Opiate of the Masses?

During the South Africa World Cup, Terry Eagleton described football as “the opium of the people” for its capacity to distract the masses from society’s bigger ills. But events over the last few years have demonstrated the potential power of fan movements against authority and that perhaps there is something rotten in the state of football.

#footballwithoutfansisnothing

#footballwithoutfansisnothing

Today I want to look at three events over the last month that ┬áhave demonstrated the power of football to unite and organize dissent. First, the smallest case, in English football the biggest most shiny and glamourous league in the world may have discovered that they have pushed their own fans to the limit. June 19 was an important day for the league as it released its fixture list for the next season; always a big day as fans can plot their schedules and bookies can start laying out odds and pundits can start speculating how long David Moyes will survive in Manchester. But the party was crashed by the most unlikely of groups – fans from the EPL clubs who normally refuse to see eye to eye on anything actually protested together outside the Premier League office. The #footballwithoutfansisnothing protest was not huge by any standard, but that it forced the league to have a meeting with the organizers to in some way address the cost of away game ticket prices shows the fans that maybe they do have some power if they can work together.

Ultras together in Taksim

Ultras together in Taksim

Which nicely brings me to case number two: Turkey and Taksim Square. One of the major stories of the protest – before “standing man” saved the day, was that the protest could not have lasted as long as it did or resisted the police as long as they did without the support of football fans. Not just any football fans, but the ultras of Fenerbah├že, Galatasaray, and Besiktas – three of Istanbul’s clubs that violently clash with each other on a regular basis. In addition to fighting each other, they have regular experience battling the police forces, and so the three groups finding something in common in the Taksim protest managed to unite – at least temporarily under the banner of Istanbul United to lend their tactical expertise and support to the other protesters in the park. They are borrowing a page from the Al Ahly and Zamalek ultras that took part in the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt two years ago. And so, far from being the opiate of the masses, football is now resembling Che Guevara’s assessment of the sport, “It is not just a simple game, but a weapon of the revolution.” This may give spectators more to fear in the future, as governments will now be less likely to tolerate disruptions at the matches, as it creates a mass of politically charged and battle-hardened people that can then use those experiences against the government elsewhere.

Outside the Maracana

Outside the Maracana

Which then allows me to turn to my final case today: Brazil and the Confederations Cup. As part of the World Cup, the host country puts on a mini-tournament the year before the cup to test its facilities and logistics ahead of the world’s largest sporting event. Yet the story of the tournament has not been the battles on the field, but instead the ones in the street as Brazilians protest the amount of money spent on keeping FIFA fed while neglecting the poor of Brazil. A poorly timed transit fare increase just as the tournament began highlighted to many that the billions being spent on building FIFA standard stadia around the country may have been better spent on the other infrastructure that so many Brazilians desperately need. It is a case of “bread and circuses”, but they forgot the bread. That the Brazilian Sports Minister, Aldo Rebelo, insisted that, “the security and integrity of fans and tourists would be protected,” (but without mentioning the security or integrity of the protesters) demonstrates where the priorities of the government are. Millions of Brazilians protesting against the sport that is sometimes described as their religion cannot be reassuring to Sepp Blatter and his millionaire FIFA friends who expect a shiny happy tournament that they can sell to the world. My biggest fear is that Brazil wins the Confederations Cup, as that may give the protesters a pause to think that maybe their team does have a legitimate shot at winning the cup next year and that it may prove to be the antidote to the protests – opiate indeed.

Despite that potential, while in 2010 Eagleton saw football as the dear friend of capitalism, perhaps there has been a change in the game since South Africa. And if not in the game itself (which continues to take/make obscene amounts of money), it is the fans that have changed. No longer content to consume, the English fans want respect and dare I say some control over “their” game. Fans elsewhere have seen the sport as a reason to protest over other injustices in their society (Brazil) or has given them the means to protest (Turkey and Egypt).

That opiate of the masses is currently causing one bad trip for the sport’s authorities.

Occupy Football

Needs a shorter hashtag, but you get the idea

Needs a shorter hashtag, but you get the idea

I’m back from England now and the fieldwork has given me a lot to think about and chew on. So much so that trying to figure out what to post has been one of the reasons I haven’t blogged in a month. Now at home and with a little distance, what I keep coming back to is the discontent among the English fans. They are still fans and the actual game itself isn’t the problem, but everywhere I went there was talk of how fans felt that they, the local fans, were being cut out of the game. Something is rotten in the state of English football. And if there is one word on the lips of every English football fan it is: Germany. As in “The Germans own 50% of their clubs!” or “You can go to a game in Germany for 11 quid!” It came up in most of my interviews and nearly every conversation I had with fans over the month, which when coupled with the all-German Champions League final at Wembley was too galling for many of the fans. There is a sense that English football is less concerned with who is in the seats than how much money is in the seats.

Beyond attending games I was able to go to three events during my time in England: two meetings in Liverpool – Football Without Fans is Nothing, and Against Modern Football, and one academic conference in Manchester on Football, Fans and Finance. And again all three featured the theme of fans being left out of the game, administration (bankruptcy) and fan ownership. The first meeting, Football Without Fans is Nothing was actually an organizational meeting to set up a protest against the Premier League over away ticket pricing. I’m wishing I could be there on June 19th to watch the fans descend on the Premier League HQ in London to protest on the same day that the League releases its fixture list for next season. While there was a solid agenda and some certainty of how to progress from that meeting, the following evening at Against Modern Football was less focused and showed to me just how fractured and difficult it may be for the supporters to get their message across. Against Modern Football devolved into whinging and a call for boycotts (which, if you’ve ever tried to get tickets to a Liverpool FC game, wouldn’t even dent the demand for seats to be filled with daytrippers).

But the most fascinating aspect of the debates is the way that all the discussions fit into the current political debates in England while I was there. Days after my arrival, the UK Independence Party scored some major victories in council elections and much of political debate became fixed on the UK’s role in Europe. Both debates are essentially about the effects of globalization on England. The problem in football is that it is arguably one of the most important industries in England and certainly its most important cultural export. And so the current changes that many of the fans feel are that they have lost control over their own game (both foreign ownership and some concern over the number of foreign players) – mirroring debates about immigration from UKIP, an increasingly unstable and unsustainable economic model that many of the teams have fallen into – fitting into the national debate about staying in the EU, and very little control over something they regard as “their club” – again, the debate about staying in Europe. That there is a model (Germany and the Bundesliga) that the fans can aspire to that has not just had success for the fans, but success on the field has inspired a number of the conversations and given the upset fans a goal to focus on.

Why is fan ownership so important to the fans? Football traditions in England run far deeper than any franchise in North America, the instability in the leagues has meant that even the greats of the game (Man U, Chelsea, Liverpool, etc.) have a history of being in the lower tiers and have a long history that emerges from the communities that they were founded in and have always been in. Franchises move, but these clubs are part of the community, literally. These fans don’t just feel like they own the team, they really feel like they own the team. In attending any of the meetings, even the academic conference people identified themselves not just by their name, but by which club they supported. It is part of their identity. So the threat that their team could be put out of their reach, or that some owner could blow up the team through mismanagement hurts. Although even then some fans hope their teams “pull a Portsmouth” so that the team can die and rise again under fan ownership – short term pain for long term gain.

So my biggest lesson of my fieldwork was that I can go out there looking for one thing, but discover that I may find something completely different when I get there. I went looking for how fans create and use space in and around matches, and that is essentially what I found, but how I found it was not what I expected. It is exciting though, as looking at how these fans are reacting to what threatens their game gives my thesis a better focus than I had before I left.

I'm in there on the left at the back

I’m in there on the left at the back