In these dark days when we have been deprived of sport itself, it is a pleasure to read such an eloquent book about its politics and social impact. Today, Italian football is a pale shadow of its 1990s pinnacle. The capitalistic Death Star that is the English Premier League and the top clubs in Spain have sucked up most of the best talent. Italian stadiums, many of them built for the 1990 World Cup, are crumbling, attendances are low and incidents of racist abuse seem to come almost weekly. Apart from the tiresomely all-conquering Juventus, no Italian teams can hold their own in Europe.
Jones clearly feels affection for his pals on the terraces. But he is no apologist. He calls out the thuggery and criminality, describing the movement’s litany of death, drugs and destruction in unflinching terms. Indeed, if Ultra has a weakness, it is the sheer repetitiveness of these incidents. Structured around 70 or so short chapters, Ultra covers half a century of flashpoints and fatalities. The martyrs are important to the ultras, but somewhat confusing to the reader, such is the criss-crossing nature of their histories.
Jones introduces a lot of characters with typically odd nicknames – Left Behind, Elastic, Vindow, Mouse – but they rarely come across strongly enough for us to remember who’s who. When he describes them fighting or insulting opposing fans he speaks of “them”, when it’s time to celebrate a goal he switches to “we”... Jones is more at ease working from books and newspapers to trace the development of the ultras, ambitiously interweaving their metamorphoses with the shifting political scene over the past 50 years... Jones is interesting when he talks of the “religious” aspect of ultra movements, their attachment to sacred objects and determination to celebrate the dead. Banners remembering fans who have died or chants drawing from liturgical sources fascinate him. The parts of the book where he reflects on these are the best, allowing a rare glimpse of the author and the position from which he views the ultra phenomenon.