Why does one support a football club? What does support in the broader context, really even mean? Have you stopped to ask yourself, why is it, perhaps, hundred-thousand stadium lengths away from what you’d consider your Mecca and Medina, you brazenly and unapologetically feel for a football club as any local would? It’s much more than the common denominator of having an invoice of your club’s most recent third kit in your inbox. It’s much more primal.
Conflict is primal. Conflict is beautiful. To the of my best understanding, when it comes down to it, it’s the white, frothing righteous rage to stand for what you believe in is what makes you for who you are. To belong. Reason takes a back seat to the almost prehistoric pang of pinning our colours to a mast, of face paints, and markings to designate our tribe. Violently bright, flagrant colours. If the conflict is presented for public perusal, it is art. And in this form of gladiatorial gallantry, there are no shadowy corners of misinterpretation to hide in, unlike literature, poetry, music, or in fact religion. There is no sleight of hand, no obscurity. People own this art, and by its virtue, it reflects theirs.
Broadswords nationalism is outnumbered by the switchblade knives of societal truths. Former heroes names are sung more than any martyr, saint, despot or liberator. A football stadium, metropolitan or provincial theatres, elicits tears of a blue-collared everyman, more often than war memorials would. Football holds more gravity over life and death, because with life and death there is a start and an ending, while with football it’s all about narratives that outlive all of us. And all of us want a part of it. This is not to condone the knife fights in Naples, or the arson in Galatasaray, but to say, if football can make the Third Reich insecure enough, and the Soviet to deem it incendiary enough to propagate the anti-Nazi propaganda of The Death Match, to stir a sleeping nation from their collective slumber; it is safe to say, it can make few fanatics do things that would be foolish, and misuse its powers as device for their own lockjawed agenda.
On 16th August, Scottish champions Celtic FC and Israeli champions Hapoel Ber’er Sheva met for a UEFA Champions League qualifying match. The match ended with Celtic winning it 5-2. But that’s not what the headlines in Scottish newspapers read the next day.
The headlines admonished a group of Celtic fans called ‘The Green Brigade’ for unfurling Palestinian flags during the match. UEFA had already warned the club that if Palestinian flags were raised inside the stadium, the club would be fined. Rumours that the police would arrest fans found carrying the flags were also abound. Celtic fans decided to ignore both the threats and proudly unfurled the flags, out of misplaced gumption. This was not the first time Celtic fans have used a football match to forward their political aims, neither is Celtic the only club to boast of such a fan base.
Perhaps the most nefarious club when it comes to political activism is the Italian, A.S. Livorno Calcio. This is a case of the city shaping the club. The notorious Italian Communist Party was founded in the port city of Livorno. Influential Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci as its President, the Italian Communist Party was at its peak the largest Communist Party in Western Europe. Livorno the club have till date carried the legacy of the cities radical roots. A stumbling block for the club to increase its popularity, though, has been its utter lack of success.
It has never won the Serie A, from 1948-2003, the club wasn’t even in the top flight of Italian football. But that didn’t stop the club from having their heroes, shed in their own light. Striker, Cristiano Lucarelli encapsulates Livorno better than anybody, taking a pay cut and joining down a division to join the club. “Some players buy a yacht or Ferrari [with their wages]”, the striker explained shortly after joining. “I just bought a Livorno shirt”. He has a Livorno badge tattooed on his right arm. Lucarelli wasn’t just steeped in left-wing politics as the club, he was also a good footballer. He scored 113 goals in 172 games in two stints for the club. Livorno supporters are some of the most rabidly enthusiastic ones, before the start of every match they sing Bandiera Rossa. The translation of the song reads thus:
“Forward people, towards redemption
Red Flag, Red Flag
Forward people, towards redemption
Red Flag will triumph.
Red Flag will be triumphant,
Red Flag will be triumphant,
Red Flag will be triumphant,
Long live communism and freedom.”
The club honours of Joseph Stalin’s birthday every year, and unfurled banners marking the death of Hugo Chavez. Perhaps the farthest that the supporters went was when after 17 Italian soldiers died in Iraq. While supporters of all other Italian clubs showed their respect with a minute of silence, the Livernissi started singing in support of the Iraqi Army, with chants of “Give us ten, 100, 1,000 Nasiriyahs!”, the Battle of Nasiriyah being where the Italian soldiers lost their lives.
To the south-west, across the Tyrrhenian Sea, Barcelona has almost since its inception been a political club. In 1926, while Spain was under rule of the dictator Primo del Rivera, Barcelona fans jeered the Royal March, the Spanish National Anthem, during a match. Several Barcelona and Bilbao players enlisted themselves against the military uprising during the 1936 Spanish Civil War. In fact, Barcelona’s club President at the time Josep Sunyol was a member of Accio Catalana and Republican Left of Catalonia, both pro-independence and anti-Primo de Rivera parties. First blood was drawn when Josep Sunyol was murdered by Falangists i.e. Fransico Franco, Spain’s next brutal fascist dictator’s army, and a Real Madrid aficionado.
The next chapter in Barcelona’s radical history comes in 1943. Barcelona and Real Madrid met in the semi-finals of Copa del Generalisimo that year. The first leg was won by Barcelona 3-0. Fransico Franco was the dictator of Spain at this time. Before the second leg, Franco’s director of state security allegedly visited Barcelona’s players in the changing room. He rudely reminded them that they were only, of course, playing due to the “generosity of the regime“. Real Madrid, courteously, beat Barcelona by a margin of 11–1 in the second leg.
