06/2/15

“They Always Say Time Changes Things…?” Is It Really Goodbye To Blatter’s FIFA?

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“Blatter has demonstrated his intransigence knows no bounds. The man himself said he intends to “leave through the front door and leave with a clean house.” After four terms in office, he is not about to relinquish power, at least not without a long fight.”

They say a lot can change in just 10 minutes of football, well try 24-hours. Sepp Blatter saved his greatest act of chicanery till last. Having duped us into believing he would unabashedly continue his 17-year reign as Fifa president, at an official Fifa press conference on Tuesday, Blatter announced he would resign. Jaws dropped unanimously. Not many could have predicted this latest twist in the Fifa saga.

Last week, the arrest of seven Fifa officials on bribery and corruption charges plunged Fifa into crisis. Calls for Blatter to resign were vociferous. Yet, he was his usual ebullient and obstinate self, vowing to restore trust and “find a way to fix things.” But as new evidence placed Blatter’s top deputy, Jérôme Valcke, at the centre of this storm, the 79-year-old’s position became increasingly  precarious. Then came his shock press conference.

“It is my deep care for Fifa and its interests, which I hold very dear, that has led me to take this decision” a weary looking Blatter told the world.

There has been much speculation surrounding Blatter’s sudden U-turn. The pressure heaped upon Fifa by its sponsors may well have been a factor, with Visa, Coke and MCDonald’s all welcoming Blatter’s decision to resign. But perhaps more significantly, reports in the US media just hours after Blatter’s announcement alleged that he was also the subject of a corruption inquiry by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The news of his departure has been greeted with rapture, at least within the West. England’s Football Association chairman, Greg Dyke, triumphed that Blatter’s decision is “brilliant for world football” while potential Fifa president candidate, Luis Figo, said “Change is finally coming. Let’s find a solution to start a new era of transparency and democracy in Fifa.”

In reality however, the fight to clean up Fifa has just begun. First of all, Blatter hasn’t actually officially resigned yet.

“While I have a mandate from the membership of Fifa, I do not feel that I have a mandate from the entire world of football” Blatter continued, “Therefore, I have decided to lay down my mandate at an extraordinary elective Congress. I will continue to exercise my functions as Fifa President until that election.”

While the Swiss football administrator has been duplicitous before, it’s unthinkable that he would renege on this pledge. That is not to say that Blatter won’t go without resistance and exerting influence. The very fact he has resigned, rather than allowing himself to be ignominiously toppled, demonstrates his desire to cling to power for as long as humanly possible. The next Fifa congress at which a new president will be elected is expected to take place between December 2015 and March 2016. Blatter will still posses considerable clout, particularly when it comes to influencing the next Fifa election. His support in continents such as Africa and Asia will not dissipate and as such, one begins to realise just how long and arduous the road to reforming Fifa could prove.

Blatter was the face of Fifa’s corruption but he wasn’t the body and soul. Deceit and avarice have been engrained in Fifa over years, cementing a culture of corruption and patronage in which Fifa’s hegemony stand to profit. Fifa is a Machiavellian type organisation, one built upon the premise that deviance is the most effective means through which to cling onto power. Sociologist, Ellis Cashmore, explained this phenomenon by citing a fellow academic, an Italian scholar named Vilfredo Pareto. Responding to the question of whether a change in Fifa leadership would make a difference, Cashmore replied:

“There are always cliques that rise to the top and engineer ways of staying there. He [Pareto] called it the Circulation of Elites. If he were around today, he’d probably conclude that, in a largscale organization like Fifa, which has reserves of about $15 billion, it really doesn’t matter who’s in charge: the people in positions of power will try to feather their own nest — make money for themselves.”

Another interesting facet of Blatter’s resignation is the significant pressure it will heap on Qatar’s highly scrutinised 2022 World Cup bid. While it has been mooted that the Russian World Cup could also be moved, these calls often carry more than a whiff of political posturing, especially in the UK and the US. However, from an ethical standpoint, the humanitarian grounds for boycotting Qatar are well founded. Were the allegations of a corrupt bidding process to be corroborated, the case for a boycott would be compelling.

Undoubtedly, Blatter’s imminent resignation is a step in the right direction, however this is neither a time for triumphalism nor complacency. The first step will be ensuring that the candidates for the next Fifa election are batting on a level playing field.

