You and Whose Army?

When is a racist chant not racist chant? That all depends, according to the British Prime Minister David Cameron.

The English FA recently informed Tottenham Hotspur fans and the club to drop references to themselves as Yids in their chants, to the point of threatening banning orders or criminal charges. The team is located in what was once a very Jewish neighbourhood of London, and in other times was branded by derisive anti-Semitic names by opposing fans – this includes hissing at the Tottenham fans to mimic the sound of gas chambers during the Holocaust. Times change and although one would hardly describe the White Hart Lane neighbourhood as Jewish now, the identity has stuck with the club. Fans calling themselves the ‘Yid Army’ and singing songs of their link to that Jewish past are seen by some fans has having reclaimed those derogatory terms and given them a more positive association.

Hotspurs fans hoist their flag

Hotspurs fans hoist their flag

Yet it is this same history and identification with their Jewish history that played a role in the recent troubles some of their fans found themselves in last year while visiting Rome to play SS Lazio, a club associated with fascist ultras and a history of being supported by Mussolini. With the very clear presence of anti-Semitism still around, is it possible to reclaim a term like Yid, even as a sort of historical reference to the clubs old roots?

No. As in the above example, the possibility of real anti-Semitism just makes it problematic for fans to continue to refer to themselves as Yids, especially when one Spurs fan estimates that only about 5% of the current fanbase is Jewish. The word hasn’t been reclaimed, it has been appropriated. Non-Jewish Spurs fans can revel in the idea of being the oppressed minority for the duration of the match and leave the term behind as soon as they remove their scarf or jersey. Actual Jews whether they support Spurs or not do not have that luxury. It may not be intended as hate speech, but it certainly is not free of that racist context – even when used in jest.

In steps the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who in the past has blessed the electorate with his opinion of Luis Suarez’s suspension for biting another player. Cameron wanting to appear to stand up for the little guy, says that fans using the term should not be prosecuted. How very generous of him. It’s okay to use a derogatory term about a minority religious group with a history of being persecuted because, “it isn’t motivated by hate.” I can’t wait to see a Spurs supporter dragged before the court and use the Prime Minister as his defense witness.

Of course the response to all this from some Spurs fans was to chant “We’ll sing what we want” during their recent game, although the club has opted for a middle road of surveying its fans and hoping they will voluntarily drop the chant of their own accord.

This is very different from the YSA chant that MLS has tried to stamp out. “You Suck Asshole!” while offensive in a potty mouth sense, does not target anyone other than the opposition keeper, nor can you really make this out to hate speech. Maybe the MLS is afraid that YSA is a gateway chant that will lead to harsher chants in the future?

The Yid Army is also clearly different than many of the North American sports franchises that continue to cling to racist mascots endorsed and marketed by the club. Any Jewish associations Tottenham have had have always been informal and adopted by the fans. In North America the endorsed minority of choice would be Native Americans with the Washington Redskins being the most egregious example, but let’s not forget the Atlanta Braves with their tomahawk chop choreography and the Cleveland Indians and their caricature logo. I’ll throw in the Chicago Blackhawks and Kansas City Chiefs as still problematic in their use and depiction of Native Americans as well. All of these are offensive on one level or another, yet completely acceptable to their sports organizations and many in their fanbase. However, I don’t see any of those franchises making any moves to change their identity anytime soon, they’ll cite the history associated with the name just as much as Cameron excuses the use of anti-Semitic terms as part of Tottenham’s heritage.

Call and Response

When I returned from my fieldwork at the end of May I wrote about the simmering fan resentment of English football fans. Now, two weeks into the season, we’ve seen the Premier League respond in some clever ways: directly to the supporters groups, and more broadly to the public at large.

