The most hardcore Ukrainian soccer fans known as “ultras” became the focus of attention during the recent EuroMaidan revolution. The events showed that we indeed know too little about them, relying instead on stereotypes while their opinions have often been ignored.
During the revolution, support from the ultras in Ukraine’s southeastern oblasts was the most noticeable and, importantly, the weightiest. Soccer fans of Shakhtar Donetsk, Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, Metalist Kharkiv and Chornomorets Odesa took to the streets to protect local anti-government activists. The Ultras condemned the behavior of the goons hired by the authorities to instigate provocations and clashes during massive protests. They were assisted by police who often turned a blind eye to their actions.
There had always been a naked war between the police and ultras. But did someone only realize during EuroMaidan that our law enforcement system needed radical and, importantly, real changes? When the Berkut riot police beat fans, people often said it was the fans who provoked them.
Then we started talking differently as soon as police on Nov. 30 used brutal force to clear Independence Square of protesters.
Indeed, the existing law enforcement system needs to be urgently purged. Ultras fans have long called for this. On the eve of the 2012 European football championship that Ukraine co-hosted with Poland, they even made a documentary entitled, “The Last Argument.” In it, the fans openly spoke of how police treatment in the fan sector was very inappropriate. Again they were not heard.
Writer Serhii Zhadan, one of the EuroMaidan organizers in Kharkiv, says he had to protect football fans in recent years many times, especially in talks with journalists. Although he said one shouldn’t idolize them, he noted that “they are representatives of a very specific subculture and at the same time they differ from each other”.
Zhadan, not indifferent to soccer, wrote: “Stating that all the ultras have come out to the country’s Maidans would be wrong. Every sector at any stadium consists of many groups, and their views on some or other political events are not the same. There are different people standing: there are some real rightists, there are those who can rather be called moderate nationalists or Ukrainian patriots, there are people for whom ideology is in principle not important, they just come to the stadium because the sector means a feeling of unity to them. And for the youngest ones, it is a way to assert themselves. When you are aged 16-18 and come to a stadium sector where your friends stand it is the place where you feel your own significance.”
Defenders of honest people
Actually, people started to really take notice of the ultras as protectors even before EuroMaidan. It was they who organized one of the most visible civic campaigns in 2012 to draw attention to the Pavlychenko criminal case: a father and his son who were accused of murdering a Kyiv judge. They maintained they were innocent and framed by investigators.
The ultras united and did their best to keep the Pavlychenkos’ court trial in the media spotlight. They staged rallies, painted walls, and launched a website that was regularly updated with new information. They were heard beyond Ukraine. Solidarity and support came from fans across Europe’s stadiums. However, the rotten judicial system handed them a verdict: the father, Dmytro Pavlychenko, was given a life sentence, while his son Serhii, 19, was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
As soon as Yanukovych’s regime collapsed, parliament, with a newly formed majority, set about freeing political prisoners, including the Pavlychenkos. The new authorities decided to seize the moment and voted to free them.
Yevhenia Malykh, a member of the Dynamo Kyiv ultras movement and project manager at EMPO Internet Marketing School, said she felt great happiness when she learned about the release of the Pavlychenkos. “We’d been waiting for that very much. Any lawyer, any person knowing at least something in these matters would agree that it had been a complete fabrication,” she points out.
In the revolutionary days, the nationwide truce that the ultras fans called between each other went almost unnoticed. That such different groups found mutual understanding is far from a mere formality. Historically, enmity has long existed between some football clubs, which also affected relations between their fans. And agreeing not to clash with each other is a very serious choice for the ultras. They explained their decision as follows: “We think that continuing any confrontation in the fan community now would be a crime against Ukraine’s bright future”.
They know well that there is really no language barrier and there is no division along the mythical “Banderovites” and “eastern people” who only dream of reuniting with Russia. The fans have been to Europe as well. They know that the streets there are not overcrowded with gays walking and kissing each other in front of everybody.
Still, the ultras weren’t heard. This didn’t stop them from hanging banners and posters with words of support for Ukraine at many stadiums around Europe. The solidarity factor within the fan community worked.
And with it, the stereotype of them being hooligans and extremists dissipated. They have demonstrated to society that when times get tough, different sides must come together and unite.
A rightist mood
During matches, ultras fans of most soccer clubs chant, “Glory to Ukraine – glory to the heroes!” or “Glory to the nation – death to the enemies!” No doubt, the Ultras are a radical community but it is rather countercultural than political. The fact of having fans with extreme rightist or even extreme leftist views is far from meaning that the former vote for the right-wing Svoboda and the latter support the Communist Party. One should also not think that football fans are adherents of Vitali Klitschko’s UDAR party.
Journalist Serhii Rakhmanin, political section editor of Dzerkalo Tyzhnia weekly, admits that he was not surprised by the involvement of soccer fans in EuroMaidan. “As a large number of students appeared in stadium sectors, the Ukrainian ultras community became less marginal but, as is common to young people, more radical”.
He continued: “In addition to having nothing against another fight with the police, they were driven by certain romantic moods – heroism but so sincere in its nature, so common to youth”.
What part can the ultras play in the country’s political processes? And can they at all? First, it would be good if people listened to them a bit more. If the domestic soccer league resumes play on March 15, then their message must sweep loudly all over the country once again.
We have learned many things about the ultras in recent months. We have looked at them in a somewhat different light. Some stereotypes will persist but some have been destroyed. It is worth admitting that journalists also did much to shape a certain image of football fans in society, referring to them as “hooligans, radical fanatics, extremists, outcasts, and provocateurs.” In the future, one should remember that there is no need to start writing about the fan movement without first getting to know its members. This is the same as in life. If you don’t know something about a person, don’t try to prejudge them. Perhaps, this way we will get rid not only the stereotypes concerning soccer fans but will also stop thinking that there is no place for politics in soccer.
Taras Maliy (Ivano-Frankivsk) – MSc student at Ukrainian Catholic University, journalism. 2013 - BSc degree in politology in V. Stefanyk Pre-Carpathian National University. Worked with the magazine “Galytskiy korespondent”. Interested in sport journalism, reportage, non-formal political movements
The question of Ukraine’s relations with the European Union and Russia is, of course, most of all a question for the young and for future generations. Therefore, during 2013-14, the media project www.mymedia.org.ua, in collaboration with the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, and financially supported by the Danish Foreign Ministry (Danida) are running a number of journalism workshops on how to cover these issues. The participants are young journalists from all over Ukraine. On pages 10-15, www.mymedia.org.ua – in partnership with the Kyiv Post – brings five of the best pieces, demonstrating the variety in focus and styles of the country’s young journalists, and, not least, their budding talent for grasping complex issues.