As renowned and controversial artist, Andy Warhol, once said: “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”

04/24/15

The Mlambe Project: Using Football to Help Build Futures in Malawi

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The belief that football can be an effective vehicle in enacting social change is often underpinned by an aggressive optimism. It is widely coined the global game, a sport that can transcend conflict, breaching barriers while offering hope to those living in the most austere of circumstances.

But football contains many paradoxes and Criminologist Victor Jupp’s analysis of sport reflects the nature of the game. “On the one hand sport is the context for that which is bad in us and society – sleaze, corruption, fraud, violence and aggression – and at the same time is a model for that which is good and the panacea of social ills”

Although the road to eradicating football’s aforementioned ills remains long, when used in the correct manner, there is no doubt it has a social and humanitarian role to play. There are a myriad of examples. The Football4Peace project was created to facilitate peaceful integration within several neighbouring Jewish and Arab societies while football has also been used in the volatile political environments of Northern Ireland and South Africa. During his research on the possibilities football offered various demographics in the reconstruction of post-conflict Liberia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, academic Gary Armstrong, asserted that football gives people reason to visit and better understand the “people over the hill”

However much of the work being conducted by organisations across the globe often slips under the radar. Thanks to the blogging and ‘tweetosphere’, I was lucky enough to come across the work of Football Beyond Borders, the charity kind enough to provide a platform for this article and one that uses football “to inspire young people to achieve their goals and to tackle inequality and discrimination.”

The fact that Arsenal midfielder, Santi Carzola, just became the charities new patron speaks volumes for their progress and it was their altruistic work that inspired me to write an article on an initiative in which my friend is involved.

While sharing a drink with this friend (Saalim), he told me about the work he was doing for a charity called the Mlambe Project. The project – created by a group of Physic students at the University of Manchester – is based out in the African country of Malawi. Its overarching mantra is to aid the Malawian people in their struggle against poverty through the provision of sustainable livelihoods and a proper education. Sourced from their website, they aim to achieve this via two primary objectives:

  1. To promote the use of earthbag building across Malawi
  2. To develop and implement new educational technologies and methods in a responsible and sustainable manner.

Intrigued, I enquired further about why they chose Malawi. “Malawi was chosen as one of our co-founders Jamie [Proctor] travelled through the country, he was immediately drawn in by the amazing Malawian people and the amount of inspiring projects which already exist, something which myself and Brad [Vanstone] felt. So, I guess Malawi chose us!” Saalim told me.

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and while one organisation can’t solve this, their work within the Mlambe community is already making a significant difference.

“We have created jobs by teaching local builders the new skill of building with earth bags, providing a new revenue stream into the village.” Using this technique a new school block, toilets and a head teacher’s office (with computers) have all been built.

“This has helped improve school-life at Mlambe for both teachers and students who can now study indoors as opposed to underneath trees – a lesson underneath a tree doesn’t sound too bad for those of us who went to UK schools where an outdoor lesson was the most exciting part of the day – but it really is a tough ask when attempting to teach a 100-student class with the wind swirling and the incredible heat. I gave it a go and it was not easy!”

As head of educational development at the Mlambe Project, Saalim’s role is primarily concerned with developing educational initiatives. Shortly after speaking to him, he travelled back to Malawi to work on his latest initiative in which he is hoping to provide an alternative means of education for those children who can’t afford the school fees to attend secondary school, which he emphasised, was an alarming number.

As we continued to chat, the conversation’s focus invariably turned towards football, at which point Saalim began to tell me about how the game had become integral to both the charities work and the Mlambe community. Their ventures have included building a football pitch, creating a team in Mlambe and organising the village’s first football match. Fascinated, I asked Saalim if we could conduct an interview. “Sure” he said, “but the person you really want to be speaking to is Brad Vanstone [Head of New Development Opportunities], the football pitch was his project.” I interviewed both and here is what they had to say.

As you know I am primarily concerned with the role football can play within society both positive and negative and it’s great to see the Mlambe project utilising the sport, but is there a strong footballing culture in Malawi?

