Pitchside Europe

Ultras proving hard to shake for Spanish giants

When they weren’t letting off flares, smoke bombs, banging drums, brandishing Spain flags or singing Viva Espana or their anti-Catalan songs, the hundreds of men in black had a few more offensive ditties.

"Luis Enrique, your father is Amunike," they hollered in the shadow of the towering stands behind the Bernabeu’s south end. Amunike was a Nigerian footballer who’d played briefly at Barcelona in the late 90s. The chant was not intended to compliment Enrique, once of Madrid and then the lungs of the Barca team for a generation, but was racist in connotation.

The police watched on from behind a line of vans. This was a decade ago and they’d had years of dealing with Real Madrid’s Ultras Sur, who’d formed in 1980.

They’re more experienced now, though little has changed. The same bars are full of the same ultra group. New faces, same fascist ideologies. Rayo Vallecano aside, most ultras groups in Spain share similar views, with Atletico's Frente and Valencia's Yomus among the most notorious. They’re also among their club's most diehard loyal supporters.

If there are 100 Madrid fans in Kiev or Copenhagen for a game, the Ultras Sur would be there. The Ultras are loved and loathed. Players like Guti would be acquainted with their leaders, while the group would receive support from the club: tickets, assistance for away travel, storerooms for their banners.

Quite often they were the only vocal section in the 80,000 stadium. They've got a song which claims the Bernabeu would be as quiet as a cemetery without them. And they're right

They organised magnificent choreography, their noise was admired by Jose Mourinho who wished that the rest of the Bernabeu was as animated. Man United’s Ed Woodward complimented the stand behind the goal at Madrid where all the fans sang. He knew little of their ideology.

In December, club president Florentino Perez sanctioned the deactivation of 250 membership cards belonging to Ultras Sur members. Madrid wanted to keep the colour and noise, but not the aggression, the links to violence and criminality, the warped political dogmas.

Inspired by the south wall at Dortmund, they wanted a stand of animation and encouraged young members to sign up. That stand - the Grada Joven (‘Young Stand’) opened against Celta Vigo last week. The jilted Ultras Sur in response produced literature showing one of their balaclava clad members punching a fan wearing a ‘Grada Joven’ t-shirt.

Barcelona had a similar idea two years ago. They too had a longstanding ultra group, the Boxois Nois (‘Mad Boys’). Among Barca’s most loyal supporters who travel home and away, they caused serious concern to Barca’s hierarchy until ex president Joan Laporta acted.

Past Barca presidents had paid and even courted the Boixos for political gain. Free match tickets, seats on planes to away games and a room in the stadium to store their banners were among the privileges enjoyed by the hardcore group who stood behind the goal at the Camp Nou.

Laporta stopped all these when he was elected president in 2003. The Boixos were furious and death threats were daubed on the pavement outside his family’s apartment in Barcelona’s affluent Zona Alta. The Boixos boycotted games leaving the bizarre sight of 2,000 empty seats behind the goal.

A few stayed, maybe 50, caged in behind glass partitions and watched by balaclava-clad police during matches as they chanted: "Barca, yes, Laporta, no!" continuously. They did that for years and given that the Camp Nou wasn't always the cauldron of noise portrayed by the media, everyone heard it.

Most fans turned the other cheek, though occasionally they boo to let the remaining Boxois know that they’re not in agreement. The stay-aways watch the game in Bar Virginia, a scruffy neighbourhood haunt 200 metres from the stadium under the watchful eye of police.

Laporta hoped that the Boixos and their right-wing conservative ideology would melt away. They didn’t. They continue to follow Barca away, often making up a sizeable majority of an otherwise poor travelling support. And they do not travel quietly, making their presence felt where it is easier to make it felt.

In Munich ahead of the game with Bayern in 2009, a Barca security guard was punched in the face at the team’s hotel by a fan widely reported to be a member of the Boixos. That incident outraged Laporta, who said: “We have to talk less and act more. Either we take steps to prevent them from travelling and getting into the stadiums or we’ll see more serious incidents. We will continue to act with the same forcefulness and we will make no concessions to the aggressors.”

Laporta knew the identity of the Boixos and added: “These individuals continue to present a deplorable image that is neither that of Barcelona nor the vast majority of its fans. The majority of fans who were in Munich behaved exquisitely except these criminals who dedicate themselves only to giving a beating to lads trying to do their jobs.”

Barca’s other ultra group couldn’t be more different. The Almogavares (named after the 14th century Catalan mercenaries who took Athens, Naples, Malta, Sardinia and Sicily) stand at the opposite end of the Camp Nou and renounce violence in favour of vocal support.

Barca’s attempt to launch a section for young, vocal fans directly behind one goal, where 110 tickets would cost just €10 for each fan, stalled. They wanted it to act as a catalyst for improving the sadly lacking atmosphere.

Club president Sandro Rosell met all fan groups last season – including the once notorious Boixos Nois who'd been banished by his predecessor. The police wanted their say too, with both them and the club insisting that they will not tolerate violence. A consensus is hard to reach.

The Catalan police looked at some of the names of the people hoping to join, identifying many with criminal records and many former members of the Boixos. The police said they wouldn’t sanction the idea, until Barca could guarantee the concept was safe. Which means not filling a stand with madheads.

At the same time, leaders of the Boixos were tried in connection with criminal activities like extortion and drugs. 'Their' end remains half full for most matches.

The bans at Madrid met with the expected protests which continue. Hundreds of Ultras Sur turned up to their team's reserve game at the weekend to sing and protest against club president Florentino Perez.

They'd also protested outside the Bernabeu at the first game they were banned for, last week against Celta Vigo, whose manager is Luis Enrique. Their sacred spot behind the goal was given over to fans in a new, youthful, colourful section.

One of the first chants of the 'clean' new fans? "Luis Enrique, your father is Amunike."

Andy Mitten - @AndyMitten