Workers of the World United: Football and Socialism

One true test of  any socialist, regardless of their party or their background, is their reaction to the world ‘football’. Some sneer and write it off, often arguing that it is merely a tool to distract the masses, perhaps even going so far as to suggest the sport encourages ‘un-socialist’ ideas of competition.  However there are those who, even though they may dislike the sport and would struggle to think of anything worse than a 0-0 away day at Grimsby, will still acknowledge its cultural and economic importance to the working class.

Looking at the writings of the left it didn’t take long to find this piece, by New Left literary critic and SWP pin-up Terry Eagleton:

 “If the Cameron government is bad news for those seeking radical change, the World Cup is even worse. If every rightwing think tank came up with a scheme to distract the populace from political injustice and compensate them for lives of hard labour, the solution in each case would be the same: football. No finer way of resolving the problems of capitalism has been dreamed up.

Along with television, it is the supreme solution to that age-old dilemma of our political masters: what should we do with them when they’re not working?

Football these days is the opium of the people. Nobody serious about political change can shirk the fact that the game has to be abolished.”

Snobbish intellectualism has no place in Socialism. The key task for any socialist is to have their fingers on the pulse of the working class. That is the very science of Marxism, asking where is the consciousness of the working class? What are the issues that matter to the working class? How best can I best engage with and promote my ideas to the working class? This piece could not be further from that task.

It would be correct to say, as I will show, that the professionalisation of football has been used by the capitalist class, as most forms of entertainment have been historically used by the ruling class, as a distraction from the daily toils of life, or at other times as a concession to the working class. While it would be correct to say that some in the capitalist class still see football as serving this role, it would be patronising in the extreme, to the millions of working class people who watch and play the game, to declare that they’ve simply been conned or duped, that their love of the sport as entertainment is simply a form of crowd control ‘brainwashing’.

Football is a unique cultural phenomenon. No other sport or leisure activity has developed and spread globally like it, but it is not the sport itself that is of interest to socialists, rather it is the supporters, the millions who watch and participate in the game. Outside of the trade union movement there are very few areas of modern society where thousands of working class people can gather under a common banner, in support a common cause. While some may cast this aside as mere tribalism, there exists clear feelings of inter-fan solidarity, which if promoted can have a positive great impact on promoting working class consciousness.

Rather than denouncing football  as Eagleton has done  it is our task to argue that football must be taken out of the hands of the capitalist class, so it can no longer be used as a tool of subjugation, and put it into the hands of working people, in exactly the same way we would with society as a whole.

Growth of Football

The development of professional football, as a cultural and economic entity, actually mirrors the development of capitalism itself. Indeed in its current  post-1990 form its success is anchored to the growth and fortunes of the neo-liberal capitalist system, and as a economic business model it no doubt suffers from the same inherent contradictions, which presents socialists with the a unique opportunity. However to understand the opportunity football presents we must first consider its origins.

Football as a sport has hazy origin, but it originally began as ‘folk’ or ‘festival’ football in various forms stretching back across the British Isles from  the middle ages onwards. Records show attempts by the authorities to ban ‘football’ from as far back as the 16th century, seeing the assembly of large groups of peasants or workers as a potential threat, resulting in the only official records of organised games talking place on festival days.

In the early 19th century a transition began, taking football away from the localised folk traditions and transforming in into a modern codified system of ‘association football’ or soccer. It was in this form that the game became a sport of the privileged social classes, who developed it, alongside other team games, for their own material class interests.

The history of the world hitherto is a history of class struggle, so Marx proclaimed in the Communist Manifesto and so it is with the history of Football; with the first class clash taking place between the aristocracy and the rising capitalist class of the early 1800’s.

The first codified ‘official’ football matches took place in the public schools of Rugby and Harrow. At this time the aristocracy used team sports as a core part of the curriculum for officer training, attempting to use the ethos and values of team sports for the production of Empire building officers and gentlemen. Sporting contest as training for war is an idea typically associated with the working class today, with no shortage of leftist commentators explaining how the patriotic fervour  generated by international fixtures is but a dress rehearsal for the ‘blitz sprit’ demanded by warfare. In reality sport as warfare was a propaganda tool used on the youth of the rulers, rather than the ruled, typified by Sir Henry Newbolt’s poetic propaganda at the turn of the century, calling on officer gentlemen to “Play up! Play up! And play the game!” on the battlefields of Empire.

