BEYOND THE TOUCHLINE: HOW THE FOOTBALL STADIUM REFLECTS TODAY'S POLITICAL QUAGMIRE

BEYOND THE TOUCHLINE: HOW THE FOOTBALL STADIUM REFLECTS TODAY'S POLITICAL QUAGMIRE

On 23rd June 2016, Britain voted to leave the European Union. Four days later, the England national team crashed out of the European Championships in France after a shock defeat to Iceland. Quite predictably, jokes and memes comparing and drawing analogies between the two events went viral on the internet.

Philosopher, semiotician, and lifelong football fan Jacques Derrida had once declared, “Beyond the touchline, there is nothing.” It would be folly to interpret this as football being somehow superior to the goings on of life beyond the football pitch. What Derrida perhaps meant to convey was that everything that happens outside the stadium – politics, economics, or even art or culture – is automatically reflected inside it. The football pitch, at least for Derrida, was thus a microcosm of life itself.

This is, of course, not to say that England getting knocked out of Euro 2016 is even remotely related to Britain leaving the European Union. Derrida’s statement, however, does have some value, as is very evident in developments in the footballing world especially in the last few decades.

Since the last decade of the 20th century, direct consumption of football has been growing in almost exponential terms throughout the world. At its forefront is, of course, the empire that is the English Premier League, which, with the help of cable and later satellite TV, spread its tentacles throughout Africa and Asia a couple of years into the new millennium. The Spanish, German, and Italian leagues soon followed.

Meanwhile, outside the stadium, as the Soviet Union breathed its last, in the United States, Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) were busy formulating what they referred to as “The Third Way”. By 1993, Tony Blair had been won over, and in 1997, after the victory of New Labour, Blair, now Prime Minister, hosted a bilateral meeting on the future of “New Democrat-New Labour politics”. In 1999, the same year, Manchester United completed the treble in a dramatic European Cup final in Barcelona, and won for itself dedicated fans throughout the world; German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and Dutch and Italian prime ministers Kim Wok and Massimo D’Alema attended a meeting with Clinton and Blair to discuss these new politics that were supposed to end what they considered to be restrictions brought about by left-wing ideology.

Al From, the CEO of the DLC, described the core concepts of The Third Way in the following vein: “Its first principle and enduring purpose is equal opportunity for all, special privilege for none. Its public ethic is mutual responsibility. Its core value is community. Its outlook is global.” Then came the killer blow that was aimed at finishing off a Left that was struggling to come to terms with a new, rapidly liberalizing world – “And, its modern means are fostering private sector economic growth...”

In The New Democrats, From declared that The Third Way was “the worldwide brand name for progressive politics for the Information Age.” As politics was reformulated into a “brand”, top-flight European football clubs (which were already run like companies) found that they had evolved into something resembling multinational conglomerates. Football, or rather, the “football experience”, became a commodity that now had to be sold globally at an unprecedented scale. Post-Bosman Ruling in 1995, the “New Football Economy” followed The Third Way’s emphasis on investment in capital rather than redistribution – elevating a few clubs into “giants” and pushing countless others onto the path of decline. In super-agents like Mino Raiola, football also found its counterpart to the Washington lobbyist.

To make football uniformly “consumable” to people across continents, the sport had to be sanitized and made devoid of any meaning barring that of the spectacle of the game itself. In other words, the stadium had to be made to appear “neutral” and protected from any external element that might give the game a meaning that surpasses the events on the pitch; the ghosts of the Spanish Civil War that haunt the El Clasico, the reflection of the class struggle whenever Olympique Marseille play Paris Saint-Germain, the anxiety of race and colonialism that crops up when Algeria play France or Brazil play Portugal - the instances are endless. Thus we have laws preventing any political or ideological messages to be displayed inside the stadium – the fine imposed by UEFA on Celtic after its fans displayed Palestinian flags in a European fixture against Israeli club Hapoel Be’er Sheva is one among many examples of the stringent enforcement of these laws.

Halfway around the world, China, which had a liberal economy for more than a decade, joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001. In 2004, the Chinese first division was restructured to form the Chinese Super League, which today pays some of the highest weekly salaries to footballers and financially challenges the European big guns. That same year, Australia replaced its ailing Australian Soccer League with the revamped A-League, which follows the no-promotion-no-relegation format of Major League Soccer in the United States.

India liberalized its economy in 1991, and just seven years later, in 1998, (now absconding) alcohol baron Vijay Mallya’s United Breweries bought half the shares of both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan – rival Kolkata clubs which were also two of the biggest and oldest clubs in the country. The clubs were rechristened to Kingfisher East Bengal and McDowell’s Mohun Bagan. Indian football walked the tightrope between absolute commercialism and fan-based football for quite some time until the increasing preference of European football among the younger generations ensured that interest in local football was on a steady decline.