(Saalim) “Malawians are football-mad! There is something quite special about being in a room which would comfortably house five people with about 10 times that crowded round a tiny T.V. watching a game; you can’t really beat that atmosphere! Everywhere you go people are wearing football shirts, predominantly English Premier League teams but I did also run into a Bolton Wanderers fan on my travels! The kids are nurtured with football as one of the few hobbies available to them; and their resourcefulness in creating footballs out of nothing was nothing short of mind-blowing. They usually collected rubbish that had been left lying around and with a few plastic bags and some string managed to create a perfectly crafted ball that would last at least a month- and once it reached the end of its recycled life they proceeded to make another one with just as much ease. I sat and watched a few kids create balls and tried to make one myself, it’s definitely not as easy as they make out. It’s one of the best examples I’ve seen of people reacting against their poor situations, not just accepting them.”

 Brad, I saw one of your notable ventures was building a football pitch in the village, how was the pitch built?

The whole area needed to be hoed up and the organic matter removed before being ‘ploughed’, flattened and raked. Thanks to the help of the local community, and with the use of some alternative ploughing techniques which were not previously referred to in the risk assessment, we were able to finish this project in 5 days!

(Brad helping assemble the goals)

What did the pitch bring to the Mlambe community?

(Brad) The football pitch is at the heart of Mlambe and has created a real hub for the whole community. Outside of the school and church, the community and particularly the children had no focal point from which to gather. The pitch has given the village a real centre point that is now the height of activity, constantly bustling with people.

An inaugural match was played between Mlambe and local team Nanthomba, do you have any specific memories from the day?

(Brad) The opening game was played between Mlambe and local rivals Nanthomba (where NGO ‘HELP! Malawi’ have done some incredible work). My lasting memory was of a 40 strong parade of woman and children circling the pitch continuously chanting and signing for the entirety of the second half. Mlambe won 2-1 and the scenes of sheer jubilation at the final whistle were also very special.

Have there been other matches since and has the creation of a football pitch seen sport included in the educational programme at the Mlambe School?

(Saalim) There is now a Mlambe men’s team which we are proud to say is one of the best in the district. They play matches once or twice a week and their matches attract crowds of pretty much the whole village, around 200 people! Again, it’s a brilliant atmosphere with women dancing by the pitch, kids acting as very able ball boys, and pretty much everyone trying to manage the team from the side-lines.

(Mlambe celebrating a famous victory versus Nanthomba)

Are any of the volunteers football coaches and if not could you see football coaching used in future Mlambe Project initiatives?

(Saalim) The football team is fully run by locals from the community. Therefore the two coaches who run the team live in the village, if any of our volunteers are ever skilled in football coaching then we’d love them to take some training sessions for the team and share their knowledge. But we try to push ideas of sustainability and the main way of doing this would be for volunteers to spend most of their time with the football coaches themselves.

In your opinion, what are the connections – if any – between your building initiatives and football?

(Brad) The newly erected school buildings have given the community a real sense of pride. That pride is now personified by the Mlambe team during every fixture they play. Training sessions are serious affairs, with the younger children watching their idles, dreaming that they one day might represent the community. Playing for Mlambe bestows upon each player a great sense of responsibility. You are representing yourself, you are representing your school and most importantly you are representing your community.

Developing and promoting education is paramount to the charities initiatives, how do you feel football can and has contributed to this?

(Saalim) The benefits football can have on individuals and society are vast. Some of the best footballers in the world came from upbringings of abject poverty, we hope this inspires some of our younger talents at Mlambe school to go on to greatness! Obviously sport teaches individuals fantastic ethics of teamwork, leadership and notions of belonging. It’s a great outlet and opportunity to forget about the sometimes terrible things local people see day-by-day and we hope it continues this way. Education is not and should not be viewed simply as time spent in the classroom, though this time is obviously important. Extra-curricular options are key to exercising different parts of the brain and sports is great at enabling this.

How do you think football has aided your project as a whole?

(Brad) Football was played at Mlambe long before the project began. We’ve given the community a more spacious, flatter and all round superior surface where they can spend their free time. Although we primarily promote the benefits of a solid education, we also understand the importance of balancing a child’s mental development with their physical development. 

I see the young footballers of Mlambe are keen on Chelsea FC, have you made any attempts to try and contact CFC to see if they will get involved?

