Soccer versus the state



Book cover pic
The following is an interview recorded with PM Press's Gabriel Kuhn about the subject of his recently published book of the same title, that he will be talking about at the Dublin Anarchist Bookfair on Saturday 14th May, at Liberty Hall at 14:00. The interview was conducted by WSM member and avid Bohs fan, Ciaran M.


“The revolution will inevitably awaken in the British working class the deepest passions which have been diverted along artificial channels with the aid of football." Leon Trotsky.

1) Football comes in for much negative criticism from the left, mainly criticisms similar to Trotsky’s above, deriding it as cathartic and a distraction. Yet in recent years, we’ve seen iconic events like the “Football Revolution” in Iran, the Greek riots following the death of Alexandros Grigoropoulos, where Panathanaikos fans fought against the police side by side with Anarchists and the Al-Ahly Ultras in Egypt and their apparent hand in revolution there. How influential has football been in Rebellions and amongst the rebellious throughout history?

Football has been attracting the masses around the world for over a century. Where masses gather, the powerful lose control – unless we're talking about orchestrated mass gatherings, which are characteristic of fascist and authoritarian regimes. But this doesn't really work with football, since it is hard to orchestrate a football game. Football is too unpredictable.

Authoritarian regimes have always used the prestige that derives from football victories for political purposes, but they have had a hard time to use football as a general propaganda tool. The Nazis abandoned national encounters altogether after an embarrassing loss to Sweden in Berlin in 1942. And it is not only the game that is unpredictable. So are football crowds. You never know which direction their desires might take. There is always a potential for rebellion – unfortunately, there is also always a potential for reactionary celebrations of the status quo. Neither football nor football fans are rebellious per se. We have radical supporters, we have fascist supporters; we have football teams that spur nationalism, we have football teams that spur international solidarity. At the right moments, the rebellious side comes through, as in the examples you mentioned and in many others: long before the current uprising in Libya, the terraces of Libyan football stadiums turned into spaces of dissent whenever Gadaffi-favoured teams were playing; in the 1980s, Polish workers made regular use of football stadiums to express support for the then illegal trade union Solidarność; in fact, the very first steps to regulate the game of football in the early 19th century was caused by regular antiauthoritarian riots in connection with the inter-village football games at the time.

Football does have the cathartic and distracting dimensions that many leftists deride, no doubt. But it also has a subversive dimension. The challenge for radical football-loving activists is to fuel the latter.

2) I’ve read about football’s spread from England across continental Europe through the export of labour in the late 19th and early 20th Century and how football shirts of teams on the continent can often be traced back to workers from English towns and their teams. Did you come across much of this, or across any teams founded by unions / socialists or anarchist workers?

The fact that many teams on the European continent were founded by Englishmen is not only reflected in the club's colours, but also in their names: AC Milan, Athletic Bilbao, and the First Vienna FC are only some examples. The pattern even extends beyond Europe to clubs such as Argentina's Newell's Old Boys or Uruguay's Montevideo Wanderers.

Although many of the English-named clubs were founded by English businessmen, the international spread of football was very much connected to migrant workers. Where the British established themselves as the main colonial power – in North America, Oceania, and South Asia – they also managed to establish the sports preferred by the establishment, namely rugby and cricket (which, in North America, turned into baseball and American football). Where British migration was mainly labour-related, football was the clear number one.

The question of whether football was originally a working-class sport is a tricky one to answer, as capitalist interests have always been involved. But it has certainly been the working-class that has carried the game, being responsible for its worldwide popularity.

The question about clubs founded by socialists allows for an interesting observation regarding the left's historical relationship with football. This relationship has always been ambivalent. While there was strong objection to football by those who mainly saw it as an opiate of the masses, there were also socialists who early on saw football's potential for working-class organizing. Football clubs provided the possibility for workers to gather outside the workplace, to self-organize, and to gain self-esteem – all necessary components for working-class resistance.

This tendency was probably strongest in Argentina where the early 20th century saw the foundation of clubs like Mártires de Chicago (1904; later Argentinos Juniors, Diego Maradona's first professional team), Chacarita Juniors (1906), and El Porvenir (1915). Also in this case, the club's colours sometimes recall the origins. The Chacarita Juniors, founded on May 1 in an anarchist library, are still playing in red-and-black!

In general, though, the colours of today's football clubs are only vague indicators for their political past. The heritage is probably most pronounced in Britain, where red continues to indicate working-class roots, and green Catholic/Irish heritage.