The direct response to the supporters groups is a win for the #footballwithoutfansisnothing movement that held its protest at the EPL HQ on June 19. Back on Aug. 22, the Premier League confirmed to the supporters that a pool of £4 million (£200,000 per team) had been set aside for the express purpose of assisting supporters with away travel. Some clubs have already begun using this to subsidize the away ticket prices for fans purchasing through the club, or through booking supporters coaches and trains. Of course flush with a bit of success, that doesn’t mean the #footballwithoutfansisnothing is just going to pack up and go to the game, I think they’ll be around for a while and continue to press for more from the EPL.

Barclays Premier League

From the new EPL campaign

That of course means that the EPL has to keep working on pleasing its fans beyond just chipping in for train fare. So if you’ve watched any of the games in the first two weeks you’ll have noticed #youarefootball (advantage EPL for the shorter hashtag) ads flashing periodically on the electronic hoardings. Check out the ad that they are trying to direct you to, a real tear jerker. Notice that in the entire ad there is not one image of a player or a pitch and it only through some of the cues (scarves, jerseys or background) that you can even pick out what team the fans are cheering for. Brilliant. This is exactly what I was talking about last time and what the Chicago Fire seemed to not get with their blog. The #youarefootball ad gives you such a warm fuzzy feeling that it’s difficult to hate that super rich club of billionaires that jack up prices every season. Without the fans, football (or soccer) is nothing.

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.



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.

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 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.

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

D-Day (Derby Day)

As I sit here surrounded by the news of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement and the buzz over his successor, I’d best get my thoughts out over what appears to have been the final Merseyside Derby for both Jamie Carragher and David Moyes. Carragher had announced months ago that he’d be retiring at the end of the season, and Moyes looks increasingly like he’ll be moving up the M-62 to take over at Old Trafford.

My first experience was trying to get to Anfield itself. The local bus network operates a special line on matchdays on double-decker buses from downtown. However, these weren’t as full as I had imagined and the passengers were reflective of some of the knocks against Liverpool compared to Everton. Liverpool is the glamour club that has a huge international reputation based on its successes through the ’70s, ’80s, and up to the “Miracle in Istanbul” in 2005. Everton is the local team, it has always pulled its fans from the area and although it has success as well, not at the same level as Liverpool. The added twist to this history is that Everton was the first team to play at Anfield. A falling out between the Everton board and Anfield’s owner, John Houlding, in 1892 led to a split and Everton’s move to Goodison park, and Houlding setting up a new club called Liverpool at his now vacant stadium. So this rivalry becomes still more tangled through the family history of the two clubs.

Back to the buses, my bus remained nearly empty but for a French family, two Australians, a Canadian (me) and two locals. On arrival at Anfield the streets were filled with fans and vendors and crowded pubs literally spilled into the street as fans attempted to get a few pints before the game. One pub right next to Anfield is covered inside with scarves from teams from around Europe and the rest of the world. But to show what a rather small world it is, I no sooner got to the pub when I ran into two Belgians who had travelled down to Sheffield with me the previous day (same idea as me, make the most of the fixture change). I had to buy a souvenir, so naturally I chose the match day scarf that was half Liverpool red, half Everton blue (only to find out later that people who bought those are called day-trippers).

After a walk around the stadium I headed in to find my seat. It became clear to me as the crowd filled up that there was something about my particular section’s seat allocations that lent itself to resales to visitors: to my right were two Icelanders and a Mongolian, and my left were two Irish, and two Dutch. All of the complaints from locals that games are increasingly difficult to attend seemed to be on display, and that I was also part of the problem. That said, for the 42,000 seats available to Liverpool fans – and every single one was filled – the majority are clearly in the hands of locals. Particularly in the Kop end for the most rabid fans and the section that was only converted to seats in 1994. At the opposite side from the Kop, in the Anfield Rd stand, 3000 blues took their place for the game.

