Sports Activism: The Next Episode

Photograph Source: An-d – CC BY-SA 3.0

In light of the upcoming men’s soccer world cup in Qatar, it seemed timely to pre-publish this text, which was written for an upcoming book on the history of the radical record, book, and merchandise distributor Fire and Flames.

If you have no interest in sports, this text might not be for you. Needless to say, it’s fine to have no interest in sports. This might, indeed, be the healthiest approach to sports. And I don’t mean in a Winston Churchill kind of manner, where “no sports” becomes the apparent secret behind old age (that’s a fluke), but with regard to your mental stability. I have a huge interest in sports, and I do derive some pleasure from it, but it’s mainly a curse. I mean, seriously, who wants to be depressed for two days because some last-second shot on goal was wide or long or deflected? It defies all reason, makes you feel pathetic, and drains time and emotion that could be used for (much) more meaningful things. But: I am not the only one to share this predicament, even among radicals. And hence for people like me (us), the question of how to play and organize sports becomes a crucial one, because we can’t seem to live without it. And it doesn’t end there: there is yet another reason – this time an objective one – why some radicals should care about sports. The reason is simple: sport is a huge thing. It touches and excites millions, and unless going through a global pandemic will become the new normal for real, there are no places where more people gather as regularly as in sports stadiums. Sport reflects society, therefore it also has the power to change it. Sport is highly political (and politicized), and whoever tells you the opposite is a liar and most likely an apologist of the status quo. In other words, if we, as radicals, want to fight on all terrains, some of us need to be assigned to sports duty.

To find these people is easier today than it was twenty years ago. Throughout the twentieth century, most radical sports fans remained in the closet. Following sports was an embarrassing habit, something done out of sight, and, if caught, brushed away as a devious act induced by boredom or old, non-political friends. A former member of one of Europe’s urban guerrilla groups of the 1970s told me once about a prisoner solidarity activist visiting him in jail; as it turned out, the person visiting had family ties to the guerrillero’s favorite soccer club. The prisoner got excited, but the visitor told him that she wasn’t there to talk about soccer and never visited again.

Today, the vibes are different. Whatever you want to make of the FC St. Pauli hype, its hipster commercialization and all the misplaced romanticism, the impact that the club’s fan culture has had since the 1980s cannot be overrated. The punks, squatters, and autonomists who have been filling the terraces of the Millerntor Stadium since have made being a radical sports fan not only acceptable but cool. Already in the 1990s, I found St. Pauli stickers in Australian squats, although no one living there knew anything about soccer. And it didn’t stop with the stickers. There were radical soccer zines, antifascist supporter clubs, leftist sports journals and books, then came the blogs and the podcasts. Even the workers’ sport movement of the early twentieth century has been rediscovered!

But how is all of this reflected on the ground? What does sports activism look like? It’s diverse. Athletes and fans use their platforms to voice opinions, political activists join from the sidelines. If we look at the messages that are conveyed, we realize that sports activism suffers from the same problem that many activisms suffer from: it is very much against things, not so much for things. Against racism and sexism, against commercialization, against billionaire club owners, against corporate sponsorship, against television networks, against the alienation of players from fans, against, as the catchphrase has it, “modern football.” But what vision does that translate to? Are we for a time when you could count the women in soccer stadiums on the fingers of one hand, when racist and homophobic slurs were considered normal, when players could injure others for life without being booked, when corrupt referees could decide games at will because their decisions were untouchable? Change is natural, not only in society at large, but also in soccer. To be engaged in emancipatory politics means to make the best of the change. The longing for a real or imagined past is reactionary, no matter how you spin it. So, back to the question: what is our vision?

Let us stick with soccer, although the following thought experiment could be undertaken with any sport. We’ll begin with nothing less than the ideal: the revolution has succeeded, there is justice and liberty, people’s basic needs are taken care of, people work only a few hours a day and spend the rest of their time being social and creative, having fun. Would there be any professional athletes? Probably not. What would be the point if work has been reduced to a few hours per day? Then again, if the people decided to free all athletes, artists, and other entertainers from labor altogether to make their finest performances possible, so be it, because after the revolution it will be the people who decide. Regardless, though, athletes would still be regular community members and get the same allowances as anyone else (in some shape or form – money will have been abolished, I think). If they are good at what they do, they’ll probably get social recognition, but no privileges; they would form councils to organize their leagues and tournaments, determine the rules, appoint referees, and so on. Fans would have their own councils, and, in many questions, they’d need to be consulted. Sponsors would be a thing of the past (thank God!). The matches would be characterized by sportsmanship and fairplay; no “tactical fouls,” no faking of injuries, no complaints for the sake of playing, no deliberate delay of play, and no biting (inside joke). Fans would support their team, not diss the opponent, and not single out players for abuse. After a match, there would be no hard feelings between winners and losers, as the common experience eclipses all else.

