Playing on the left – football’s dalliance with politics

The existential contradictions between football and leftism make life as a leftist football fan a constant war with yourself.

“If every rightwing thinktank came up with a scheme to distract the populace from political injustice and compensate them for lives of hard labour, the solution in each case would be the same: football. No finer way of resolving the problems of capitalism has been dreamed up, bar socialism. And in the tussle between them, football is several light years ahead.”

—Terry Eagleton, “Football: a dear friend to capitalism”

“Football is a socialist sport. Financially, some may receive more rewards than others but, from a footballing perspective, for 90 minutes, regardless of whether you are Lionel Messi or the substitute right-back for Argentina, you are all working to the same end.”

John Barnes

For a sport that purportedly belongs to the working class, football—the professional sport as it exists today—is anything but aligned with labor or leftist politics. It’s easy to think of football players, clubs, and fan groups with right-wing inclinations, from the moderately conservative to the outright fascist. Looking for a political left-winger in professional football is equivalent to the proverbial search for a needle among stacks of hay. Paolo Sollier was a self-identified communist and a 70’s counterculture icon of the Italian game; when asked for his opinion on how difficult it is to be a leftist football player today, Sollier replied: “I don’t know. I have never met one.”

A staggering claim, when you consider just how broad a term is “leftism.” In the simplest sense a leftist is anyone who subscribes to politics of egalitarianism and cooperation, in opposition to systems of social inequality. Historically, leftism manifested as anarchist, communist, socialist, and radical democratic movements for working class liberation. Anti-war, civil rights, feminist, and environmental movements fall under the umbrella of leftism today. 

Which makes Sollier’s claim all the more incredulous: surely, there are professional footballers who are for civil rights and feminism? One can only assume. But leftism is not to be confused with center-left liberalism, which may support a carbon tax in the name of environmental protection but not true redress for centuries of environmental imperialism. Leftism carries with it a whiff of the radical because, unlike liberals, leftists do not believe that incremental reform to existing institutions can sufficiently address the gross injustices at the core of violent, exploitative systems like capitalism, which generate wealth for the few rather than for the mutual benefit of all. So it is little wonder that professional football as it exists today—as a pillar and pawn of global capitalist power struggle—stands in opposition to the basic tenets of leftism.

Searching for socialism

Ask a fan to give you an example of leftists or socialists in football, and more likely than not they’ll take you right back in time to Bill Shankly’s Liverpool FC. “The socialism I believe in isn’t really politics,” goes the famous quote from his autobiography. “It is a way of living. It is humanity. I believe the only way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day.” It is a romantic quote. But for all that his name summons the idea of a socialist football club, Shankly’s legacy is not as a force for social change but as a manager and a football obsessive. The city of Liverpool has a long, rich history of anti-capitalist struggle, but it’s hard to place the Shankly within that revolutionary history. In his own words, his socialism was not political; it was an ethic around which he built a team and a culture, grounded squarely within the parameters of Liverpool FC.

Searching for examples of leftism that go beyond the football pitch might take you away from the English game altogether and to revolutionary figures like Brazil’s Sócrates, who leveraged his sporting celebrity in the struggle for justice and liberation. As a public figure he lent his voice in mobilizing resistance against Brazil’s military dictatorship, and as a footballer he spearheaded reform to transform his club into a defiantly democratic organization where staff working in the stadium were valued just as much as the players on the field. Long into his retirement, he would remain sharply critical of systemic failings in government and in world football. Far from being a player who happened to have some political views, Sócrates was a fierce political advocate who just happened to be good at football. In his own words: “While I was a footballer, my legs amplified my voice.”

Artwork by Charbak Dipta

Back across the Atlantic, one might rank Cristiano Lucarelli alongside Paolo Sollier as notable self-identified communists in Italian football. We might head north to Hamburg and the cult-like mythos of FC St. Pauli. Or you might remember Javi Poves, the Sporting Gijón defender who walked away from the professional game because “it’s capitalism, and capitalism is death.” And of course everyone knows about FC Barcelona, that historic icon of anti-Francoist resistance and Catalan independence—and, incidentally, the club that gave a platform to a modern philosopher-player by the name of Oleguer Presas. An economics graduate and outspoken political campaigner, Oleguer is best known as a supporter of Catalan independence who turned down a call-up to the Spanish national team for reasons of conscience.

Oleguer retired in 2011 after seeing out his career at Ajax, where he remained politically involved and participated in local protests. That same year English Premier League clubs collectively spent over $300 million on player transfers—a record that would be equalled and surpassed time and again in the decade that follows. Which is an inelegant transition to say: search for the equivalent of someone like Sócrates or Sollier in today’s biggest leagues and clubs, and the closest thing you’ll turn up is James McClean’s anti-imperialist stance on the remembrance poppy. A couple rungs down the relevance ladder you’ll find the business that Mathieu Flamini, alleged environmentalist, started with Mesut Özil to sell sustainable beauty products. And if you’re multilingual, there’s Benedikt Höwedes writing a regular column on various common-sense social and political issues like: we should all do our part to stop climate change; professional athletes have a responsibility to speak out on political issues; racism and xenophobia are bad. It’s comforting, common-sense liberalism. 

Liberal consumers

Under that same umbrella of liberalism lies a specific kind of political “wokeness” that has become fairly mainstream. It says: though we disagree on the source or even existence of racism in our clubs, our stadiums, and our communities—we, as enlightened modern day football fans, do most definitely agree that racism is bad. And no, we might not be able to name ten women footballers or the teams they play for because we don’t watch women’s football on account of it being, well, not very good—but we defy you to find any among us who doesn’t agree women’s sport has a right to exist. And moreover, though we still indulge in banter and jokes steeped in the tenets of homophobia and toxic masculinity, we—the most modern of fans—cosmopolitaneously agree that football is for everyone, gay or straight, male or female. Sorry if that leaves no room in the conversation for anyone outside these false binaries of identity. Care to buy a rainbow pin?