(Brad) I was blown away by the number of Chelsea shirts I saw in Malawi, witnessing at first hand the impact of players such as Didier Drogba and Michael Essien. I contacted Chelsea FC earlier this year to try to see if they would be willing to donate any old kit to the project. They sadly declined as they are already supporting Right to Play in Africa.

Will football have an ongoing role in the Mlambe project?

(Brad) Absolutely. Whilst the primary functions of the charity will be based around providing a sustainable education for the children of Mlambe and beyond, we appreciate the importance of football in a child’s development. FIFA is forever highlighting football’s ability to unite, inspire and break down barriers. At Mlambe, and indeed across Malawi, their rhetoric is for once true. Football does just that.

This year the Mlambe football team may have the opportunity to represent their community in a festival called the Pamodzi Cup, an event with the intention of mobilising local resources and staff working in the field of HIV aids. To borrow from the anti-apartheid icon and philanthropist Nelson Mandela, “Sport has the power to inspire…it can create hope where once there was only despair.” Through football, the Mlambe project is embracing this ethos.

With thanks to Saalim Koomar and Brad Vanstone. You can find out more about the charity by visiting their website The Mlambe Project or following them on twitter @mlambeproject

@LH_Ramon25

03/21/15

Football and Politics: An Inseparable Couple

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With the rise in nationalism and diplomatic tensions across the world, the old canard that sport and politics should be kept separate is increasingly outdated.

Russia’s 2018 World Cup has come under scrutiny due to their role in the Ukrainian conflict, with notable politicians such as British deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, calling for FIFA to axe Russia as the host. In 2014, prior to the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, several English athletes approached Team England asking for guidance on how to respond to heckling from a partisan crowd. The Scottish referendum on independence was just weeks away and there were fears that Scottish nationalists would use the games to voice animosity to the ‘Auld Enemy’.

A spokesman for the Glasgow 2014 games reassured Team England that such an event would not materialise. Indeed the English athletes received a warm welcome and the eventual referendum on September 18, 2014, saw the Scots vote against independence. The Scottish referendum was also followed with considerable interest in Catalonia, an autonomous region in Spain whose separatist movement has often been compared to that of Scotland’s. Just five days before Scotland’s independence vote, the La Liga game between Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao at the Camp Nou was another fascinating example of the Gordian Knot that is sport and politics.

For the first time in Barca’s 115-year history, the club sported the iconic yellow and red colours of Catalonia in front of their home crowd. The decision was awash with political nuances. The yellow and red strip denotes the Catalan flag, La Senyera. Furthermore, the build up to the game had been marked by the tri-centennial Diada Nacional de Catalunya (National day of Catalonia), a commemoration of the regions defeat during the War of the Spanish Succession on September 11th, 1714.

Catalonia has long harboured a strong separatist movement and Spain’s economic crisis has only served to reinforce these sentiments. Throughout Barca’s existence, the club has provided an outlet for Catalan nationalism, especially during the reign of Fascist dictator, General Franco, whose policy of ‘cultural genocide’ threatened to extinguish Catalan identity altogether. General Franco used Real Madrid as an arm of his virulent anti-Catalan policy, seeing the capital’s club as another means through which to suppress Catalonia and humiliate Barca.

Franco prohibited the flying of La Senyera at Blaugrana matches while the Catalan language was prohibited. Real Madrid versus Barcelona was no longer a football match but more a de-facto battleground between the centralist powers of Franco and the separatists of Catalonia. Referring to the clubs role during this era, renowned Spanish author Manuel Vazquez called Barcelona “the symbolic unarmed army of Catalonia.”

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Despite the politically infused kit change, La Liga accepted the clubs request to wear the Senyera shirt. This was followed by a statement released by the Blaugrana denying the club mixed sport with politics.

The Senyera shirt is not being worn because of the 11 September [National Day] – we are doing it to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the fall of Barcelona at the hands of the troops of Philip V and the French in 1714.”

The move delighted followers of the Catalonia independence movement. Club defender Gerard Pique, who was born in the city, made the link explicit after he joined a march for Catalan independence and tweeted a picture of himself and his son, Milan, who was wearing the shirt. This example serves to reinforce the argument that it is nigh-on impossible to keep sport free from politics, despite the pretence of those in charge.

