In the last part of this series, we looked at how football could be considered intellectual and, beyond that, virtuosic, taking from both Antonio Gramsci and Paolo Virno. In this second part, we’ll be looking at the history of football in order to provide some examples of what we are talking about, organic intellectuals within football. We’ll then look beyond that to examples of football clubs with a strong political culture, in order to counter reactionary elements within the sport. They’ll act as both previous examples and also an indication on where we should be headed, in terms of how we organise.
To left wing intellectuals like Eagleton and others, football is easily given up as a hotbed for fascism. Part of this is because of the tempting option to look at English football only, alongside a few other examples elsewhere, and to write the whole game off. But the truth is that the beautiful game is an international game, one with a history of political activism and left wing intellectuals. Its history in general is also a working class one, as pointed out by this blog post. Beginning as ‘folk’ or ‘festival’ football in various forms stretching back across the British Isles from the middle ages onwards, it is only relatively recently that it became a codified league sport. Whilst it took its initial rules from private school games, what would become the Football Association (FA) began to form, and so its demographic shifted back to workers in industrial regions. The problem after that point was that, even though it was working class players that made up the team, the clubs that played professional association games were often started by merchants and those with the wealth to do so. This led to Football having a dual nature, simultaneously being a key part of working class culture, whilst also being a capitalist business. The extent to which a team or club would find itself on this spectrum often corresponded to the level – or rather, of profitability – at which one played.
But despite all this, there exists the aforementioned tradition of intellectual activists. If one could be said to be the most famous, it would most likely be Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira, known either as Sócrates or ‘Doctor Socrates.’ A talented and creative midfielder for S.C. Corinthians Paulista, as well as being a qualified MD. Sócrates became known not only for his record as an elegant player for both Corinthians and the national Brazillian team, but also for his political opinions, as he often spoke out against the military junta in power at the time. He rebelled not only against the prevalent political culture of the time, but also the culture within football. He set up the Corinthians Democracy movement within the club, which promoted democratic processes in how the team worked, ensuring it was run by the players. An article by Nation Nyoka states:
‘Off the pitch, the team personified democracy by resolving to make inclusive and communal decisions that included even the cleaner. Decisions included when to have lunch, what time to meet for practice, when to have a toilet break and even if they should stay in with the team hours before the game.’
This was in response to the work regimes within the clubs, which are described as thus by Counterfire:
‘The system known as “concentracao” required footballers not to go out unaccompanied the night before a game and to be in bed by 10pm. Tactics and selections were entirely matters for the coach with no input from the players who were effectively treated like unskilled labour.’
Outside of this approach to the club’s inner workings, Sócrates and his fellow players also engaged in acts of protest on the pitch against the junta. The team would wear subversive slogans, such as ‘Dia 15 Vote,’ and protest for democracy in Brazil. Sócrates would often wear similar messages on his iconic white headband, such as ‘Yes to Love, No to Terror,’ in response to the US bombing Libya in 1986. A lot of this came about because Sócrates was distinctly aware of the virtuosic nature of football. He said in an interview:
‘To win is not the most important thing, football is an art and should be about showing creativity. If Vincent van Gogh and Edgar Degas had known the level of recognition they were going to have, they would not have done the same. You have to enjoy doing the art and not think ‘will I win?’
Football was a space where instances of creative movement and interaction between team members could take place. On the political side, Corinthians took this approach by not seeking to win according to the limits set by the status quo but finding new forms of protest, and in doing so brings together the creative, virtuosity of both cultural, sporting action & political, democratic action. A deeper explanation of this philosophy’s effect on the club can be found in this quote from his biographer, Andrew Downie:
Socrates [sic] thought the masseur, the laundry woman and the stadium janitor played almost an important role as the right back, the reserve goalkeeper… and proposed that they take a percentage of the win bonuses. Under the new leadership, practically all matters at Corinthians – both on and off the pitch – became the subject of debates, voting and accountability. From key questions as to which players to sign, to apparently mundane matters concerning menus, the club became the laboratory for a unique version of ‘player power’. One of Socrates’ teammates described the cumulative effect: Our responsibility grew. We created a democracy that had an effect overall country [sic]. And every game was a final. In 1982, the team ran out onto the pitch for a game with ‘I Want to Vote for My President’ emblazoned on their backs, in blatant defiance of the regime.
Sócrates’ keen awareness of his position as a famous football player led him to put pressure on the government by promising to leave Brazil and play football in Italy, which he did when the junta failed to pass an amendment allowing for Presidential elections. In part, this was a strategy used throughout his career as a rejection of the attempts by the junta to co-opt football victories, particularly those of the national team, in order to capitalise on the fervour that could be taken advantage of for nationalistic purposes. These public acts did not achieve noticeable victories in and of themselves. However, what they did in the long term was create a culture in and outside of the club that contributed to a growing call for democracy within Brazil. This eventually paid off in 1989, when Fernando Collor de Mello came to power and allowed the first Presidential elections since 1960. Ever committed to the struggle, Sócrates rejected becoming an ambassador for football or running for political office, and after retiring from football, ended up playing for Garforth Town and teaching young children to play at one of Simon Clifford’s soccer schools. Far from hitting the bottom of the barrel, it was a project he took great interest in, helping others to find their place in the game. This attitude towards class struggle can be seen in a characteristic comment, when after being asked whether he respected Mazzola or Rivera most, he stated: ‘I don’t know them. I’m here to read Gramsci in [the] original language and to study the history of the workers movement.’