Football stayed within the boundaries of the public schools until 1854 when the first recognised club team Sheffield FC was formed by a group of industrialists and merchants. This was followed by the formation of the Football Association (FA) in 1863 and in 1872 the first FA cup was played with ‘public school’ knock out rules.

The FA recognized professional players in 1885 and it was at this point that the Southern aristocratic teams of Eton and Harrow were eclipsed by the industrialist teams of Northern England and Scotland. 

A sporting sign of the times was the ‘Corinthian football club’  one of the only initial club sides in Southern England, which while playing against the new FA teams of the North, maintained its own gentlemanly rules by refused to believe a true gentleman would ever commit a foul and so declined to take, or defend against, penalties.  

Changes of Working Class Leisure

Throughout this period (1820 and 1860) traditional, rural based, working class leisure pursuits such as bear baiting, cock fighting and dog tossing were being replaced with ‘professional bourgeoisie’ sports. The decline of these ‘country’ sports was a directly result of the mass urbanisation created by the on-going industrial revolution and the continued development of modern capitalism.

As the urban working class began to develop, sport had a variety of purposes, used by local communities and trade unions to unite, by factory owners to control and profit from, and by middle class missionaries and philanthropists  to ‘civilise’ the industrial heart of darkness.

 As football became an urban spot, with clubs run by profit seeking industrialists, attendance continued to rise and the sport became a mass ‘spectator sport.’ In 1888 attendance was just over 4,600, by 1895 this had risen to 7,900, and by 1914, the apex of Empire, attendance reached 423,100.

The fate of football became increasingly linked to the industrial working class with the Factory Act of 1850, a victory for the growing trade union movement which gained a shorter working week, meaning that for the first time industrial workers would have Saturday afternoons off. All factories and mills were ordered to close at 2pm. hence the tradition of the 3pm kickoff.

This concession is a key reason why industrial and unionised areas, such as Sheffield, Lancashire, Manchester and Glasgow set up ‘work’ or factory teams which became the foundation of modern clubs. Middle Class fans were increasingly squeezed from the terraces as football became the passion of the working class with the largest working class cities of Liverpool and Celtic sporting the best teams.

As these clubs developed middle class merchants and bosses began to establish clubs, or buy ownership of existing clubs,  setting football on the road to being as much a business enterprise as a sport.

While football continued to develop nationally it was also spread internationally,through trade links, following the continued expansion of international British capitalism. Here there is a key difference between the international growth of other sports, namely cricket, which was taken to the colonies and dominions of the Empire by officers and aristocrats. While cricket was spread by Imperialism, and was largely confined to the nations of the Empire, football was spread through free trade capitalism, by British traders and workers, with no restrictions by border or culture.

It was British business interests which first spread the game to South America.  In Brazil Corinthians was founded by a public school boy as a Latin American answer to the penalty spurning team of Southern England. In Uruguay Albion FC was founded in 1861 through similar roots, while in Argentina River Plate were founded by founded by British Railway workers.

This is also how the game was spread to Africa, some area of Asia, and also mainland Europe. In Russia, Scandinavia and Northern Europe the game was introduced by British schools established for expatriate families of merchants and diplomats.

British political, cultural and mercantile influence was vital to international diffusion of football. As British capitalism spread, so spread football.

The Development of clubs: Sporting Trade Unions

While the professionalisation and development of the sport was initially pushed by the capitalist class, with its growth in popularity being inherently linked to industrialisation and the growth of the working class, this does not mean that all clubs were, or are, are simply capitalist enterprises.   

From a strictly economic sense clubs in the mid to late 19th century were businesses looking to make profit from fans, and indeed from players who themselves became the commodity. However it is crucial to understand the cultural role of a football club and its role of uniting and organising elements of the class under its banner.

