“Encore! Mais pas en l’église, à la match! We have to win this fucking game!”
This was the megaphone war cry erupting from section 114 of Saputo Stadium – the home of Montreal’s professional soccer team, the Impact.
For most North Americans, soccer fan culture is fairly alien. Organized supporters’ clubs are few and far between in football, basketball, hockey, or baseball. Yet head east from McGill for an Impact game and you will find a small beating heart of European “terrace” culture nestled under the gargantuan slant of the Olympic stadium.
I had been told that Montreal’s team, defending champions in the United Soccer League, has one of the strongest “ultras” squads in North America, les Ultras de Montréal. Ultras is the term for the most fanatical supporters of a team – usually soccer – and mostly confined to European club teams. Ultras across the world are known for manifesting their support in deafening and visually dazzling ways. Think flares, smoke bombs, drums, and constant chanting.
At times, watching the Impact play from section 114 felt more like a street protest than a sports game, and the feeling is not a coincidence: it’s the point. Many ultras groups across the world become associated with a particular set of politics. The ultras groups from the Italian club Lazio have become associated with Italian neo-fascism, while supporters of the AEK Athens F.C. are a major force in the anarchist politics and occasional riots that have swept across Greece in recent years. In extreme circumstances, ultras become connected with hooligan firms and engage in violent confrontations with rival groups. Les Ultras de Montréal are much smaller in scale and influence, and don’t seem to advocate a certain political ideology, but the feeling of solidarity is palpable, the same as any street protest.
The group started in 2002, according to Daniel Nahmias-Leonard, one of the co-founders of the Ultras. I spoke to him a few blocks south of Saputo Stadium at Bar 99 on Hochelaga. The Ultras meet up here before every home game for a few libations and to get ready for the match. During big games, the Ultras walk en masse to the stadium chanting and lighting flares as they go (which is very much worth watching on YouTube). Nahmias-Leonard is excited about the Impact’s upcoming promotion to the Major League Soccer in 2012, which he sees as giving the club a higher profile in a hockey-mad town. “We’re still fringe, but we’re a lot less fringe than we were five years ago,” he said.
The Ultras always stand in section 114, behind the visiting team’s first- half goal. The staircase leading up to the Ultras section bears a sign that forbids the wearing of scarves, jerseys, or paraphernalia of any kind from the opposing team. Section 114 has no individual seats, because the Ultras never sit down. Security guards are specifically assigned to monitor the Ultras to extinguish the occasional flare or smoke bomb that appears. A pair of men stand on a small platform, their back to the pitch, and scream through megaphones to lead the Ultras through chants.
Section 114 is almost exclusively male, although a few girlfriends and children belt out chants as well. A full fifteen minutes of the first half had elapsed before the Ultras stopped chanting – for only about 30 seconds – to catch their collective breath. A deafening and amazing series of call-and-returns peppered the entire game. Pandemonium ensued after each of Montreal’s three goals, repeated and sustained. And last week’s game, according to Nahmias-Leonard, was a relatively unimportant match, as the Impact has secured its spot in the league’s playoffs.
The Impact’s final home game before the start of the playoffs is Sunday, October 3 at Saputo Stadium. Meet up at Bar 99 an hour before the match to drink and walk to the game with the Ultras.