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Bad Company

Bad Company

Amorphous both literally and conceptually, The Crowd is the focus of Critical Mass, a 42-page dossier originally published in WIP magazine issue 07. It spans interviews with artists and football Ultras alike, as well as essays that explore the idea in many ways: throngs of skaters descending on an idyllic Scandinavian cityscape, religion and fuel shortages in eastern Europe, the future of crowd control. Accompanying these are various visual conceptions of the crowd, from archival footage gathered by video artist Rawtape that trace visual archetypes across different gatherings, to AI-generated images that reckon with the power of the masses in an age of misinformation and manipulation. As artist Clemens von Wedemeyer puts it: “Crowds form because the individual imagines something within it.” Exactly what is up to you.Bad Company

Meet the organized fanatics who swapped 20,000 seater stadia for small Cypriot villages, as part of the battle for football’s soul. 

 

Words: Calum Gordon

Images: 550bc 

 

Like many young boys who’d spend their Saturdays watching Omonia Nicosia at their stadium in the Cypriot capital, a six year old Aris would sit in his seat, transfixed. He’d watch the ebb and flow, the organized chaos of it all, unfold in front of him. And only occasionally would his focus be broken, usually by one of his friend’s fathers. “What are you looking at?” they’d ask. “There’s no football over there.”

 

The green pitch, and the 22 players that populated it, was of little interest to Aris. Instead his eye was drawn to the north stand, which housed the club’s Gate 9 Ultras group. The stand would bounce and sway for 90 minutes, occasionally through plumes of green smoke, with rhythmic chanting backed by a drumbeat. Hundreds of them, mostly men, decked out in green, with flags and banners to match. 

 

At age 13, Aris recalls he and two friends walked into Gate 9’s clubhouse, carrying their own makeshift banners they’d painted together. Like a scene from an old western movie, a hushed silence swept over the place, older members eyeing them up. Eventually it was punctured by laughter. While the subculture of fanatic football Ultras groups that thrives across Europe and South America is not one specifically centered around violence, it is an unavoidable feature of it, be it in conflict with rival groups or the police. And typically, 13 year olds are not much use in these situations. But their mixture of wide-eyed naivety and unabashed boldness had earned them respect. They were told they could start coming to matches with the Ultras, which didn’t just include football, but also the other sports Athletic Club OMONOIA Nicosia – to give it its full title – participated in. “Monday futsal, Tuesday volleyball, Wednesday basketball, and Saturday football,” Aris remembers. “Eventually, my full week was Omonia.”

 

Now 29, Aris acts as Gate 9’s capo, the term for any Ultras group leader. It is the fifth year in a row he has been chosen for this role by the group’s elected general committee. Gate 9’s Soviet-style structure of governance is no coincidence, you will regularly see the group display leftist symbols, while Aris also asserts they are the biggest faction of anti-fascists on the island. This is not atypical for Ultras groups, whose politics can skew to both extremes of the political spectrum. But what is unusual about Gate 9 is that the manifestation of its politics has extended far beyond the odd scuffle in the street or attending a demonstration.

 

In 2018, in the face of mounting debts, Omonia Nicosia was sold to the American-Cypriot businessman Stavros Papastavrou, abandoning its long standing fan ownership model to become a for-profit company. Gate 9’s response was emphatic, some might say extreme, as they abandoned the club – along with years of history and shared memories between generations – to form their own football team, Athletic Club Omonia 29 May (PAC Omonia 29M). However, the move, in Gate 9’s eyes, was not the loss of their unique history, rather the continuation of it, carrying on the club’s long-held socialist principles. They vacated their spot on the terraces of the Omonia Nicosia’s stadium, its atmosphere now likened to “a church” by one of Aris’s fellow members, and instead followed their new team in Cyprus’ fifth tier of football, swapping packed stadiums of 20,000 people for ramshackle grounds and just 4-500 Gate 9 members.

The new club has since progressed to the second division, with eyes on returning again to the country’s top flight. Almost all of it has been organized by Gate 9’s members, in a stirring riposte to the hypercapitalist spectacle of football that you are used to seeing on television. On a Tuesday afternoon in Gate 9’s clubhouse, flanked by two fellow members, Aris explained the unique political climate of Cypriot sport, the power of militant organization, and why he believes another football is possible.

 

Calum Gordon: Gate 9 is known for being very political. Was it always like this?

