Lithuania 02 Apr 2015 00:00
Text and Photos by Karolis Pilypas Liutkevicius
Vilniaus Žalgiris scores a goal in a football match against Klaipėdos Atlantas, two of Lithuania’s top teams. The fan section of the stadium erupts in a ferocious show of support. Some fans stumble down the stadium platform to greet the players face to face, others light flares. Everything is engulfed by smoke, the air fills up with loud chants. However, not everyone knows what happens after the echoes of the seemingly primordial shouts of football fans bounce off the walls of the stadium for the last time, when the last whistle is blown.
This is about trying to look through the seemingly negative façade of the “ultra,” a word used to describe some of the most hardcore sports fans on the planet.
“You could call it my second family,” says Jonas Šečkus, 36.
Jonas is a father of two young kids, he’s happily married, enjoys his job as a geologist and as a geology lecturer at Kaunas and Klaipėda universities. He has been a hardcore football fan since 2010.
“Yes, I’m an ultra. What’s bad about being so into something? And of course, just like in any family there are people who are, to put it lightly, a bit weirder, but there’s also really good guys. What keeps everyone in line is that we have boundaries that should not be crossed”, explains Jonas.
Politics of the game
According to Jonas, being a dedicated football fan in Lithuania is a different experience than being one in countries that are more well-known for the sport. Žalgiris’s budget consists of a smaller amount than what the country’s most beloved sport – basketball - and it’s two biggest teams get. Since a football club is more expensive to maintain than a basketball team, the level at which this sport is played in Lithuania is lower than what people are used to in more football-oriented countries.
This contributes to the fact that there aren’t as many fans as is usual within football fan clubs elsewhere. The “Pietų IV Ultras,” are therefore considered a local phenomenon. The fan club which consists of around 100 people is strikingly dedicated and well known among the population, mostly for their ferocity that is often publically associated with fanaticism. Since the Žalgiris club was established in 1965, it has been heavily associated with national history, and this makes most of the fans very patriotic, in some cases even ethnocentric.
“I don’t think you can separate any sport from politics. But since football has the strength of being the biggest sport in the world, politics are easily visible in it,” Jonas explains. Žalgiris football club has played a major part in Lithuanian history as a means for everyday people to express the independence and freedom of their country.
“Of course if some sort of pro-Russian ‘vatnik’ would suddenly appear among us in the stadium and start preaching his ideology, it would end badly for him,” says Jonas while eating sandwiches made by his wife. He talks about violence in a very nonchalant way, but with some thoughtful reservations. Without saying exactly how badly it would end for someone with such a political disposition, he makes it clear that it certainly wouldn’t be nice.
A day to day ultra
In his home and at work Jonas makes an effort to live a normal life. A courier arrives with a new child’s bike, colored green – the prefered colours of his football club - that he looks forward to giving to his daughter as a gift. At his office, Jonas is extremely concentrated on preparing an upcoming lecture and making the slides as interesting for his students as he can.
“I love teaching. It’s not about the money, it’s about the experience that this occupation gives you,” Jonas admits.
“My students know that I’m an ultra, but I don’t parade that in front of them. I usually don’t wear my colors to lectures or my office.”
Contrary to what most people would think about “ultras,” football fandom fits into Jonas’s life without any repercussions, he says.
“It’s a way for people to vent,” he reflects. “After their stressful jobs, or with the intention to get something off their minds, people come here with the same intentions as those who go to shooting clubs, only we go to watch football and support our team. I think it’s meaningful. From the sidelines it may look violent, since we shout and light pyrotechnics, but we shout so they can hear us. We burn flares so they can see us. That’s what support is about.”
Jonas is clearly not a fan of the media and how it gives ultras a negative connotation by portraying their lifestyle as violent.
“Media wants bad news, because it is an easier sell. If a conflict between the police and fans erupts, they won’t even look into who’s the culprit,” he says. “Of course the fans are the bad guys, because police have the status of untouchable public guardians. That’s a normal view, but since there’s a lot that’s wrong with police in most countries, Lithuania included, everything gets complicated.”
The police, on the other hand, have a different opinion about Jonas’ fan club. Always hovering around the part of the stadium where the fans gather, they constantly observe them as they arrive.
“Once I arrived at the stadium, and a police officer, who I didn’t even know, greeted me by name. They monitor us very closely, maybe even take pictures of us,” a young fan from the fanclub said. “They’re annoying.”
This timidly hostile view of the police seems to be shared by many of the fans. Before the game they often glance at the officers in a belligerent way and murmur some remarks about them.
“There were times when I was involved with some violent stuff, but I won’t talk about it,” Jonas says while putting on his jersey before heading to the stadium.
It’s time for one of the most important matches in the Lithuanian football league. Klaipėdos Atlantas and Vilniaus Žalgiris are set to play at the home stadium of the latter team.
After passing the security checkpoint just outside the stadium, Jonas enters the area of the stadium reserved for the fan club. He seems to feel at home here. The constant smile on his face while he meets his friends quickly changes to an expression full of excitement by the time the match starts. The chanting begins, flares are lit and everything fades into a mist of excitement and smoke.