Another prominent left wing footballer, though one with a decidedly more sober assessment of football’s political power, was Paolo Sollier. A militant communist who, in contrast to Sócrates, came from a workers background, being employed at a Fiat factory in southern Turin. He was once asked about how difficult it was to be a leftist footballer, to which he replied, ‘I don’t know. I have never met one.’ This tone, however, was typical of his attitude to politics in and out of the game; uncompromising, caustic & fearless. Before a game started, he could be found raising his fist in a communist salute. Outside of the game, he was a member of organisations such as Avanguardia Operaia and Democrazia Proletaria, as well as writing on a variety of subjects, such as Italian society, the ethics of the dressing room, and the political implications of the game. Paolo’s political interventions were more general symbolic interruptions. His raising of his fist reminded the public during the infamous ‘Years of Lead’ that nothing could escape politics, especially the politics of class struggle and antifascist resistance. These were controversial tactics, contrasting with Sócrates’ protests of specific issues.
His aforementioned criticisms of the always latent but steadily growing commercialisation of football seem very prescient now, as in one interview he said that ‘his fellow players were largely vacuous, politically unengaged and only interested in preserving their own privileged position.’ The appeal of making money, becoming financially secure and prosperous off the back of this commodification of the sport leads to many being silent, which in turn creates a certain perception that facilitates the abuse and rejection of those who speak out, such as Rashford and Sterling. If Rashford’s relatively moderate campaign can get nasty articles and clickbait headlines from reactionary tabloids, then it is not surprising that Sollier’s communist salute was somewhat inflammatory. At one point, even fans of his team Perugia were attacked by Lazio fans, when Sollier said ‘he was looking forward to “beating Mussolini’s team.”‘ But despite the violent context in which he was situated, Paolo stuck to his principles and kept making the salute. For him, it was a cause of grounding himself in an environment that encouraged a certain attitude, which he refused to buy into. He stated, ‘It was a gesture turned inward, to myself. It was a reminder of who I was.’
Sollier provides an interesting comparison to Sócrates, as a lot of Sollier’s political work and activism took place outside of the club, writing for workers’ newspapers and joining some of the autonomist organisations that arose during the period. This was in part because it seemed that he believed it was not possible to be a left wing footballer, at least not in the conditions he was working with. Sollier was a worker, a footballer, and an intellectual, but always a worker first, before anything else. In light of his comments in regards to such, his communist politics in the public arena of football games were an uncompromising resistance to the co-opting and recuperation that commodified entertainment so often partakes in, and in doing so, allowed him to continue with his work outside of it. His fist raising provocations do bear some resemblance to Rashford’s campaign, in that they both interrupted the neatly packaged commodity of football, and exposed its nature as a site for class struggle, by refusing, both in their own ways, to let some of those watching remain comfortable.
The key difference is that Sollier relied on this discomfort to make a stand during a particularly violent period, ensuring that the antagonisms between workers’ organisations, football fans and fascists were heightened, and therefore visible. Rashford’s campaign only managed to make the most extreme uncomfortable, such as the Daily Mail. Whilst the symbolic acts can be argued as not actually having that much of an effect, it was at least supplemented by Sollier’s intellectual work outside of the club. And it is useful to keep in mind that, whatever the effectiveness of Sollier’s actions, it provides a useful template of what to do alongside such public actions, lest we risk the pitifully fast capitulation to racist fans by Millwall FC. Educating, Organising and Agitating are needed, more so than appeals to kindness.
Moving on from these two primary examples, there are a variety of other individual intellectual, left wing footballers to draw from. Another Italian is Cristiano Lucarelli, another communist footballer, who dedicated his performances to left wing groups and workers organisations, and at one point celebrated a goal by bearing a t-shirt of Che Guevara. He even scored two goals against Milan, which was at the time owned by Silvio Berlusconi. An example from Catalonia is Barcelona’s Oleguer Presas, who ‘is best known as a supporter of Catalan independence who turned down a call-up to the Spanish national team for reasons of conscience.’ Oleguer has consistently questioned and criticised the Spanish government’s hold on the region, and alongside that is ‘an economics graduate who contributes to cultural and political journals with carefully elaborated articles,’ alongside supporting literacy campaigns in Catalonia. He has also made a number of anti-imperialist critiques of Western and US foreign policy. For many fans, this draws on and invokes Barcelona FC’s Catalonian and antifascist heritage, though one can also point to the intense commercialisation of the club as a counterpoint to this legacy. However, the point remains that these players act as figures that exemplify the history and culture with which fans can engage.
