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It all began in 1995. There was an U-20 championship final between São Paulo and Palmeiras – two of the main rivals of Brazil`s biggest city – at Pacaembu, which one of the stands was being reconstructed at the time. After the final whistle both sides ultras got on the pitch and a medieval battle took place. With rocks and wooden pieces from the stand that was being rebuilt each group attacked smaller rival groups, that eventually managed to regroup and get larger, then becoming the attackers. After seeing long 10 minutes of savagery trough open air-TV, the balance was clear: with 102 people wounded and 16-year-old boy killed, something had to change.
Just like Hillsborough, no one questioned why the police didn’t have enough men to avoid the fight in the first place or how could a final match had happened with actual weapons available to two rival torcidas. The elected guilty was the fact that the tickets were free of charge and, of course, the ultras organizations. The solution was to forbid. Forbid everything. The prohibition of the ultras to exist (which worked in legal terms, but never in reality) and the flags to be brought to the stands (the poles could be used as weapons) were the first, but every season there were new ones.
Although the fights never ceased to happen this policy was never questioned, so nowadays, 21 years of new prohibitions later, you can’t enter a football stadium with a book (you could set it on fire) or with a mask of your favorite player (you could use it to avoid identification – ironically, those who proposed the rule never managed to identify a single unmasked thug before – or after). Since the ultras, and the football fans in general, were marginalized and people wanted to avoid a new 1995 disaster at any cost, a real opposition to this process never took place.
But then things began to change. After the 2014 World Cup, with new Arenas replacing the old Estádios, football clubs actively tried to change their audience. Ticket prices rose exponentially and the ultras saw their share of seats dramatically reduced. Maybe the internet played its role too, showing to Brazilian supporters what their Argentinian neighbours could do during their matches, and even a new Brazilian social moment in which people question the authorities much more than before may have had a role. The fact is the ultras left the obedience position and began to occupy the space they felt they deserved.
At first the surroundings of the stadiums were taken. Since there was no law against flag poles or sinalizadores flares on the streets the ultras took these “forbidden” material to the front of the stadiums to create an ambiance and welcome their team’s buses. The sinalizadores, those sticks of the size of a pen that when lit only produces coloured smoke, being harmless and easy to hide didn’t take long to get to the inside area of the stadiums too. Suddenly the Brazilian football bosses had to deal with supporters deliberately breaking the rules, producing smoke and proudly displaying textile pieces with messages against the TV Globo, the owner of TV rights and a major political player in Brazilian football.
Interestingly, the status quo’s answer also changed. Their strategy is not to use physical repression and violence anymore, but to use their media power to win the public opinion battle. Rede Globo, who had always used ultras images to promote their Brasileirão and Libertadores broadcasts, now tell the public that there is no space for that kind of supporter anymore. Last month Palmeiras fans lit sinalizadores on the final moments of their away match against Coritiba to celebrate the team’s victory, which made the referee pause the game for some minutes. When the match restarted the home team equalized and the game ended as a draw. The next minutes one could already read on sports websites: “Thanks to their supporters Palmeiras concedes a late goal and loses 2 points against Coritiba”.
It was not a surprise when a lot of Palmeirenses accepted and reinforced that speech, some of them simply because they don’t like the ultras and the other part because conceding a late goal is so unbearable that there must be someone to blame on. If, in the old days, a torcida was an united crowd with a lot of shared values and sympathy for one another, nowadays they are divided in three groups: those who feel threatened by all those changes and try to hold onto traditional stand culture, those who think the public and its practices must change and those who only care about winning (which make them easily buyable by the 2nd group).
No one knows where this process will lead. A lot of people fear that Brazilian stadiums will eventually become all-seaters-well behaved-consumers-not supporters, just like Premier League ones. But the résistance is there, and for a society that was used to fear the authorities and don’t confront them that’s already great news. Maybe we can adopt the Bundesliga model, giving everyone some place, or build our own. For sure the process won’t be smooth or easy, but it’s definitely needed.