groups? Goal takes a look.

What is a football ultra?

The term 'ultras' refers to a portion of a club's fanbase which usually consists of some of the most extreme and passionate supporters. Unfortunately, however, there is often a violent element.

Indeed, the word 'ultra' itself means 'beyond' or 'extreme'.

Football ultras first emerged as a sub-culture in the late 1960s and 1970s in Italy, primarily as pseudo-paramilitary groups and they christened themselves with names that carried militaristic connotations.

While football hooligans are typically characterised as drunk, irresponsible and chaotic, ultras tend to be more organised, with many adhering to structures and hierarchies.

Historically, only a handful of ultra football groups were from the far right of the political spectrum, but nowadays the most infamous and well-known ultras carry a reputation of infamy and association with far-right ideas, possessing neo-fascist ideologies, symbols and mindsets, with racism deeply rooted.

Napoli Ultras

"As with many Italians, the ultras are fixated on appearance and pageantry," Tobias Jones, author of Ultra: The Underworld of Italian Football wrote in the Guardian.

"For major games, they spend tens of thousands of euros on what they call “choreographies”: stadium mosaics, taunts, flags and flares. An ultra group’s own banner is like a military herald.

"In fact, many ultras say they care nothing about football: it’s all about territorial defence, about the colours, the fights and the 'mentality'.

"Ask an ultra next to you on the terraces who scored a goal and they’ll laugh at such naivety: they either weren’t watching or players change teams so often that they don’t know or care about the name."

Infamous incidents involving football ultras

Inter's Curva Nord organisation – the club's primary ultra organisation – gained attention when they came to the defence of Cagliari fans who racially abused Romelu Lukaku during a Serie A fixture at Sardegna Arena in early September 2019.

Mocking monkey chants were audible as Lukaku stepped up to take a penalty for Inter, which he subsequently scored to give his side a 2-1 lead. After the game, the forward issued a statement calling for his team-mates and fellow footballers to be united in fighting against racism, only for Curva Nord to reject it.

The Inter Ultras argued that Italy is not a racist country, defending the right of fans to employ such abuse in the context of a football match as, according to them, it "helped the team".

"Open letter to Romelu Lukaku. Italians are not racist,” said the Curva Nord statement, published on Facebook.

“You have to understand that Italy is not like many other north European countries where racism is a REAL problem.

"In Italy we use some ‘ways’ only to ‘help our teams’ and to try to make our opponents nervous, not for racism but to mess them up.

"After the latest theatre show surrounding ultras' apparent racism by those who want to pick up the easy popularity points which are borne out of ignorance, Milan's Curva Nord has once again decided to repeat the difference between real racism and the "instrumented" version which do not concern the ultras -- as all the fake moralists out there love to make out in order to create needless panic and freely condemn our world..."

Romelu Lukaku Inter 2019-20

The Fare Network, whose purpose is to fight inequality in European football, published a response to the Curva Nord letter, stating: "The abuse directed at Lukaku is one in a long list of incidents in Italian football over the past year and highlights the repeated failure to protect minority players and to tackle what is a systemic issue in Italian football."

The most arresting takeaway, though, was the defence of Cagliari’s supporters being led by ultras from the very club whose new signing had been targeted.

Indeed, solidarity between ultras typically transcends club loyalties. When Kalidou Koulibaly was racially abused in a 2018 game against Inter, for example, Napoli distributed photographs of his face at their next home game. Thousands of fans held up the photo before kick-off, but the Napoli club ultras declined to participate.

Roma fans also have an infamous group of ultras. In April 2018, during the Italian club's visit to Merseyside to play Liverpool in the Champions League quarter-final, two Roma ultras attacked Liverpool fan Sean Cox, leaving him in critical condition.

The 53-year-old was hospitalised with catastrophic head injuries and left in a coma, subsequently spending four-and-a-half weeks in a specialist neurological unit at Liverpool's Walton Centre following the attack.

Roma supporter Simone Mastrelli was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for the attack, with fellow supporters Filippo Lombardi and Daniele Sciusco also jailed for violent disorder.

Of course, ultra fan culture is not confined to Italy. After Neymar's summer of discontent in 2019, in which he was heavily tipped to leave Paris Saint-Germain for his former club Barcelona, PSG ultras Collectif Ultras Paris released a statement warning the Brazil star that he must be on his best behaviour to win back the fans.

Neymar PSG Paris Saint-Germain 2019-20

The Brazil international spent a majority of the summer being linked with a return to Spain, speculation which was not helped by arriving late for pre-season training and comments his entourage made in the media.

“The Virage Auteuil, in which the most loyal supporters of the club are grouped, has the duty to show him that all his actions cannot be without consequence," the message from the PSG supporters said.

"Therefore, we invite all the Parisian supporters who have felt hurt at one point or another to show him that he no longer has the right to make mistakes and the path of redemption will be long... very long. It's out of the question that we will penalise the team due to a single player.”

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Upon Neymar's return to the Ligue 1 side in September after a long injury layoff, he was greeted by loud boos and whistles from the PSG fans.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, are St Pauli's ultras.

St Pauli, as a club, are more known of the left-wing politics of their supporters, recognised for their liberal stance and their pledge to unite against "racism, fascism, sexism and homophobia".

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