It is this history, this culture, that is crucially important to building momentum for political praxis outside of individual intellectuals within the club. It has to be a collective endeavour in order for it to be truly effective as a starting point to organising. It must take advantage of the many different elements that make up the supporter base of clubs across the working class, whilst also creating new space for elements that have historically been excluded from such social spaces. The example par excellence of this is F.C. St Pauli, which has been an antifascist space since the 1980s, where the club’s base near ‘the docks of Hamburg – and the nearby red-light district the Reeperbahn – lent itself to the support of squatters, activists and artists who populated the area, leading to the club adopting an alternative fan culture based around social activism and left-wing politics.’ As Houman Barekat writes for Tribune on the book St. Pauli: Another Football Is Possible by Carles Viñas & Natxo Parra, since that time the club and community have never looked back on working for social justice:
‘When 35,000 refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war arrived in Hamburg in the winter of 2015, the club rolled out a banner on a match day declaring ‘Refugees Welcome.’ As well as aid programmes for migrants, the club runs community action schemes providing access to sporting facilities to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. It has also embarked on ecological initiatives: two large beehives were installed at the Millerntor in April 2016 in order to help boost the local bee population.’
However, Barekat takes issue with the mostly positive assessment of the club, and notes that, like many other clubs, St. Pauli is commercialised and aims to make a profit. He states that what the books work is ‘conspicuously lacking is any serious critical reflection.’ He draws specific attention to a quote by a St. Pauli executive who cringingly boasts, ‘We are a cool, sexy club…. We’re not normal.’ He finishes the article by saying of the books declaration that football must return to its communal roots:
‘There is a reductive and fetishistic quality to such pronouncements, harking back to a halcyon time when football truly belonged to the fans. But the fact is that St. Pauli’s reinvention as a leftist and countercultural club in the 1980s was a break with the past, not a continuity. Authenticity cuts both ways; change can be good as well as bad. Football’s ‘social romantics’’are on the right side of history, but they would do well to lay off the misty-eyed nostalgia, and go easy on the pieties.’
I think this is a somewhat condescending take on the situation of St. Pauli and football’s history in general. While it is fair to say that association football has always been commercialised and funded by capitalists, the sport itself began, as the Socialist Party noted, as a community sport, and the fact that any club having a community within the local area, and around the country, provides a space outside of commercialised media. To situate the sport entirely within the context of a cultural media that seems unchanging in its commodification is to accept the constructed presentation of this media as a natural fact of the social relations which its purpose is to reproduce. And beyond that, I take issue with the characterisation of both the writers and the ‘social romantics’ as implicitly impotent and naive, despite the clear positive effect that a left-wing, antifascist culture has on the club, where even the article notes that because ‘St. Pauli espoused an explicitly anti-fascist and anti-homophobic stance long before it became fashionable to do so; the atmosphere at the Millerntor is friendly, inclusive and decidedly un-macho, with the result that roughly 30% of attendees at home games are women.’ Outside of the club’s German base, the East River Pirates have inspired fan communities and gatherings around the world. In the UK, St. Pauli has inspired several community groups, such as the Clapton Community Football Club, ‘a breakaway club formed by the Clapton Ultras, a fan group more left-leaning than the present owners of Clapton FC were willing to accommodate,’ and who have raised ‘attendance from single digits to three figures – and done so wearing an away strip designed to honour the sacrifices of anti-fascist fighters during the Spanish Civil War.’ The article also points to Crystal Palace’s Holmesdale Fanatics and alongside that ‘there’s Aston Villa’s Brigada 1874, Leicester Fosse Boys, Middlesbrough’s Red Faction and Celtic’s Green Brigade.’
All these groups have proved to be an effective way of creating a political culture that fosters belonging and solidarity outside of typical club-fan relations. Not only do they espouse left wing views, but ‘They’ve channelled that energy into action off the pitch, whether it’s collecting money for progressive causes or donating to local food banks and running shelters for the homeless.’ Contrary to the view of them as ‘social romantics’, these ‘Ultras’, as they are often called, are applying the virtuosic and collaborative nature of football to political action, in order to unify the different and varied groups that find their passion in the sport. Furthermore, they are motivated by the knowledge that football clubs are often an integral part of local communities, and as Alex King writes for Huck, the ‘underlying drive is a belief that communities only suffer when they lose gathering places like football clubs, as they forge links between young and old, black and white, male and female, gay and straight, believer and non-believer.’
So we can see here that football’s history, especially in the latter half of the 20th century, confirms this essay’s initial hypothesis that it is an intellectual and political activity that allows individuals to affirm themselves, within both the spheres of performative labour and political action. Not only that, it also provides the inspiration and social base for community organising and a political culture that informs, and is informed by, the changes happening with football stadiums. Developing on the concept of the organic intellectual, we can also see the need to use such figures as part of the working class to help build a radical political culture that allows the community, the fans, to make both the sport and the intellectual political elements immediate to them, and their everyday life. However, a final question remains; how will this relate to a wider political strategy?
Image from Wikimedia Commons.
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