The Rise of Football Ultras in Southeast Asia
Muhammad Afiq Hajis analyses the cultural phenomenon of Ultras in Southeast Asia, their spirit of collectivism, and marginalised identities in society.
Football is more than just a sport in Southeast Asia; it is a cultural phenomenon that brings together people from all walks of life. From the sprawling archipelago of Indonesia to the lush hillsides of Thailand and the verdant rice paddies of Vietnam, the passion for football is deeply rooted in the social fabric of the region, expressed in various fascinating ways.
At the heart of Southeast Asia’s football culture are the Ultras, devoted fans who go to great lengths to support their favourite teams. Originating in Italy in the 1950s, the term ‘Ultras’ has become synonymous worldwide with the dedicated and organised fans of football teams or associations. The Ultras’ behaviour includes using flares, chanting in unison, and unfurling colourful banners in the stands, creating an electric atmosphere that inspires their team and intimidates their opponents.
This is no different in Southeast Asia, where Ultras are known for their unwavering dedication to their teams and the vibrant atmosphere they create in stadiums. Take for example, ‘Jakmania’ – the Persija Jakarta Ultras, who often pack the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium with almost 50,000 fans, chanting and singing with every breath of their lungs. Their enthusiasm and fervour are contagious, igniting a sense of community and belonging among individuals of all backgrounds.
For many football or even non-football fans, the experience of being in a stadium filled with passionate Ultras can be exhilarating and give them a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves. Whether it is the intense atmosphere of a match between fierce rivals, or the joyous celebrations that accompany a hard-fought victory, the passion of Southeast Asian football Ultras is truly infectious.
From a socio-anthropological perspective, the Ultras phenomenon in Southeast Asia is fascinating because it reflects the complex interplay of politics, identity, and community. The Ultras culture is a means through which people express their identities and affiliations, both with their local communities and the larger nation-state. At the same time, Ultras often become the vanguard of political and social movements, using the power of their passion and dedication to raise awareness about issues that are important to them. When it comes to specific characteristics of the Ultras in different Southeast Asian countries, there are intriguing differences that reflect the unique social, political, and cultural contexts in which they exist.
In Indonesia, for example, the Pasoepati Ultras emerged due to a lack of identity within the community and the political developments in the city of Surakarta, more commonly known as Solo. Football in Solo had strong ties to the Suharto regime in the 1990s, with Suharto’s oldest son owning the most successful football club in Solo at that time, Arseto Solo Football Club. After the club disbanded following the regime’s fall in 1998, the Pasoepati Ultras settled on Persis Solo as their new team, symbolising right-wing politics in Indonesian football.
By adopting Persis Solo as their team, the Pasoepati Ultras strengthened their links with the city’s identity, as Persis Solo, founded in 1923, is the oldest club in the city. The club’s history and heritage were essential in creating a sense of a glorious past that became central to the formation of the Ultras’ and supporters’ identities. A section of the Pasoepati further renamed and rebranded themselves as Ultras 1923, in honour of Persis Solo, identified as the primary football club of the city. Football and identity-making were integrated, and many other supporters of different clubs around Indonesia followed a similar trajectory.
In Jakarta, the Jakmania Ultras can be seen as a reflection of the outcasts and unemployed individuals living in the overpopulated city. The Manggarai district in South Jakarta is a stronghold for Jakmania Ultras, where they often gather and display their support for the football team through graffiti and symbols. Consequently, this region is known for its frequent riots and small-scale clashes called tawuran. For many Jakmania Ultras, football matches and gatherings serve as escapism from their challenging circumstances.
The sense of belonging, recognition, and reputation of being part of the Jakmania Ultras is essential for these Persija Jakarta fans to feel a sense of personal worth and identity. Through football and Jakmania, they find a community that offers them a sense of purpose and camaraderie.
For those who face unemployment and social marginalisation, this group provides an opportunity to feel valued and acknowledged. Thus, the Jakmania Ultras represent more than just a group of football supporters. They symbolise the struggles many face in Jakarta and offer a sense of belonging and identity to those who may feel disconnected from mainstream society.
Apart from serving as an identity-making tool, Ultras groups often attempt to raise awareness on issues that are important to them. For instance, the Ultras Malaya (UM), composed of members from different ethnic backgrounds and states, has repeatedly spoken out against the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) and the persistent corruption within the organisation.
Most famously, in a World Cup Qualifier match against Saudi Arabia in 2015, the UM entered the stadium late in the 31st minute to protest against the FAM leadership, which the Pahang royalty had led for 31 years. The UM began hurling insulting chants towards the FAM to express their disapproval of their governance.
At the 87th minute, things turned rowdy as the Ultras began throwing flares into the pitch, resulting in injuries and the game’s abandonment. Despite the consequences and injuries, the UM did not show any signs of remorse. In fact, their official Twitter account tweeted, “Sorry players. Sorry Malaysians. Sorry Saudi Arabians. But it had to be done”.
A senior group member further expressed that they had exhausted all the proper channels for expressing their frustrations with the FAM and therefore turned to humiliate the organisation. The UM’s actions illustrate how Ultras groups are willing to resort to drastic measures to highlight issues that are important to them.
Nevertheless, not all Ultras groups rely on violence when expressing their views or dissatisfaction. For instance, the Thai Ultras of Muangthong United Football Club (FC) and Buriram FC constantly conduct peaceful demonstrations and chants to raise awareness of various issues while supporting the pro-democracy movements in Thailand. Similarly, the Yangon United FC Ultras have constantly used their social media platforms to raise awareness about the situation in Myanmar. In addition, they have organised fundraising campaigns to support families affected by the conflict in Myanmar.
In all, the Ultras culture in Southeast Asia is a product of the region’s unique social and cultural context. It reflects the diversity and complexity of Southeast Asian society.
Football is more than just a game in Southeast Asia: it is a way of life and a reflection of the deep-seated values and aspirations of the people. The Ultras culture is one expression of this passion and has become an integral part of Southeast Asian football culture. However, the culture is not immune to controversy. In some instances, the Ultras have been associated with hooliganism and violence, which has tarnished their reputation. Despite this, the Ultras play a significant role in Southeast Asian football culture, and their influence in society is evident.
This is an adapted version of an article from ASEANFocus Issue 1/2023 published in March 2023. Download the full issue here.
Muhammad Afiq Hajis is a Research Intern at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS—Yusof Ishak Institute. He is a political science student at the National University of Singapore.