Thus rather than pretending there is no ‘political football’, the solution may lie in tackling the problem head on. Shaun McCarthy, ICSS Director of Research and Knowledge Gathering, has suggested that the most prudent way forward involves forging some form of convention that protects sport from corrosive aspects of politicisation. Should Barcelona have been allowed to wear a shirt that was championing the Catalan cause? That’s down to ones interpretation of what constitutes corrosive politicisation, a question with no easy answer. In this instance, Barca’s political maneuverings brought neither the security nor integrity of football into disrepute and as such, perhaps unwittingly, La Liga followed Shaun McCarthy’s advice and decided that the kit change was not a ‘corrosive aspect of politicisation.’

As recently as November 2014, 80% of people in Catalonia backed independence for the region in an informal, non-binding vote. The ballot went ahead despite fierce opposition from the Spanish government. The game between Barcelona and Real Madrid this weekend will be the first played at the Camp Nou since Catalonia’s unofficial referendum vote. This will only foment the antagonism surrounding the fixture and undoubtedly inspire yet more gestures of political defiance.

As the clock hits 17:14,  chants of ‘Independencia’ will bellow down from the stands of the camp nou. It is and always has been a politically infused chant remembering the date Catalonia lost it’s independence. So let’s stop pretending we can keep sport free from politics and rather focus on how we can harness a positive relationship between the two.

@LH_Ramon25

Part of this article was originally published on These Football Times

03/6/15

Russia 2018: Could the World Cup be Boycotted?

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This article is published in full on Futbolgrad. You can also follow them (@Futbolgradliveand their owner (@homosovieticus) on twitter.

 

02/9/15

On the Front Line: The Political Battle Continues for Egypt’s Ultras

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While the political turmoil in Egypt continues, expect the ultras to be on the front-line.

The death of Egyptian football fans on Sunday evening in Cairo is likely to reinvigorate the protests of football ultras, one of Egypt’s largest social movements who have already proved they are capable of challenging the state through public protest.

The hardcore fan group of Zamalek SC, the Ultras White Knights, described the violence against supporters at an Egyptian Premier League game as a “deliberate massacre.” How the events unfolded remains unclear, yet reports indicate violence erupted after police fired teargas and shotgun pellets at supporters trying to force their way into Zamalek SC’s Air Defence Stadium.

Death toll estimates have varied. State television announced 22 were found dead in the events preceding the game between Zamalek SC and ENPPI (Engineering for the Petroleum and Process Industries), while on the official Facebook page of the Ultras White Knights (UWK), the fans themselves claimed 28 had died. The incident is just the latest outbreak of violence which has seen security forces and football supporters clash with fatal consequences.

Having already explored the politicisation of football ultras across the globe in an article for Football Beyond Borders, this recent bout of violence in Egypt conflates a number of issues. The tragedy bears striking similarity to that of the politically charged mass brawl in Port Said in 2012 during a game between Al Masry and another Cairo based club, Al Ahly. On that occasion 74 supporters died, and then as now, the antipathy between the state and football fans is threatening to cement irreparable divisions in Egyptian society.

The Egyptian revolution is crucial to an understanding of these episodes. In January 2011, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians spilled into the streets calling for an end to president Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime. It was the Cairo-based ultras of Al Ahly (Ultras Al Ahlawy) and Zamalek SC (UWK) that, despite their virulent rivalry, united to confront Mubarak’s security forces. As James Dorsey explains, “they were in a sense the shock troops of the revolution.” Their insurgence continued in the subsequent protests against Mubarak’s military successor, Mohamed Morsi, as well as during anti-government demonstrations against the rise of Egypt’s current president, Mr. Al Sisi. As such, both Port Said and Sunday night’s events were undoubtedly underpinned by complex political machinations.

Three years ago, while the ultras of home side, Al Masry, fought fans of Al Ahly, the police either watched passively or even joined the violence. Authorities blamed the subsequent deaths on supporters from Al Masry, however the Ultras Al Ahlawy believed the security forces used the game in Port Said to exact revenge on those who had played a vital role in toppling the Mubarak regime. Sunday night’s tragedy follows the same story line.

The interior ministry has blamed Zamalek’s ultras for Sunday’s deaths, claiming they were the result of a stampede sparked by police attempts to stop fans from entering the stadium without tickets. UWK, however, believe this was another act of calculated state vengeance motivated by their role in previous pro-democracy protests. Patrick Kinglsey, the Guardian’s Egyptian correspondent, reported that many witnesses said the police’s attack was brutal and unprovoked.

