By Jack Beville.
A common theme within discussions and debate surrounding sport and, in particular, football is the notion that politics and sport should be kept separate. In footballing conversation, especially online, this idea seems to crop up whenever the fanbase of an English club uses their platform as a mass voice to express their political views and beliefs.
The idea that football and politics should be kept separate and that football should not be politicised, however, is wholly inconsistent with both the roots of the game itself and the life experiences and socio-economic circumstances of football fans themselves — the majority of whom are working class.
Make no mistake, the basis for the claim that football and politics should be separate affairs serves only to compound the inherently flawed proposition that politics is a game solely for the elite to participate in — one in which working-class people are kept on the sideline.
The Working-Class Game
English football is rooted in working-class culture and has spread across the country from within working-class communities. The birth of the football league took place in, predominantly, north-western towns which saw their populations grow substantially in the late 19th century as a result of men moving to get jobs working in mills.
Towns such as Preston, Blackburn, Accrington and Bolton, and the workers that lived in these towns, lit a footballing flame that eventually became a wildfire engulfing the entire country, one that still burns today.
Regardless of the modern-day capitalisation of upper-tier football, particularly with the commercialisation and commodification of Europe’s ‘big five’ leagues, it remains that the foundations of football were laid by working-class communities and workers.
Football is a working-class sport with a working-class fanbase, but why is this relevant? Anybody engaged with the politics of the past or the present will recognise that those hit hardest by political decision-making, for example the austerity measures introduced following the 2008 global financial crisis, are working-class communities.
What football fan culture allows these working-class communities is the opportunity for collective class solidarity.
The intrinsic nature of the football fanbase fosters both solidarity and community, and therefore a channel through which working-class communities can harness the collective power to voice their political views.
Though this is not, as we will see, a quality exclusive to British football, Leon Trotsky (admittedly a fairly divisive figure amongst members of the left to say the least) in his 1925 work Where Is Britain Going? noted that it would be in ‘artificial channels’ such as football that ‘the revolution will inevitably awaken in the British working class’.
For the working class, football is not just a game, it is a vehicle and a catalyst for societal change — it is on these grounds that the relationship between football and socialism has blossomed.
Liverpool, Celtic, and Socialism
If Newton’s third law of motion, that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, can be applied to social and political matters as well as physics, then it is no surprise that in Merseyside we find a city that has historically championed socialist views as a result of the ways in which Conservative governments have historically, and intentionally, neglected the city.
The 1980s in Liverpool were politically characterised by the city’s hostility towards Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government, and the tragedy of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, in which 96 fans lost their lives.
From the Thatcher government’s proposal that Liverpool ought to be left to a “managed decline” following the Toxteth riots of 1981 because the city was no longer worth investing in, to the belief that Thatcher herself played a personal role in protecting the police following the Hillsborough disaster — which then allowed the blame to be unjustly shifted onto Liverpool fans themselves. Liverpool, as a city, has seen its left-wing politics develop out of necessity in order to fight for its own survival.
The city of Liverpool itself has always been a hub of activism in this sense, and perhaps the biggest incident of this activism explicitly entering the footballing world was Robbie Fowler’s show of support for the dockers’ strikes in 1997 after 500 dock workers were sacked for refusing to cross picket lines as a show of solidarity with fellow dockers who had recently been sacked. In an act that would see him fined £900 for breaking UEFA regulations that oppose political demonstrations in football grounds, Fowler revealed a t-shirt that incorporated the Calvin Klein logo into the slogan: “Support the 500 sacked dockers” after scoring his second in a 3-0 win over Norwegian side SK Brann.
Fast-forward to today, and the overwhelming majority of Liverpool supporters see right-wing political views as explicitly and inherently contradictory to genuine support of the club — on the grounds that support of the club should include support of the city and its people.
As a result, Liverpool, at present, is arguably the one region in which the Labour Party have the least chance of losing ground to the Conservatives — with the Kop’s endorsement of Jeremy Corbyn and his socialist values via a banner displayed in a home game against Southampton in 2017 symbolising this.
Be it Jurgen Klopp’s assertion that: “If there’s something I will never do in my life it is vote for the right,” or Bill Shankly’s belief that his socialism was “[not] really politics. It is a way of living. It is humanity.” Socialist values and beliefs are a huge part of both the city and the football club.
Over 200 miles north, we have Celtic, and 100 of their fans who, in August 2016, held up Palestinian flags in a game against Israeli side Hapoel Be’er Sheva. This was an act that served to symbolise, and send a message of solidarity to the plight of the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israeli government on the West Bank.
Once more, this show of solidarity exemplifies the fact that football often is, as it should be, a platform upon which men and women are able to use their voices in order to express solidarity and support for causes they believe in.
The Scottish FA then fined Celtic as a result, to which the fans responded by matching the amount the club were fined and donating the entire sum, over £200,000 (the original goal was just over £80,000), to Palestinian refugees.
An indication of the strength of this belief, Celtic fans repeated the act in April 2018, though on a larger scale — waving 16 Palestine flags as a tribute to the 16 Gazans killed during Land Day protests that demanded the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the places they were removed from following the establishment of the Israeli State in the late 1940s.
Of course, both Liverpool and Celtic’s fanbases also express their socialist views via community activism.
