FEVER PITCH: FOOTBALL CAN BE A FORCE FOR RADICAL CHANGE, RATHER THAN A HINDRANCE

by Jack Brindelli

This, my latest contribution to the Norwich Radical, was all but written an hour before I finally submitted it. My sermon on the overlooked politics of football fandom was signed sealed and on the brink of being delivered. I already had plenty to talk about. It’s been a long month of big themes in the footballing world. Over the course of February, the Beautiful Game has been at the centre of almost every kind of debate there is to be had — and it has popularised these debates in a way that most of us laptop radicals could only dream of.

First, there was uproar when man of the people, Premier League chairman Richard Scudamore poo-pooed the idea clubs should pay their employees a living wage in the wake of a record £5.1billion television deal — at which point Labour leader Ed Miliband literally missed an open goal to popularise his party’s campaign for a living wage, in an election year. Then there was the moment Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrated a goal for Paris Saint Germain tore off his jersey to reveal 50 tattoos, later revealed to be names of people suffering from hunger throughout the world in a bid to raise awareness about global inequality — proving he has a conscience to match his not-so-starved ego in the process.  And then of course there were infamous incidents involving Chelsea fans barring a black man from riding the tube in Paris — and of West Ham fans mocking the disabled, reported by TV pundit Kevin Kilbane — provoking widespread condemnation, not least from football fans themselves.

On that point, even on the ‘Left’ we often overlook those fans involved in organic political initiatives, as I pointed out writing for Counterfire during the 2014 World Cup. Certainly, there are bad people who happen to be football fans — but the potential for collective identity and action within the football community can undeniably be just as much a force for good ­— and we ignore that at our own peril as radicals.

Whilst, clearly, there is a problem with violence in Greek football, a blanket ban seems to imagine the sport taking place in a contextless vacuum, where men and women just decide to hate each other for fun.

And that’s where I was planning to end, until I heard the news that Syriza had imposed an indefinite blanket suspension on league football in Greece, following fan violence in a particularly stormy Athens derby. It’s enraging to see the most radical European government in my lifetime succumb so quickly to the kind of un-nuanced, ham-fisted hammering of football so soon after their election.

Whilst, clearly, there is a problem with violence in Greek football, a blanket ban seems to imagine the sport taking place in a contextless vacuum, where men and women just decide to hate each other for fun. However, the case of the ‘derby of eternal enemies’ between fierce rivals Olympiakos and Panathanaikos is particularly intriguing because it’s a battle forged historically along class lines. The clubs are the two sides of the city’s wealth divide — Panathanaikos being the traditional club of Greece’s high society, whilst Olympiakos the traditional working class. It’s intriguing then, at a time when Greek society is more divided along those lines than perhaps ever before, that when such fury erupts on the terraces, in a week when Syriza has beaten a big retreat from its radical economic promises to placate EU debt-collectors, the government should label football fans unanimously as ‘trouble’, rather than seek to mend the social divisions that the Athens derby reflects.

The indefinite suspension is not so much treating symptoms over the disease as it is putting a band-aid on a brain tumour. It’s vaguely (though not identically) comparable to the Auld Firm derby in Glasgow, where the left-leaning Catholic immigrant club Celtic face the loyalist conservative Rangers (or Sevco, depending on who you ask). One club embodies the politics of liberation, freedom, anti-imperialism, the other of an established order of terror and exploitation — and resultantly, there have been numerous incidents where the two groups have clashed.

“The indefinite suspension is not so much treating
symptoms over the disease as it is putting a
band-aid on a brain tumour.”

(© Independent)

The Scottish government has subsequently banned any chants, banners and language it deems ‘sectarian’; banning Rangers fans from singing about being “knee-deep in Fenian blood”, but also introducing a blanket ban on signifiers of the struggle for a free and united Ireland amongst Celts. Rather than attempting to address the tyrannical legacy of Britain in Ireland and Scotland, and the resulting institutionalised disparity that still scars both countries, ‘6 of one, half a dozen of the other’ rules the day, and ordinary people singing songs of freedom and equality are treated as if they are inciting racial violence.

In this manner, football fans at best are discussed as a homogenously ignorant group, who can be taught to behave better without seeking to change the society they are part of. Fans are often talked about like passive agents of idiocy, portrayed as ideological stooges, happy to become trumpeting vessels for whichever venomous and backward belief closest to hand — ignoring the millions across the world who use football as a means to organise within their community in the name of tolerance and progress. This ideological assumption is so insidious it even means that elements of the established left have taken to decrying the sport as a whole.

George Orwell’s famous quote from 1984 springs to mind — ‘films, football, beer and above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult.’

“This ideological assumption is so insidious it
even means that elements of the established left
have taken to decrying the sport as a whole.”

In this case ‘leftist intellects’ have lined up alongside agents of the establishment and smugly sniped at the billions engaged with the game, labelling them as little more than two-legged cattle, too distracted by ‘petty pleasures’ to improve themselves or society, much like the Coliseum-goers of Ancient Rome. If you really want to help them, the theory goes — disengage them from the game. And wean them off beer, drugs, dancing, and fun whilst you’re at it.

(© Yorgos Karahalis/Reuters)

Of course, I’m being slightly hyperbolic, but considering the shocking, Alan Hansen-esque analysis currently ‘informing’ even leftist conceptions of the sport, I feel completely justified in doing so. We ignore social historical precedents to our detriment!

Where does all this leave us then? An outright suspension on football completely misses the point on the duality of the game and its fans, or their ability to organise for themselves to overcome the problems the game, and society face as a whole. Certainly, in an emergency, a ban prevents a few bad eggs, short term, from finding an excuse to fight — but they’ll find other venues soon enough, and ones where their ignorance is not so easily overwhelmed by the mass of ordinary supporters.

In the long term, Syriza’s ban, like the SNP’s policy in Scotland, capitulates to the ruling class narrative that all working class culture can be changed without the need for institutional upheaval. It robs millions of fans, like the Alerta network, like the Proud Canaries, like the Show Racism the Red Card campaigners the opportunity to organise at the grassroots, and introduce millions more to progressive ideas. In a world in desperate need of change, abandoning the match for top down enforcement of ‘tolerance’ amid continued inequality will not cut it — we can only achieve a better world by remaining on the pitch, and building from the grass-roots, up.

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