3) Bill Shankly once said “The socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That's how I see football, that's how I see life." Are their many characters like Shankly or professed socialists like Brian Clough left in the game or has capitalism done succeeded in nullifying the growth of characters like them?

Folks like Shankly and Clough have always been in the minority. There have been few outspoken socialist managers in the history of professional football. And even their legacy is often tainted. Clough, for example, was a blatant racist and homophobe. It is true, though, that it seems even less likely today to find managers of this such who profess to socialist politics – although folks like Alex Ferguson do, for whatever it's worth.

One obvious problem is that the world of professional football is so saturated with money and the notion of success that it is simply difficult to remain credible as a socialist. Ferguson is a case in point, I believe. Even if you hold on to your ideals, you certainly have to make a lot of compromises – which will eventually compromise your ideals too.

Of course most of those who have strong ideals will never reach the position of an Alex Ferguson to begin with. Not necessarily because of a lack of knowledge or skill, but because the world of professional football is too rough, too competitive, and too greedy for most politically aware folks. Even if they love football and pursue a professional career, they are more likely to be cut or to give up themselves than players who see no problem in having corporate logos splashed across their chests, in earning more money in a year than entire working-class families in a lifetime, and in being expected to "fight" in order to "beat" their opponents. That's why you find many socialists drawn to today's DIY football underground that is documented in one of the main chapters of Soccer vs. the State.

4) Politically, there has been an interesting dichotomy between the rising influence of capitalism in football and the strike back against it.  The “Spirit of Shankly” group fought against the ownership of Liverpool by Tom Hicks and George Gillett and Wimbledon fans fought (and won) the rights to ownership of their teams name after the teams owners sought to relocate their team 90 KM away from its home. These are just two examples of the fight against the capitalist destruction of the ideals of the sport. Is this something that is happening worldwide?

Absolutely, you have these tendencies everywhere. One of the interesting aspects of football is the fact that, historically, clubs weren't corporations but community organizations. There was often a strong personal link between players and supporters, even on the highest level. This was still apparent in the 1970s. Malmö FF played in the 1979 European Cup Final with ten players born in the town itself – a town of 300.000 people. This is unthinkable today. It also leaves many supporters who try to regain a sense of community frustrated. You don't have to be left-wing to feel that way.

I should add, though, that these sentiments are not without their problems, as any glorification of the past has its conservative implications, but football supporters' anti-corporate stances should be inspiring for any left-wing activist.

5) The global spread of Sky Sports has certainly contributed to this: that many teams have become brands rather than what they used to be – local teams supported mainly by local fans. Their has been a backlash against this with many teams having armies of “armchair” fans, disenchanting many “local” football supporters and leaving space for teams like FC United of Manchester. Is this something we can expect to see more in football?

I believe so. Again, the community aspect of football has been one of the backbones of its popularity, and there remain many supporters who embrace it. At the same time, we can't ignore the fact that many people buy into brands – literally. "Modern football" sells. On a global scale, the popularity of the game has further increased over the last twenty years, not least due to cable TV, celebrity culture, and brand identity. People are trained to be consumers, whether that relates to Nike sneakers or Manchester United jerseys.

We must not forget, however, that we can't condemn all the consequences of modern football. Romanticizing the "pure" working-class past of football is not only false because such purity never existed, it also means romanticizing a time when terraces were almost exclusively male and white. Today, football audiences have become more diverse. Traditionalism, no matter the context, is hardly a left-wing value. Change and development belong to progressive politics, and there is no problem with things changing and developing. The question is how things change and develop. And this is where modern football has a lot to answer for, as it has created not only an unsavoury commercial spectacle but also new forms of exclusion, mainly along economic lines. It has also created a difficult situation for the thousands of professional footballers who are not part of the limelight: the vast majority of today's professionals do not earn millions of euros a year; they rather live precarious lives with a complete lack of economic. This is particularly pronounced in the case of football migrants from Africa whose European residency permits are often handled by their clubs. Effectively, this makes them modern-day bondsmen. In other words, the workers' side of the coin – meaning unionization and so on – has not kept up with the professional formation of the game. Modern football exemplifies all that neoliberalism stands for. And it's not a pretty sight!

Understandably, realities like these drive politically aware fans away from the game. My prediction for the future is that we will see the deepening of an already apparent rift between the professional, commercialized game and the abovementioned DIY football underground.

6) While the interest of this interview is obviously going to lean towards the left wing elements of football, there is an obvious right wing element, not least with Berlusconi’s ownership of Milan. Would you say his interest is merely profit driven or does he play on the team in the same way he harnessed the idealism and imagery of “Forza Italia?” How right wing are the structures that govern the sport?

