Political Football Clubs Part Two: The Right
As highlighted in our overview of politically left-wing football clubs, the apparent political neutrality which the top few tiers of English football exhibit is relatively atypical when viewed as part of European football as a whole. From the fierce pro-independence contingent of Celtic fans to the historical leftism of AS Livorno and Marseille’s embrace of multi-culturalism, there are a number of instances of supporters using top-flight clubs as vehicles to display espouse their political causes.
Unsurprisingly, these examples of political activism in football aren’t limited to leftist ideologies. The popular portrayal of loyal, downtrodden supporters regularly exploited by the football’s money-hungry governing bodies and elite clubs presents an opportunity to link that ethos with wider worldviews encompassing egalitarianism and anti-corporatism – but equally, in line with recent trends in global politics, can provoke anti-establishment sentiment with a reactionary bent. Additionally, the sport’s bitter tribalism and inherent emphasis on competition make it fertile ground for those seeking a vehicle for ultra-nationalist, regionalist or fascist views.
This article will look at three of the most prominent examples of extreme right-wing politics within clubs or theirs supporter groups and the various manifestations they take.
Zenit St. Petersburg
During the British tabloids’ rather hypocritically fretful build-up to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, The Sun labelled Zenit St Petersburg of the Russian Premier League ‘The world’s most racist football club’. While no paragon of journalistic accuracy, the publication had plenty of evidence to support its claim. It cites manifestos released by Landscrona, a major supporters group, imploring the club not to sign any black or gay players and unfurling banners displaying a similar message, as well as sightings of Zenit fans wearing KKK-style hoods to matches. Both Roberto Carlos and Christopher Samba had bananas thrown at them during away matches for Anzhi Makhachkala in St. Petersburg.
What separates this behaviour from most of its numerous other iterations of terrace racism in Spain, Italy and even England in the 1970s is the explicit ideological sentiment expressed by its perpetrators, who consider themselves the protectors of white Russian culture. They often repeat the motto of “there is no black in Zenit’s colours”, originally used in reaction to the club’s first black signings in 2012 – which Landscrona described as “forced down Zenit’s throats”. There is a conservative worldview behind the actions of Zenit’s most vociferous supporters that takes what they do beyond the realms of questionable terrace behaviour designed to wind up the opposition or isolated incidents of racism by men wearing football shirts.
The fact that state-owned energy company Gazprom own a majority stake in the club helps envisage a view of Zenit as the encapsulation of modern Russia under Vladimir Putin, exhibiting both state-controlled capitalism and fierce nationalism.
With the notable exception of AS Livorno, Italian football’s famed Ultra culture has generally bred organised supporter groups with right-wing political leanings – Inter, Roma and Hellas Verona among the clubs to have notable self-described right-wing Ultra groups among their ranks. Even AC Milan, historically thought of as the team of the city’s working class, had its affiliations altered by its years with Silvio Berlusconi as owner, during which time is could be described as an institutionally centre-right club.
The Italian side most synonymous with right wing politics, however, is certainly Lazio. Their supporters have made the news across Europe with stunts including banning women from the first ten rows of the Stadio Olympico’s curva nord and goading their cross-city rivals by distributing images of Anne Frank in a Roma shirt (with the implication that Roma are supported by Jews) and waving a flag reading ‘Team of blacks, curva of Jews’. Paolo Di Canio, himself a Lazio ultra before he was a player, shot his and his fellow supporters’ politics to prominence by giving fascist salutes to both Roma and Livorno fans during his career. His body is peppered with tattoos of fascist iconography.
Indeed, the appearance of fascism beyond the realms of marginal supporter groups is what elevates Lazio’s credentials as a ‘right-wing club’ above those of the other Italian sides mentioned previously, even if a good number of Laziale would contest such a label. Lazio were, allegedly, the club of Benito Mussolini, who made occasional visits to the Stadio Olimpico to see them play – although they refused to accept Il Duce’s merging of Roman teams that gave birth to AS Roma. The mythical Lazio team of the 1970s, famed as much for on-field dominance as for carrying (and using) firearms wherever they went, were mostly self-proclaimed fascists like Di Canio.
This included their Welsh-Italian talisman Giorgio Chinaglia, who publicly stated he would vote for the neo-fascist political party Movimento Sociale Italiano. The fact that he later went into politics via the fairly moderate Christian Democratic Party, however, would support the widely held theory that such claims were designed to wind up their opposition and the establishment more than advertise genuine political values, which is a motive often also assigned to those headline-grabbing anti-Semitic banners and leaflets found in the curva nord.
To find a club with right-wing politics in its very DNA, one must travel to one of the world’s most politically charged cities – Jerusalem, and the home of Beitar Jerusalem F.C. Founded in 1936 with Zionist intentions and supported by high profile right-wing politicians such as Benjamin Netanyahu, Beitar have the usual hard-right supporters group that accompanies the other clubs mentioned in this article in the form of ‘La Familia’. The group are known for their fierce anti-Muslim stance exemplified by chants of “Death to the Arabs” and “Muhammad is a homosexual”, and when the club signed two Chechen Muslim players in 2012, La Familiar members set fire to the club’s offices. When one of them scored, many supporters exited the stadium in protest.
What sets Beitar apart from other clubs who, at least on an official level, now attempt to convey an outwardly apolitical image, is the fact that the club itself seems often to act with the same ideology their supporters espouse in mind. The aforementioned Muslim signings caused such outrage partly because the move seemed to bend the club’s unique recruitment policy, with not a single Arab player ever having worn the team’s black and yellow shirts. Beitar’s announcement that they would seek to add ‘Trump’ to their name to express approval of the US president’s decision to move the country’s embassy to Jerusalem is further evidence of the its hierarchy being more than happy to see the club publicly associated with right-wing politics.
What draws the right-wing politics visible at each of these clubs together as well as, interestingly, linking them to the likes of AS Livorno and Dulwich Hamlet, is the fact that each example views itself as a reaction against what they perceive as the sterilised and oppressive realities of modern football.
The right-wing elements at Zenit, Lazio and Beitar all reject the modern compulsion for football clubs to be cosmopolitan on the pitch and placid in the stands, and fight back using slogans, iconography or actions that they know will get them noticed and listened to rather than persistently ignored. This is echoed by other isolated stunts pulled by football fans outside of a ‘right-wing club’ context such as the swastika emblazoned on the pitch of the Croatia national team – not done out of support for Nazism but out of a will of its perpetrators to ensure their protest against the national team’s infrastructure made the news.
As electorates around the world continue to cast protest votes for often right-wing populist candidates, so the disassociation between football’s governing bodies and the supporters who their existence depends upon provokes the latter into extreme demonstrations of resistance.
BY TOM GUERRIERO-DAVIES AND MIKE BUTLER
Read part one, here.