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Sunday, 9 December 2018

Sports on Sunday: Football Lads

Yesterday, 'my team', Chelsea beat Manchester City 2-0 at Stamford Bridge. During the match Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling reported that there was racist abuse directed at him from among the home supporters. That this is not surprising to me is much to do with the history of Chelsea's support, a portion of whom have been long acknowledged as violent racists. Indeed, like many firms, for them this is a badge of honour.

It has been a recent fantasy that since 1990 the 'bad old days' of hooliganism had been expunged from football. That it had instead been replaced with a family-friendly inclusive and modern way of supporting teams and following the game. Something that meant that 'being a fan' was paying for a Sky Sports subscription, rather than actually attending matches and experiencing the game itself. A more distant and impersonal attachment to sport, something that allowed for a global reach, that was more like marketing a brand, and was to many something that started to feel plastic and hollow. Football support, that is watching and not playing, is about the crowd and belonging. This is something that Bill Buford recognised.

'Among the Thugs' (1990) by Bill Buford captures a certain restless self-destructive energy that describes the society of the hooligan. A willing giving of the self to the crowd, to throw away individuality into a nihilistic ecstasy of frenzied togetherness. The wish to belong, to be part of something, and to feel that you are special in that. What makes you worthy is ironically that you have given up your personality for membership of the crowd, you have ceased being singular and are now part of a collective. That this collective is dedicated to violence is bizarre, irrational, even utterly foolish, but more than the collective wish to enjoy music or sport or be together in some ideological spirit, instead the hooligan embraces their outsider otherness, their wilful destructive hate. It is more enlivening, more thrilling, more real, because it is so anti-conventional. A line has been crossed. It is this 'line' that Buford seeks to describe in other crowd behaviours; the Yugoslav protest turned violent, the football crowd pushing themselves to cross the street, and in doing so make a physical sign that they have transgressed the rules of normalcy and that now, anarchy rules, the mob rules. Standard practice is being, temporarily, abandoned in favour of; self-abnegation, public destruction, social disorder, and the joy, the thrill, the excitement of violence. Whether an individual participant threw a punch or not, they were there when it all "went off."

Joe Kennedy's 'Games Without Frontiers' (2016) also points to another development in this resurgent hooligan attitude in football. That it is the working-class man's game and that the behaviours that they, the ultras, engage in are those that are 'true' to the authentic British male's experience. This experience rejects the hollow and plastic commodification of the game, but it also rejects the perceived middle-class gentrification of what is 'theirs' in another way. It labels the social improvements (as I would see it) of anti-racism, anti-misogyny, anti-homophobia (in short, anti-bigotry) as itself being unauthentic to the British working-class. A nonsense that effectively denies the fact that any working-class person could ever be anti-racist (f.e.) without being either a class traitor or a fake. So, something that started being about rejecting commercialisation of sport is now about the definition of what 'real' British maleness is, or at least, this is what the politicisation leads towards. And what counts as 'real' is the anti-feminist, anti-Islam, anti-immigration agenda of the far-right, which portrays itself as the 'real' voice of the working-class.

Racially abusing a black player on the other team therefore is, in this mindset, merely a case of a 'bit of banter', as it wasn't directed at all black players on both sides, it was just 'part of the game', just a bit of ridiculing the opposition and what if the middle-class PC SJW snowflakes don't like the language used, it's 'only words'.

Something that Buford also highlighted in his book was the attempted politicisation of these football firms in the 1980s by the National Front. He describes attending a gathering at a remote country pub that was organised by Nick Griffin. Then of the NF but who would later lead the British National Party to their, thankful, demise after a modicum of political success. However, although the BNP has dissolved back into the shadows. The people involved and, more importantly, their ideas did not.The attempts to hold influence over various different football firms coalesced into the English Defence League, which was founded in 2009 with 'Tommy Robinson' soon becoming the group's leader.

The Football Lads Alliance was founded in 2017, but represents only the most recent part of this ongoing politicisation of football fans, or more expansively, of the white working-class male. That this has also come on the rising tide of nationalism and of anti-Islamic feeling in Britain is no surprise. It was no surprise, because this has always been their intent. Our contemporary Nick Griffin, 'Tommy Robinson' is today participating in the Brexit betrayal march in London and like the attention parasite he is, this has particularly prescient timing. The ongoing 'yellow vest' riots in Paris (to which many in the far-right have added their support), and planned for only two days before a major vote on the future of Brexit in parliament. This march represents another attempt to infest one cause, Ukip's obsessive "Will of the people" hard Brexit, with the opinions and attitudes of the far-right.

Let's bring this back to the original case, which I see has now already turned into a 'one bad fan' story and carries with it the ubiquitous allegedly. It is also unhelpfully tinged by the excessive reporting on Raheem Sterling, who is a somewhat controversial figure in football, in that he seems to have opinions and the ability to articulate them (and he's black). Of course, it will be a simple enough matter to dismiss this as one rare occurrence and not in the 'true spirit' of the everyday fan. Well, of course, this is the case, it is not as if the far-right's opinion of the British working-class is in fact true. Worryingly though many other (non-working-class) people seem to buy into this depiction and (f.e.) blame Brexit on this stereotyped view of the thuggish racist working-class, something aided no doubt by sensationalist media coverage.

Certainly the attitudes and behaviours of many 'everyday' football fans don't help their case in the public eye, but then this is confusing an ebullient, albeit aggressive, atmosphere at football matches with something inherently dangerous. Much like the conservatives reaction to punk, or rock n' roll, or anything that seems counter-cultural (to them). In short, it is partly motivated by a fear of the working-class, something that only helps strengthen the far-right's attempts to show that they, the white working-class men, are the 'real victims' or other such falsehoods to gain recruits to their agenda of hate.

I will be writing more about Stephen Yaxley-Lennon AKA 'Tommy Robinson' and the recent soft coup of Ukip and the general 'crowd behaviour' dynamic of many online communities, but this story felt like it needed an immediate response and it's been a subject on my mind for some time.

P.S. Although this should really have been titled 'Secular Sunday: Football Lads' I couldn't resist.

Both are recommended reading.