“Nothing Against the State”: European Football and Fascism

I was slightly perplexed when I heard Nicholas Anelka had been lambasted by the French Sports Minister, Valerie Fourneyron, for what at first sight, appeared nothing more than an inconspicuous goal celebration. ‘La quenelle’ – a reverse Nazi salute?  Even Arsenal’s French manager, the studied and renowned Arsène Wenger, expressed his bewilderment:

“Nobody knows in France what it means. Some make it an anti-system movement; some make it an anti-Semitic movement. I think personally I don’t know, I have never seen this movement.”

After scoring the first of his two goals in West Brom’s 3-3 draw with West Ham back in December the French striker, who it must be said is no stranger to controversy (just ask Raymond Domenech), celebrated with what has been described as a pseudo-Nazi salute with anti-Semitic connotations.

dieudonne-anelka-quenelle

Anelka and his comedian friend Dieudonné – the quenelle (Photo from http://www.spi0n.com/)

Quenelle’ – loosely translated as a spice dumpling in French is the word used to describe Anelka’s gesture. Its appearance strongly resembles a downward facing Nazi Salute, with the non-saluting arm placed upon the other to symbolize it being held down, as a regular Nazi salute is of course not acceptable. Patented by the French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala (who goes by Dieudonné), Anelka’s actions prompted widespread condemnation from both political and sporting circles.

Anelka responded to this furore by claiming that the celebration was “just a special dedication to my comedian friend Dieudonné” and that he is “neither a racist nor an anti-semite”. Dieudonné asserts the quenelle is anti-establishment rather than anti-Semitic. But this is a man who has been fined on a number of occasions for inciting racial hatred and whose humour consists of saying “When I hear Patrick Cohen speak, I think to myself: ‘Gas chambers … too bad [they no longer exist].”

With the FA investigating his controversial gesture, Anelka could face a lengthy ban of 5-10 games. The former French international has pledged not to repeat this action, yet whether his plea of blissful ignorance holds any weight is another question. The fact he dedicated the celebration to Dieudonné, a man who openly voices some deplorable views, makes it hard to sympathise with Anelka. At a time when anti-Semitism in football has found voice in whispers, the FA must act swiftly to make an example of this particular incident.

Stan Collymore, ex-professional and now football pundit responded to the incident, saying he didn’t believe politics should mix with sport and that footballers should leave such issues to the politicians. Maybe but we must remember footballers are voting people just like the rest of us and as long as they are not voicing, tweeting , gesturing, or communicating views which disseminate political extremism and/or messages that incite racial hatred then I believe they have a right to a political opinion. However that is neither here nor there. My main point is, as Sid Lowe explores in his book Fear and Loathing in La Liga “Like it or not, sport and politics do mix, no match is so infused with politics as the Clasico”.

Political expressions during El Clasico are common place.

Political expressions during El Clasico are common place.

Indeed the history of this fixture highlights the purpose of this article. The political backdrop to El Clasico owes much to the Spanish Civil War and the Fascist dictator General Francisco Franco’s oppression of Catalonia. For the Catalan people, Real Madrid, a team based in the Spanish capital, became something of a standard bearer for the Franco regime. It was a regime which the majority in Catalonia virulently opposed and was a continuation of the regions ongoing struggle for autonomy. Franco ruthlessly manipulated the passion of Spain’s bitterly divided football supporters and made the sport an arm of his Fascist policy. Consequently FC Barcelona became a symbol of Catalan defiance. This is just one example in which fascism is interwoven in football’s history.

So without getting bogged down in the minutiae of the Anelka saga I would like to raise a wider issue. The quenelle incident is just the latest chapter in an ongoing narrative which has seen far right, fascist sentiments take hold within European football.

Football and its Fascist past.

“It’s only a game but behind the image of football lies a history of coercion, corruption and manipulation by the three most powerful fascists of the 20th century.”

This is one of the opening statements in the BBC’s documentary Football and Fascism. Benito Mussolini, General Franco and Adolf Hitler all exploited the popular culture of football for the benefit of their regimes. Mussolini used Italy’s triumph in the 1934 World Cup (hosted by the Italians) as an opportunity to gain International prestige and mold a national identity for Fascist Italy while under Hitler, the Nazi’s intimidated, threatened and murdered footballers who refused to bend to their will.

Italian team line up for the 1934 World Cup saluting Benito Mussolini.

Italian team line up for the 1934 World Cup – Fascist salutes.

