Opinion article – Fan violence, ultras and hooligans

Written by James Piotr Montague, Writer/Journalist

In August 2020, when the world was still grappling with Covid-19 lockdowns, 220 men met, at night, in a secluded field in Germany. They were there to fight. There is only an 18 second video of the clash between the hooligan firms of Eintracht Frankfurt and SV Darmstadt 98. The shaky footage shows two huge lines of fighters, one side dressed in red t-shirts, the other white, slowly walking towards each other before the scene degenerates into a vicious brawl.

But we know what happened next because someone always counts the fighters, times the bouts, keeps the rules and keeps the scores.

100 v 120,

2 mins 30 secs.

Frankfurt win.

Football has long been associated with hooliganism, and it has left a long shadow. It is typically the English style of hooliganism from the 70s, 80s and 90s, “The English Disease”, that people think of today; a sort of irregular, drunken brawling. Indeed it is still venerated amongst young ultras and hooligans across the world. You only have to look at the enduring popularity of films like Green Street Hooligans. Ultras I have met from Indonesia to the US, are still inspired by the English casual aesthetic.

And to many people today that era is back. France, England, the Netherlands, Turkey and of course Greece have all reported an increase in football violence. Indeed, the reason I am writing this is because I was invited as a panelist for the launch of a iMEdD produced podcast “Hooligan Express”, about the tragic death of an AEK Athens ultra last year before a match against Dinamo Zagreb.

Incidents like this are on the rise but are still rare. The trend in football violence across Europe is actually moving away from the football stadium. The hooliganism we once knew, and occasionally witness at a game, has morphed into something different; more organised, more violent, more political, much more secretive andpotentially far more dangerous.

Fights like those in Frankfurt are arranged far away from prying eyes, with their own rules and moral code: the numbers of fighters must be the same. 3v3, 10v10, 50v50, sometimes hundreds on each side. Under no circumstances are weapons allowed. You must stop beating your opponent if you knock them unconscious. It must be done in complete secrecy and no footage will be posted publicly. And the winner is the last team standing.

Its roots can be found in Eastern Germany just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the sport has spread throughout Europe and become wildly popular in Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, France and beyond.

In Dutch it is known as bosgevechten, or forest fights. Sometimes it’s referred to as “free fights” or | “field fights.” In Poland it is called ustawka, which is a rather polite word which means to have a prearranged meeting. In Russian, okolofutbola, which means “around football”. The phrase is also the title of a cult 2013 Russian film about hooligans in the arranged fighting scene.

Every weekend thousands of young men, and it is almost exclusively young men, criss-cross Europe, playing a cat and mouse game with the police, to clash with rivals and join with friends thanks to an international network of alliances and hatreds, usually based on political affiliation. The fight in Frankfurt with 220 people was actually a sort of confederation of firms that shared friendships with each other of shared enemies on the other side: Eintracht Frankfurt hooligans verses the combined forces of SV Darmstadt plus firms from Bern, Berlin, Bremen, Minsk and the famously left-wing club from Hamburg, St. Pauli.

They can take place anywhere. A deserted forest, or a farmer’s field. A railway siding, or an abandoned factory. You will not find any footage of it online, at least not easily. They are arranged on encrypted messaging apps. Anonymity is brutally protected and anyone who posts unredacted footage of fights can find themselves permanently ostracised, at the very least.

I first discovered the scene when I visited Ukraine and Sweden whilst writing 1312: Among the Ultras. There I got rare access to a fight between two of Sweden’s biggest firms. In Ukraine, one of the most respected fighters in the okolofutbola scene is now one of the youngest and highest ranked commanders in the Ukrainian armed forces against Russia’s invasion.

And here is an important distinction: Hooligan firms shouldn’t be mistaken for ultras. For ultras the main focus is the show, the pyro and choreography on match days. Violence can occur, but it is often a byproduct. For hooligans violence is the only issue. A hooligan firm is the violent fighting wing of a football club’s supporters and they look very different to the beer bellied hooligans of the past. Many train with military dedication, six days a week to stay in shape, training in boxing or judo to hone their fighting skills, and don’t drink or do drugs.

Hooligans argue they are doing nothing wrong. They are taking violence out of the stadium, regulating it and moving it far away from innocent people. Activists have long highlighted the connections between firms and far right groups and activities, even though there are some firms from traditionally left wing fanbases too.

Given that they are highly trained and highly organised, they have also proven useful in street protests, uprisings and even wars. Take Ukraine. Since the start of the war, hooligan firms have been recruiting men to fight with their political allies; hooligans from the Czech Republic, Poland, Croatia, Spain and beyond.

The Russian side also has a separate ultra and hooligan battalion, Espanola, which is 550 men strong and includes fighters from CSKA, Zenit, Spartak, Torpedo and Lokomotiv. But whilst the war in Ukraine rumbles on, the fighting in Europe continues, a weekend sport with their outcomes reported on like football scores on Telegram channels like Hooligans.cz and GruppaOF.

I get asked a lot about football violence. About ultras and hooligans. The two are often, and mistakenly, conflated. And whilst matchday violence must be taken seriously, it is the violence away from football that goes largely under the radar.