Against Anti-Fascist Football

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In the 2000s, a slew of articles claimed that football had become what the cliched Marx quote famously claimed about religion: the ‘opiate of the masses.’ At its best, sport was apolitical, preventing us from engaging with the social and economic realities of contemporary life. At its worst, if it ever did get political, football encouraged nationalist or regionalist attitudes that would only serve to embolden a rising far-right. In the 2020s, the situation has radically changed, but this position failed to anticipate what would happen. Sport became politicized, but it is serving neither the nationalists nor the revolutionaries. Instead, it remains the ally of a new form of liberal establishment culture. While football presents itself as the pioneer of anti-racism, it’s not as far away from its fascist enemies as it likes to believe.


For a long while, the argument doing the rounds was that sport, and in particular football (both American football and soccer), was used by mainstream media primarily as “distraction”, keeping a potentially insurgent working population down both by diverting attention away from political events that gave rise to greater national and global inequalities and by channeling energy and frustration into the ‘safe’ space of sport.


At that time, with Silvio Berlusconi as a kind of pioneer, the practice of what is now called “sports washing” also became the norm. Companies, politicians, and nation-states began a strategy of laundering their reputations through sports. Of course, this is in the public eye today with Russian oligarch Roman Abramovic’s ownership of Chelsea now being rescinded under sanction – but it was very much the practice of the decade in which he took over the club in 2003. Sports, and football, in particular, could either turn us evil by encouraging national rivalries or distract us from evil by sportswashing and de-politicizing.


Perhaps surprisingly, the 2010s presented a rather different picture. Alongside mind-numbingly boring liberal defenses of football on the grounds that it is healthy to play, a number of more significant critics on the Left offered a (broadly) socialist defense of sport. With its long-standing connection to working-class communities soccer, in particular, writers like Simon Critchley and Joe Kennedy claimed, could become part of a socialist future. One concrete example of this would be Clapton CFC, the “anti-fascist” soccer club re-founded in 2018 in London. Another would be the rise of Forest Green Rovers and their Eco Park, planned since the same year.


Both – taken individually – are important community-driven attempts to improve the political role of sport for progressive agendas. But the BBC and other mainstream media would be quick to turn such developments into something else – a message that sport is united behind its own liberal mainstream politics. When I watch matches at Clapton CFC, its always been striking how little it conforms to the typical structure of football supporting – but we would never know that from the media. For them, it all seemed like quite the party – environmentalism and anti-fascism united with its working class roots in soccer. What could be better than that?


Football discourse was certainly changing. As social media, podcast hosting platforms and blogs took a greater share of the market, the influence was taken away from the back pages of tabloids and their rhetoric of national and regional identity politics. What we might call the ‘bourgeoisification’ of football began – a new language to discuss football, driven by a more intellectual class of journalists, fans and commentators would take hold – perhaps embodied by then number 1 podcast The Football Ramble. The old jargonistic presenters would be replaced by a new generation of clued-up and socially sensitive (perhaps even woke) spokespeople. But would this new generation of fans, commentators, and even players herald a different future for the role of sport in social life? A brighter socialist football?


The next turn of the screw would be triggered by Colin Kaepernick’s 2016 gesture of taking a knee in the stand against racism. US soccer captain Megan Rapinoe would follow suit with comparable protests against Trump. Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford’s work over the last three years serves as a British counterpart to what Kapernick and Rapinoe represented for the US. This is not merely generational: this year retired footballers Gary Neville joined the Labour party and Matt Le Tissier has become a conspiracy theorist. Across the political spectrum, individuals in sports are politicizing, whatever their varied motivations.


When this becomes a serious problem is when this politicization turns from presenting a spectrum of views to normalizing one central position. Now, sports media channels and their sponsors unite in lobbying support behind the discourse of the hour. Following on the tail of their anti-racism campaigns, Sky and BT Sport feature a Ukraine flag on their coverage for every match, and in soccer and in tennis Russian players and teams have been expelled in a series of sanctions. What is even more important than how unfair this might be to Russian people themselves is how it carves out a new role for sport in our political world: that of broadcasting a normative agreed-upon position and asking a population to uniformly comply with it.


When Cristiano Ronaldo lost a son in childbirth, fans united to clap in support in the 7th minute of each game (Ronaldo’s shirt number). To say nothing of Ronaldo’s own controversial relationship to sexual assault, what this moment shows is a kind of aesthetic and emotional experience fostered through sport that is not incomparable to clapping for the NHS on the instructions of Boris Johnson, a practice designed to unite the UK behind its government to steer it through the crisis of Covid-19, or of giving Ukraine first place in the Eurovision song content to manufacture the appearance of united Europe untainted by contradiction.


Last year I stood in the Curva Nord with Lazio’s ultras the Irriducibili, a group I had always been fascinated by as a socialist football fanatic – the most notorious right-wing fascist football hooligans. I had read about how they didn’t allow women and children in the front row, the kinds of fascist salute I would be expected to partake in and the atmosphere of fear I would experience. None of that materialised. Instead, the experience stuck me as little more than a chaotic version of clapping for the NHS. Not understanding the language might have helped hide some of the political subtleties of the content, but it was structurally the same experienceto taking a knee. The media might want to oppose these groups to their own logic, but they’re in fact much the same.


The causes that sports politicize us to lobby behind, from anti-racism, anti-Trump, and pro-Ukraine to gestures of solidarity with individual trauma might appeal to us individually, but taken together they show a pattern of conformism to the hegemonic causes of the minute. It might seem taboo to criticize an anti-racist gesture, but these new structures are in fact a red flag (without a hammer and sickle on it). This is part of what Julie Reshe has called “the blindspot of antifacism”. For Reshe, “to be good today and to assure your goodness is to be actively anti-fascist” and, while it is right to oppose fascism, this is a kind of purifying (a “sportswashing” for us all) which allows our own liberal establishment to purify itself as good and enforce support as the only moral option (think of the controversy of those not kneeling or clapping). In other words, the pleasure we get in being anti-fascist in sport is basically the same as the pleasure we get from being fascist in sport.


Perhaps we might even say that there is a similarity in the structure of enjoyment if we compare the nationalist structure of enjoying the regional rivalries of football spread across the back pages of the tabloids in 2000 with the present liberal enjoyment of anti-fascism, pro-Ukraine solidarity with Ronaldo in 2022. Todd McGowan has recently argued that the hegemonic form of enjoyment that characterizes social life today is rightist in its logic and that liberal mainstream enjoyment has inherited characteristics from a form of enjoyment traditionally reserved for the Right. Perhaps in terms of the form and structure of enjoyment, nothing significant has changed – we have simply substituted the content of nationalism for the content of anti-fascism.


It is obvious that football is no longer an opiate. It was once a cliché that football fans don’t vote, but it’s now easy to imagine them being the future voting force. If they are, it won’t be in the service of the tabloid extremism associated with the sports papers of the 2000s nor in the service of the potentially insurgent socialist community clubs of the 2010s but in the service of established cultural norms.


Sport may no longer dull our senses to politics but make us passionate about them, stimulating us to think – and importantly to feel – by harnessing the emotions of sport and directing them in line with a particular agenda. Sport is no longer the safe place where revolutionary energy can be misdirected but a political mechanism through which our energies can be directed into politics. Unfortunately, it is the politics of a hegemonic liberal culture that, perhaps out of fear of the Right, the Left has supported into dominance. We have simply allowed the structure to repeat itself, replacing nationalist ideology with the content of the moment – which is agreed in advance by contemporary norms. In this sense anti-fascism in sport is much closer to fascism than it likes to think.