Political Football Clubs Part One: The Left
In the English game, politics and football tend to be separate entities. As previously explored, there might be a handful of especially ‘political footballers’ who have used their status to propagate their views, but for the most part, you may argue that the beauty of modern football is that it’s somewhat unaffected by the ‘real’ world.
But naturally, football clubs and politics do become homogenous. In a way, it’s unsurprising that a club that is strongly embedded in a local community has ties to viewpoints which may be held by the people of that place.
We’re going to cover those European football clubs who have become synonymous with politics. In part one, we’re going to focus on left wing teams.
The Political Left
During the 2015 general election in the United Kingdom, it was calculated that a majority of football clubs in the English leagues were located in constituencies represented by the Labour Party. That, in turn, would purport that British football is ‘left leaning’. 18 of the 20 Premier League teams followed this trend (90%) which extends to 55 of the 92 teams (60%) in the English football league.
As the upcoming list will show though, this is misleading. While football is a ‘working class’ game, clubs are predominately located in Labour constituencies because urban areas in England tend to vote labour, and with that, football clubs are commonly situated in cities. The Conservative Party are much stronger in rural areas, which correspondingly, does not play host to so many established clubs. Social mobility and mass broadcasting, more pertinently, of course means that people can actively support a football club while not living within its proximity.
The point being, football in the UK is predominately apolitical. Liverpool might be one of the more active teams with ties to a party, but them aside, it’s across the continent where more interesting politicised clubs lie.
But first, we’ll stay in the UK. The Old Firm derby between Celtic and Rangers is huge. Its origins lie in political and religious events; Scotland was a Catholic nation up until the Scottish reformation in the 1500s, where the country then converted to Presbyterianism (that’s basically just an elongated word for ‘Church of Scotland’), which was attached to Protestantism.
While the city of Glasgow (and therefore Rangers) turned away from Catholicism in line with Scotland’s religious evolution, many Irish emigrants moved into the east end of Glasgow to escape economic hardships. As is sadly all too prevalent in modern British society, Glaswegian protestants were unwelcoming of incoming Irish catholics, and in-city socio economic divisions began to polarise. According to a study from 2003, 74% of Celtic supporters identify themselves as Catholic, whereas only 10% identify as Protestant; correspondingly for Rangers, these figures are 2% and 65%.
Celtic, and the bitter nature of the old firm, has its roots planted within this religious divide. And while in modern times the clubs are less zealous towards this (both clubs at one point or another refused to sign players that were of a different religious background to their own), we still hear of shocking incidents, like ex-Celtic manager Neil Lennon receiving a bullet in the post prior to a game.
Hence, Celtic and Rangers are both ‘politicised’ clubs and are both arguably leftist in their nature. Celtic are the point of focus here (and not Rangers) though because their fans now portray themselves as “a broad front of anti-fascist, anti-racist and anti-sectarian”. In this era, they’re historical foundations have been the catalyst for political statements; Basque and Palestine flags have been seen at Celtic Park in recent times, for example.
St. Pauli are a community based football club from Hamburg, Germany.
The club politicised in the 1980s through the Kult phenomenon, utilising the city’s Reeperbahn area (night life, red-light district) where their ground was located, to appeal to an emerging fan base of youthful, socially active students, anarchists and hippies. St. Pauli averaged 1,200 fans in the 1980s before the ‘Kult’ phenomenon took off, but by the late 1990s frequently sold out their 20,000 seat Millerntor-Stadion.
While St. Pauli have rarely surfaced in the Bundesliga this century, their leftist political ties make them a unique club on the European landscape. Seemingly, remaining true to their principles, the beliefs of their fans, and anti-corporate practices, is more important than on-pitch success.
Their supporters have adopted an iconic skull and crossbones as an unofficial alternative club emblem, while they became the first German team to ban right wing nationalist activities in its stadium during an era when fascist ideals were rising across the continent.
Livorno are a truly fascinating club, embodying a leftist representation for those in Italy who haven’t steered to the slightly more traditional right. That’s not to say that there aren’t ‘traditional’ leftist clubs in Italy along with Livorno, but more to emphasise that Livorno are the embodiment of this ideology in the Italian game. Such has meant fighting has broken out with right-wing ultra groups of Roma, Lazio, Inter, Milan and Verona due to staunch political differences in the past.