Off the pitch, Franco Fransico further showed disdain for Catalunya by banning the use of any languages other than Castellano, the official Spanish language. Barcelona’s stadium back then Les Cortes thus became a place of protest, a place where Catalans asserted their culture and protested against Franco’s idea of a centralised and ethnically, culturally and linguistically homogenised Spain.
In recent times, the club has been outspoken in its support of Catalonian independence. In fact, as a symbolic gesture, Pep Guardiola was the last member on the list of candidates proposed by Together for Yes, a pro-independence coalition of all the major pro-Catalan independence political parties, during the 2015 Catalan parliamentary election, 2015. Madrid, to this day, maintains a political stranglehold.
Tooting back across the English Channel, Celtic, the club has been almost similarly a force of political struggle for Scottish Independence. Its rivalry with the Rangers is based almost entirely on that premise, along with religious and sectarian undertones. Celtic has a historic association with Irish and Scots of Irish descent, both predominantly Roman Catholics. This has resulted in Celtic fans being fervent supporters of Irish Republicanism. Rangers fans on the other hand, constitute the other half comprising mostly of Protestant and British Unionists.
Irish Republican songs have for long been heard on the terraces of Celtic Park. In 1952, the Scottish Football Association (SFA) threatened to suspend the club unless it stopped flying the Irish tricolor above the stadium. Celtic, fully acquainted with their own stature in Scottish football, resisted the order, and the SFA naturally backed down. This support for Irish republicanism also in part explains the more recent support for Palestine by Celtic fans. Sir Tom Devine, Scotland’s leading historian and author of the Irish in Scotland explained recently in an interview to left-wing magazing Jacobin, “Part of their sense of communal identity is that sense of grievance about what was done in the past. People who are Irish nationalists will always tend to support independence movements that they believe to be based on historical justice. The situation in Palestine is a classic example of land that is being taken from people who lived there for generations. It chimes in with the course of Irish history.”
Such examples are not bounded by the boundaries of Europe. Once colonised by the Empire, India has witnessed its share of football rivalries with religious and political undertones. Bengal in its heyday boasted of three incredibly popular clubs: Mohun Bagan, the club of nativists and the upper-class bhadralok supported by the Congress; East Bengal, the club of Hindu-Bangladeshi refugees backed strongly by Communists; and Mohammaden Sporting, a representative of the Muslims in Bengal. The Kolkata Derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan is much more than a simple football game to decide the better team on the day. It is a clash of two incredibly hostile political groups. The refugees identified themselves as Bangals, while the nativists where Ghotis. This Ghoti-Bangal subtext was forever looming over every East Bengal-Mohun Bagan match after partition of India in 1947 till as late as 1980s. The resentment claimed too many lives.
Dolores Martinez and Projit B. Mukherji in their book Football: From England to the World recall a particularly humbling account, “The matter came to a head in 1980 when, during a rather unimportant League match between the two teams at Eden Gardens in Calcutta, clashes between supporter groups led to wild-fire violence in the stadium resulting in a stampede that cost 16 fans their lives. The immediate context that produced an ugly tackle by Dilip Palit, a tough East Bengal defender, upon Bidesh Basu, a mercurial Mohun Bagan forward, and the latter’s spontaneous retaliation by kicking the former, ten minutes into the second half. The referee gave both their marching orders for their offences. However, the supporters, enraged by the incident, became involved in a free-for-all while the police remained mere spectators. Thirteen fans died, while several others were seriously injured. Three more died at the hospital later on.”
Back in the land of the oppressors, England; Liverpool is considered one of the most red cities in the country for its historical involvement in left-wing politics. This indelibly left a mark on Liverpool FC too. Bill Shankly, the legendary manager of the club identified himself as a socialist all his life. The Labour Party conference stood in a minute’s silence the year he passed away.
“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that”, is the most widely used quote in the game. A lesser known quote from the man is, “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.” This was undoubtedly one of the most pertinent reasons why Margaret Thatcher accompanied by the right-wing media outlets like The Sun smeared Liverpool FC supporters in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, where 96 fans were murdered in a crush, caused by the collective negligence of stadium authority, the English Football Association’s lax safety standards, and the police. It was an inhuman attack on not just the club, not only the city, but surreptitiously on the left-wing as a whole. Branding working class supporters of Liverpool as drunken, ticketless, hooligans and thugs went side by side with the demonization of the Militant tendency in the Labour Party, a radical left-wing sub-group within the party.
In 1984, the Liverpool City Council led by Militant won an important victory over the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher. They secured extra funding of £30 million for the council’s urban regeneration programme, which was a firm slap across the despicable Thatcher’s face. Another driving motivation for Thatcher to support the South Yorkshire Police’s attempts of tainting evidence after Hillsborough, was their role in brutally suppressing the miners’ strike of 1984-85, a major industrial action to shut down the British coal industry in an attempt to prevent colliery closures, that at its height, involved 142,000 striking mineworkers. It took 27 years for the truth to finally come out through an independent government sanctioned inquest; 27 years for the families of the 96 lost on that faithful day in Sheffield, to find some semblance of dignity and closure.
Whether it be Celtic fans brandishing the Palestinian flag during a match with an Israeli team, or Livorno fans chanting the name of Stalin, the important part is to realise the power that football holds over the masses, where stadiums are like Coleridge’s and Kubla Khan’s opium haze castles. Whether you call them fans or voters, they remain human. And humans are a product of multiple motives, influences, circumstances, dreams, hopes and disillusionments. This informs their politics as well as club affiliation, and ultimately, life. Bill Shankly was putting up a show of bravado, being the orator he was, when he said that football was much more important than life and death, but for these clubs and their supporters, football has been the cause and validation of their life and death and beyond.
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