At present, this has been amplified as a result of the Coronavirus crisis that has, unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, hit the poorest the hardest.
In the past few months, The Celtic FC Foundation have put £10,000 towards a food parcel scheme in order to help support those unable to feed themselves and their families during a time of immense hardship and struggle.
Liverpool, both the club and the fans, regularly hold foodbank appeals before and after home games, often as part of a joint effort with Everton through the ‘#HungerDoesntWearClubColours’ scheme.
Recently, these measures have been amplified and ramped up through an emergency foodbank scheme through the Trussell Trust and the club’s appeal to fans to donate towards this cause, to help those affected the most by the COVID-19 crisis in the local area.
Be it international causes or local issues — both sets of fans have fused their love of football and their political views, utilising their platform and their voice in order to fight for causes they believe in.
German Football – Fuelled by the Fans
Much is made, and rightly so, of German football’s famous 50+1 ownership model. In short, this rule is in place to ensure that the ownership of any football club cannot be claimed by an external investor who may disregard fans in the pursuit of capital profit.
The rule itself came into existence in 1998, and it states that for any investors to stake a major claim in the ownership of a football club, they must have expressed an interest in the club for at least 20 years. This ownership model is the essential reason as to why ticket prices in the German top-flight remain so low, even despite the global appeal of the league and the huge amounts of revenue some clubs are able to take in annually.
In modern football and in a world of increased commercialisation in football, German clubs still very much hold their fans in high regard — the voting rights belong to the fans, and so do the clubs. It is no wonder, then, that German fans care so dearly for their clubs and their own communities.
Perhaps one of the most powerful examples of this comes from the fanbase of Union Berlin. These fans, quite literally, have bled for the cause of their club. In 2004, whilst Union played their football in the second division, the club faced both bankruptcy and expulsion from the league.
In an attempt to help alleviate the club’s impending financial peril, the fans set up the Bluten für Union (Bleed for Union) campaign which saw fans, en masse, donate blood and, in turn, direct the money they personally received for their donations to the club. The blood of the fans kept the heart of the club beating.
A club almost-entirely supported by working-class fans, Union Berlin suffered another threat to their future in 2008, when the state of Stadion An der Alten Forsterei’s crumbling terraces looked to lead to the club losing its license. In order to save the future of the club, 2500 of the club’s fans, the majority of whom had absolutely no experience in construction, put in 140,000 hours’ worth of work in order to ensure the ground was up to a suitable standard.
This effort has since been immortalised through a statue outside the ground of a red helmet and, in what is arguably the most on-brand tribute a German club could give to its devoted fanbase — a beer garden exclusively for those who helped the cause.
The sheer extent to which Union Berlin’s fans, with their left-wing ultras and working-class roots, have made sacrifices for the club they love is a perfect example of the values of socialism in modern-day football support.
St. Pauli’s Staunch Socialism
Thus far, all of the examples of the politics of socialism within the realm of football support have revolved around the views championed and stood for by the fans and the vast array of ways in which these views have been articulated. However, in Hamburg’s St. Pauli district lies a club whose socialism lies at the very heart of their ethos.
Much has been written about St. Pauli, both the club and its fanbase, and it’s hard to imagine that anybody will ever be able to do the club justice.
In 2009, St. Pauli became the first German club to incorporate a distinct set of principles that dictate how the club should be run — one of these is the belief that: “St. Pauli FC is the club of a particular city district, and it is to this that it owes its identity. This gives it a social and political responsibility in relation to the district and the people who live there.”
From this it is clear — support for St. Pauli isn’t just a footballing matter, it goes far beyond that.
At the basis of the club lies passionate anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-fascist and anti-sexist views — with these views being made clear as early as in the 1980s through a plethora of ultra-led demonstrations and protests, many of which have led to the Ultra Sankt Pauli clashing with neo-Nazi groups.
The club’s progressive, anti-sexist beliefs came to the fore in 2011 when the club’s fans protested as one of the corporate boxes at the Millerntor-Stadion was sold to a strip club. Further, the club commits itself to remaining loyal to its community and the working-class supporter base upon which it is built.
St. Pauli have a substantial squatting community and, as a result, their supporters frequently demonstrated on issues regarding squatting and low-income housing in St. Pauli-Hafenstraße during the 1980s.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the issue of right-wing hooliganism swept the world of football — and whilst it was more prescient an issue in some countries, it was an issue that struck European football greatly as a whole. St. Pauli, however, acted by banning any kind of right-wing activism and nationalist displays in their ground. Instead, the Ultra Sankt Pauli proudly display an image of Argentine Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara in the stands. This is what has become the basis for much of what followed in the club’s infamous political history — St. Pauli and their loyal fans, a football fanbase united against fascism.
For most football fans, going to the game at the weekend represents an opportunity to let go of any concerns or issues ongoing in their day-to-day life. For many football fans, football is a much-welcome relief from the stresses of their working lives. For these same fans, however, football offers an opportunity to find solidarity and community in the face of the adversity they are subject to.
It should come as a surprise to no one, then, that socialism and football act as a formidable partnership — the pursuit of the working-class to seek justice and liberation, the use of football as the language through which this desire is communicated.
Whether it is international or local solidarity, or whether the fans are fighting against fascism or government negligence — socialism is by no means a new phenomenon in football fan culture, it is a natural product of it.