The incident occurred just days after the Egyptian government lifted the ban on supporters attending all domestic football matches, a measure introduced after the events at Port Said. These latest clashes triggered the suspension of the Egyptian Premier League indefinitely. Should the government re-impose a spectator ban, this would only serve to further stoke the fires of unrest.  In recent months, the UWK have also come to blows with Zamalek’s president, Mortada Mansour, who has campaigned to outlaw the clubs ultras as a terrorist organisation. He is thought to have the tacit support of president Al Sisi.

The continued oppression of the ultras appears a clear attempt by Mr. Al Sisi’s government to criminalise protest. Sunday’s bloody clashes certainly demonstrate their continued use of police brutality to quash agitators and opponents. The figures speak for themselves. Since Mr. Al Sisi seized power from the Morsi government, more than 1,000 people have been killed in clashes with state authorities.

Any government, particularly those that are totalitarian, will not welcome large gatherings of young people in already socially volatile spaces such as football stadia. Events such as those witnessed in Cairo emphasise the political clout football supporters carry. This has been seen in other countries such as Ukraine and Turkey in which hardcore fan groups have also been heavily involved in political activism.

As such football ultras are regarded as a veritable threat to the hegemony of Egypt’s autocratic government. But the draconian measures aimed at repressing the ultras only serves to accentuate their sense unity against the state. The 2011 revolution has shown it’s neither an effective means of consolidating power nor a solution to quelling social unrest.

This inflammatory rhetoric is threatening to polarise an already disillusioned youth, a youth that has used the football stadium as a 21st century agora in which to protest and dissent. In the last year, members of the Ultras Nahdawy (Renaissance Ultras) led student protests on university campuses against Mr. Al Sisi’s dictatorial regime, advocating academic and other freedoms. Composed of former UWK and Ultras Ahlawy members, it is the only militant football group to openly declare its politicisation while not being aligned to a specific football club.

This is significant. Football is becoming a powerful means to a political end. At this rate the siege mentality adopted by both parties is leaving an environment ripe for another popular rebellion. Don’t be surprised if it’s Egypt’s ultras on the front-line once again.

@LH_Ramon25

02/2/15

The Winds of Change: Is Cuban Football on the Brink of a Revolution

Cuba football

“Champions generate joy, honour, glory, and prestige for the country.”

(Fidel Castro)

At around 4:05pm, on July 13, 2013, a deadly silence fell over the Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. The American’s enthusiasm had been sapped, momentarily lost within the sultry summer air. Jose Ciprian wheeled off in celebration, showcasing his best impression of Usain Bolt’s iconic victory pose. The seemly unthinkable was unfolding. For ten minutes Cuba led the USA 1-0 in their CONCACAF Gold Cup group game. For ten minutes, the underdogs were on course to record a famous victory against their historical and ideological arch-rivals. For ten minutes, perhaps we got a glimpse into what the future could hold for Cuban football.

Despite leading from the 36th to the 47th minute, a Cuban victory was never truly tangible. From the moment Landon Donavan equalised from the penalty spot, order was restored and the USA waltzed to a 4-1 victory. Jürgen Klinsmann’s men produced the reaction you would expect from a team of professionals playing a team of amateurs. For professionalism has been outlawed on the Communist island of Cuba since 1962, three years after Fidel Castro’s revolution ousted the U.S. backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Cuba went on to be knocked out in the Quarter-finals, equalling their best ever finish in the Gold Cup. They had qualified for the tournament courtesy of the country’s first Caribbean Cup triumph in 2012, claiming the scalps of Jamaica and eight time winners, Trinidad and Tobago. These victories were milestones for Cuban football but plenty more lie ahead. In a country where revolutionary reforms placed sport at the nexus of domestic and international policy, football has remained inconspicuous, even neglected. It has traditionally been baseball and boxing making waves on the shores of the Antilles. Yet with the political winds seemingly swirling in the direction of American shores, could football be ready for its own revolution?

