This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.
A small group of kids stand along the sidelines of a local football club in the Belgian town of Lanaken. But they're not watching the game – their eyes are fixed on the stands, where a slightly older group of kids, aged 11 to 16, are making a racket. They're lighting fireworks, banging a drum and jumping up and down, yelling songs about their club, Lanaken VV.
Say hello to Lanaken Youth, Europe's youngest ultras.
Lanaken VV doesn't play at national level – on the contrary: they hover somewhere close to the bottom of Belgium's amateur football rankings. But these kids don't care. They light flares, scream through megaphones and wear their own "Lanaken Ultras" branded T-shirts. They also turn every home game into a party.
After stumbling across their Instagram account last December, I messaged the group asking if I could tag along to a game. They loved the idea, and suggested I come in January, when they were planning to "pull off something sick".
On game day, the Lanaken VV carpark is overflowing, spilling out onto nearby patches of grass. Inside the clubhouse, people of all ages are hanging out together. But the boys from Lanaken Youth are already in the stands. "Look out, those kids are real fanatics," an older man warns me.
But I'm greeted by three boys with big smiles. They introduce themselves as Doriano, Dante and Diaz. Doriano is 16, and considered the leader of the group. "We're waiting on a few more guys – there'll probably be around ten of us," he says. The rest of the boys show up, dressed in dark hoodies, masks and trainers – just like their older European ultra counterparts. A group shirt, with a Fred Perry logo on it, has been draped over the front of the stands.
While the other boys keep busy preparing the drums and fireworks, Doriano explains that the group was inspired by the famously fanatical supporters of nearby team, KRC Genk. The three boys wanted to create something similar with their friends. "Shouting, being a little crazy, that's how we are," says Dante. "We like that."
Lanaken Youth doesn't have any rivals; no other group at the amateur level is this fanatical in Belgium.
The kids put a lot of work into the games, including making their own banners. They also pay for their own paint, megaphones and fireworks by washing dishes. The drum was free, after they put an ad in the local newspaper. So far, their biggest stunt at a game has been lighting a bunch of flares at once. "Everyone in Lanaken was talking about it," says Doriano.
It's time for the players to enter the field. "Chaos!" yells Diaz. Fireworks and flares go off, as the others scream: "We are from Lanaken!" through the megaphones at deafening volume.
As the game gets started, Diaz and another boy in a clown mask continue to yell through the megaphones. On the other side of the field, older club members and Lanaken VV supporters are peacefully watching the game.
"I'm losing my voice! Can somebody go grab some water?" Dante asks after a while. One of the boys legs it to the club house. Opponents FC Racing Boxberg take the lead with an early goal, but the boys seem completely unperturbed. Soon, they’re in the middle of their signature "We are from Lanaken!" cheer when their team scores an equaliser. The group goes crazy, especially Diaz, who runs around like he’s on fire. Someone lights more fireworks.
As the game continues, kids outside the group look at Lanaken Youth in envy. "What they do is beautiful. It's why I'm at the game," says a kid named Sam – not yet 11 – who was rejected by the group for being too young. "They’re very strict. Maybe I’ll be allowed to join later. But I'm not mad. They're cool guys."
Near the end of the first half, a wave of joy ripples through the group. Jay, an 11-year-old who is clearly a Lanaken Youth favourite, has arrived. Breathless, he explains he had to have dinner with his family, then starts raving to the beat of the drum. The father of Lanaken VV’s emergency goalie walks up to the bleachers. "Nice, isn't it?" he says. "They bring the atmosphere and fireworks."
Eventually, the score hits 3-3. Then Lanaken VV gets a free kick during stoppage time. "If this one goes in, man!" says Diaz. They get it. Lanaken Youth run onto the field, screaming. They’re hugging each other and singing and screaming through megaphones.
After the game, the Lanaken VV players thank the group repeatedly for their support. "These guys are always ready with fireworks," says one of the players. "They're great." Lanaken Youth tags along to the players’ changing room to party. They start singing a few songs and the players join in: "Lanaken VV olé olé!"
While the players turn up the volume on the speakers and start cracking open beers, the Lanaken Youth members head back to the stands to clean up. "Thanks for stopping by," says Dariano, and I thank the guys for a great time. Lanaken Youth is small in many ways, but their vibe is huge.
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