On the face of it the nature of a sport like football to an oligarchy like Fascism is quite obvious. It is a sport which teaches values of discipline, adherence to rules, cohesion as well as stalwart passion for one’s team. International sporting success can also be extrapolated to wider contexts such as asserting and showcasing a nation’s superiority and dominance, something which was a leitmotif in all three of the aforementioned Fascist regimes. Nonetheless with the extinction of these dictators and their totalitarian states one might think Fascism’s place in football died with them – not quite.

Benito Mussolini or Il Duce as he was known said “Fascism is a religion. The twentieth century will be known in history as the century of Fascism.” Unfortunately it would appear such ideologies have managed to inexorably slither into the 21st century too.

Football Supporters and Fascism

For a while now it has been well documented that some sets of supporters across the Europe harbour fascist views.

Back in 2012 a group of Zenit St Petersburg fans called for non-white and gay players to be excluded from their team (Photo from the Telegraph).

Back in 2012 a group of Zenit St Petersburg fans called for non-white and gay players to be excluded from their team (Photo from the Telegraph).

Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Italy, Spain and Holland are just a number of countries among many others which have seen incidents of racism and utterances of fascism plague their football. Extreme cases have even seen hard core fan groups like those at Zenit St Petersburg openly voice their displeasure at seeing non-whites play for their club.

In England the situation has vastly improved and gone are the days where far right parties like the National Front held sway in the terraces and monkey chants were regularly hurled at black and ethnic players. However even British football, which did so much to nullify the hooliganism and racism which bedevilled the game in the 1970’s and 80’s, has seen right-wing views appear through those cracks left unsealed.

Granted the gas chamber hissing noises directed at Tottenham and monkey gestures directed at players might not be full-blown fascist salutes but they open up a Pandora’s box of all those atrocities and iniquitous values that millions died fighting against. An equally worrying facet of this, is the manifestation of Fascist sentiments among football players themselves.

Footballers and Fascism.

In the aftermath of Croatia’s World Cup play-off victory against Iceland back in November 2013 in Zagreb, Croatian defender Josep Simunic picked up a microphone to address the jubilant crowd.  “For the homeland” Simunic shouts.  “READY” the crowd responds. Simunic was subsequently hit with a 10 match ban after being found guilty of chanting a pro-Nazi slogan. The war call is a vestige of a slogan used by Ustashas, the pro-Nazi Croatian regime that ruled the state during the Second World War. The same chant has been coupled with the Nazi salute by Croatian fans in the past. FIFA have set a precedent by banning the Australian born Croatian who will miss the World Cup as a result.

Giorgos Katidis 'celebrates'  his goal with Nazi salute. (Photo from Reuters).

Giorgos Katidis ‘celebrates’ his goal with a Nazi salute. (Photo from Reuters).

However this is not an isolated incident. In March last year Greek footballer Giorgos Katidis was banned for life from playing for the national team after his goal celebration was accompanied by a Nazi salute. The AEK Athens player took to twitter to say “I am not a fascist and would not have done it if I had known what it meant”. Yet in a country which has seen the birth of the neo-fascist political party Golden Dawn, who I might add received 7% of the popular vote during the 2012 national Greek elections, it is hard to believe Katidis was completely naive to the meaning of his salute.

Of course Paolo Di Canio’s infamous Roman salute to the fans of S.S Lazio (their more extreme groups professing to hold far right sentiments) following their triumph in the Rome derby in 2005 provides more fuel to the burning fire. The salute harks back to the hegemony of Mussolini and Di Canio himself has admitted to being intrigued by Italy’s far right history and once stated “I’m a fascist not a racist”.

It is a fascination shared among other Italian footballers. In the book Football, Fascism and Fandom (Gary Armstrong and Alberto Testa) a number of prominent Italian players are mentioned in connection with far-right politics. These include AC Milan’s Christian Abbiati, revealed in 2008 as an associate of the Milan based neo-Fascist gathering Black Heart, and Fabio Cannavaro who once held aloft an Italian flag bearing a fascist symbol while playing in Madrid as well as others have been tarred with this brush.

Football and Fascism: why the re-emergence?

What has caused this ignominious spread of fascist sentiments in football? One must remember that football has always been known as the people’s game. It is the most popular sport in the world and plays a modern-day role akin to that of the Roman gladiatorial games, bread and circuses, assuaging discontent and occupying the masses. Football is a microcosm of society, and the stadiums have become a place where public opinion or more recently grumbles of disaffection have become more profound.

