Political Soccer: A Global Phenomenon—Except Here

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This summer’s soccer World Cup—always the most-watched sporting event on the planet—in Brazil was accompanied by enormous demonstrations, at times violently repressed. Citizens protested the diversion of vast resources from urgent social needs to the building of hugely expensive stadiums, stadium-specific transportation systems and other amenities, and massive security measures, to meet the requirements of FIFA, the world governing body that runs the tournament. While this connection between sports and politics seems an unfamiliar stretch in view of the American landscape, the use of sporting events as venues for political expression is not completely alien to us: recent years have seen demonstrations outside big games against domestic violence and sweatshop abuse in the production of sports gear, among other issues. And the (ab)use of Native American-related monikers for team names and mascots, familiar to us locally in the Chief Illiniwek controversy, has been protested in front of the stadium homes of the Washington, D.C. football and Cleveland baseball teams.

But beyond our shores, and above all in the case of soccer, the games become not just an occasion for political expression, but something political in and of themselves. People’s identities are bound up with a team, passed on through generations—as sometimes happens here—but a team that is rooted in a city district, a class or religious/ethnic configuration, even a certain occupation. Fans of the opposing side become not just enemies in sport—bad enough when sports are taken seriously—but alien others, obstacles to an ideal society, to be eliminated.

Matches between national soccer teams, especially for qualification for the World Cup and other international tournaments, are the most recognizable magnets for conflicts based on (in this case, national) identity. Indeed, there are numerous examples of national sides becoming surrogates for struggles involving both symbolic and real social and economic issues. The most famous is the 1969 “Soccer War” between El Salvador and Honduras. A World Cup qualifying match spawned conflicts between fans and harassment of players, which culminated in a four-day war involving mutual air strikes and thousands of dead and wounded. A territorial dispute and tensions over the many migrant laborers from overcrowded El Salvador to more spacious Honduras constituted the powder that was primed to explode.

More recently, in November 2008, Slovakian police beat up Hungarian fans, who were provocatively chanting anti-Slovak and pro-Hungarian-expansionist slogans, at a Slovakian league game in a largely ethnic Hungarian town near the border between the two countries. Coming in the midst of heightened tensions over the substantial Hungarian ethnic minority in Slovakia, the incident led to demonstrations, flag-burnings and a diplomatic crisis. In 2009, a World Cup qualification match between Egypt and Algeria, followed by a tiebreaker match in Sudan between the same teams, spawned violence against both countries’ fans, as well as diplomatic tensions (here, too, longstanding grievances at the governmental level and resentments at the individual level played a role). And just weeks ago, a qualifying match for the Euro 2016 tournament between Serbia and Albania was abandoned after a drone bearing a flag representing greater Albania (a dream of Albanian nationalists, which would incorporate the disputed Kosovo and parts of Serbia proper) flew into the stadium, was grabbed by Serbian players, and defended by Albanian players, leading to a brawl.

The last few years have seen increasing media coverage of nationalist extremists, neo-Nazis and racists—in evidence in both the Slovakian and Serbian events—in and around European soccer stadiums. The Western press has largely painted this as an “Eastern European disease,” as in the BBC documentary about the last European championships, hosted jointly by Poland and Ukraine, entitled Euro 2012: Stadiums of Hate. The documentary highlights the abuse from the stands of black and brown players on the various national sides, and of fans. But Western European countries, especially England, Germany and Italy, have long had their share of skinheads, fascists and racists in the various “ultra” fan clubs, and among the hooligans that have dogged the sport, becoming a major social issue in the 1980s and ‘90s. Black Italian star Mario Balotelli has been subject to racist abuse, such as monkey calls and bananas thrown from the stands, in both Italy and Spain.

But it is at the level of club football, where clubs have become entwined with the identities of certain cities, districts of cities, ethnic communities, classes and even political positions, that the connection between soccer and politics becomes most visceral and intense. A textbook case is the storied rivalry between Celtic and Rangers, the two dominant teams in Scottish soccer. Celtic supporters tend to be Irish Catholic immigrants, and Rangers supporters Protestants, many of them with ties to Loyalists (supporters of British rule) in Northern Ireland. In Spain, Real Madrid has traditionally represented the cultural and political dominance of the central government, especially during the long dictatorship of Francisco Franco. FC Barcelona has from its founding in 1899 symbolized Catalan independence and resistance to the center; Atletico Bilbao has fulfilled a similar role for Basques. Although “Barca,” now one of the richest clubs in the world, celebrates that history of resistance at its lavish stadiumside museum, many argue that Franco propped up the club and the rivalry as a “safety valve,” to divert potential political opposition into passion for the team.

The political commitment of club supporters can lead to extra-local violence. In the Yugoslav wars of the early 1990s, the most brutal Serbian paramilitary commander, nicknamed Arkan, got his start as leader of the “Ultras” of Red Star Belgrade, and recruited his henchmen from the fan group. They “trained” at clashes at matches between Red Star and the Croatian team Dinamo Zagreb for the ethnic cleansing they would later execute against Croatians and Bosnian Muslims. But more positive roles are also possible: during the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt, the “ultras . . played a more significant role than any political group,” according to a prominent Egyptian blogger. Most active in defending the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square were the fans of the foremost Egyptian club Al Ahly, founded in 1907 explicitly as a center for anti-colonial resistance. Tragically, less than a year after the victory over the dictator Mubarak, Al Ahly’s fans were brutally attacked by fans of another team, El Masry, at a game in Port Said, with dozens killed and hundreds injured, as police idly stood by.

Less noted by history are the activities of local groups such as the Carsi of Besiktas (one of the three big teams in Istanbul, Turkey), who employ the “Anarchist A” and Che Guevara among their imagery, carry out left-wing social activities (including bolstering the extraordinary 2013 anti-government demonstrations), identify as anti-racist, anti-sexist (certainly unique in the macho world of men’s soccer) and ecologist, and responded to racist harassment of their team’s players with banners reading “We are all Black.” If, as claimed by soccer writer Phil Ball in his book on the Spanish game, “eleven men in shorts are the sword of the neighborhood, the city, or the nation,” the hundreds or thousands in fan clubs are the cannon fodder, too often for ill but sometimes for good. Here in the US, we may be glad that our sports violence is, for the most part, restricted to celebratory riots after championships (aside from the violence on the field, court or rink). But our culture that tends to divide sports and politics also makes us poorer, in both realms.

About Richard Esbenshade

12-year resident of Urbana, taught history for several years at UIUC, specializing in Eastern Europe; contract not renewed due to budget cuts, currently self-employed; longtime activist in peace/green/social justice/solidarity movements; father of two, including Public i alumna Shara.
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