Football, politics and ‘Refugees Welcome’ at the County Ground
Jon Timbrell reflects on a banned banner and whether politics and football can be separated?
I went to my first Swindon game as a 10 year old, the season before our ill fated stint in the Premier League. I’ve been a season ticket holder ever since, and followed the Town up and down the country and Football League. On top of that, I was raised in a very political family with beliefs in social justice and equality that have lasted into adult life. Those beliefs have often made being a football fan a difficult experience.
Although now largely a thing of the past, I remember racist chanting and comments about black and Asian players and referees. I still have to listen to sexist and homophobic abuse being dished out to female officials, or players deemed to not be ‘masculine’ enough or, god forbid, having fallen over. I stood in silent, impotent anger at Bristol City as hundreds of fans chanted support of Nile Ranger and deriding the woman who accused him.
I dread Brighton fixtures, anticipating the inevitable homophobic abuse masquerading as ‘banter’ that will be directed at their fans. Most recently, I ended up in a long running argument at Wembley after confronting a fan who continually shouted ‘faggot’ at any given opportunity. He shut up, but that doesn’t make his feeling of empowerment to dish out such abuse any less problematic.
I don’t think this is anything inherent in Swindon fans. Instead this is something that can be heard on terraces around the country and a product of a hyper-masculine environment in which men feel comfortable behaving in ways that they know are rightly unacceptable in most other environments.
It was with delight, then, that I read that Swindon fans will be among the first in the UK to unveil a ‘refugees welcome’ banner at an upcoming game. I have been inspired by the wave of support and solidarity towards refugees that has swept the UK, and Europe. I’m very proud that Town fans will be among the first to bring that solidarity to the UK terraces, following the lead of clubs and ultras across Europe who have gone out of their way to show vocal and practical solidarity towards refugees.
This feeling seems to be shared by many supporters who have taken to social media to congratulate and support the lads who came up with the idea. I did run in to a couple of comments though that, while not outright hostile (those people are conspicuously silent at the moment) suggested that football is ‘no place for politics’.
The views of these fans seemed to have been echoed by the security team at Barnsley who, after discussions with local police have banned the banner from making an appearance. The security team have ludicrously cited ‘crowd trouble’ as a reason for the decision. This is despite the fact that similar banners have been displayed in incredibly volatile stadiums around Europe with no trouble, and Swindon fans are only one amongst dozens of groups of UK supporters making the gesture this weekend.
If crowd trouble was seriously an issue, police and security surely have an obligation to minimise that very low and completely hypothetical risk. This would be in the same way that they attempt to do for numerous local grudge matches, which carry with them a much more real and almost inevitable risk of violence.
So, discounting the ridiculous idea that the banner will cause any more crowd trouble than occurs at any other average game, what motives and attitudes could have prompted club security to ensure the banner remains unfurled? Mostly, I suspect that the decision has more to do with a widely held terror of introducing grassroots fan politics onto the terraces, in keeping with a prevalent idea that football is ‘no place’ for politics.
This idea has been backed up by the head of security commenting that he has an ‘old fashioned’ belief that people should only attend matches to support their club.
This has been an idea that has bothered me for some time. Football grounds around the country are some of the most politicized environments about. Every time we are encouraged to stand for the national anthem; politics. Every time the armed forces are paraded around the grounds; politics. The fact that many of us who know better and object have routinely had to listen to sexist, racist and homophobic chanting and abuse; also a manifestation of prevalent political views about woman, ethnic minorities and gay men.
The game itself is shaped by the dominant politic; soaring transfer fees and wages, increasingly unaffordable ticket prices and televised sport, the involvement of all manner of dodgy investors and companies who use the game to whitewash and obscure their murky business practices. All of these are political factors that impact on our experience at the game.
So when people say that football should be a politics free zone, they are asking the impossible. As society is shaped and changed through political decisions and factors, so is football.
Campaigns such as ‘show racism the red card’ have been forced to respond to the vocal manner in which some fans and players express their unacceptable racist politics. The ‘Against Modern Football’ movement has been forced into existence by political and economic factors that have increasingly ripped football away from its working class roots in the quest for more cash.
Clearly, football and politics are intrinsically linked. However, it seems that one set of politics, those of the wealthy and powerful who run, own and invest in our clubs are pushed on us regularly, and unopposed while the politics of the fans, who breathe life and soul into the club are frowned upon and discouraged. In this respect, as in many others, we are treated only as consumers of a product, who do not deserve a stake in shaping the direction of voice of our clubs.
To object to the ‘refugees’ banner without confronting the numerous other ways that politics infiltrates the sport is to exclude the politics of the oppressed and of the voiceless at the expense of the politics of the powerful and privileged, whose political clout permeates every aspect of the sport and the team that we love.