Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Football and Activism

“The thing about football – the important thing about football – is that it's not just about football.”
Terry Pratchett

I remember once going on a school trip to Salford University for a talk, during my politics A-levels. I can't remember exactly when, but it must have been 2005/2006. I have no idea what the day was actually about, but I do remember one thing. The whole area was plastered with “Love United Hate Glazer” stickers. Since then, the LUHG slogan has become commonplace on toilet doors in pubs up and down the country.

The Glazer family have treated United to the neat trick of going into debt to buy the club, then using the club's own money to pay off the debts. Why this is allowed absolutely baffles me, so for reasons of sanity I'll not try to go into the whole affair here. The point is that the threat of collapse, that has long been a reality for smaller clubs, is working its way up the leagues. Big money in football has meant that a lack of success, or a sudden decline in a club's fortunes, can lead to financial oblivion.

Millionaire control of football clubs is just another example of the lack of democracy that afflicts our entire society. And no, it doesn't matter whereabouts in the world they come from. A rich bastard is a rich bastard. Football clubs are not community organisations, they are chasing after money. Some fans have rejected this state of affairs outright, such as those who founded FC United of Manchester or AFC Wimbledon.

The latest round of anti-Glazer protests have taken the form of fans wearing Green and Gold, the colours of the old Newton Heath F.C., that became Man Utd in 1902. This seems to be invoking a simpler time in the past, when clubs were not completely detached from their fans. The disgraceful eviction of anti-Glazer protesters from Old Trafford by stewards clearly shows the contempt the club's bosses have for their own fanbase. Similarly, see the recent comments by Portsmouth's executive director Mark Jacob, directed at dissenting fans.

Big institutions more often than not change principled individuals, rather than get changed themselves. Well known man of Labour – and Knight of the Realm – Alex Ferguson, has come a long way from his days as a Glasgow shop steward and lined up fully behind the Glazers so far. An account of a recent mass meeting of United fans on the RepublikofMancunia blog contains the following interesting proposal:

“Draft a letter for as many fans as possible to send to Sir Alex Ferguson to ask for his resignation. As a socialist and a man concerned for the club, he should show the Glazers exactly what he thinks of them. Poor results and failure to qualify for Europe would mean the Glazers could no longer afford to even keep us afloat and we would go in to administration.”

Clearly a layer of fans are actively wishing for financial meltdown as the only way they can see of getting rid of the hated owners. Big clubs like United are so entrenched as institutions that it seems unlikely, unfortunately, that Ferguson or the fans could change the direction of the whole thing. The power lies where the money is. Perhaps things will have to “get worse before they get better,” with clubs folding before being bought out by fans. But the game would need massively restructuring to make sure the new owners didn't just behave like the old ones. Football as a sport rooted in the community – outside the lower leagues – seems unfathomable in a profit-chasing society.

More depressingly, the uglier politics of the football crowd was evident last weekend too. One of the biggest marches yet staged by the far-right English Defence League took place in Stoke-on-Trent. The EDL, by all accounts, came about through football hooligan networks and their far-right connections. Of course, most fans want nothing to do with organisations like this, but the Left abandoning the terraces would mean that any political stories and voices from the game in the media came from the Right.

It should go without saying that football is an important battleground for political activism. During the posties' strikes, the Trades Council here in Cambridge organised bucket-collections at a Cambridge United match. Middlesborough games have been a focus of portests against the closing of Corus's steel factory at Redcar.

Perhaps it's cliched to say that football is a microcosm of society. That probably isn't true. But a lot of it is in there. The millionaire bosses (the owners), their henchmen (the directors), the tiny minority of working class people elevated to celebrity status to give us something to aspire to (the players). Even the fans are stratified by economics. Are you in a Sky-sponsored executive box or stuck behind a pillar? Or perhaps priced-out of the game altogether by expensive tickets? Then there are people who decide what we are allowed to watch, and when, and how much it will cost us (the media). And, just occasionally in the midst of the whole slog, the chance of seeing the underdog win for a change.

Beautiful game, ugly future?


  1. There are many examples of supporters fighting what are effectively struggles via supporters trusts (which are essentially unions) beyond the anti-Glazer protests and FC United of Manchester, although FCUM are an excellent model. You could just as easily look at the campaign the supporters of my own club (Wrexham) fought against Hamilton and Guterman, for example. There are a great many examples.

    I have long advocated the left involving themselves more in supporters' struggles, which are leading to the increasing radicalisation of a great deal of fans, typically towards a leftist co-operative or even socialist stance.

    Whilst the EDL/Casuals United have exploited football supporters - or more accurately the casual sub-culture which a great many working class lads identify with - it should not be assumed that they represent the majority, nor that football supporters or casuals instinctively lean to the right. To use my home town as the example again, when the EDL came to Wrexham - there were around 40 of them, mostly from Bolton - they were opposed by three times as many people, most of which, tellingly, were 'lads' associated with Wrexham FC. This was separate to the anti-fascist event, which took place a few hundred yards away further into the town. Neither was it orchestrated. It happened organically. The sight of local working class lads standing up to the imported EDL thugs and waving a Palestinian flag in their faces will stay with me forever.

    Some firms have traditionally leant to the right and some to the left. The majority however are apolitical, and a great number of people who identify with the casual counter culture are very angry at the EDL's exploitation of their identity or 'tribe' for political gain. I think the key thing to remember is that casuals are not a homogeneous body, and that they encompass the same range of views you would likely encounter amongst any group predominantly comprising of working class males. I know of a number of ex-casuals who are involved in the left to varying degrees in my area.

    I sincerely hope that the more sober and rational sections of the left do not simply generalise football supporters as rightwing thugs as some already have, as this will only help consolidate Casuals United within the casual counter culture. I think it would also help if the left developed a more comprehensive understanding of the casual counter-culture beyond hooliganism itself, which has undoubtedly played a large part but is far from the whole story. It is as much a fashion statement as anything else.

  2. Interestingly members (and former members) of the Socialist Party have been involved at FC United from the start.