Critics, epitomised by Eagleton, would argue that football inherently nurtures ideas of tribalism, that it divides the class through its ceaseless promotion of nationalism, sexism, homophobia and racism. Often they will point to the hooliganism of the 70’s or 80’s, suggesting that ‘lumpen’ elements of the working class hold swathe over club culture, or else are actually created by club culture. Today they point to the growth of the English Defence League, with seldom a report being filed without some mention of ‘football fans’, as if they are one homogenous and reactionary collective, as ready to put the boot into an Asian youth’s face as they to chant homophobic abuse at the referee.

It is no more than lazy stereotyping by both tabloid hacks and middle-class-leftists to blame a sport for creating these divisions rather than material social conditions. Issues of racism and sexism are clearly problems within the grounds, but that is because they are problems outside of the grounds. To take note of the chants and attitudes on the terraces of Fratton Park or Old Trafford is to take the temperature of the class itself. Clearly there are problems, clearly there are some reactionary elements among the wider class, but surely that is the point, that is why the class needs socialism. If there was no need, why would we be bothering? Too often a sneering contempt for ‘football fans’ is little more than thinly veiled scorn for the working class itself.

It is true that supporting a club can be tribal, the argument goes that by associating yourself with one banner you are by definition showing you are against other banners, but this ignores the fact that identity is fluid and multilayered, with football being a key example of this. To say that the existence of Portsmouth Football Club is divisive because it divides against workers who support Southampton is to ignore the fact that those same fans may be united in their support for a regional or national team. 

It would be superficial to say that the identity and the values associated with a club are always negative, often they can be class based and club culture can form a fundamental part of a fan class consciousness.

For example in London West Ham and Milwall are traditionally  seen as  teams representing  the  London Working class  from the East End, in contrast to the ‘middle class’ teams of Arsenal and Fulham.

In Spain these club rivalries can take on regional chauvinist dimensions, but also give clear expression to class antagonisms.  The Barcelona Vs Real Madrid rivalry is not only an expression of tensions between Catalan regionalism and Madrid centralism, but has a historical class dimension with the Catalan fans of Barca tracing their heritage to the anarchist and socialist militias of ’36 and their suppression by Franco, who financially backed Real Madrid as the official team of Fascist Spain.

Class based antagonisms are more clearly seen in cities with two clubs, for example Seville is seen as the ‘traditionalists’ club, while neighbouring Real Betis fosters a ‘left wing’ culture, representing the working class areas of the city.

This is equally true in Germany, however as Hamburg shows two teams in one city need not be hatred rivals, both can cater for different political tendencies. In this industrial port city Hamburg SV has a strong working class base, and a working class culture, while their neighbouring team, St Pauli, is famous across Germany for its bohemian, ‘Anti-Fascist’ punk fan base.

To look outside of Europe is to find even stronger examples. In Israel, a historical ground zero for ethnic and religious divisions and sectarian violence, football clubs are associated with class based identity, as which team you support is dictated more by your political affiliation then geography.  The leftist Hapoel clubs often incorporate the hammer and sickle into club badges  and fan banners while the more traditional ‘Maccabi’ teams raise the Star of David as their banner.

Yet for all the myriad of clubs, the deepest ‘class based’ rivalries and antagonisms lie in Latin America.  In Rio de Janeiro the biggest rivalry is between Flamengo and Fluminese, with Flamengo, the team of the favelas, taking on the ‘aristocratic’ Fluminese.

Teams in Brazilian and Argentine barrios regularly take on the ‘elite’ middle class clubs and in Uruguay the biggest rivalry remains between Newell’s old boys, the team founded by British public school boys, and Rosario central, founded by British rail workers.

As these examples demonstrate supporting a club can be divisive, yet often that divide can be on class lines, the very social antagonism that Socialists seek to exploit, and socialist groups have historically recognised this, especially in Germany.

Pre-1914 when the Social Democratic Party (SPD) was still a Marxist organisation it was the largest socialist party in the world, at one stage totalling 4 million members and supporters. Its success was due, not simply to its political work, but in the way it integrated itself into working class life on a day to day basis, meaning that politics itself became a central part of workers lives.

Even in its period of illegality under Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist laws the SPD recognised the importance of working class leisure pursuits, and the socialist values and ethos that could be encouraged in workers through collective minded team sports. In response to the bosses teams, established across the industrial heartland as they were in England, the SPD set up their own factory football teams, giving clubs in the inner cities a socialist culture and a clear class based identity.

