Saturday, 16 January 2010
Spirit of the Old Game; the growing resistance to corporate football
Football clubs existed as an extension of their local communities; they were formed by churches, pubs and other community organizations. Football was a working man’s game, producing charismatic figures such as Brian Clough and Bill Shankly, times it seems have changed.
Like much of Post-Thatcher British society, the soul of English football has been replaced by an obsessive worship of money. The commodification of football has turned the sport into entertainment, its fans into consumers. While the market has provided top quality standards to the English league, there has been a heavy price to pay. We are told that competition within capitalist society is healthy and creates winners, unfortunately it also creates losers. The role finance plays in the game has left many football clubs up to their necks in debt, top flight clubs such as Leeds United have hurtled down the leagues due to the sale of the clubs' assets key players.
Unleashing market forces upon the game, with sizable returns from TV contracts, merchandise and ticket prices, has resulting in colossal weekly wages for premiership footballers. Despite this, some individuals, nodding to their backgrounds, have attempted to do more with their wealth than buy fast cars, property portfolio’s and holiday homes in Dubai. For instance, Alex Ferguson, a former Clyde shipyards shop steward, has donated substantial sums of money to the labour party. Perhaps more impressively, Javier Zanetti, form Inter Milan captain, managed to persuade Inter Milan to donate thousands of Euros to the Zapatista guerillas in Mexico. Zanetti even talked his club into giving away the money from fines for late arrival or using mobile phones to help rebuild after the village of Zinacantán, after it got attacked by government forces. While individuals cannot change society on their own, they can be useful in mobilizing their communities. For instance, Diego Maradona’s admiration for Fidel Castro and declared anti-imperialist politics, derived from his experience of growing up in poverty, is useful in bringing progressive politics to the mass of Latin America.
Marx described the process whereby as the bourgeoisie develops the forces of production, it also develops the very force that will overthrow capitalism. What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Well, in football terms, the more the directors develop boxes, business seats, and overpriced season tickets, the more it will create angry football fans, pissed off with the state of the contemporary game. The shared identity of football fans can result in organisation that campaign for progressive reform of the whole structure of the game.
There is a rich tradition of politics being mixed up with football, although the mixture of neo-Nazism and hooliganism is a particularly ugly side of it. In Britain, this manner of organisation of the far-right in football has been witnessed most recently with the association of UK Casuals United with the English Defense League. While groups such as Lazio's Irriducibili, and Real Madrid’s Ultras Sur are rooted within this fascist tradition, the far-right by no means have a monopoly over such organisations.
There is a wide range of ultra groups that adopt a leftist ideology that is represented by their chants and iconography. This stance reflects the traditional politics of the working class districts where the supporters live. The most famous example of leftist ultras is the special relationship between Livorno's Brigate Autonome Livornesi, Olympique de Marseilles Curva-Massilia and AEK Athens's Original 2. The political rhetoric displayed by these groups is often dismissed as posturing; however, some of these organisations do have an impact. NK Zagreb's Bijeli anđeli have challenged the violent fascism prevalent among Croatian football fans by opposed all forms of discrimination and adopting an anti-hooliganism stance.
Ultra groups, together with the vast majority of football fans, view what you could call the modern game with hostility. The price of tickets, drive toward all-seater stadiums and the buying and selling of players for ridiculous amounts of money are common grievances. This attitude towards the modern game represents the potential basis for the politicisation of football fans against commercialism both within football and in broader society. The opposition to the role that money plays in the modern game and the flagrant manner in which wealth is displayed has been on show in stadiums across the world. Banners stating "Contro Il Calcio Moderno" (Against modern football) in Italy or "Love Football, Hate Business" in Britain.
This increasing commercialisation of football has inspired more firm action in the rise of fan-owned clubs. SV Austria Salzburg fans re-established the team in response to the takeover of SV Austria Salzburg by the Red Bull company. The club was renamed Red Bull Salzburg and its traditional colours of violet and white were changed to red and white and its emblem incorporated two Red Bulls. In Britain this process has taken off. FC United of Manchester was formed in response to the hostile takeover of Manchester United by the American businessman Malcolm Glazer. FC United of Manchester is run democratically as an Industrial and provident society, the club accepts sponsorship but does not allow sponsors' logos to be displayed on the team's shirts. AFC Wimbledon was founded by supporters of Wimbledon Football Club in response to the relocation and renaming of the club. In 2003, the Football Association had agreed to allow Wimbledon F.C. to relocate 56 miles north to Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire. In 2004 the club was renamed Milton Keynes Dons Football Club. However, the Football Supporters Federation, an organization that campaigns for increased fan representation on clubs' boards and the reintroduction of safe standing areas, boycotted the new club. In response Milton Keynes Dons Football Club handed over the trophies and memorabilia of Wimbledon F.C. to the London Borough of Merton and ended its claim to the history of Wimbledon F.C. AFC Wimbledon is run by the Dons Trust, an Industrial and provident society, who have a majority share in the club.
“The socialism I believe in,” said the legendary Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly, “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.”The strength of the man’s character lives on it seems, when confronted with new American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, a group of Liverpool FC fans formed a group called the spirit of Shankly. The group claims to be the country’s first ever football supporters union. One stated short term aim of the group is “to hold whoever owns the football club to account”, the ultimate aim being “the supporter ownership of Liverpool Football Club”. The group took a big part in the recent resignation of Tom Hicks Junior from the Board of Liverpool FC, after the son of one of the American owners abused a fan.
Back in the day, figures such as Brian Clough, who was also chairman of the Anti-Nazi League, appeared on miners' picket lines. Clough, a committed socialist, was approached by the Labour Party to stand as a Parliamentary candidate in General Elections, although he declined. By no means so characters like this no longer exist; I am sure that all progressive football fans would like to see more players like Cristiano Lucarelli, the communist striker for Livorno. Not only is his goal celebration a dual clenched-fist salute, but his ringtone is Bandiera Rossa. Antics, such as getting cautioned for pulling up his team shirt to display the face of Che Guevara, represent somewhat of the old spirit of the game. Lucarelli is a product of his upbringing in Italy’s red belt. His popularity with the crowd goes further than his playing ability, in Lucarelli’s words “We [Livorno] get no favors from the referees because we are Communists!”
The rise of fan’s organisations that campaign against the excesses of the modern game and advocate more say for fans in the running of the clubs that they love embodies a shift in attitudes. Fans are angry about the commodification of football. Progressive football fans need to engage with this sentiment to ensure that this criticism of the modern game continues to advocate cooperative solutions. There is nothing to stop this resentment over modern game from being transferred to opposition to capitalism. If money is ruining football and the remedy is fan-ownership of clubs, this must lead to the conclusion that greed is ruing our country and the only antidote is the democratic ownership of the economy.