 

Gate 9: After WWII, there was a civil war in Greece. Communists had fought against fascists – both locals, as well as the Nazis and the Italians – and won the fight. The occupiers left Greece, but local fascists – with the help of the British army – tried to bring back the old king and old political establishment from before WWII. They wanted to have political power, they didn’t want to leave the communists to rule. So they chased the communists with the help of American weapons, supplied by NATO, and the British.

 

In Cyprus, which has a very close relationship with Greece, it was a matter of time before the situation would reach us. At that point, all the athletic clubs had nationalist ideas – about the power of rich guys and the church and so on. So they pushed their athletes to sign a letter that said, “We are against the war of the communists, and we support the nationalist army. We condemn the communists,” even though they were the ones in Cyprus who fought for freedom. So Apoel Nicosia put forward this letter, and those who refused to sign it were kicked out of their teams, and told they could no longer be athletes for them.

 

It became necessary to create new teams, for all the people who had no athletic home – they needed to organize and have their own club. In 1948, Cypriot football and the athletic life of Cyprus became politicized. In turn, it birthed teams who were left-wing, and they made their own league. In 1953, the Cypriot federation understood that people had turned their back on their league and joined the left league, so they decided to let the left teams join their federation. So from the beginning of its life, Omonia was politicized and was meant to be a left team. So if Gate 9 are the hardcore fans of Omonia, and Omonia are a left team, Gate 9 members are hardcore leftists. It’s one of the pillars of why we exist.

Bad Company

CG: How active is Gate 9 in other areas of politics or daily life within Cyprus? Or is it mainly in the stadium?

 

G9: We are politicized, but we don’t belong to any political party. We believe football is a microcosm of society — and football is a way to introduce our ideas, and bring about what we want. But Gate 9 doesn’t exist just in the stadium. There’s political marches and demonstrations, against fascists, against police brutality, against political and economic crises, against corruption.

 

CG: I always think that Ultras groups are really powerful, because they already have an organized militant group of people. And in society today, there’s not enough organization, in a political sense. I think Ultras groups almost do it backwards – they organize first, and then they can decide the political moves that they want to make, rather than finding a political cause and then trying to organize around it. Do you believe that Ultras groups can cause real change?

 

G9: I can say that in my experience in Cyprus, we are the biggest antifascist actors on the island. We have the mechanics, we have the organization to fight against them. The government tried to impose a law during Covid that meant no demonstrations could take place. It was unfair for the general public, and it increased police power. It was a mess. So we made a demonstration. We had a committee, with all the other antifascist groups – mostly small groups – to decide what to do. We knew we could not accept this. It’s our right to demonstrate. The other groups said to us, “We want to announce you will be there,” because the people on the outside know our identity. And most importantly, they knew we could protect them, because there was a fear of the police, that they might attack innocent people. They were afraid.

 

We held the first demonstration. Around 2000 people, 800 of them were Gate 9. There was police brutality, one girl lost her eye from a water cannon. The next week, we called another demonstration, and there were around 10,000 people. It was the first time that many people had ever demonstrated in Cyprus – it had never happened before, not even when they closed the banks and people lost their money. Of the 10,000 around 1,000 were in Gate 9’s block, and people felt safe and secure, because they understood we could protect them.

 

So yes, fan groups can and must be one of the political groups who can fight for a better world. We believe we can create a new world. Maybe not now, but we can take small steps to make history for the next generation. Even though we can’t win [immediately], we must fight. And one day, we will win. 

 

CG: Can you explain a little bit about your role as capo, and why it’s important?

 

G9: This is my fifth year in a row as capo of Gate 9. It’s a big responsibility, and I feel it. It’s a role with a lot of responsibilities, a lot of stress… Within Gate 9, there are different groups in each city. And each group maybe has a different problem, with different enemies, different dangers. You have to know all of this, you have to speak with them. They need to feel that you are the person they can talk to about anything, and that you can help.

 

It’s a big responsibility, but to be fair, while the capo is like the leader, Gate 9 has a general committee, and this committee makes sure all of this work can be done correctly. So it’s not for the capo to dictate everything. Every year, we hold an election, where they elect the general committee of Gate 9, who then choose the capo. And every year we go and represent ourselves, our actions, and if our members are disappointed, they can say “That’s enough, we don’t want you to lead us.”