Clubs as ‘Vanguard’ organisations

The clearest argument to counter the idea that football is merely a distraction dreamed up by our political masters to keep us docile and subservient is that often football clubs, acting as an opportunity for thousands of working class people to assemble as one, have served a progressive political role. Indeed in some cases clubs are the only connection with politics that some supporters have.

In a study of Brazilian football the sociologist Mason suggested that football is not the modern ‘opium of the people’, replacing religion as the soul in a soulless world, but in reality “the game could never eliminate the conflicts caused by the vast inequalities of wealth.”

Mason then takes this argument a step further suggesting that on some occasions clubs have acted as ‘vanguard organisations’ for promoting political ideas with clear evidence to show that clubs have played crucial roles in enabling mass protests against a ruling elite.

In Scotland football fans used international fixtures, particularly against England, to protest against the Conservative government under Thatcher. South of the border the demonisation of football fans throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s was partly a response by the political class who saw football matches as caldrons of dissent and protest.

This is also true internationally, in South Africa at the height of Apartheid football provided one of the few avenues through which Africans could organise, debate and discuss political issues. In the former Stalinist States, when Romania beat Denmark to qualify for the 1990 World Cup finals the fans celebrations swiftly turned into anti-government protests

State of Football Today: Profit Over Sport  

While we have dispelled the myths that football is an inherently anti-socialist or anti-working class sport we must now acknowledge the state of the sport under capitalism, and its complete subservience to the interests of profit, before we can make the case for its reclamation by the working class.

Internationally football is run by FIFA, a global conglomerate as ruthless in its pursuit of profit as any oil firm or arms trader.  FIFA’s main role, aside from the administrative business of coordinating international football tournaments, is to extend the franchise of football as a business model and this is a direct result of the rapid business expansion of football as an industry in the past two decades.

Since 1990 football as an industry has experienced unprecedented financial growth as it rode the global neo-liberal boom. In 1994 profits passed $225b annually while by the summer of 1997 the European football industry alone was estimated at $10 billion and this boom has continued.

This boom has been built on three main areas, the flotation of Europe’s biggest clubs on the stock market to raise easy equity, the growth in influence of Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB and the increased turn towards merchandising.

The result of this shift has been that today, at the height of the World Cup in South Africa, FIFA have already announced a profit of over £2 billion from the tournament. 

FIFA’s power is such that it has taken to overruling and at times actually controlling the legal systems of its host counties. In South Africa 54 ‘Special courts’ have been set up, taking over existing court houses with flown in prosecution lawyers and magistrates. To prosecute people who have infringed FIFA commercial rights. This has included two Dutch women, currently facing 6-month prison sentences for ‘infringing FIFA’s commercial rights’ by wearing orange dresses given to them by a Dutch brewery.

As FIFA’s action readily demonstrate international football is a vast capitalist enterprise, financed at club level through stock markets and fan exploitation, and run in the interests of the multi-billionaire club owners and shareholders.

The Premier League

No clearer example of football being run primary as a business interest can be found then the current English Premier League.

In 1992 Murdoch’s BSkyB and the BBC reached a £304 million deal for the English League matches, a watershed moment, for at the same time the FA produced a “Blueprint for the Future of Football” which called for the top 18 teams in the country to break away from the football league, form the Premiership and retain the television money. Up until this time revenue was distributed among all the clubs in the league system equally.

This breakaway, and the formation of the Premier League signalled the start of televisions domination of the sport and the creation of the ‘football bubble’, based on flowing cash from television rights, the stock market and what cash owners could squeeze out of loyal fans through ‘brand loyalty.’

Consider in 1991 Old Trafford, the home ground of Manchester United, included space for 20,000 fans to stand with the cheapest tickets costing a £4 for adults and 90p for children. Now the cheapest ticket is over £20! It has recently been estimated that for the same price of a season ticket to one of the ‘big’ Premiership teams a fan could purchase a season ticket for Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich and still have enough money left over for air travel and spending money!

While football had proven itself to be a profitable business since the first industrialists set up clubs in the Mid-19th century this was the first time that working class fans, on whom the sport was founded, were priced out of their own game.