I think we are dealing with two phenomena when we speak of the right-wing dimensions of football. One is the capitalist structure itself. As I tried to point out, modern football is part of the neoliberal enterprise and the right-wing agenda of individualism, competition, free market economy, etc. The other phenomenon is the direct involvement of right-wing politicians and organizations in football.

As stated above, football is powerful because it attracts the masses. Hence, it is attractive for politicians who try to benefit from football's popularity and who exploit the game for their own interests. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't. For Berlusconi, it works because Milan is successful. If this wasn't the case, the outcome might be very different.

The motivations for the involvement of right-wing politicians in football are complex. Some might do it for political purposes. Some might be interested in financial profits. And some might simply like football – unfortunately, the game attracts all sorts of people.

7) While the structures that govern the sport may be right wing, would you agree with the idea that stadiums themselves are social spaces where anti- establishment politics thrive?

Absolutely. Football terraces are among the public spaces that are the hardest to control for authoritarian regimes. Individuals become relatively anonymous, there is a certain sense of chaos, and the dynamics of passionate crowds are always threatening. History provides many examples for protest in football stadiums that would have been impossible otherwise. Catalan and Basque stadiums during the Franco regime are probably the best examples; others include Austrian football grounds during the annexation by Nazi Germany and Ukrainian stadiums at the times of the Soviet Union.

8) Would you say football has been a good way of building international solidarity? I know offhand about the “Alerta” network of Celtic / St. Pauli / Livorno / Athletic Bilbao /Hapoel Ultras (amongst others) and their stand against fascism and racism.

I think that this is one of the most intriguing aspects of football and one of the most underrated by left-wing critics. In left-wing circles, there is often a strong focus on the nationalism that football generates. Of course this is a problem. Yet even at the most contested international tournaments, like the World Cup or the European Championships, the number of fans who socialize and make friends with fans from other countries far outweighs the number of those who seek trouble. Football is indeed an "international language" and one of the most effective – and healthy! – social icebreakers. No matter where in the world you are, if you join a pick-up game, or even just discuss football, the result might easily be long-lasting relationships – and, in any case, you will leave with the experience of having connected with strangers.

Networks like Alerta are just the most obvious and organized expressions of this. They also fit the worldwide connections of grassroots football teams, which allow the Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls from Bristol to tour Palestine and Chiapas, and the Autônomos FC from São Paulo to develop a tight bond with the FC Vova from Vilnius. Needless to say, such connections open up many possibilities for effective international activism.

9) Ultra and casual cultures are much derided in the mindset of many. And yet Ultra culture goes hand in hand with Anti-Fascism in many countries. How much of this did you come across in writing the book?

The politics of football supporters are of course a crucial part of the book. I'd distinguish between Ultras and casuals, though. The latter are more of a subculture that developed around football with members who often have little to say about the game itself. With Ultra groups it's different. Football really is the heart of most Ultras' lives, they are passionate about the sport, they want to be recognized as an active part of it, and they try to influence its course. Ultra culture has also become a global phenomenon, while the casuals have largely been confined to Britain.

Ironically, most Ultra groups are decidedly "apolitical", which basically means they don't want to subscribe to a particular ideology or to be affiliated with any party or other political interest group. This has good and bad consequences. The good ones are that it's hard for right-wing extremists to infiltrate them. The bad ones are that Ultras do not take explicitly left-wing stances – except for the few that are decidedly antifascist, but those are a minority. Fortunately enough, the decidedly right-wing Ultra groups are a minority too.

Most Ultra groups carry elements that veer both to the left and to the right of the political spectrum. On the left, we have a deep mistrust of police and institutional authority, a critique of corporate capitalism, an emphasis on creative expression, and a sense of self-organization and self-determination; on the right, we have traditionalism, territorialism, a rigid notion of loyalty, and internal hierarchies. For activists, this ambiguity is a challenge. It is wrong to claim Ultra culture as radical – however, there is radical potential. In order to strengthen it, we need to build solid connections. As Gerd Dembowski, spokesperson for BAFF, the German "Alliance of Active Football Fans", says in his interview in Soccer vs. the State, it has become mandatory for activists to establish close ties with Ultra groups if they want to maintain an influence on football supporter culture in general.

10) Fascist dominated Ultras groups often support a different team from the same city. Is the divide easy to distinguish in many places?

