Anyone who knows me well, would’ve heard me harp on and on about how awesome football (soccer) is, and how we’re going to have a social revolution come out of the stadiums … And while I tend to exaggerate, once again, we hear news of the connections between football as a space for organizing and social change. This time, it’s Egypt.
http://www.edgeofsports.com/2011-01-31-596/index.html (via Ryan Hayes)
Over the decades that have marked the tenure of Egypt’s “President for Life” Hosni Mubarak, there has been one consistent nexus for anger, organization, and practical experience in the ancient art of street fighting: the country’s soccer clubs. Over the past week, the most organized, militant fan clubs, also known as the “ultras,” have put those years of experience to ample use.
And, it’s apparent that the Egyptian government and neighbouring governments have taken notice. The Egyptian Soccer Federation has suspended all league games, to prevent fans from congregating. The Libyan Football Federation has also suspended all games for the foreseeable future. The article goes on the discuss the history of Al Ahly, Egypt’s biggest clubs, as a focal point for anti-colonial struggle (Al Ahly means “The National”), and the role its supporters groups have played in organizing neighbourhood committees and resisting the police.
I do not deny that football support can be highly problematic. From misogynist behaviour to homophobia. As well, often times, football support, as with many spaces occupied by marginalized youth dealing with issues of unemployment, can swing toward the other direction, towards fascism and white supremacy. But nevertheless, as a space of congregation, often the only legal space for congregation in many countries, it also creates the potential for the type of uprising we see in Egypt. Football and left politics has had a long history, from anarchist organizing in FC Barccelona (the club was eventually banned .. today, it’s one of the biggest clubs in Europe), to Sankt. Pauli fans in recent years protesting sexist FHM ads in their stadium. From Kowloon Motor Bus drivers walking off the job to watch KMB play South China in 1960s Hong Kong, to players like Kanoute and Aboutrika expressing support for the Palestinian people during goal celebrations.
In Toronto, as with the general marginalization of the left seen in the North American public consciousness, expressions of a left consciousness may not be as visible as in other places. However, drawing from personal experiences, left sympathies are not absent. Football support culture has followed from Europe and the Global South to Toronto FC, and the experience of supporting TFC is very different from say, Toronto Blue Jays. For one, unlike the Blue Jays, there are no cheer people hired by the club positioned in the stands instructing people how and what to cheer. Instead, the various supporters groups (including RPB, U-Sector, North End Elites, Tribal Rhythm Nation, 114 Ultras) develop their own songs, banners, and chants. The bottom-up nature of TFC support also means that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (who own TFC) don’t have as much control over what happens in the stands. Thus, when the company decided to gouge even more money and keep working-class supporters from attending games by raising ticket prices, supporter groups reacted strongly, creating banners, dressing in green (to symbolize money and greed) and protesting.
The political aspects of TFC support isn’t limited to fare increases. Throughout my times at Exhibition Field (I refuse to call it BMO Field.. the home of TFC), I have seen FMLN flags (though I was also told that these individuals left the May Day rally early to attend the game .. *tsk tsk*) and Che banners. I have witnessed TFC fans turn their backs to the Canadian anthem (ok.. this might be stretching it, most of those who turned their backs were anarchists I personally knew). And while at times, the majority can hardly be considered progressive, there is a healthy left opposition within these supporter groups. I remember vocal debates during the first season around whether to throw yellow streamers to celebrate Remembrance Day during a TFC game that fell on that day. A great number of supporters spoke strongly against this idea, citing the Canadian military’s role in colonialism and rejecting expressions of nationalism, often bringing in their own experiences of displacement. Or another time, when I found on facebook a bunch of white supremacist youth planning to start a supporters group, based on fascist hooligan groups from Europe, supporters from RPB condemned the group and made plans to create anti-racist banners.
(TFC supporters protest fare increases, ‘Our City, Our Club!’)
I love Chomsky, but I can’t say I agree completely with his understanding of spectator sports as a bread and circus show, designed to distract the masses. That would be a bit of an oversimplification. Despite all its problems with various oppressive behaviours, and no doubt a space not accessible to many marginalized groups, I don’t think it’s a space we can just reject. I accept that some fellow lefties will have no interest, but those of us who do participate should not be shunned. Even discounting the political arguments, football, like religion, is an opiate, as Marx so famously said. And, opiates, while potentially destructive, are also soothing, providing some sort of support in an alienating world. It’s where a lot of people find and build communities, in a social framework that atomocizes. Indeed, Football is a vital component of many migrant communities here in Toronto and working-class communities elsewhere. And, as we see with current happenings in Egypt, oftentimes, football can be a vital component of politics (and vice versa). While we should approach any form of mass culture critically, we must also avoid inadvertently erasing histories of resistance that may exist within popular expressions. So, ‘C’mon you Reds!’ (…both TFC and my sisters and brothers form the left)