As an aside, this total shift towards business has for the first time meant that even the physical playing of the sport on then pitch has been subsumed by the profit motive. For example Manchester United pulling out of the FA to go on a sponsored tour of Brazil, yet even more literally managers, under increasing pressure to grind out results, results have turned to negative on pitch tactics.

Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United team are often credited with “getting a result while playing badly” and Jose Mourinio’s Chelsea won the Premiership with some of the most defensive minded play yet seen in the league.

Even Brazil, the international side famous for their creative attacking play, turned to cagy, defensive style throughout their 2010 World Cup Campaign, shackling the creative talents of the players and further conning the fans who paid thousands to follow their team.

The Bubble has now burst

This move to form the breakaway league was the first step in a process which has lasted right up until 2009-2010 season when the premiership bubble finally began to burst.

Portsmouth FC is now the prime example of the bubble bursting. It is a club with firm working class community roots, raised to the heights of the premiership elite by unscrupulous managers and money men, draining the coffers and relying on easy credit from mysterious owners.

When the 2008 banker’s crisis meant that the mysterious owner’s cash dried up, so did the finances of club, which without the financial infrastructure to sustain it, immediately fell into crisis and administration. 

Portsmouth may be one example of the bubble bursting, but it is not the first, that honour goes to Leeds United, whose executives gambled everything on the result of a few fixtures and lost, plunging the club into crisis and beginning its descent into the lower leagues. Only its dependence on a wide fan base and large infrastructure prevented the club from disappearing entirely, as several smaller clubs have done thanks to the break away league.  

Many have tried to shake off the example of Portsmouth, saying it is simply a case of small club reaching too far. It should have known it’s place, the FA mandarins argue,  but the truth is that football’s success, built on the boom of the 1990’s, has not been immune from the 2008 economic crisis and now even the biggest clubs are in astronomical levels of debt.

Manchester United and Chelsea were by far the most indebted, owing £699m and £701m respectively, Arsenal were third, with £416m debts and Liverpool, the other top four club, were understood to owe around £280m.  Of  course it is fans who are paying the price as ticket prices continue to rise

Re-Claim the Game

Following the takeover of Manchester United by the Glazier brothers fans reacted by breaking away and setting up FC United of Manchester, a club run by the fans and for the fans, yet this has not been the only example of fan’s resistance, as we have also seen the development of Supporters Trusts – which in the case of Liverpool and Manchester have been militant bodes, aimed at holding the owners to account.

In Portsmouth a new supporters trust was established halfway through the 2009-2010 season in reaction to the unfolding collapse of the club. The local socialist party branch, realising that as in Liverpool and Manchester this could develop into a mass issue for the city, developed a programme to propose to the trust.

“Our trust should:

–    Be a fighting trust, which holds owners to account on behalf of the supporters and fans

–    Build a mass membership among supporters and the local community

–    Call for democratically elected ‘Supporters and Community’ directors

–    Call for full inquiry into clubs accounts and for full financial transparency 

–    Support the workers at Fratton Park whose jobs are at risk from the financial   mismanagement. 

–    Build connections with supporter’s organisations across the country

–    Campaign to keep ticket prices affordable for local people.

Our message should be clear:

–    Fans and workers should never have to pay for the financial crisis of the owners

–    Working people must not be priced out of our game

–    Supporters should have a real say in how our club is run”

The vision that this programme called for was a club run by the fans and a democratically elected board featuring  players and club staff representation while the local council would be involved in running the ground itself, enabling the club’s facilities to be used and enjoyed by the local community as a whole.

The development of a militant supporters trust, essentially acting as a trade union for fans, could foster the growth of a footballing culture akin to the class conscious kind mentioned in Europe and South America. Perhaps they could even become vanguard organisations of their own kind, fostering a culture of political discussion and discourse as the new coalition government picks up Thatcher’s sword to continue her war on the working class.

Ultimately the propaganda point to raise, around Portsmouth FC and at other clubs across the country, is that the premier league bubble is bursting and it is the fans and the workers at the clubs who have to pay the price. In principle, just as the growth of football was tethered to the growth of capitalism, and as the bubble of the premier league mirrored that of the neo-liberal boom, so footballs crisis and collapse reflects the wider economic crisis in society.

