Malaysia's bad boy Ultras: A blessing or a curse?

Labelled as both a blessing from the heavens and a stain upon the sport of football, Malaysia’s bands of fanatical Ultras have been making a lot of headlines recently. Syed Rafie takes a closer look at the Ultras phenomenon in Malaysia.

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Football is an inherently tribal sport. There is nothing new or even wrong with tribalism, as so eloquently put by Nick Hornby in his book on football fandom, Fever Pitch. The title itself rather succinctly describes the frenzy that fans work themselves into when football is involved. It is a beautiful, almost primal calling that non-football fans will have difficulty comprehending. Yet its primal nature also manifests itself in feral displays of loyalty, as affronts and ‘insults’ to the ‘colours’ and the ‘flag’ can lead to the red mist of assault and physical harm. On these lands, this primal calling has been manifested in the form of Ultras Malaya and its brothers, State Ultras.

For so long the actions of those in power off the field, and the players and coaches on it, were the only dynamics that mattered in Malaysia’s football scene. The role of supporters was that of a seemingly passive one; supporters were considered both a hindrance to be accommodated and a source of finance for football itself. They were faceless non-factors that only appeared at kick-off, and promptly disappeared at the final whistle. They were supposedly powerless. That changed forever on March 1st, 2014 – a date that the Ultras of Malaysia have guaranteed will live in infamy for Malaysian football in years to come. On that fateful day, what was supposed to be a simple international friendly against the Philippines at the Selayang Stadium for Malaysia to use as a warm-up for a critical Asian Cup qualifier turned into something more.

As expected, thousands of the Ultras had taken over an entire section of the Selayang Stadium stand behind Malaysia’s goal. Dressed in black, almost like they were mourning the state of near-death that they feel Malaysian football is in, the Ultras stood up as one. They had already made an impression on fellow match attendees, by standing up and saluting the Malaysian anthem during the pre-game rituals, which was done as a mark of respect for the police officers that lost their lives in the Lahad Datu crisis a year before. Other than that, there was no outward indicator of what was to come, but everyone in the stadium knew that something was brewing.

The ‘#30minutesofSilence’ hashtag had been trending on Twitter for days before the match, where the Ultras sought to protest the current leadership of FAM by being silent for 30 minutes in response to 30 years of FAM’s unchanged leadership. True to their word, the Ultras stood in silence for that period of time when kick-off commenced at 8:45pm. All in attendance knew of this, so it wasn’t a surprise. What they really wanted to know was what would happen once the thirty minutes were up.

As the Harimau Malaya players continued to threaten the Philippines’ goal on the pitch – three attempts had cannoned off the woodwork – 9:15pm approached. The 30-minute self-imposed silence was up, and the real show began.

The police tried to clear the canisters during the March 1st incident

The first rocket flare roared into the night sky, followed by six more. Each rocket flare symbolised an aspect that was satire but also advice – no change, priorities, defeat, acceptance, never give up, sincerity, and belief. “We did this because we want Malaysia, the FAM and the world to know that there is a meaning to our actions,” as explained later on by the founder of Ultras Malaya ‘07 (UM07), Freddie Arifin. “I set off that first flare. That was the cue for our performance. All we wanted to do was to give Malaysian football just a little kick up the backside.”

After the rockets went up, all hell broke loose. Red flares started breaking out amongst the Ultras crowd. Smoke bombs were detonated. War drums started booming around the stadium, as the Ultras ended their dramatic silence with a viscerally awesome display of almost primal fervour. The temperature inside the stadium suddenly jumped several degrees higher as more flares were lit and more smoke bombs went off. A giant banner protesting the FAM was also unfurled.

It was a terrifying, yet intensely controlled expression of footballing support. There was a strange beauty to be found, as the grey and orange smoke from the bombs started drifting across the pitch and to other stands in the stadium. The chanting and drumming grew louder and more manic. Fearing for the safety of the players, the referee put a halt to proceedings, and the game was suspended temporarily for eight minutes.

For those eight minutes, the Ultras sent out a message to the watching world that they would be heard and would not be silenced. A message that said: welcome to a brave new world of Malaysian football.