How can this vision be applied to the current situation? How much of it can be realized before the revolution? There’s no question that we’ll have to settle for something far removed from the ideal. In capitalism, sponsorship, prize money, and social privileges won’t go away. Some things could be done to make a terrible situation a little less terrible, for example with the help of salary caps. The power of (national and international) soccer associations, sponsors, and club owners could be curbed. There could be more democracy, more involvement of players and fans in administration of the game. Players’ unions could be strengthened (these might seem irrelevant in light of star players with astronomical salaries, but they are crucial for the thousands of lower league professionals who live precarious lives, and, if they are African migrant players in Europe, in a kind of modern-day serfdom). The money acquired through selling broadcasting rights could be shared more equally. The power of the broadcasting companies could be limited. Tickets could be made affordable to working-class people again. Competitions could be arranged in a way that not only favor the rich. The police could back off. There could be effective anti-discrimination projects instead of empty symbolism. The transfer system could be overhauled to protect the most vulnerable players: the young, and migrant players from the global south. There could be much more done in support of women’s football. And so on.

All of this would be great, and, slowly, things are heading in the right direction. However, as radicals, we can’t settle for small changes within a rotten system. Our purpose is to radicalize progressive resistance movements of all kinds, also in sports. We do not want to curb the power of club owners, we want no club owners. We do not want to democratize the football associations, we want to abolish them. We do not want less commercialization, we want none.

Pursuing these goals will keep us busy. All the while, we must not forget our vision! It is not enough to dismantle the system; the system needs to be replaced by something else. What we need is a dual strategy: we must dismantle the system while we’re building a new infrastructure from scratch.

In soccer, we can lean on examples: on fan initiatives such as the German Bündnis aktiver Fußballfans (BAFF), the international Alerta network of antifascist supporters, or the FARE network of progressive football fans across Europe; on international campaigns that have targeted government surveillance of fans, police violence, corporate sponsorship, and FIFA scandals; on fan-owned clubs emerging from Manchester (FCUM) to Hamburg (HFC Falke) to Salzburg (Austria); on clubs that have grown out of activist communities (Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls in Bristol, Roter Stern Leipzig); on tournaments and leagues that are organized in the spirit of community and solidarity  (from Mondiali Antirazzisti to Vienna’s Wilde Liga); on calls to establish international forums of exchange about soccer apart from FIFA (in 2015, prominent football writer David Goldblatt envisioned a “People’s Football Congress”).

The tools of resistance we have reach from fan boycotts (against club owners or TV-enforced kick-off times) to mass demonstrations (for example, after the botched attempt to establish a European Super League in April 2021) to occupations (most famously, the occupation of the French Football Association headquarters in 1968) to the old banner (endless examples of creative genius such as “Support the Team, Not the Regime”) to, well, streetfighting (no, not “hooliganism,” rather preventing the cops from doing whatever they want to do).

There is no lack of activity, both in terms of protesting the powers that be and of building the grassroots structures that ought to replace them. What we need is coordination. All of our activities have to coalesce into a broad social movement. Such a movement could make boycotts larger and more powerful (FIFA World Cup anyone? UEFA Champions League?), turn ideas into real-life events (People’s Football Congress), expand our own alternative leagues and tournaments, support one another in establishing self-managed clubs, strengthen players’ unions, put pressure on players and managers to become active, elevate public debate, and connect with other social movements for equality and justice.

We have examples for how political movements have strengthened grassroots movements in sport: the first Ultra groups in Italy were inspired by the banners and chants of political militants; BAFF was founded by people who came cut their teeth in the autonomist movement of Germany; antifascist soccer tournaments are organized by people with a longstanding involvement in antifascist organizing. Meanwhile, political activists have enjoyed the support of organized football fans, most famously during the occupation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 and the Gezi Park Uprising in Istanbul in 2013.

The challenges are clear. It takes a lot of time and effort to strengthen the ties between “political” and “sports” protesters, and to unite activists from all corners of the world. It’s not helping that we live in a time when political organizing has been undermined by a neoliberal (dare I say, postmodern?) reality that none of us can escape. But it’s not like politics and sports have never found one another in an emancipatory manner. The workers’ sport movement in the early twentieth century united millions of worker athletes and organized mass events (almost 80.000 participated in the 1931 Workers’ Olympics in Vienna), ran soccer leagues that rivaled those of the official soccer associations (most prominently, in Germany), and tirelessly agitated against bourgeois culture and capitalism.

We don’t live in the early twentieth century, I know. The workers’ sport movement of the time cannot be replicated. But it proves that an organized radical sports movement is possible. We need to build our own.

Gabriel Kuhn is the author of Liberating Sápmi: Indigenous Resistance in Europe’s Far North.