The Ultras of Marseille are fighting for their city’s soul

The Ultras of Marseille are fighting for their city’s soul

Marseille encapsulates France’s volatile political landscape unlike anywhere else. At the heart of this tension are the Ultras: football fans ferociously dedicated to their city’s team, who have constructed a movement built on the foundations of radical politics, passion and pride.

A version of this story appears in Huck Issue 76. Get your copy now, or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue. 

Emmanuel Macron knows the French people are losing their minds as he tells them to be home by 6pm. It is March 2021 and a daily curfew is enforced by military-like police. They patrol the public squares. The bars remain closed.

France’s strange president has never recovered from making a speech in which he declared that he was the descendant of Louis the Sun King. He did this from a gold-plated room. “Vive la France,” he said, as unmaintained buildings full of people collapsed in Marseille, a city where you can find homeless families sat on a mattress in the street; where refugees hang under a resplendent arch – The Porte d’Aix – that once greeted the traveller into this historic port city. It looks just like Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, yet in Marseille it’s where displaced people mill around in a space reclaimed. A victorious monument to commemorate an absurd notion of victory, now an arena of the marginalised.

Here, under the arch, as the streets empty out, there are people genuinely struggling, having made unfathomable journeys that most people would find impossible to comprehend. The arch itself was inspired by the Romans. In the present day, a collection of young sans papiers (‘undocumented migrants’) lean against it – many of whom arrived in the midst of a pandemic. They greet each other warmly, but treat passers-by with suspicion. “No fucking photos,” they say. “It is not a fucking zoo here.”

While this is happening, football fans in fluorescent bibs – the Ultras – hand out food. They are supporters of Olympique de Marseille (OM): the only top-level club in the city. The badge is scrawled on walls, worn on chests and visible in shop windows everywhere. The Ultras present have mobilised to work with food banks – they are here in order to care for those most in need.

I’m with them today, handing out cakes and mangoes to migrants and the homeless. The mood is that of tension, punctured by occasional joviality. “This is my dinner,” says a teen as he waves a joint at me. In truth, I might be treated differently if I wasn’t wearing an Ultras bib. It has earned me the trust of a volatile crowd.

This is, after all, a city that wears its colour in smoke: where protest and carnival are commonplace. Few embody this feeling like Gabo. I first meet him outside a bar – an old union drinking hole, ‘Le Bar du Peuple’ (The Bar of the People) on the edges of the African enclave of Noailles. The kind of place you go to have the tear gas washed from your eyes. Sadia, the local matriarch, warns me from behind the counter: no jokes about OM. “Don’t,” she says. “Just don’t.”

Gabo and I talk on the terrace. He’s dressed as if he’s just stepped out of a Cockney Rejects gig in 1979: 32 years old, in Fred Perry, drainpipe jeans, red braces and a skinhead cut. That week, OM supporters had broken into the club’s training ground and set fire to cars and some trees – direct action against certain players they consider spoilt wage thieves. Gabo tells me not to ask about the Ultras who were there that day. He expounds on the event with verve and then retracts it all. “Never mind the bollocks, we don’t talk to the press,” he warns. Later on, at his home, he screams lyrics from The Exploited. I watch him as he drunkenly shadow-boxes at imaginary opponents, ghosts of things he was forced to take apart. “Sex and Violence,” he wails. “Sex and Violence!”

The culture of Ultra groups took hold in Italy and eastern Europe in the ’70s. It then spread across the European continent and down into North Africa. “In Greece and Italy, the greatest Ultra support is not in the best clubs,” says Gabo. “Success attracts big players and then rich presidents who flood the place with money and then security – like at [our rivals] PSG. They feel threatened. The groups then get dissolved.”

“Our role is to put madness in the stadium, to push the team and to create the gigantic banners that you see covering a whole stand that we set fire to afterward. We fill the stadium with our voices and smoke to live in this moment of chaos. If you don’t sing we kick you out. If you’re a real Ultra, you sweat as much as those on the pitch.”

During the pandemic, football at large has found itself further separated from the supporters who fill the stadiums. In this period, the mainstream media in France has largely continued to paint Ultras as a threat to family values: no more than violent thugs ruining the game. Ultras believe the opposite: they are a movement battling against the sanitisation of what they love the most. From club to club, these principles are distinct and can veer from nationalism to anti-fascism. When this passionate support descends into bloody conflict, it places the Ultras directly at odds with the commercialisation of the modern game.

Marseille, where Gabo resides, is France’s second-largest city – but arguably its most neglected. The first lockdown in 2020 was suddenly enforced with no provisions for its poorest inhabitants. In the Northern district, families queued at an abandoned McDonald’s that had been repurposed as a food bank. In the first five weeks of its running, no less than 100,000 people were served food parcels. The organisation of militant support groups came to the fore.

“With local government, we face corruption and the mafia – the money simply disappears,” says Gabo. “In a time of crisis, it’s very important to see who only thinks of themselves. We do the opposite, and there are three main reasons why we’re so effective. One: we’re not afraid of the authorities and know how to fight the police. Two: we’re united together throughout life to the death. And three: we’re hard workers. This is not charity, it’s resistance – to keep our neighbourhoods from falling apart.”

Gabo tells me that I need to meet Eddy from the Fanatics – one of the Ultras subdivision groups. Now 40 years old, Eddy rarely goes to the stadium. I’m ushered into a quiet room at the back of a heavy-metal bar and wait as a fruit machine flashes. Eddy sits down across from me. He’s wiry, intense – but demonstratively friendly. We drink together. When I ask him what his roots are, he simply replies, “I am poor,” and laughs.

