‘I was chased by a group of machette wielding ultras in Indonesia!’
James, your new book is called 1312 (which stands for ACAB or 'all cops are bastards') - do you think this feeling of hatred towards police is one of the very few things that actually all football ultras do have in common?
It's the main reason I called the book 1312. It was actually quite hard to come to a concrete definition for who the ultras are. But I noticed that every stadium – from Belgrade to Casablanca – had 1312 grafittied outside. It didn't matter if groups were right, left, apolitical. The police was the enemy. It was a common thread.
White writing the book, you met with some really notorious fans like Boca's La Doce (from Spanish: 12) or Diabolik, the late leader of Lazio's Irriducibili - what was the scariest moment you experienced, while working on that project?
Yeah, meeting La Doce was quite scary. Diabolik was quite intense too but they were both in quite controlled environments. The scariest parts was when I was in an uncontrolled environment: when an arranged fight in Sweden went wrong and turned into a riot, essentially. And the time I was chased by a group of machette wielding Persib Bandung ultras in Indonesia. The Indonesian fan scene is nuts.
Was there an ultras group that really caught you by surprise - one you had an initial opinion of and then this perception changed completely after you met them?
The US was a revelation. I thought I'd turn up and see a really plastic ultra cultrue copied from Europe. What I discovered in LA was something completely different. LA has always been a soccer city, but you wouldn't think that. I don't think I enjoyed a game in 1312 as much as standing with the 3252. Also Sweden. It's probably one of the best fan experience in Europe right now. I wasn't expecting that.
What's your favourite story from the 1312 book?
The story of Ismail Morina, the guy who piloted the drone at the Serbia-Albania game. I've been following his story since 2014. I met him in jail in Croatia. It was an act that kind of ruined his life but the whole story is bat shit crazy. You could make a film about it.
You've mentioned that yourself on numerous occasions - that there are a lot of far-right ultras groups in Eastern Europe nowadays. What's the reason behind that?
That's a question I get asked a lot. And one that I'm interested in because of my Polish roots. The fact is that football stadiums, the terraces, fan culture, the curva, reflect society. Eastern Europe is a socially conservative place that had essentially been on lockdown since the 1940s under communism. That is reflected, in its most extreme terms, in the ultras culture that emerged after '89. The Balkans are the same to some extent. After Tito's death, ultra groups were formed that expressed something that had been suppressed. In most republics it was the first open expression of nationalism.
There's a general feeling the ultras around the world are getting more and more associated with politics. What do you make of that?
It's really interesting, this “ultras no politica” thing. Because from what I've seen ultras have always been political. Every story I came across had some political element. You can't separate politics from the scene in most cases. I found Sweden to be an interesting case. The groups are largely apolitical. By that I mean there's a diverse range of people and opinions on the curva. But they are still involved in political acts, against control, against the police, against commercialisation of the game. I see ultras as grass roots political activists as well as supporters.
You're based in Belgrade and even though you know a lot of Zvezda's Delije members they still refused to meet with you and talk on record. Is this feeling of mistrust football ultras are universally known for the biggest obstacle you had to overcome, while working on the book?
Yeah, I have some good friends in the scene. But I knew the doors would be closed to me when I began. Me being a journalist was a huge impediment everywhere. But I've been doing this a few years now so I was able to speak to some key people in Italy and elsewhere. I couldn't have done this book five years ago. But I was also interested in telling the history of the scene. It's not an expose. More an ethnography. I remember sitting down with Diabolik and him kind of wearily asking if I wanted to hear only about the violence. I mean, they were good stories. But I also wanted to ask why he found a home in ultras, and what role he thought they had in Italian society. He was a bit surprised by that, which is why we ended up talking for two hours.
A few months ago you told me that you would have included a chapter on the Bulgarian fan scene if you had the chance. Would you do that in the sequel maybe?
Absolutely, I read a book “Top Faces BG” and wanted to delve deeper into Bulgaria's fan scene. The problem was that I was already at 400 pages! So I had to drop planned trips to Romania and Bulgaria. Also, all of these chapters were kind of dependent on access. If I didn't get access – like in Poland – I couldn't really write about it in the way I wanted to.
Who else would you like to write about in the eventual sequel?
If access wasn't an issue I'd definitely include Russia and Bulgaria. I'd go deeper into Morocco. France and the Netherlands. Colombia and Mexico. I'd try again with Poland (Although there's a story about Wisla in the book). Or I'd just concentrate on the Okolafutbola scene. Following a firm as they fight across Europe. But that would take quite a lot of work to organise!