By saying: Why should fans and workers pay for the owner’s crisis? This is a transitional step asking why working people should pay for the banker’s crisis. The crisis in football, which is being directly felt and witnessed by millions of working class people across the country, is a way of making the wider economic argument ‘knowable’ to a wider section of society for whom politics and economics feel distant and meaningless. 

Germany as a transitional model

If the idea that football must be reformed is accepted the logical next question is: How should football be organised? While it is by no means a fully socialist you do not have to look further then Germany for a fan-friendly way of organising football. The Bundesliga representa an ideal transitional model:

  • The Bundesliga has the lowest ticket prices and the highest average attendance of Europe’s five major leagues
  • Last season  the Spanish La Liga attracted an average of 28,478 fans, French Ligue 1 21,034, Italian Serie A 25,304 and the English Premier League 35,592. These figures are dwarfed by the Bundesliga’s average of 41,904
  • The 50+1 rule. This states that members of a club must retain at least 51% ownership, so preventing any single entity taking control. Portsmouth are the most glaring example of how an outsider might potentially ruin a club.
  • Ticket prices go to subsidizing fans travel

Of course the question of any self respecting football fan would be: Are they successful? With Bayern Munich in the final of this year’s Champions League and with the German national team in the Semi-Final of the World Cup it is hard to argue that the system isn’t working. Again this is far from the ideal socialist model of fan and workers ownership, but it does shows that calls for change from the current absurd system are possible and it further highlights how absurd the Premiership system is, even from a capitalist viewpoint!

The Game itself

It is as a cultural, political and economic entity that Socialists should be concerned with football, rather then simply as a sport. However the Evening Standard, the right-wing tabloid of choice for London commuters, carried an interview with former England player John Barnes who said:

Football is a socialist sport.  Financially, some may receive more rewards than others but, from a footballing perspective, for 90 minutes, regardless of whether you are Lionel Messi or the substitute right-back for Argentina, you are all working to the same end.”

“The teams which embrace the socialist ideology rather than having superstars, are the teams that are successful. Or if there are superstars they don’t perceive themselves to be that. That’s why I use Messi as an example. As much as he’s a superstar he respects his team-mates and their collective efforts.”

John Barnes may not be a renowned Marxist – if he is he has kept it to himself – but his point is fair. Much is made of the millionaire players and the idea that Football promotes competitive individualism, but perhaps as Germany are currently proving on the pitch, as the SPD factory teams and even the gentlemanly officer teams of Harrow and Rugby attempted to prove in the past, it is the sides who come together as a team, with a ethos of collectivism, which triumph on the pitch.

So, to return and bid a final farewell to Terry Eagleton’s piece. He claims that any serious advocate of political change ‘knows that the game needs to be abolished’.  We must acknowledge that the game in its current format is a product of capitalism, but the task, as with the very apparatus of capitalism itself, is to commander it! We would no more abolish football because it was created ‘under capitalism’ then we would abolish health care or international travel because they exist currently on a capitalist basis and for capitalist benefit.  Any serious advocate of genuine socialism, that is to say any serious advocate of building a society run for and controlled by working people ,would agree that football doesn’t need to be abolished, but reclaimed, and taken back for the benefit and enjoyment of working people.

2 Responses to “Workers of the World United: Football and Socialism”

  1. neilcaff Says:

    An excellent article.

    Another good example of class antagonisms reflected through football would be Omonia Nicosia in Cyprus. Originally in Nicosia there was only one football team up until 1948. At that time there was a general strike in Cyprus that united Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. The owner of the football club in Nicosia cam out strongly against the strike while most of the players and workers at the club supported it.
    Supporters of the strike were expelled from the club so they set up their own club, Omonia, which ‘Unity’ in Greek.

    Since then the club has been associated with the Cypriot Communist Party AKEL. You’ll often see banners sporting the hammer and sickle and Che Guevara among fans. Their biggest rivals are APOEL Nicosia and Anorthorsis Famagusta both of whom are often associated with the right wing parties and in the case of Famagusta, the far right.

  2. james Says:

    An essential read for all football fans

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