 

Another important thing is that the general committee and capo are not estranged from the people. You are born from Gate 9, you need to represent that – with who you are and what you do. You never run from trouble, or snitch. You are loyal. And through those actions, you go up and up [within the group]. Other [Ultras] groups, they have a good relationship with their club’s president, sometimes they’re on the payroll. Or the leaders are the guys who sell drugs, and have people to back them up. But real power is not one guy, it’s the group.

 

CG: In 2018, the club was sold to a US-based investor, which reconfigured the identity of the Omonia Nicosia, and led to Gate 9 abandoning the club. What led to this split?

 

G9: Omonia was traditionally always the biggest team in Cyprus, at one point with the most trophies. Then one president of Omonia started to sign big name players, with the biggest salaries in Cyprus, which eventually left Omonia bankrupt. From 2013 to 2018 the club was in its worst ever financial situation. One by one, the club’s presidents made the financial situation worse – they would take out loans against the next year’s season tickets and sponsorship. So the next president had even less resources, and this continued. It was a mountain to climb in the end. During this time, we would discuss how Omonia could not become a limited company with shareholders, because Omonia belongs to the people, who can create their own futures. If we claim we are socialists, how could we say shareholders can save us?

 

At the end of 2018, the club committee said we’ve found a Cypriot who lives in America. We don’t know him, but he has the money to make us a big team again. But we need to be sold, and become a limited company. They put a gun to our head: company or debt. We decided we needed to organize and put forward our own people to be voted for, [to run the club.] On the 2nd of May, we lost 15-0. Totally set up – as any new club members had to receive two signatures from existing members – and from there, we understood Omonia would be sold.

 

At that point, we had three paths: we could accept this, and lose the ideology and beliefs of the club. The other was to stay and fight. And then there was the option of creating a new team that represents what the athletes in 1948 did. We found ourselves in a similar position to those athletes. We couldn’t reject our ideals, our history. Our history is what makes Omonia great. So we decided to create a new team.

Bad Company

CG: Tell me about this process.

 

G9: We had to collect all the paperwork and sign it, find players, find the coach. It was unbelievable. We didn’t know where this path would lead, but we knew that we couldn’t do anything else – and if we couldn’t do it, nobody could. At that point it became very difficult, because the original Omonia – Omonia LTD – made a lot of trouble for us. They tried to reject our submission to the league, and to even create the club. But we found the resources to overcome it, and we started from the fifth division.

 

In March 2017, we had gone to a game, Omonia - Apoel, with 20,000 people in the stadium, and now we were going to villages for games, with only 400 or 500 of us. But these village teams were not our rivals, and so we had to find a way to explain to our people – especially the youngest people – why we left, and why they should support us. And we needed to find the motivation every Saturday to go to the game. Because I can’t hide from you the fact that it was very hard. We needed to find a way to love what we created, and it was very difficult. But we gradually understood that we are the owners, we have created this team — and we actually loved the team directly.

 

CG: Omonia LTD won the cup recently. Did you feel anything when that happened?

 

G9: I want to be realistic. We have different characters in our group. Some will say, “I don’t love Omonia LTD anymore, I hate them. I want to watch them destroy themselves and be able to say: I was right.” Others will say, “I hope they win the title. They made their decision, we’ve made ours. We don’t care.” Some people will say, “I love them both. I love Gate 9, I love PAC Omonia 29 May, but I also love the other Omonia.”

 

Personally, I don’t care about Omonia LTD. I can’t say I view them like Apoel, that I want to destroy them. But for example, they won the championship in 2021 for the first time in 11 years, and in the past, if we were there, we would have been drunk and naked, partying in the street. But when it happened, we watched it and then played Playstation in our clubhouse.

 

CG: I saw a banner linked to the founding of PAC Omonia 29 May which said, “Another football is possible.” I think that sentiment resonates with a lot of football fans, who maybe feel a little helpless about the amount of money involved in the game. Gate 9 has shown that this slogan rings true.

 

G9: We believe that football was created by the people, by the poor people, and stolen by the rich and the corporations. Modern football is all shiny, but not if you understand what is behind it — the betting companies, the sponsors, the contracts, all this money. Today, poor people watch rich guys play football, who’ll go from one team to another because they can pay a better salary. And the player won’t care if the new team is a rival. 

We believe football, and sport in general, is about passion. Football represents who you are, and it’s a vehicle for everything more. The trophies and achievements are OK, but the real pleasure is to belong somewhere, where your decisions actually play a role in your team… You are not a customer, but an owner. Those are two very different things.

 

This article was taken from issue 07 of WIP Magazine.

Bad Company

Bad Company