In 2014, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) gave its blessings to Reliance Industries and the United States-based International Management Group to launch the franchise-driven Indian Super League (ISL). A merger between the ISL and the existing premier division, the I-League has been on the cards, but is stalled at present after several clubs objected to the terms of the merger. As well as this, the demand for East Bengal, associated with migrants and refugees from neighbouring Bangladesh, and Mohun Bagan, associated with the native populace of Kolkata, to change their names, colours, crest, and even shift out of Kolkata (since the city already has a franchise team) was met with public outrage.

While the inherent contradictions within this proposed merger evoked a sense of wariness about commercial interests, it also threw up a question essential to football – the question of identity. To put it simply, what does it mean to be a fan? Taking the example of Kolkata, for instance, was the fan’s loyalty supposed to be pledged to the older clubs or the new franchise based out of the city? To stretch this idea further, is the young football fan supposed to feel guilt for preferring to watch football being played halfway around the world rather than his/her local stadium? The global football empire has brought the typically postcolonial anxiety of not belonging, of not being “either here or there” - which so far had perhaps wracked only the urban, educated class, who were fluent in European languages and familiar with western culture - to the larger populace.

While the fandom of the top flight European clubs expands globally, paradoxically the “identity” of the club that is embellished and promoted as deeply rooted in its history and culture, and hence its particularities, is spatially located around the club. A further question thus emerges – can a fan from distant Africa or Asia ever relate to or, in football parlance, “belong” to a European club? On non-European online forums, these anxieties sometimes reach ludicrous levels where older fans brand their younger counterparts as “plastics” or “glory hunters”, and each group tries to prove its own authenticity – it does not matter to either group that all of them have started supporting their club only in the globalized era or that neither of them live or have lived anywhere near the club. A significant example is the use of the term “Man U”, which always incites long lectures from the more learned fans, although as Giles Oakley, author of Red Matters, has shown, the term is not derogatory in any sense and had been used to refer to Manchester United long before the Munich tragedy.

Back in Europe, fandom can be broadly divided into two groups – those who have accepted the rapid commercialization of the sport into a global industry as a stage in its “development”, and those who have shifted their allegiances to newly formed “alternative” fan-owned clubs or are supporters of the Against Modern Football (AMF) movement. However, as Joe Kennedy argues in Games Without Frontiers, the AMF is not necessarily progressive insofar, as simplistically going back to the “old days” would mean a return to a game rife with racism, sexism and homophobia – a boy’s club of sorts. There is, however, a third option – like Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem or Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls – fan-owned clubs committed to greater inclusivity. Such clubs have cropped up throughout the world. Yet in Europe and especially in England, the general perception to this group of fans with their leather jackets and political banners is that they are remnants, or worse, a rebirth of the ‘80s hooligan culture that is ruining the game by bringing politics into it.

A good case in point would be the recent clash between Clapton Ultras (who are now moving to take control of the club and make it fan-owned) and right-wing groups. In 2014, right-wing groups took notice of Clapton FC, when its fans lent support to the pro-immigration anti-raids movement, and made official complaints against the displayed political banners in matches – a violation of football regulations. While this tactic had previously worked against the Inter-Village Firm of Mangotsfield FC – they had banned all political and ideological symbols from their stadium – it failed when it came to Clapton, whose chairman issued a statement succinctly stating that the club has and always will stand against racism or discrimination of any kind. Realising that this tactic would not work, members of the English Defence League and South East Alliance attacked Clapton supporters, resulting in clashes between them and the Clapton Ultras. However, as Kennedy points out in his book, these were the same groups that severely criticised the UEFA for banning the English and Scottish teams from wearing poppies which has morphed from a symbol of mourning and remembrance into a symbol for British aggressive pride. Here we see that the demand for the game to be apolitical is raised only when it comes to progressive politics.

The anxiety of “authentic” fandom also exists within the AMF movement itself. While leftist fans are often derided as “liberal hipsters” who are just seeking to imitate the now well-known anarcho-punk culture of clubs like St. Pauli, sexist, racist, or homophobic comments are often passed off as “banter” integral to the game. Across the Atlantic, in the United States, the whole sport of soccer comes under attack by conservatives, since the game is perceived to be, according to historian and author of Soccer vs. the State, Gabriel Kühn, a “liberal sport”, a “college sport”, and, perhaps more tellingly, an “immigrant’s sport”. While fans today seek to prove their authenticity inside the stadium or the online football forum, outside, in the realm of politics, this translates into more significant questions of English-ness, American-ness, or French-ness accompanied by open Islamophobia, racism, and anti-migrant (and in the wake of the crisis in the Middle East, anti-refugee) sentiments.

