The 5 most intense football matches of all time
As chosen by award-winning football writer James Montague.
James Montague isn’t your average football fan.
Having developed a taste for the terraces from solo visits to West Ham games as a 14-year-old, he’s spent the past 15 years travelling to some of the world’s most explosive matches – a kind of Phileas Fogg with flares.
It took him more than 80 days to write his latest book, 1312: Among the Ultras, which sees him visiting 25 countries across the globe in order to meet some of the most hardcore – and often dangerous – supporters in world football.
You’ll have seen the ultras behind the goals at games in Italy, Germany and South America, usually waving flags, often focusing more on orchestrating an atmosphere than what’s happening in the game going on in front of them.
Ultras are full-time fans and, under extreme circumstances, part-time soldiers – not just in the fight for supremacy in their towns and cities but in some of the most significant political events of recent times. They were instrumental in the Arab Spring, the 2014 Ukrainian revolution and the anti-referendum protests in Macedonia. Clearly we’re not talking about Crystal Palace’s Holmesdale Fanatics here.
“Hooligans are addicted to violence and ultras are organised, hierarchical activists,” Montague explains to Shortlist over a pint in a King’s Cross pub. “There is some crossover, don't get me wrong, but there's no other message than just supremacy when it comes to hooliganism. It's nihilistic – that's it. Ultras can create things, change things, pressure things. It's a different beast.”
With the launch of 1312, Shortlist sat down with the two-time winner of the Best Football Book at the Sports Book Awards to talk about five of the most intense games on the planet.
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1. Persija vs PSS Sleman
“I felt very lucky to survive Indonesia to be honest – it was insane. The hatred that runs deep within Indonesian club rivalries means that just taking a coach to a pre-season tournament past the territory of your hated rival means you're fair game to be attacked. There was a transport mix up so we ended up getting kicked off our coach near Bandung and the next thing I know there's two groups of guys with machetes chasing us down the highway.
“It was just a very intense matchday experience. It was absolutely packed, it was raining and we were all getting crushed trying to get into the stadium. Everybody just brushed it off: "Oh yeah this happens all the time," but it felt like I’d almost been caught in a stadium tragedy. Guys chasing you down the road with machetes though? It doesn't get much more intense than that.”
2. Egypt vs Algeria
“This game has all sorts of history and the qualifier for the 2010 World Cup was absolutely fucking nuts. When they’d met in 1989, Algeria’s main player had ended up with an Interpol Red Notice after he glassed the Egyptian team doctor and caused him to lose an eye. So you have all that, plus there’s this really poisonous atmosphere in Cairo as the dictatorship falters – the lack of freedom was palpable even as a white westerner.
“Having arrived at midday for an eight o’clock kick-off because they’d printed twice as many tickets, I was in with the fans in the North stand. Egypt scored almost straight away and it became one of the worst games of football you've ever seen. They scored again in the 96th minute and I've never been in the middle of a crowd like that. It was fucking crazy. Outside there were riots, people burning cars – and they were happy! Imagine if they'd lost!”
3. Libya vs Zambia
“I'd been following the Libyan national team when the civil war was going on and to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations in 2012 they had to either win or get a draw against Zambia and hope other results went their way. The game itself was 0-0 but the fans in Zambia were great: everybody was painted, there was a great band in the crowd, full stadium, no hint of violence. It was wonderful.
“A lot of the Libyan players had come back from fighting on the frontline because the government had fallen, but Gaddafi hadn't been caught yet. This one guy in particular had been firing a machine gun at pro-government forces in Misrata two weeks before but on that day he was a starting midfielder for the Libyan national team.
“They let me in the dressing room afterwards while we waited on the other result. I remember sitting there silently in this tiny little cinder dressing room with everybody sweating their bollocks off waiting for the news. Then the kit man comes in and he shouts that Guinea had won and there was just this explosion of joy.”
4. Crvena Zvezda vs Partizan
“I've probably been to the Eternal Derby more than any other and it is magnificent. I usually watch from the press area but last year a friend took me into the Partizan end. There's an internal war going on between four or five different Partizan ultras groups, so once we were standing outside the ground we had to choose a faction. The entrance we picked would mean we were immediately hated by the others. We chose the main one.
“I'm used to people throwing flares and shouting from the other side of the ground but we had guys on the other side of the fence, who are supposedly on our side, screaming at us, necks bulging.
“Partizan were winning until the 80-something minute when Milan Pavkov scored the equaliser for Red Star. I don't think Partizan have won there in about 20 years. Would all these guys suddenly have got on if they'd won? It would have been fascinating.”
5. Atalanta vs Brescia
“If you want to see a true ultras experience you still go to Italy and Atalanta is the heart. Their ultras group, run by Il Bocia, is the platonic ideal of what ultras should be – it hasn't been poisoned by far-right politics or organised crime. And this could be their season – the team are great to watch and they're scoring goals for fun.
“Brescia are Atalanta’s main rivals and the history behind it is incredible but they play each other very rarely. When they met earlier this season the ultras from both sides boycotted it because of the ID cards the authorities have introduced for away fans, so you end up having what is a once in a generation match and the ultras don't turn up for it.”
1312: Among the Ultras – A Journey with the World’s Most Extreme Fans by James Montague is out now and published by Ebury.
Main image copyright: Vladimir Zivojinovic