TROUBLE ON THE TERRACES – Are Spanish Ultras set to unite against the Football Cartel?

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Updated: May 9, 2013

After years of negative headlines, can the radical groups that occupy the terraces of Spain finally put their differences aside and join a Europe-wide battle against the dark forces of modern football?

Organised supporters groups or Ultras, as they are commonly known throughout Europe, have always provided a dilemma for football clubs in Spain. On one hand they can create a rousing and frenzied atmosphere that can inspire a team to victory in the most important games, but on the flipside they have been associated with violence, crime and extremism from both sides of the political spectrum. Many Spanish clubs view them as “una mal necesario” – a necessary evil.

This season, police in Zaragoza have been using heavy-handed tactics against the controversial Real Zaragoza fans group known as Ligallo Fondo Norte. The group has often been linked with right-wing ideologies and this season its members have been randomly searched and identified before games and many have been arrested for failing to comply. As a result, the group has boycotted some games, tensions have been raised between themselves and the police, and the atmosphere at La Romareda stadium has been strained and negative. As the season has gone on and the team has struggled, the club has called upon the fans to come out in force and support the team in the battle against relegation. Suddenly the roar and noise of the LFN has been needed more than ever and, as one supporter put it: “Who cares if they are fascists, reds or Moors, the important thing is that they support Real Zaragoza with their body and soul.”

The LFN has never officially stated its political beliefs and in a recent statement declared: “At no time have LFN proclaimed to be, or has been defined as a racist group with a particular ideology. Like any group of more than 200, many people join in with different characters, ideologies, political sympathies and opinions”, but shameful  incidents such as the monkey chanting directed at Samuel Eto’o in 2006, which nearly resulted in the player walking off the pitch, have done little to help their cause.

Barcelona faced a dilemma with the supporters group known as the Boixos Nois. They were formed in the early 1980’s – inspired by the colour and noise created by British fans at the time. The group were originally formed by left-wing Catalan Nationalists but over a period of time they attracted members with more right-wing tendencies who were keen to be seen as a hooligan group that should be feared by their rivals. They became divided as result and many splinter sections were set-up by those wishing to disassociate themselves from the new regime.

The club tolerated and even supported the Boixos Nois financially despite links to racial violence and murder – mainly because the atmosphere in the stadium had been improved by their presence, but eventually they became too powerful and after repeated incidents of extreme violence, the club finally took a stand. In 2003, incoming President Joan Laporta banned their presence from the stadium and removed any financial support and privileges that they had previously enjoyed. In the following years, the atmosphere declined significantly and eventually the group were allowed to filter back into the stadium under the strict understanding that violence and extremism would not be tolerated.

It’s not just right-wing groups that have been associated with violence and racism. Members of the LFN in Zaragoza will point to the Indar Gorri of Osasuna, a traditionally socialist and anti-fascist group that has been known to engage in violence and sing songs wishing acts of terror and violence upon the people of Aragon. In fact, the LFN has a mutual antipathy with most teams from the Basque Country. Other traditionally Socialist groups such as the Riazor Blues from Deportivo La Coruna have also been linked with violence and racism. All across Spain, on both sides of the political spectrum, there is a deep culture of football tribalism that often manifests itself in the most negative ways.

Recently however, after many depressing years of violence, racism and unwelcome headlines, there have been signs that Ultras from some opposing groups across Spain are engaging in a new fight. A fight that could see them unite against a common enemy that they feel is threatening the future of the game they love. An enemy that is best described as “The Football Cartel.”

The fans feel that they are being cheated by those that control football. The unequal distribution of TV money is hurting football clubs in Spain and the fans are also suffering as a result. Games are now being scheduled on Friday and Monday nights, meaning that away fans have to incur the costs of match tickets, hotels and days off work to attend. Weekend games are being played with varying kick-off times, from very early in the morning to very late at night – this satisfies the TV stations but causes further itinerary and cost issues for away fans.

Supporters are expected to pay hugely inflated prices for premium games, such as Real Madrid and Barcelona, even when they have season tickets and prices in general are driving the working class people away from the terraces. They blame the football authorities, the TV companies and the Club Presidents – who would rather silence the dissenting fans than stand up to the ‘Mafiosos’ that control football. They feel that in order for the common man to fight against the billionaires who are pulling the strings, they must unite as one unstoppable force.

Recently the Ultras of Recreativo Huleva, known as Frente Onuba, raised a banner that displayed an unprecedented show of support for their bitter rivals, Xerez, who are on the verge of going out of business. Other clubs have also showed support for Xerez, including Rayo Vallecano, whose socialist fan group the Bukaneros, have recently been told they can no longer store their banners at the stadium after recent clashes with the club’s board over ticket and pricing issues and an alleged floodlight sabotage at last year’s clash with Real Madrid. In stadiums all across Spain, banners have been appearing declaring: ‘No to football business’ , ‘Against modern football, against TV’, ‘Television is killing football’,  ‘Football without fans is nothing’, ‘You don’t care about football, you just care about money’, ‘UEFA=Mafia’.  The list goes on.

So can the most radical ultras finally put their differences aside and focus their considerable energy and passion into something worthwhile that benefits them all? Can they drag themselves away from petty tribalism, childish racial taunting and out-of-date attitudes to deal with the serious, grown-up issues affecting the modern game?

The unbalanced distribution of TV money in Spain must be addressed or clubs will die and many fans have realised this. Even in England where the TV money is spread more evenly, supporters are uniting against spiralling ticket prices and the movement is spreading to other countries too. In Spain, there are some rivalries that run very deep and some Ultra groups may still need convincing that there is a good reason to stand shoulder to shoulder with their bitter rivals for the greater good.

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