football for freedom

so much coverage around the so-called ‘beautiful game’ nowadays is centred around the darker sides – racism, avarice, and abuse. it’s impossible for many people nowadays to see football as much else other than an excuse for lads to drink heavily and beat their wives. these horrendous consequences aren’t caused by a sphere getting kicked around a pitch – they’re caused by the problems in society at large. but what if that very ball and its repercussions could instead be used to fix these problems?

it’s wednesday the 7th of november, 2012, and i’m nine years old, sat in the back seat of my dad’s volkswagen passat with my brother, listening to the radio. my dad and brother are football mad, always with stories about the places they’ve played and the people they’ve met, but it hasn’t quite got the same effect on me yet. but i hear something on the radio that’ll change that, if not now, then several years later. celtic have beaten barcelona two goals to one. my young self loves a contrarian, an underdog, and a giant killer. i proclaim that celtic are now the best team in the world. and ten years later, even coming off many european defeats, i have to admit i was right.

but celtic means much more to me now than relentless glory hunting. this year me and my parents made the 6 hour drive north to glasgow to watch the hoops take on hibernian – and the always rambunctious green brigade greeted us with flags of ireland, palestine and the international brigades of the spanish civil war. i would urge anyone who believes football is ‘just a game’ or even a negative force see the energy and solidarity on display from a true fan of the bhoys. any left-wing or internationally-minded football fan worth their salt can list off many supporters’ groups that have made a positive impact on their communities or the political world by and large: as livorno, aek athens, olympique de marseille, clapton cfc, easton cowboys and cowgirls - the list could carry on to 1,500 words by itself. admittedly, these groups are often in the headlines (where you’ll rarely hear about, for example, om fans’ feeding of disadvantaged local immigrants) for their violence – rage, perhaps misguided, calling to mind dr. martin luther king jr.’s words: riots are the language of the unheard. ultras descend on their stadiums in uniform colours, prepared for war – but this is equally often a war on poverty, inequality, and imperialism as it is hooliganism.

the problem of hooliganism reflects our society – pitting the proletariat against one another for seemingly arbitrary reasons of identity politics. can hooliganism be dealt with with increasingly draconian measures against innocent football fans any more than ‘violent’ protesters? facial recognition technology, police violence, and asbos are dished out against those that make the bold decision to wave flags and sing songs, whether that be at a stadium or in the streets. this is by no means an attempt to defend football violence or equate pointless infighting with the struggle for justice, rather a criticism of the way the police force is used as yet another tool of the state to invade and oppress communities. for many working people, going to the football is their only reprieve, their only opportunity for emotional release. what if we took more notice of this, and used our national game to foster the spirit of international revolution?

football is a force for unification and community building – it’s arguably the most accessible sport in the world. all you need is a ball, and you don’t even need that – cristiano ronaldo’s childhood comes to mind. as an oft-shared banner during the super league fiasco stated, football was created by the poor and stolen by the rich. why should football teams be reduced to investment pieces for figures like roman abramovich, stan kroenke, and the saudi arabian public investment fund? are the world cup and similar competitions an excuse for national chauvinism, or an opportunity for 3.5 billion fans to learn more about the different people and countries on this earth? it depends on who you ask and their opinion on the game, of course, and racism and xenophobia are undoubtedly issues amongst football fans, although arguably a true football fan would embrace the melting pot of cultures that allow the best players in the world to unite on a team – how could any chelsea fan, for example, have anything negative to say about black footballers? we all play, and love, the same game, and the importing and exporting of players should allow us to foster international solidarity and understanding – but a radical, anti-colonial perspective is required to understand the myriad reasons behind the opposite occurring, outside the boundaries of vague sloganeering against ‘hate’ and ‘ignorance’ proposed by corporate media like sky and bt. one only needs to consider the initial backlash, and consequent ignoring, of the africa cup of nations for daring to encroach upon the premier league to see that the colonial mentality still reigns supreme in discussion of international football.

but, like any good physician, having diagnosed these problems, it is now my duty to treat them. and the ‘beautiful game’ is on the operating table for some much-needed cosmetic surgery.

an important, radical, and oft-ignored notion due to its uncomfortable ideas are the root causes of the racism, homophobia, anti-semitism, sexism and all other kinds of bigotry that often reign in the stands. i’m a proud celtic supporter, but it would be amiss of me not to mention the problem of sectarianism in glaswegian football – while i wouldn’t go so far as to tar irish flags and songs of freedom as such, vile comments about protestants have no place in paradise, so much so as pope-bashing on the other side of the city. (after all, religious divides are just another means of keeping the irish or scottish people at war with one another instead of uniting against a common enemy) as aforementioned, this is often put down to working-class alcoholism, aggressivity, and ignorance – a classist stereotype that ignores the fact that the ‘prawn-sandwich brigade’ are just as likely to hold these views, simply expressed differently. while a punch or a racist insult undoubtedly hurts, the systematic oppression of racist governments and capitalists does far more insidious damage that can’t be fixed by a trip to a&e or blocking a social media account. what we need is a full dismantling and overthrow of the way the world is run – but while working at that goal, we can build awareness of our interconnectedness. we can work together for a brighter future, and this very working together will ensure the brighter future coming about. we can highlight the good sides of football and its fans – marcus rashford, for example, inspiring fans to become active and informed on the issues facing those neglected by the government of austerity. while we can never feed everyone out of our own pockets, we place pressure on those in charge – we know what you could do, and we’re taking it into our own hands. we’re demonstrating our own power.

my final suggestion is a blisteringly obvious one – all the power to the people. the fight between the owners and the fans is a class struggle like any other – between those who possess all the power, and those who have to live with the consequences of their decisions. the case of afc wimbledon and mk dons is a clear example of profiteers treating football clubs as commodities rather than community institutions. the only way to avoid things like this is by, like the ‘new’ afc wimbledon, promoting fan ownership. in what is essentially small-scale socialism, supporters can prevent shambolic projects like the super league from ever taking off – like in the bundesliga, where thanks to 50+1% fan ownership, no big club like bayern or dortmund were ever considering such a profiteering move. for our demands most moderate are, we only want the whole club. and we can start to take the world after we’ve got the entertainment sorted.

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