The city’s leftist affiliation can be traced way back to the 1400s, when the ruling Medici family of Florence constructed a port and ratified a range of progressive laws which welcomed merchants of any nation. A diverse group of minorities, from Jews, Turks, Moors, and Persians migrated in, creating a uniquely cosmopolitan and multicultural city. The 1921 formation of the Italian communist party in Livorno cemented its status as a leftist region of the country.
Like any club who do things differently to the norm, Livorno’s ultras have left their mark across Italian football in recent times. The formation of the Brigate Autonome Livornese (BAL) in 1999, their official ultra group, brought parity and structure to Livorno’s fanatics, facilitating unity towards their leftist tendencies. It’s worth mentioning Cristiano Lucarelli, the Livorno born player who wore the 99 shirt (in honour of the year of the BAL’s formation), who is seen as the leftist opposite to Paolo di Canio when he was at Lazio. He was the fans on-pitch hero who personified the BAL’s values.
Livorno fans have been up to their fair share of tomfoolery to reflect this. They clashed violently with Milan’s fans, who were owned by Silivio Berlusconi at the time, the tycoon who made it to Italian Prime Minister. They’ve been known to interrupt and whistle sensitive silences before Serie A games, and controversially, they celebrate Joseph Stalin’s birthday every year.
Olympique de Marseille
When Joey Barton, a political footballer in his own right, made the move to Marseille on loan for the 2012/13 season from QPR, there was a sense that this was a tactful transfer for the controversy ridden midfielder, as his ‘bad boy’ image aligned nicely with the ultras who filled the Stade Veledrome.
Just as Lucarelli became a political hero for Livorno, Marseille went one step further and had a political hero who was a fan. They even named their Nord stand after him. He was Patrice de Péretti, and in his stand, you’ll find 3,000 of Marseille’s ultras who fondly remember his bare-chested, zealous and fanatical work. Peretti died in 2000 at the age of 28, but was adored for his antics off the pitch.
That about sums up how the opinion of this select group of fans drives the club from within. It is said that whoever controlled Marseille’s City Hall had to have the club on side, and vice versa. The club has ‘devolved’ to reflect this, as its five official fan groups sell tickets on behalf of the club to its members, a wholly unique setup for a top European football club, allowing them to profit through these transactions.
Marseille make the list because no other European club seems quite so defined by the power of its fans, while also being so attached to the political leanings of the city as a whole.
Without contradicting the idea that British football is largely apolitical, it’s worth mentioning Dulwich Hamlet, a London based team. Dulwich ply their trade in the seventh tier of English football, and like most London clubs who aren’t in the Premier League, find themselves marginalised by the footballing giants who share the UK’s capital.
In 2015, Vice reported that English football was being attacked by a new wave of right wing ultras. Driven by an utter disregard for unaffordable ticket prices and restrictive fan rules, non league football has become an attractive alternative where tickets are affordable, pitch side smoking is allowed, and your average beer is bigger.
Dulwich, and Clapham FC to an extent too, have therefore been the symbolic opposition to this surge, promoting refreshingly alternative practices. Like St. Pauli, off pitch features are seemingly more important; Dulwich were the first non-league team to publicly back the gay rainbow laces campaign against homophobic abuse in football; they hosted the first anti-homophobia friendly by taking on Stonewall FC, Britain’s first openly gay men’s football team; women and children are actively encouraged to attend; their fans back charitable local causes, such as supporting food banks while pressurising local businesses to pay their employees the living wage.
While many non-league teams attract a more communal feel than their larger equivalents, Dulwich have led the way in promoting social and liberal causes.
The Fan Triangle
These teams are all unique because of their fans. And correspondingly, their fans are aware of role they play in promoting the value of their respective clubs. This had led to the famous friendships; Marseille, Livorno and AEK Athens, a club we haven’t discussed, have close fan friendship links. St Pauli and Celtic endeavour to play each other in pre-season friendlies.
As will be explored in Part 2, leftist clubs are more unique on the European football landscape than those of the right. After all, as has become all too evident, leftist clubs are seemingly more committed to charitable impacts in their local communities; ultras of the right- you might argue- are more affiliated with fan violence.
Ready for Part Two? Read it, here.