The Beautiful Aim: Football and Revolution from Marseille to Manchester

Originally published by Consented Magazine.

There will be no revolution until football is routed, its stadiums razed to the ground, its players hobbled, its balls …deflated. And from its ashes there will awake and arise cohort after cohort of radicalized fans – fanatics politically now – no longer bedazzled by the resplendent distraction of rabonas, nutmegs, scissor kicks and Cruyff turns. And they will deliver us all from this evil capitalist system once and for all.

At least according to literary critic Terry Eagleton, that is.

Eagleton claimed that football is a distraction, that its solidarity is ersatz and vicarious, and that its destructive power is carnivalesque – in other words, a mere safety valve, seemingly dangerous to the statusquo, but in fact a necessary preservative of it. Fans’ powers of critique and analysis are wasted on minutiae, precious memory space is taken up by terabytes of facts and stats, names and games displacing knowledge of the rich history of socialism (aka a potential slingshot against the bourgeoisie). Not only is football an ersatz politics and an ersatz social science, but a drug too. An opium of the people, an alternative religion, with its arenas as cathedrals, crowds as congregations, chanting like Gregorian monks, and its canonisation of revered players to sainthood.

Dave Zirin denounced this as “elitist hogwash”, responding that “we don’t love sport because we are like babies suckling at the teat of distraction. We love it because it’s exciting”. Which is to say… because it’s distracting, amirite?

Only jesting. In fact, I agree with Zirin: “sport is at the end of the day, like a hammer”, its politics depend on the wielder.

The wielder could be Irishman James McClean: He refuses to pay deference to the symbols of British imperialism, its flags, its national anthem, its militaristic poppies. Six people from his estate in Derry were murdered by the British on Bloody Sunday, 1972.  McClean refused to play for Northern Ireland in favour of the Republic of Ireland. At West Bromwich Albion he refused to wear the British symbol of imperial glory – the red poppy – and he turned his back on the St George’s flag while the national anthem played. Such bravery in the face of jingoistic English fans who booed him on the pitch and sent him death threats.

Or it could be Eric Cantona, who self-identifies as an anarchist. His grandparents fought against fascism in Spain, and he carried on this tradition when he kungfu-kicked a racist English fan during a match and only apologised for not hitting him harder. He has since called for a boycott on parasitic banks and shown support for Palestine.

Or Diego Maradona, who was loudly vocal in support of socialists the breadth and length of Latin America. He was friends with Fidel Castro, and had tattoos of both Fidel and Che Guevara. He supported Hugo Chavez, protested Bush Jr’s visit to Argentina and told the previous Pope face-to-face “sell your ceiling, amigo”, to help the poor.

There have been other gestures and statements of a progressive nature from players and coaches: Ruud Gullit, Lilian Thuram, Javier Zanetti, George Weah, Marcus Rashford to name a few.

There have even been a few (just a few) outright socialists, such as Romario, Cristiano Lucarelli, Bill Shankly and Brian Clough.

But for every James McClean there’s a hundred Frank Lampards or Sol Campbells (both proud Tories).  For every Bill Shankly there’s a dozen Alex Fergusons (who cosied up to war criminals Gordon Brown and Tony Blair) or Kevin Keegans (who cosied up to Thatcher). For every Celtic there’s a Rangers. Identifying progressive examples throws into stark relief how isolated they are.

The money that has flooded football over the past quarter century has eroded the material basis for radicalism. This is deliberate: the gentrification of stadiums through ticket prices and corporate boxes has created a more exclusive space for the middle classes. The trickle-down of profits to players has turned them into more than just a labour aristocracy; professional footballers are increasingly petty-booj, that is, owner-worker hybrids.

This breed of landlord-entrepreneur-athlete is exemplified by the likes of Robbie Fowler and Rio Ferdinand who have become incredibly wealthy property tycoons. Manchester City fans used to sing wryly “we all live in a Robbie Fowler house” to the tune of Yellow Submarine. The ultimate illustration is David Beckham, who pioneered the spice boy lifestyle in the ‘90s. The branding and PR work on behalf of brutal parasitic corporations – it’s impossible to find a pro who escapes this corporate sponsorship. Ronaldo is a walking, talking logo-display worth hundreds of millions.

It’s not just the players. It’s the fans. Football culture over the years has been rife with machismo, racism, ableism, homophobia and misogyny. And football spectatorship has long been an academy for the Far Right.

As an Englishman (with Celtic heritage), I find it very difficult to support the national football team, at risk of being counted among the brawling, bragging boneheads that go overseas and indulge in a bit of the old ultraviolence. Here’s the problem: it’s almost impossible to separate support for England from the supremacist connotations of the flag, the monarchist anthem, or the fact that William Windsor is the President of the FA (why, by the way? why?).

England fans behaviour in Marseille is a case in point (minority though they may well be of England fans overall): taunting local Roma children, kicking shit out of anyone in their way because… er… ‘reasons’, and singing imperial rallying cries like ‘No surrender to the IRA’ and ‘Rule Britannia’, disgustingly proud of their own ruling class’s ability to subjugate and oppress foreign peoples (while being snivelling and servile themselves). I don’t have the sociological data to hand, but I’d bet my bottom dollar they do not represent the heart of the working class, but rather a labour aristocracy, with hundreds (even into the thousands) of pounds of disposable income to spend lager-louting around the south of France.

There’s a sense in which football fandom has become mere allegiance to your local sports corporation. And it needn’t even be local. This appeals to the likes of David Cameron, who couldn’t even remember which team he supports, but it must stick in the gullet of football’s traditional working class base. Rather than an antidote to the inherent sectarianism of football, it’s an abominable mutation of it.

So what to do?

There are more and more examples of fans challenging the casual misogyny, homophobia, and racism that goes on around them. Some activists and radicals talk to footballers who haven’t forgotten their roots and talk to grassroots clubs after games. The great thing is that football clubs are readymade organizations where people gather, and there are very easy points to explain, such as FIFA corruption, or the Glazers’ takeover of Manchester United, that only one gay player has felt free to come out (Justin Fashanu), or the clear obstacles to people of colour managing top teams. These themes  can be broadened into wider explanations of our socio-economic system.

Moreover, Hillsborough has shown us what can be achieved; anti-sectarian working class solidarity, staunch activism in boycotting The Sun, exposing the brutality and corruption of the system right from the vicious bobbies up to the vile bosses (police chiefs, politicians, Prime Minister), and in the end getting some sense of vindication and justice through sheer grit and perseverance.

As Dave Zirin said – football is like a hammer. Currently it’s a force for reaction, but with collective effort, it could become a force for revolution.

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