From the England team collectively giving a Nazi salute in 1938, to Celtic fans flying Palestine flags before their match against Israeli team Hapoel Be’er Sheeva in 2016, football has always been an arena of political debate.
The foundations of football were originally laid by communities and workers predominantly in the North West. However, the Premier League has become a bastion of the Neo-Liberal agenda. Its rapid marketisation and capitalisation has led to clubs being used as vehicles for financial speculation. Meanwhile, media conglomerates dominate broadcasting rights and globalisation has transformed the game beyond recognition.
The working class can no longer afford tickets to support their team as the sport is increasingly marketed towards the more affluent members of society. The inflated wages of players and tickets are symptomatic of market forces, however debate on this issue rarely touches on the structural dynamics that create this phenomenon. The classism and prejudice ingrained into the majority of conversations around footballers’ wages implicitly refer to ideas of the underserving working class. This sort of rhetoric was displayed by Matt Hancock in his call for players to ‘play their part’ while he failed to urge speculators, bankers or CEOs, who primarily hail from higher socio-economic backgrounds, to do the same.
Football’s constant battle with racism has been widely documented. In the Premier League this season, there have been numerous incidents of racism directed at ethnic minority players. The English Defence League have spread their fascist messages through supporters, echoing the same tactics used by the National Front in the 1970s. The Football Lads Alliance displayed the elements of white-supremacist barbarism in football culture with their protests in reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement in June. The globalization of the league has created a pushback by those fans born in England, who often deride non-European fans as ‘plastic’ fans, throwing up questions about identity and authenticity that often revolve around race, nationhood and culture.
However, a new movement of socially conscious players have emerged in response. Marcus Rashford recently came to the political forefront with his campaign to give free school meals to children over the summer and Raheem Sterling spoke out about the unfair treatment of black players in the mainstream media, as well as the lack of black representation in positions of power within the game.
In the wake of this, the Premier League decided to have every player wear ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the back of their shirt on the first game after returning from the break due to Coronavirus. Harry Kane has also financially supported Leyton Orient by sponsoring their shirt for next season with a message thanking frontline heroes, as well as the logos of the mental health charity Mind and the Haven House Children’s Hospice.
The activism by the players during the Coronavirus outbreak, however, is clearly at odds with a section of fans and the establishment. Long standing football fans now express a sense of being left behind and feel indignation about the way their game has changed due to invisible market forces.
Anger should be directed at the structures that have created this reality, rather than the newfound multi-cultural nature of the game and its supporters. Dulwich Hamlet and Clapton FC have shown, by basing the principles of their clubs on inclusiveness and the social experience, that the neoliberal conservative monopoly in football can be resisted at the grass-roots level. The extortionate profits that the Premier League creates must be redistributed and fans should be awarded a democratic voice within their clubs, resembling the policies Jeremy Corbyn pursued as Labour Leader.
When it comes to racism in football, black representation within major institutions such as the FA must be addressed. The racism espoused by the media and the white population is a wider issue that must be faced by society as a whole, however the league must continue to root this out within football grounds using a zero tolerance policy. Historically, football has helped to change opinion over these issue with the influence of Rashford and Sterling now aiding this cause to resist the regressive policies of Conservative party under Boris Johnson.
Football has an intrinsically community based nature both on the pitch and in the stands. The multicultural, collective nature of the sport can serve as a metaphor for a better society. However, Football must demand the same transformations that are needed in society: regulation, democracy and community.