Usually, it is. I mean, the symbols and slogans are pretty clear. It is notable, though, that political alliances can shift. In some cities, of course, the boundaries are rather clearly drawn. In Hamburg, for example, it is near impossible for right-wingers to organize around the FC St. Pauli, and so the Hamburger SV becomes their natural outlet. However, there is left-wing organizing at the Hamburger SV, too. In Munich, 1860 has been the traditional darling of the left with its working-class roots and close ties to St. Pauli. Yet, in recent years one of the most progressive Ultra groups in the Bundesliga, the Schickeria, has formed among Bayern Munich supporters. In England, the Chelsea fan base has significantly shifted from the strong right-wing currents of the 1980s. In Milan, left-wing support has in a sense always gone back and forth between Inter and AC – the latter still having some explicitly left-wing supporters despite the Berlusconi presidency. In Madrid, Real counts as Franco's former darling, yet, today, Atlético has the more explicit neo-fascist supporters. So while there are certain historical trajectories, there is always politically contested space. This also means that there is always a chance for radical fans to make a difference!

11) Last year, the English FA tried to get ten volunteers for and advertisement campaign against homophobia in Football. Not one volunteer came forward. This year, there was the much publicized sacking of two sports commentators over their comments about a lineswoman. Are Sexism and Racism rife in football? Have you come across many teams such as St. Pauli (whose Ultras have their own women’s section) to boot “isms” out of the game?

Racism, sexism, and homophobia have been intrinsic parts of football culture for a good century. A lot has changed in the last twenty years, partly because of grassroots initiatives within the football world and partly because of general social developments. Also football associations have jumped on the bandwagon with various, at least nominal, campaigns against racism and sexism – homophobia still seems to be the most difficult issue to tackle. In any case, it takes time to overcome deeply rooted prejudice. There is still a lot of bias in the football world towards men who don't fit the prevalent norms of masculinity. Racism rears its ugly head time and time again, and anti-Semitism is rampant whenever teams with Jewish roots, like Ajax Amsterdam or MTK Budapest, take the field. A lot remains to be done to really make a fundamental change.

Homophobic prejudices are perhaps most pronounced. It is extremely difficult to be openly gay in the world of football, at least for male players – female players are often assumed to be lesbian anyway, so it is perhaps easier to accept when they actually are. Overall, the fight against homophobia has been very painful. The story of Justin Fashanu, the first professional player to come out in 1990, is very tragic. As we know, it ended with Fashanu's suicide in the US in 1998. Soccer vs. the State includes a moving piece about the gay Dutch referee John Blankenstein, who dedicated a lot of his time and energy to fighting homophobia, which included fighting personal abuse and discrimination.

There have been interesting developments recently in Sweden, where I live. The cover story of the February 2011 issue of Offside, an outstanding Swedish football magazine, was dedicated to Anton Hysén, Sweden's first gay player to come out. Anton is the son of Glenn Hysén, who was one of Sweden's most prominent players of the 1980s, which adds another interesting layer to the story. The immediate response to the interview has been very positive and we can only hope that it helps change attitudes towards gay footballers in Sweden and beyond!

12) You had a brief flirtation with a semi- professional career and yet turned your back on playing the game for a life in academics and politics. Did you come across racism and homophobia in the game? Did anything spur you to make that choice to quit?

Homophobia defined the football culture I grew up in. It was much more than something "you'd come across". I don't think I went through a single training session without someone being called a "faggot" for a missed tackle or a botched pass. Being a faggot was basically the antidote to being a footballer. To be a gay footballer was hence by definition impossible. Unfortunately, this is an attitude that many famous managers and players have held throughout their careers.

Sexist and racist comments, mainly in the form of "jokes", were also an everyday part of my experience. However, this only played a small role in my decision to quit. I found there were ways to challenge these patterns, to throw others off by questioning the "fun" they engaged in, and to make a difference, even if tiny. What bothered me more were the authoritarian structures of the clubs, the intrigues and power games, the lack of personal support for players and their treatment as mere assets, the haggling over salaries and transfer sums, and the influence of owners and sponsors on a game they knew nothing about. In short, it just became an unpleasant environment to be in on a daily basis. And there were personal reasons, too. I simply wanted to have more time for studying, activism, and travelling. The only thing that might have kept me going at the age of nineteen would have been a first league contract. But I wasn't offered one, and since then I've been playing football for nothing but the fun.

13) One of my favourite quotations on the game comes from Albert Camus: "All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football." As a last question, I’ll ask you your favourite!

I think I'd have to go with the German comedian Klaus Hansen who said: "Football is like democracy: twenty-two people play and millions watch." It might sound like a condemnation of the game. But I see it as a call to action!