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.
Today I want to look at three events over the last month that have 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.
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 Fenerbahçe, 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.
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.