That the politics of “apolitics” and neoliberalism has spectacularly failed is evident – even the IMF has admitted it, even going so far as to say that its costs could be “much larger than the benefit”. Liberals breathed a sigh of relief when technocrat (and tellingly, independent candidate) Emmanuel Macron won the French Presidential Election, beating far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen. Yet critics are afraid that the win is only a temporary, ineffective stop-gap, and that “Macron 2017 = Le Pen 2022”. Perhaps they have reason to be cynical – Macron was responsible for many of the economic policies that caused the fall of the Hollande government. Moreover, the labeling of Le Pen being as the candidate Macron “had to beat” in the run-up to the elections led to the complete normalisation of the National Front and its far-right ideology – what used to be (at least, on the surface) taboo became normal in the French political discourse.

In 1992, the DLC issued a document called The Mandate for Change, which discussed several core agendas of what would become The Third Way – “economic growth generated in free markets as the prerequisite for opportunity for all,” “equality in terms of opportunity, not results,” and a rejection of the “liberal emphasis on redistribution in favor of pro-growth policies that generate broad prosperity”. According to Lily Geismer, historian and author of Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Trans­formation of the Democratic Party, these changes reflected a steady shift in the balance of power within the Democratic Party, from labour unions to suburban white collar professionals and technology corporations. Hillary Clinton’s shock defeat to Donald Trump in the US Presidential elections gives testament to how alienated liberal centrists have become from the vast majority of the populace – as Thomas Frank wrote in The Guardian, she was a “technocrat who offered fine-tuning when the country wanted to take a sledgehammer to the machine.” Her electoral campaign was data-driven by a complex algorithm called “Ada”. Its spectacular failure reveals that despite what the Silicon Valley may believe, algorithms and AI can often not “see” real world contingencies.

Joe Kennedy points out in Games Without Frontiers that this strange reliance on technology has today gripped the footballing world. It is beyond doubt that Billy Beane’s “Moneyball” strategy has helped several smaller football clubs compete with their bigger counterparts, most notably FC Midtjylland and AZ Alkmaar. Data analytics has also helped footballers improve their performance. However, while statistical analytical models might, in a sense, level the playing field between a small club like Alkmaar and a global giant like Bayern Munich, it does nothing to solve the problem of the existence of the huge gap between the two clubs in the first place.

Moreover, the idea on which statistical analysis rests is that everything (in the case of football, perhaps each match or each pass or kick) can be neatly parceled into specific - for lack of a better metaphor - boxes, and then analysed neatly, contributing to the culture of global capital. Yet, as it failed to deliver Clinton the Presidency, so in football, it is well known that data analysis alone can never assess a player completely.

Kennedy argues that this is because data analytics, like its political counterpart, Ada, will never be able to account for the real world. Contingencies will always crop up that will resist and exceed a simple numerical classification. Indeed which algorithm could have predicted Eric Cantona kung-fu kicking a fan at Selhurst Park and being punished with a lengthy ban? While this is an example of how a real world contingency can intrude upon what is today considered to be a “parceled off” game, there is also another important side to this. Cantona’s lunge was met with little sympathy from the press – it was described as “shameful” and as a “most horrendous incident”. Few wrote about how the fan, Matthew Simmons, a man who allegedly had neo-Nazi sympathies, had been racially abusing him - a problem black footballers face throughout the world. Such incidents illustrate how politics outside the stadium intrude upon what is assumed to be a protected, neutral space.

Francis Fukuyama had proclaimed the dying days of the Soviet Union as the moment that marked the birth of a post-ideological world and the endpoint of humanity’s socio-cultural evolution – “the end of history”. Fukuyama clearly has been proven wrong. However, at a time when the dominant narrative portrayed a choice between centrist neo-liberals or conservative right-wingers, Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, deemed to be too leftist and “unelectable”, have emerged as popular counterpoints. Both gathered their support from extensive campaigning at the grassroots level.

If we are to reclaim the game and make it a progressive and inclusive sport, it is perhaps time to embrace and lend our serious support to fan-owned, grassroots football clubs which are also dedicated to anti-fascism and the fight against xenophobia, homophobia, and sexism. Beyond the touchline, as far as electoral politics go, figures like Sanders and Corbyn have made progressive politics “popular” again. The more disillusioned or radically inclined, however, can always pay heed to Slavoj Žižek’s plea, “Do not be afraid, join us, come back! You've had your anti-communist fun, and you are pardoned for it – time to get serious again!”

By IBWM Senior Writer Shirsho Dasgupta

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