Caribbean football’s pioneers

Jamaica’s 2-1 victory against Japan at the 1998 World Cup in France endeared the Caribbean’s to football partisans. They played with gusto, with a vibrancy that matched the tempo of their supporter’s drums. It was their first ever victory in their first ever appearance at a World Cup finals. However Jamaica was not the first Caribbean nation to appear on football’s grandest stage. That privilege was Cuba’s.

In May 1938, this pioneering Cuban team boarded a ship to compete in the third edition of the World Cup finals in France. Football was popular back then, a legacy left during Spain’s colonisation of the island. In fact, having remained a cornerstone of the Spanish Empire until 1898, the majority of the squad were all of Spanish ancestry.

Remarkably, however, Cuba hadn’t played a World Cup qualifier, reaching the finals by means of invitation after Mexico had withdrawn. None of their players had even touched foot on foreign soil before, let alone competed in a major international competition. Yet despite their inexperience; the Leones del Caribe (Lions of the Caribbean) defied all odds, beating a strong Romanian side 2-1 in a first round replay having originally drawn 3-3.

In the Quarter-finals, a humiliating 8-0 drubbing at the hands of Sweden quashed dreams of another upset. According to the team’s top-scorer, Juan Tunas, a waterlogged pitch didn’t help the Cuban cause. Speaking to FIFA.com in 2010, he said:

We were playing well and felt we were favourites going into the game. But then something happened that we hadn’t bargained for: it rained and the pitch was sodden. We weren’t used to conditions like that and we kept slipping over.”

Known during his playing days as ‘El Romperredes’ (The Netbuster), Tunas was the last surviving member of Cuba’s trailblazing Lions, dying in 2011 at the age of 98.  While his team’s legacy was not forgotten, it certainly wasn’t built upon. Cuba’s debut in 1938 remains their only appearance in a World Cup Finals. No progression just stagnation, lost by the wayside as baseball and boxing took centre stage.

Football not fit for Castro’s revolution.

Sport is seldom, if ever free from politics. This has proven particularly pertinent in Cuba. Upon overthrowing President Batista’s military junta in 1959, Fidel Castro immediately outlined his intention to make sport a pillar of the revolution.

“Politics is an instrument of sports. That is, sport is not a means, but rather an end, like every other human activity…”

The man nicknamed ‘Commandante’ (Commander) quickly set about restructuring Cuban sport, arguing that it had become a kleptocracy and an object of exploitation. To this end, professional sport was banned. The creation of a centrally controlled sports ministry known as INDER (Instituto Nacional de Deportes, Educacion Fisica y Recreacion) helped Fidel implement schemes geared towards promoting mass participation and discovering athletic talent. Once discovered, these talents were nurtured, trained and indoctrinated at specialised sports schools known as EIDE (Escuelas de Iniciacion Deportiva Escolar).

The overarching aim behind these policies was twofold. Domestically sport helped promulgate a cohesive Marxist society. Internationally, it was an indirect but effective way to antagonise and compete with their U.S. neighbour, perceived as an overweening world power and a threat to the nascent Cuban revolution. But if sport was such a triumphant vehicle of the revolution, why was football a pariah in Fidel’s political machinations? Three considerations must be taken into account – amateurism, Fidel Castro and the U.S.

Historically the most popular sports in Cuba have been baseball and boxing. It’s unsurprising given the islands proximity to the U.S. For Fidel, they were the perfect fit. Both sports have a strong amateur tradition, with the Olympic and Pan American Games providing a global ‘shop window’ for Cuba’s sporting prowess. Baseball was one of Fidel’s favourite sports and boxing was an effective means through which to compete with the U.S., factors that cemented their place as hallmarks of the revolution.

Despite being favoured by Fidel’s foil – Argentinian Socialist icon Ernesto Che Guevara – football was not awarded the same prestige. It was inextricably linked to the world of professionalism. Professional players were even permitted to compete in the Olympic Games from 1984 onwards, further stymieing chances for Cuban football to make inroads. During the height of Fidel’s reforms, ‘soccer’ was yet to take off in the U.S., meaning it did not serve any ‘revolutionary’ purposes. As such, the game was not afforded the provision of other sports.

The problems Cuban Football faces today

Fast forward and the Cuban football system remains amateur in every sense of the word. The Campeonato Nacional (16 clubs split into four groups of four teams) is the highest level in the Cuban football pyramid. None of the players are paid, the facilities are squalid and the pitches shoddy. For many with aspirations of forging a career in football, it’s a glass ceiling.  This leaves talented young players bereft of a chance to hone their skills and playing abroad isn’t an option – that is unless they are willing to defect.