The Kop raises their banners prior to the game

The Kop raises their banners prior to the game

There is certainly a routine aspect to parts of the performances between the fans, the chants and songs almost play off each other. From my seat in the Main Stand, near the Kop it was nearly impossible to make out the chants of the Evertonians, but going the other way it was easy to hear taunts of “No trophies for 18 years” (to Que Sera Sera) “Always a blue, almost a Manc” (clearly insulting to anyone from Liverpool) and their own tunes “Glory of Anfield Rd”. All of this of course is nothing to the introduction of the teams and the requisite singing of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. During this particular game, Liverpool had planned a tribute for the support of Everton through all of the ongoing struggles about Hillsborough. On cue and just as the YNWA tune began to play, the Kop all held up placards thank Everton through a Tifo. Being at the angle I was at, unfortunately, made the design difficult to make out completely.

Blue smoke rising from the Everton fans

Blue smoke rising from the Everton fans after the match

In a new twist to the performances this season, both teams brought smoke bombs for YNWA, a red for the Kop and a blue for the blues. Evertonians actually set off about 5 through the course of the game, and each time stewards attempted to find the source, but as it was occurring in the middle of their section, it was difficult for them to pinpoint an individual. In talking to a steward the next day, she said this is a problem for some of the disabled spectators, who are seated nearby, as some of them have breathing difficulties that are triggered by the smoke.

I’m not actually going to go into the game in much detail, as it was generally regarded by all as a bore draw. For all of the tension that goes into the lead up to that particular fixture, the fans were left disappointed by the actual play of the game. However, if there was one group that was relieved by the outcome it was the police and stewards, who find a bore draw much nicer to deal with than a win, blow out, or controversial game. After the game, I managed to get out to Anfield Rd quickly to watch the toffees (Everton fans) march back to their pubs near Goodison Park. As I stood on the side of the road, listening to the buzz of the police helicopter, the fans continued their chants along the way back, and began to point at the Liverpool supporters along the road chanting, “You’re not from here. You’re not from here.” Again emphasizing the “localness” of their own supporters. Moving down the road, I joined a number of Liverpool fans at The Arkles pub, one of the approximately thirteen pubs in the immediate area where fans gather after the game.

In the hours after the game the pub traffic then generally moves to the downtown core where the blues and reds then mix. This is done with far less animosity than in many other English cities, as many of the supporters come from families with mixed support or friends from either side. There is also the shadow of Hillsborough over the fans in the city. As so many Liverpudlians either knew some one killed or injured in the tragedy, fans from both sides seem to have some accord of respect for each other, and save their more vicious rivalry for the Mancunians, who both sides can agree to hate.

Local is the word that frames discussions around football in this city. Local players such as Gerrard and Carragher are celebrated, and local support is key to both sides (even if Everton claim to be more local) and the impending loss of Everton’s manager after a decade to one of their rivals is a sting for many toffees today (and the source of some Schadenfreude for many reds). Local access to the games is important for fans of both clubs, yet there is also an acknowledgement of the importance that a larger following brings the money required for success on the field. The paradox of local dreams in a global sporting environment.

Wednesday on a Saturday

My original plan was to come to Liverpool for the Merseyside derby on May 4, but a couple of weeks ago the league decided to push the game back a day to put it on “Super Sunday” (the other game on the 5th was Chelsea – Man U). So with an extra day, I had a chance to watch the final day of English Championship Football (the league below Premier League). In checking over the schedule I found that Sheffield Wednesday were at home to Middlesborough, and decided to kill two birds with one stone, as I was already planning to visit Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield as part of my research.

A Sheffield pub in the city centre before the match.

A Sheffield pub in the city centre before the match.

On getting there, I realized how much the game was going to dominate the city that day. Everywhere were the blue and white jerseys of the Owls (Wednesday’s nickname). Walking to the stadium I passed pubs packed with fans getting ready for the game (this is England pubs are generally packed, even in the morning). And there were more and more police as I got closer as well, including mounted unit patrolling around the major entrances and at the Leppings Lane gate, where the visiting fans enter. ALthough I’d seen a handful of ‘boro supporters hanging out around the entrance, I talked to one of the stewards and he told me that they were waiting for 14 coaches of ‘boro fans to arrive. A police escort brought them in a few minutes later and many emerged singing their songs ready for the game. Before going in I got a few good shots of very welcoming signs warning that anyone entering certain sections wearing visiting colours would be asked to leave or expelled from the grounds – they were very clear as to where the ‘boro fans had to sit.

