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

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Whereas the Ultras have a very clear philosophy on how to handle violence, with cases being settled on a man-to-man basis, the Casuals and Firms do not. Fan violence at the tie between JDT and Pahang last year was directly attributed to these hooligan elements. The Ultras sought to distance themselves from that particular incident, with Ultras Malaya playing peacemaker and having representatives from both state Ultras to meet up and shake hands.

Adnan himself tells a story of how he needed to make sure that Indonesian fans were taken care of during Arema’s AFC Cup tie against Selangor FA last February, after receiving news of threats being made against Indonesian supporters. Clearly then, there is a difference between the Ultras and other more unsavoury elements of Malaysian football.

The ongoing situation mirrors the social and economic upheaval that gave birth to the UK Casuals and Firms. The most ardent supporters of Malaysian football, namely the working and middle class, are also losing faith in authority, and act out in displays of rebellion that are contemptuous of the laws put in place by the government of the day. The parallels with today’s disaffected working and middle class with the trials and tribulations of Britain in the 1960s and 1970s are clear to see. Considering many people are unhappy with how the FAM have been handling football in the past 30 years, it is a scenario that is being played out in the realm of football. Therefore, the FAM are regarded with hostility, and that hostility unfortunately spills over amongst fans.

This was most clearly demonstrated when certain fans of both JDT and Pahang were taking potshots at each other on social media in the lead up to their early season 2014 MSL clash, which resulted in violence in and around the Darul Makmur Stadium. It is a situation that everyone agrees should not be happening in Malaysian football. “No one should be fearful of their safety when they go to watch a football match,” Nik Nazmi states.

“Although we accept there is an element of banter in football, we don’t agree in picking unnecessary fights with fellow supporters. We are brothers,” adds Freddie. Yet the disillusionment with the FAM and how things are run is what unites the Firms, Casuals and Ultras in their respective civil disobedience campaigns at football matches.

Love ‘em, hate ‘em, they are here to stay

It is an inescapable fact that elements such as the Ultras, and to a lesser extent, Firms and Casuals, are going to be part of Malaysian football. The increase in numbers of supporters attending matches certainly guarantees that a wider spectrum of people will become part of the footballing community. Yet the spectre of football violence still hangs over the sport, as more people in the mix certainly can be seen as fuel to the potential fire of brawls and fisticuffs.

Nik Nazmi feels that alarm bells need not be sounded yet, when it comes to the Ultras and their role in football. “Whilst I would assume that some of the Ultras may have bad elements in them, we must commend them on helping bring back the people to football,” he says. He also offers his own piece of advice on how to handle the Ultras. “Do not alienate them. If we do, or if we make them feel unwelcome, then it is not hard to imagine that they might turn to violence to make themselves heard. We must make them part of the set-up.”

"Let there be light," and there was light

There are fewer sights, be it in football or any other gathering of human beings, more enchanting than a stadium packed with singing, flag-waving supporters who want their team to do well. Indeed, it is because of this passion that the Ultras movement began in the first place. Yet expressions of violence, whilst not exactly commonplace, are certainly coming to the fore when that passion spills over into something else. Malaysian football has thankfully not yet witnessed incidents such as the stabbing of Leeds fans in Istanbul, but brawls and distasteful chants are on the slippery slope of what the Ultras movement could end up becoming should they truly become disenchanted with the authorities.

The path forward is clear. The Ultras have repeatedly proven that they have the backing of the majority of fans in Malaysia, hence isolating them can easily backfire, and create more fertile recruiting grounds for supporters groups that are more prone to unacceptable antisocial behavior, be it Firms or Casuals.

After all, what drives all of these individuals to whatever course of action they choose is passion for football. It is a passion that is both worrying and heartening. To take away passion from football would be to render it meaningless as a sport. However, the price of such passion overflowing is one that Malaysians, Ultras or not, must always keep in mind, no matter how much of a fever pitch they have worked themselves into.

However, Freddie and the Ultras seem content to play the bad guy and take on the mantle of being hated. According to the leader, as long as change and progress comes to Malaysian football, he doesn’t care what people think of the Ultras, whilst at the same time wanting to make sure that their message is not lost in all the noise. “Let them say what they want to say about us,” he says. “After all, don’t we all want the same thing? Don’t we all want Malaysian football to rise to the top again?”

(Pictures Credit: Kamarul Akhir, Erwin Aszuwanni Abas, Megat Firdaus, Muhammad Muslimi)

(From FourFourTwo Malaysia/Singapore May 2014)