“We in this bar are football fans fighting as anti-fascists – but in truth, we are anti-classist,” he says. “We believe that racism will no longer be a problem once the structural imbalances that exist through class domination are dismantled.”

Eddyʼs friend Pierre walks in and breaks into the Communist hymn The Internationale. Eddy joins in and, with fists aloft, they mock their own conviction.

Slave crowd, stand up! Stand up!
We are the right, we are the number:
We who were nothing, let us be everything:
This is the final struggle
Let’s group together and tomorrow
The International
Will be the human race.”

Pierre howls. He is from Paris and follows PSG – Marseille’s fiercest rivals. Eddy explains that fighting fascism together is more significant than following your team. “We are not friends, we are brothers.” They sport the same tattoo: a skeleton Arab and Jew, standing back-to-back. It symbolises their bond.

For Eddy, the passionate support of his club causes conflicts even within himself. “When you are eight years old you don’t have a political conscience, you are just a kid searching for heroes. It could be Superman, or Jean-Pierre Papin. I supported OM in the ’90s and, like all eight-year-olds supporting the best team in the world, you dream of going to the stadium.”

It’s clear today, despite his politics, the wonder he feels for his team hasn’t been diminished. “Football goes beyond ideology… What you see on the pitch is the politics of the moment and the stadium is a microcosm of what you find in the city. It’s where life is reflected and ideas are exchanged. This battle of ideas and the place to defend them is not why kids follow a team, of course. But at least it’s now safe for a Black or Brown supporter to stand on the terraces here.”

We leave the bar to go drink beers on the street, avoiding the police. I am concerned about the curfew and consider what Eddy told me as I weaved home. “This is history. Don’t forget the cannons on the fort walls were not to defend the city, but trained on the people of Marseille itself. It will always be a rebel city.”

The next time I see Eddy it is outside a box-shaped building in a housing project in the feared Northern districts, where he is employed as a social worker. His daughter is there too, playing with some of the children under his supervision. The neighbourhoods here are dominated by drug dealing – young boys had been getting shot all summer. Eddy is about to drive a host of kids away for a week of camping in the Provence countryside, giving them some respite from the concrete maze. You can tell he’s looking forward to it. We start kicking a ball to each other.

Months later, and a few games into a new season, I get a call from him asking me if I have heard the news. A young Ultra from the Fanatics, Clément, has been killed in a car accident. He was travelling home with his friends after an away fixture in Angers. A commemorative procession had been arranged for him before OM’s match at the weekend with Lens.

With a scarf tied to my wrist, I reach a quiet residential street adjacent to the stadium – the Stade Vélodrome. There are at least 2,000 supporters grieving, dressed in modern sports gear. They walk slowly together, heading towards the North Stand – just as this young man of 23 years old would have, had he not died in his best friend’s arms on the motorway.

The street is lined with umbrella pines as the sun makes its descent, illuminating the supporters in blissful light. Suddenly there is singing: “Olé Olé Olé Clément Clément, Olé Olé Olé Clé-ment Clé-ment”. It is loud and guttural.

Everyone is instructed to respectfully refrain from smoking. Those that pass by watch from the side of the road. They are signalled at: put away your phones. Out on the balconies, the local residents gaze down, some waving OM flags. Even the National Police seem moved. Jaws clenched, riot batons lowered.

Then the clapping starts, each round punctuated by the young man’s name. It grows louder and faster, before reaching its crescendo. Then there is silence again. Wherever you look there are glassy eyes, tough men hidden behind shades. A young woman has her face buried in her partner’s neck. “We all love together and we all lose together,” says Eddy.

I make my way to find Gabo by the South Stand. The hot white light illuminates the turf. Across the pitch, in the North Stand, are the Fanatics. Even from here you can see that they are all shirtless, an undulating frenzy of support bouncing under a banner that simply reads ‘CLÉMENT’. On the pitch, the club president lays a wreath of beautiful white flowers.

In front of Gabo and I stand the two capos (‘commanders’) of the Ultra Commandos. They face us, barely turning to watch any of the game. Their function is to lead the chants and orchestrate the clapping, creating a holy union that in turn breaks out into a ferocious moshpit. The crowd surges up and down the stand under a fog of hashish and acrid flare smoke. You don’t get to see much of the actual football. When Lens are awarded a penalty there is an impossible cacophony of whistles and boos.

The fans do not stop their deliriously synchronised display at any point before the final whistle. When it eventually sounds, Marseille have suffered a 3-2 defeat. Instead of coming over to thank the fans for their support, the players immediately disappear down the tunnel. The stand erupts in violent insults. One capo turns to face the pitch and barks down his megaphone at the team’s captain. “Hey Payet, Payet!” he shouts, his arms up in a V .“You go, go get your players… you get them and you bring them here!” He firmly points down to the goal-line.

There is a sudden silence. Quickly, eight of the 11 players who ended the game on the pitch make their way back out. The stadium is almost empty, but in the North and the South, the Ultras stand their ground. “Come here,” commands the megaphone. The millionaire footballers make their way over sheepishly. They look frightened, ashamed.

“We have barely seen you for two years,” says the capo. “But we are always here. You know that Clément died as he returned from supporting you, as we do, every time. You need us.” The whole stand glares at them. “We need you.” The players, eyes down, begin to clap with hands above their heads. In the East Stand, an advert board for a bank flashes ominously.

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