This milquetoast political consciousness manifests itself as performative social justice campaigns aligned with the prevailing winds of liberalism. By which I mean buying greenwashed merchandise and joining in hashtagged social media campaigns and calling professional footballers “woke” for doing the bare minimum—and thereby eliding Eric Dier having an opinion with Eric Cantona speaking in support of popular protest with Sócrates actively mobilizing his countrymen for democracy. This floor-level bar set for footballers’ political consciousness is one reason Paolo Sollier can safely say he’s never met a leftist in the modern game. The other reasons being professional football’s existence and willing participation in neoliberal capitalist systems founded on violence and the exploitation of peoples and resources. It should be no surprise to anyone that football’s most prominent actors—its players, owners, agents and managers—the beneficiaries of capitalist excess—are disinclined to support liberation movements that stand in direct opposition to the violence of capitalism.

Nor is it surprising that many football fans are similarly disinclined. Without getting too deep into what is a whole subfield of sociology—football fans can be broadly categorized based on their level of engagement (from active to passive) and method of engagement (from creative to consumerist). This yields four fan categories: 

  1. active, creative—exemplified by ultras who pour time and money into tifos and choreo while eschewing official branded club merchandise; 
  2. passive, creative—the enthusiasts and armchair analysts, lovers of stats and GOAT debates, subscribers of magazines and listeners of podcasts; 
  3. passive, consumerist—your football casual, the one who fondly remembers Zidane and will watch a game if it’s on TV; and 
  4. active, consumerist—your average diehard, the one who owns far too many replica kits and plans weekends trips for official fan events and has at least one awkward selfie of themself with a footballer.

This last group, the active consumers, are every global club’s fanbase and the foundation of European football’s voracious market expansion. That expansion is only possible because of the legions of consumers who are willing to shell out hundreds if not thousands each year on official merchandise and premium television packages. Consumerist fans regard their purchasing power as their commitment and primary vector of engagement with football. For these fans, the capitalist scaffolding of football are also the pillars of their fandom, and therefore cannot be rejected in any meaningful way without rejecting football altogether.

Beyond heroes

To be a leftist, anti-capitalist football fan is to be constantly at war with yourself. After all, what fan can resist the thrill of a World Cup, the shared euphoria and instant human connection that such spectator events provide? At the same time, every international competition with all its attendant nationalist chest-thumping serves as an uneasy reminder to how thin is the line between pride and propaganda. Perhaps there are redemptive qualities to this phenomenon called both the beautiful game and an opiate of the masses, but it will not be found at the top levels of the professional men’s game as it exists today. Those of us who follow the year-round drama of club football are first-hand witnesses to the financial arms race that has become the new normal. Hundreds of thousands of dollars moved to secure the services of one player. Historic clubs and entire national economies devastated by the voracious tempo of the business and by money poured into World Cup stadiums that now lie silent and disused, monuments to FIFA and vanity. 

Football, like capitalism, is locked in a death spiral of its own making. It is one thing to understand football’s systemic failings; it is another to endure that knowledge as a football fan. Well-meaning but misguided friends have suggested I deal with this internal conflict by supporting a team like FC St. Pauli. Affectionately known as everyone’s second-favorite German team, the famously punk and staunchly antifa St. Pauli have gained loyal fans as far away as Yorkshire and Buffalo with their cool, subversive vibe and eminently buyable skull and crossbones logo. And I do like St. Pauli. I like them as my second-favorite German team, and my overall third-favorite after Arsenal FC. Perhaps switching up that order of preference would be logical, if it weren’t for the inherent illogic of being a football fan and living or dying by your chosen team. And for me, that team is not St. Pauli.

I wish—uselessly, wistfully—for a modern football hero in the mold of Sócrates or Sollier. There are none to be found. Certainly, we have Megan Rapinoe, an avowedly progressive capital-d Democrat; but even she remains as far from a true worker-centric leftism as Mathieu Flamini’s eco-friendly beauty products are from achieving the radical climate justice we need.

This is only a critique of football’s politics as represented by the icons and idols of the sport. It has nothing to do with the good that football can achieve—not as a business, but as a social phenomenon. That power is found in collective movements and victories—in the formation of AFC Wimbledon, the success of Save The Crew, the ongoing fan protests in Germany in defense of a vibrant fan culture—and in countless, unreported acts of community and humanity. The participatory labor of fans continually breathes new meaning into the game, makes it beautiful, and reminds us that football is far, far more than just a hyper-commercialized product pushed upon us by Barclays, Visa, Heineken and friends. Football can be everything and anything that we, as participants, make of it.

That this radical spirit is so dimly reflected in professional football is a shame, but the collective, creative power of fans remains a potent counterweight to the excesses of football under capitalism. If our heroes can’t be found on the football field, then we will find them elsewhere: among ourselves, and within each other.

“Football is a unique cultural phenomenon […] but it is not the sport itself that is of interest to socialists, rather it is the supporters, the millions who watch and participate in the game. Outside of the trade union movement there are very few areas of modern society where thousands of working class people can gather under a common banner, in support [of] a common cause.”

Workers of the World United: Football and Socialism

June Pan

June is an Arsenal fan who loves the Bundesliga and all things German football. In addition to being perpetually disappointed by her favorites, her interests include politics and screenwriting. You can find her on Twitter at @tldrjune.