Professional football has been a Capitalist Valhalla since the formation of the original football league in the 1880s. Workers in England’s industrial North and West Midlands, recently granted Saturday afternoons off, were given something to do with their time (and money) to prevent them talking about a revolution.
It’s easy to see that this is still the case: that football, especially in the UK (England in particular is the plaything of capitalists, TV companies, fascists and sexists).
But elsewhere – there are plenty of football clubs that are the opposite. Thee Faction’s favourite is in Hamburg, Germany. Between the Reeperbahn and the docks is the Millerntor stadium, home to St Pauli FC.
One thing strikes you as you make your way to the ground. From most of the bars, shops and blocks of flats, flies the Jolly Roger; adopted by the fans as a symbol of the poor v rich in terms of football club ownership. St Pauli supporters are a mixture of punks, tattooed rockers, anarchists, socialists and blue collar workers: plus St Pauli has more women supporters than any other club in Europe.
These supporters are attracted to a club that wears its political heart on its sleeve and one that encourages an alternative culture to flourish on the terraces. They were the first European club to properly promote an anti-rascist and anti-fascist culture in the ground. The team played a tournament in Cuba to show solidarity with the country – and one goalkeeper Volker Ippig – took a year out to help the Nicaraguan Revolution.
Matches are deliberately staged as a party. The team comes on to Hells Bells by AC/DC; sound systems are set up outside the ground afterwards so that mini street parties are held.
This rebranding of the club started in the dark days of the 1980s. The club, formed in 1910, had fallen on hard times and were playing in the lowest tier of German pro football. A group of local squatters and immigrant workers began to attend games. The squatters bought their Jolly Roger flags into the ground. Slowly the group grew and other football supporters from further afield, tired of the fascist elements and commercialism associated with other clubs, began to follow St Pauli. As the team continued to struggle in the early part of the noughties the punks organised a series of gigs which saved it from liquidation. in 2006 they incredibly reached the semi-finals of the German Cup (inspiring a hit single featuring defender Marcel Eger, now of Brentford FC). Today you see Che Guevara flags and anarcho-syndicalist banners held aloft all around the ground. Asylum seekers are invited by the supporters groups at each game. They achieved promotion to the top flight on the 100th anniversary of their formation.
Even more extraordinarily (within the context of British football) the club had until this season an openly gay man as its Chairman. When homophobic taunts at an away game were launched at him the return fixture at St Pauli saw the terraces full of rainbow flags.
Promotion back to the top division means new commercial pressures. Business seats have been introduced and a VIP box was sponsored by a Hamburg strip club. Fans immediately protested. The Sozialromantiker (Social Romantics – who’s flag is the “Jolly Rouge”) covered the strip-club adverts in the ground during the games with flags. The ads were removed; the flags remain.
Is there anything similar in UK football? No. There are plenty of clubs who have a working class base, or are surrounded by bigger glitzy clubs, or eschew crass commercialism, or have very active supporters’ trusts who part-own the club (e.g. Brentford, Exeter City, Walsall, Hartlepool United) – there are some who were set up by fans’ groups as a protest (FC United of Manchester, AFC Wimbledon). Kudos to Swansea City for being the first club in the Premier League era to have a supporters’ trust who own a significant chunk (20%).
There are left-wing Ultra groups at other clubs of course: such as Livorno’s Brigate Autonome Livornesi, A.C. Arezzo’s Fossa, Pisa Calcio’s Ultras, (there’s others in Italy) – Olympique de Marseilles Curva-Massilia, Galatasaray’s Ultraslan, Hapoel Tel-Aviv’s Ultras Hapoel, (with the caveat that this goup is also Zionist), Benfica’s No Name Boys, AEK Athens’s Gate 21, and Sevilla FC’s Biris Norte – some are known for displaying flags with red stars, hammer and sickles, the anarchy symbol or images of Che Guevara. In Turkey, Beşiktaş JK’s ultra group Çarşı has an A in its logo that is similar to the anarchy symbol. The annual Mondiali Antirazzisti (Anti-Racist World Cup) attracts more than 6000 people, and is the largest gathering of anti-fascist Ultras in the world.
On the other hand, Lazio’s Irriducibili, APOEL F.C.’s PAN.SY.FI, Inter’s Boys San, Real Madrids Ultras Sur, Hellas Verona’s Brigate Gialloblu Espanyol’s Brigadas Blanquiazules, Hajduk Split’s Torcida, Dinamo Zagreb’s Bad Blue Boys, FC Dinamo Bucureşti’s Nuova Guardia, FC Steaua Bucureşti’s ultra groups and Atlético Madrid’s ultra groups are known for displaying Swastikas.
