Political Football

Kevin Brannigan examines some of the political dimensions to football, past and present.

Oligarchs vs. the fans

June 2013 marked the 10th anniversary of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich’s takeover of Chelsea FC. The event was duly celebrated on Sky Sports News with former professional footballers such as Tony Cascarino brought into the studio to pay homage to the Russian oligarch and all he has done for British football.

However, soccer journalist Matthew Syed hadn’t read the script, refusing to lavish praise on Abramovich’s legacy and questioning his methods of accumulating wealth. “One has to look at how he amassed his wealth.

His QC admitted in open court that he had secured his money in a rigged privatisation,” Syed explained. “That’s stolen money. Certainly fraudulently got… It has been a deeply corrosive influence on British football.”

Recent years have seen the encroachment of the oil rich absolute monarchs of the Arabian Gulf states and oligarchs from the former USSR into the English and Scottish football leagues.

Ireland has also spawned its very own football club owning oligarch, with Dermot Desmond the majority shareholder in Glasgow Celtic. This form of ownership stands in contrast to clubs set up by fans angry at being at the whim of rich owners.

In 2002, Wimbledon FC’s owners announced they were moving the club to a new location at Milton Keynes, effectively cutting ties with the club’s historic area of support.

Ireland has also spawned its very own football club owning oligarch, with Dermot Desmond the majority shareholder in Glasgow Celtic.

Several thousand Wimbledon fans launched a new club, AFC Wimbledon, who now play in League Two and are owned by the fans themselves. AFC actually played Milton Keynes Dons, as the former Wimbledon are now called, in the FA Cup last year, losing 2-1.

When the Florida-based Glazer family gained control of Manchester United in 2005, disgruntled Utd fans set up a new club, FC United of Manchester. FCUM is fan-owned, with each member having a say in the club’s affairs.

Currently playing at Bury’s Gigg, Lane they are planning to build their own stadium in north Manchester. Their fans have gained a reputation for their vociferous anticorporate ethos. In contrast to the Premier League, Germany’s Bundesliga offers some hope that we don’t always have to rely on the largesse of the capitalist ‘elite’, with Borussia Dortmund, a fan-owned club who charge €11 for a ticket to their games, making it all the way to the Champions League final this year.

The clubs and the league argue that this system keeps the clubs rooted in their cities and traditions. It’s a model which has been followed with varying degrees of success in Ireland with clubs such as Shamrock Rovers and Bohemians both owned by their fans.

Northern Ireland and Linfield FC community mural, Belfast
Northern Ireland and Linfield FC community mural, Belfast

The garrison game?

Emerging from Belfast, Association football had become popular in other Irish towns by the 1890s. Indeed when the T.P. O’Connor Gaelic Football Club in Athlone fell into a dispute with GAA headquarters, they simply switched codes and became a soccer club.

But the association of soccer with urban areas, and the GAA’s hostility to it, saw it labelled the ‘garrison game’, ostensibly only played by ‘West Britons’. Nevertheless, soccer was the most popular game for many urban workers, especially in Dublin. Despite the official hostility of many nationalists, and the GAA ‘ban’, there were soccer players and fans among the ranks of the IRA after 1916.

The former Belfast Celtic goalkeeper and later commander of the IRA in Dublin, Oscar Traynor, claimed to have met many soccer players among his fellow prisoners while interned after the Easter Rising. UCD player and Bohemians supporter Todd Andrews and Joe Stynes, who played for Shelbourne, were two more soccer supporting rebels, while Gerry Boland claimed that half the Dublin Brigade were ‘soccer men.’

The urban and working class base of soccer in southern Ireland made it a continual source of suspicion for cultural nationalists.

In Northern Ireland, Association Football remained the game of choice for the working classes across religious divides, with several junior clubs drawing players from both communities.

Nevertheless, the urban and working class base of soccer in southern Ireland made it a continual source of suspicion for cultural nationalists. But by the 1940s support for both domestic clubs and interest in English and Scottish soccer were part of the fabric of life in urban areas. Visits by teams such as Manchester United during the 1950s drew vast crowds, while Irish clubs such as Drumcondra and Shamrock Rovers competed at the highest level in Europe until the late 1960s.

In Northern Ireland, the unpredictable genius of Georgie Best saw popularity for the game and the English league reach new heights. Ironically, by the 1970s the fans of the most popular GAA team, the Dublin footballers, drew their distinct iconography directly from the terraces of Dalymount and Milltown, not to mention Old Trafford and Anfield!

Football’s Left

When AC Milan, owned by Italian politician and media mogul Berlusconi, visited the Armando Picchi stadium, home of AS Livorno they were greeted by non-stop chants of ‘Silvio Pedofilo’ in reference to the disgraced tycoon’s predeliction for teenage prostitutes.

They don’t respect the ‘great and good’ at Livorno, one of Northern Italy’s poorest cities and birthplace of the Communist Party. This history is reflected in the politics of the team’s Ultras, the Brigate Autonome Livornesi, whose banners include images of Che Guevera and the hammer and sickle.

The World War Two partisan anthem ‘Bandera Rossa’ booms around the ground before kick-off.

The World War Two partisan anthem ‘Bandera Rossa’ booms around the ground before kick-off and the imagery isn’t just for show; when Livorno were promoted in 2001 their fans wrecked the local fascist offices in celebration.

Club legend Cristiano Lucarelli used to give the clenched fist salute when he scored and once caused consternation when playing for the Italian under-21s by taking off his jersey to display a Che t-shirt. Livorno ultras have allied themselves with other European fans who embrace left-wing politics such as those at AEK Athens.

Another club flying the red flag (and the red and black and Spanish republican colours as well) is Rayo Vallecano from the Vallecas area of Madrid. Fans sing the Internationale and chant ‘whoever doesn’t bounce is a fascist’.

Along with well-known fan groups such as the HNT at Athletic Bilbao and Hamburg’s St. Pauli, these ultra groups are part of a growing network of leftwing and anti-fascist supporters groups across Europe and South America.

A display by Ultras Ahlawy

Middle East ultras

In Egypt and Turkey passionate football supporters – Ultras – in recent times have moved from the terraces to the streets in support of opposition to the Government and security forces.

During Egypt’s mass protests, which began in the spring of 2011, Ultras groups such as Ultras Ahlawy and Ultras White Knights (supporters of Al Zamalek SC), have been heavily involved. Using skills honed from years of confrontations at stadia Ultras were to the fore in fighting back police and supporters of the soonto- be-deposed Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak from Tahrir Square.

The leaders of the Ultras groups took precautions to attempt to distance their organisations from being directly linked to the protests. Prior to the fall of Mubarak and again during June 2013 leading up to the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood’s president, Mohammed Morsi, Ultras Ahlawy issued a public statement stating that it was a group of football fans “that has nothing to do with politics.”

However, privately Ultras leaders told their tens of thousands of followers to take part in the protests. The tactic was employed by similar groups in Turkey and was designed to shield Ultras groups from allegations that they were political organisations which would make them more vulnerable to government attempts to suppress them.

However, 74 members of Ultras Ahlawy were killed in February 2012 in in the Suez Canal city of Port Said in violence which is widely believed to have been orchestrated by the security forces as a form of payback for the group’s role in toppling Mubarak.

Such targeting has also befallen the Turkish Ultras who banded together from a number of clubs in support of this summer’s protests. In July, 20 members of Carsi, the Ultra football supporters group of Istanbul’s Besiktas JK, were arrested and charged with being part of an illegal organisation.

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Kevin Brannigan

Kevin Brannigan