The worst recession the world has experienced since the 1930’s has given rise to extremist politics and it is the far right which has undergone somewhat of a renaissance. Mass unemployment, wretched living conditions and widespread immigration has allowed parties that once trod with caution to regurgitate the trite old prejudices of ‘race’ and ‘national identity’.

Notably far right parties such as the French National Front, The Danish People’s Party and the Flemish Vlaams Belang, among others are increasingly gaining popular support. While they remain careful not to align themselves with openly neo-Fascist parties such as Golden Dawn and Hungary’s Jobbik, Europe is veering dangerously towards an environment which saw Fascism take hold in the 1930’s. Although it is unacceptable to espouse such views in day-to-day society, football remains a ready vehicle for extreme ideologies to mobilise support.

Unfortunately this tars the image of a game we hold dear. FIFA and other governing bodies must do their utmost to quash these overt displays and although football has made an example of players like Simunic and Katidis, we must ask ourselves is this enough to deter such expressions from re-occurring.

With Nicholas Anelka currently under investigation for his quenelle gesture it will be interesting to discover what the FA feels is appropriate retribution. It may seem severe but a draconian crackdown is in order, by taking the attitude of its just and ‘few’ and its only ‘ a game’ we slip into the dangerous trap of letting history repeat itself. After all it was football which proved integral to the regimes of some of Fascism’s most infamous dictators.

4 thoughts on ““Nothing Against the State”: European Football and Fascism

  1. Superb article. Well thought out, informative and well-researched,

    I lived in France for nearly 8 years, and have always been well-connected with the country for a good 25, its language and culture being my main area of study and France being my other home, as I think of it. The reason I say this is with regard to Anhelka, Venger and Dieudonné: Of course Anhelka knows what the anti-semetic-gesture means but a precedence has been set and he’s simply played the footballers-aren’t-very-bright-and-are-a-bit-naive card and will get away with it – the FA is corrupt to the bone, don’t believe any differently, are in it for themselves, and will make no more than a token gesture; Venger has played the only card available to him – claim ignorance; and finally Dieudonné has won again… Why? Because he’s provoked you to write an article on the subject.

    Dieudonné is just another – not necessarily talented – attention-seeking celebrity. He’s managed to make a living from it. He discovered somewhere in life that provocation and ambiguity make for good bedfellows, and that’s his forte. Footballers are dumb enough – not all – to go along with it, as harsh as that sounds.

    This is a fabulous paragraph, Luca:

    “What has caused this ignominious spread of fascist sentiments in football? One must remember that football has always been known as the people’s game. It is the most popular sport in the world and plays a modern-day role akin to that of the Roman gladiatorial games, bread and circuses, assuaging discontent and occupying the masses. Football is a microcosm of society, and the stadiums have become a place where public opinion or more recently grumbles of disaffection have become more profound.”

    It’s very Orwellian – you know about giving a workingman his pleasures and you will contain that man? His Loto ticket – give him a dream! The local pub… and on… and a game of football every Saturday. Football would have been banned long ago – in the 70s and 80s in particular – had the powers that be not known this… Yes, it allows the masses to vent their spleen in the confines of an arena and surrounding area. It’s a conspiracy of sorts…. and maintains the status quo…

    Imagine all the energy spilling into our everyday lives! And yes, it’s the perfect place to drum of right-wing support – the fuelling of hatred?

    I think we forget as well, maybe more so than ever now, with the money in the game, that footballers are, in reality, your average Joe Bloggs, and thus no different from supporters. What transpires on the terraces then will transpire on the field also.

    Great read, Luca, well done!

  2. A well-written, well-researched, insightful article, Lucas. The changing attitudes of society have a profound effect on the sport of football, since the game is a microcosm of our larger, ever-changing, complex world. I’ve no doubt that we’ll see more wide-ranging effects of such altered societal perceptions in much more than the world of sports very shortly!

    • Than you very much for stopping by Kerwyn and Chris your thoughts are much appreciated. Yes Chris you are right, footballers are in the eyes of many these iconic, god like beings however we forget they are just everyday people, many of them from the same backgrounds as your average joe and therefore holding the same view, opinions etc. However just because they are held in such high esteem/or hold privilege like you were saying ignorance should not be tolerated. In the media driven society we live in today to claim ignorance, especially in regards to something as sensitive as right wing extremism is just not an excuse anymore.

  3. Pingback: Random Rambles: Anelka’s appeal, Brazilian protests, Bayern’s trendsetters and Sochi grievances – Part 2 | Beyond the Field of Play

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