Fierce rivalries between ultra groups can be found all over the world, although most of the larger rivalries are found in Europe and South America. The rivalries are often based around a basic animosity toward the rival team, mostly in derbies – Dinamo Bucharest vs. Steaua Bucharest, Sampdoria vs. Genoa, Roma vs. Lazio, Inter vs. Milan, Wisła Kraków vs. Cracovia Kraków, Fenerbahçe vs. Galatasaray, Vitesse Arnhem vs. NEC Nijmegen, Palmeiras vs. Corinthians, Independiente vs. Racing, Boca Juniors vs. River Plate, AEK Athens vs. Olympiakos) but some rivalries are based on politics in addition to team difference (e.g. Livorno vs. Lazio).
In his book, How Soccer Explains the World, Franklin Foer describes the rivalry between Serb and Croat teams as,”The new, or rather old, enmity could be seen visibly at the soccer stadium … fans sang about their respective slaughters.” The ultras of FC Red Star Belgrade, the Delije (Heroes), and the ultras from FK Partizan Belgrade, Grobari (Gravediggers), formed the base of Arkan’s Tigers, a Serbian paramilitary force who were later implicated in multiple acts of terror during the Wars in Yugoslavia. The Tigers made a dramatic appearance during the Belgrade derby game of 22 March 1992, played between Red Star and Partizan, where they held up road signs saying: ’20 miles to Vukovar’; ’10 miles to Vukovar’; ‘Welcome to Vukovar’. More signs followed, each named for a Croatian town that had fallen to the Serbian army. Arkan was then director of the Red Star supporters’ association. When Bosnia-Herzegovina played a friendly game against Croatia in August of 2007, “Croatian fans formed a human U symbol representing the fascist Ustase movement responsible for mass killings of Serbs, Jews and the Roma during World War II, and now more recent, Bosnian war”. Although in this instance, the Croats used the fascist symbol U as a sign of nationalism, amid new rising of ethnic tensions in Bosnia between the Croats and the Bosnian Muslims.
Some groups, particularly in Italy, have animosity toward so-called “modern football”. All-seater stadiums, more expensive tickets, matches being played at non-traditional times (particularly evening matches), fan-favourite players being sold like merchandise, replaced by players who don’t “love the shirt”, and the excessive commercialization of football are all common targets for Ultras’ animosity. “No al Calcio Moderno” (Against modern football) is commonly seen on banners in Italian stadiums, and have spread across Europe. In Italy, Germany, Belgium and South America there are clubs whose association with Socialism goes back a long way, and there’s even an anti-fascist club in the USA (Seattle Sounders and their ultras Gorilla FC) but St Pauli, we believe are unique in that it’s annexing by the alterno-groups in the City happened so recently, and has endured.
The phrase “Love Football Hate Business” or “Against Modern Football” has started to appear on the occasional banner; particularly at the ‘protest clubs’ (FC United of Manchester & AFC Wimbledon). The back pages are full of stories of the shady dealings of UK clubs and the constant danger of liquidation. (A fine independent web page that follows business developments in football can be found at Charlton fan Wyn Grant’s regularly updated Political Economy of Football site). So, oddly, perhaps, from a business point of view more involvement from the fans would help? Are UK football clubs missing a trick here? Is there a community of alterno-types in any City in the UK who would be able to do what the fans’ group has done at St Pauli? Stefan Schatz from the St. Pauli supporters’ trust (or ‘fan project’ as it’s known in Germany) recently told Reuters that the “skull ‘n’ crossbones thing means we have the fifth largest merchandise fund”. (for some of course this has become a fashion accessory much like say, Jack Daniels or a Ramones t-shirt – cf a new Thee Faction song Don’t Call On Rock which deals with this post ‘77 ‘revolt into style’).
Any business that runs itself on a 90% wages/turnover model is doomed, surely? Clubs can build up a big debt due to the friendliness of banks – but it’s usually local businesses who are owed the money when they go into administration. Most people decry the big wages paid to the players; but this is not the fault of football; this is market forces, this is the fault of Capitalism; it’s CAPITALSM you have the problem with.
TV money and merchandising is the biggest ‘income stream’ for the big clubs. When those streams run dry, football is in big trouble unless the supporters take over. Much like all strata of society.