Leppings Lane Entrance for the away fans

Leppings Lane Entrance for the away fans

The Kop filled very quickly prior to the game, they had the banners, but at the very back they also have a brass band and drums played by some of their more fanatic fans throughout the game. Along with the band, the loudspeakers play the Wednesday anthem as the players come out, it’s a ’60s song that has had the chorus lyrics changed to, “Hi Ho Sheffield Wednesday!” Sounds fun with 30,000+ singing along. Songs went on through the whole game, perhaps helped by the first goal a few minutes into the game and then another later in the first half. With it 2-0 a new chant started breaking out around the grounds: “We are staying up! We are staying up!”  And by the end of the game, yet another chant made the rounds for a team that wasn’t even playing that day:

The city is ours, the city is ours,

F*** off United, the city is ours.

This of course would be for their rivals Sheffield United, who play across town.

I noticed in the programme that there was a warning asking all fans to remain in the stands following the conclusion of the match, and starting from the 85th minute there was a very nice voice reminding everyone that they were to stay in the stands following the match. This was at the same time as the Kop started moving right up to the stewards and packing the bottom of the stand – with mostly young males right at the front. At the final whistle, they didn’t even hesitate, they streamed right past the stewards and right at the tunnel. After getting a good video of it all, I headed down and joined them. The way the officials finally managed to restore order and clear the field wasn’t through the stick, but by the carrot, another announcement came on that players would return to the pitch for a tribute to the fans once all fans were back in the stands.

On the tram back into town and through the rest of my day the overwhelming sentiment of those who did not go the game was that it was better that Wednesday won, as it made for a happier bunch of drunks than a loss would have. Wednesday chants continuously broke out around the city and in pubs for the rest of my day there, and even on the train, a good number of riders had been to either that game or another somewhere else in Yorkshire. The whole of Saturday in the country is defined by the games and they are inescapable. Even at 10:30 on the platform in Manchester waiting to catch a train to Liverpool, people were starting football chants and very drunk men were vomiting onto the tracks (being cheered on by friends through a football chant “He pukes when he wants, he pukes when he wants…”).

That was Saturday, and that was Championship. Sunday and the derby was still to come…

Di Canio Re(Dux)

Paolo Di Canio’s appointment to Sunderland AFC managed to gain some attention over here. Here’s a link to CBC’s The Current discussion regarding Di Canio from Abraham Foxman (Anti-Defamation League, asking for Di Canio to be fired), Mihir Bose (author of Game Changer, talking about English football), and Alberto Testo (professor at Brunell University, discussing Italian fascism).

The discussion just reinforces to me the performative aspect of Di Canio’s fascism. Here was a player who acted out fascist salutes during his time at Lazio (again, a team with a historical connection to Italian fascists), got tattoos to back his fascist credentials; yet on moving to England to play there is nothing from teammates or his managers to evidence any fascist sympathies. Despite all his antics at Swindon, the fascist performance seems to be absent. Instead, his performance in England has been received as a hotheaded Italian caricature. Either he is a gifted actor who knows his audience, he left his fascist ideas back in Italy, or he realized that his fascism isn’t going to play in England so he’s kept his politics to himself.

And in yet another update to the whole situation, Di Canio now steps into the Tyneside derby this weekend as his team takes on their local rivals Newcastle United. The English FA and local police have already geared up for the traditionally tense match with a warning to the Newcastle fans that fascist salutes will not be tolerated. Yes, far from having to warn the Sunderland fans from taking on the assumed political beliefs of their manager, authorities have taken to warning rivals not to use that as a way of mocking Sunderland’s manager.

So if Di Canio has brought fascist symbols to English sport, then so far the only evidence of it is through the use of them as mockery.