Many have, Eviel Corvodes, Maykel Chang, Odisnel Cooper, Maykel Galindo, Osvaldo Alonso and Yordany Álvarez are just a number of players who have chosen to pursue a professional football career in the United States. Speaking to USA Today, Álvarez, who played for Salt Lake City in Major League Soccer (MLS) before retiring in 2014, gave a candid insight into the realities Cuban footballers face:

Cuba has good soccer players but the conditions are bad – no cleats, bad coaches, bad food. All my friends in Cuba have retired. They don’t play anymore because there is no money.”

In line with Cuba’s egalitarian policies, players of the Cuban national team are not awarded any special treatment. They receive a derisory sum of $8-10 a month. In truth the amount is barely enough to get by and unsurprisingly many defect, favouring a stable career over the duties of their country. The defectors are considered traitors, unable to represent the national team to the detriment of Cuban football’s progression. But amid this doom and gloom, successes on the pitch suggest the dawn of a new era could lie just around the corner.

A new dawn for the Caribbean’s Lions

Upon winning the Caribbean Cup in 2012, Cuban head coach Walter Benitez said: “Our style of playing is kind of flowing, fast-moving football, where we create chances for our strikers and trust each other totally.” It’s a style of play that appears to be capturing the imagination of Cuba’s youth. “I like soccer better than baseball, it’s a strong sport, the movement, the energy,” one 16-year-old Cuban told the New York Times. Another youngster echoed this sentiment while partaking in his daily kick around after school “It’s our game, fun and fast.”

In terms of popularity, football has started to rival baseball as the favourite sport of many young Cubans. It shows.  In 2013 the national u-20 side qualified for the World Cup at that youth level for the first time in their history. The tournament itself was a learning curve as the Cubans finished bottom in their group and failed to register a point. However for a team comprised of amateurs it was a major coup and one which demonstrated the wealth of raw talent on the island. To borrow from Paula Pettavino and Geralyn Pye (academics in Cuban sport and history), Cuba’s footballers are ‘rough diamonds just waiting to be polished’

Times are changing on the island nicknamed the ‘Pearl of the Antilles.’ The austerity faced by Cuban society during the last two decades has seen gradual economic liberalisation. Raul Castro (brother of Fidel) has announced he will stand down as president in 2018, heralding the end of the Castro-era. Cuba and the U.S. are in the midst of landmark talks focused on restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries. These improved relations could be the harbinger of a new era for Cuban football.

And why not? Fidel Castro’s regime has laid the foundations, creating a sporting infrastructure that has proved it can produce world-class athletes. The figures speak for themselves. Since the 1959 revolution, Cuba has won a total of 11 Pan-American golds in baseball and 67 Olympic medals in boxing. It isn’t inconceivable that with time, football could reach similar levels.

The normalisation of relations with the U.S. could certainly quicken the process. Could the rise in popularity of American soccer have a knock-on effect in Cuba? Could access to the professional leagues, particularly MLS, become more readily available which in turn could prevent Cuba’s footballing stars from defecting? Could we even see an MLS team based in Cuba one day? For now the latter remains implausible however according to MLS Commissioner Don Garber, the prospect of future world-class Cuban footballers is very much feasible.

“There’s no reason why in a country of 11 million people that has had a reputation for producing world-class athletes, Cuba can’t be a producer of world-class soccer players.”

Cuba is undergoing a moment of historic transcendence but ameliorating decades of hostilities with the U.S. will be a lengthy process. Just as reforming a sporting identity will. Baseball is engrained into the Cuban psyche but as sportswriter Michel Contreras declared, there is also room for football.

For now, the Cuban national team will be looking to build upon their fourth place finish in the 2014 edition of the Caribbean Cup. This year’s CONCAF Gold Cup in Canada and the U.S. will be another invaluable experience and they will hope their performances can inspire yet more young Cubans to lace up their ‘cleats’ rather than slap on their pitching gloves.

”It is not just a simple game, it is a weapon of the revolution.”

(Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara on football)

@LH_Ramon25

This article first appeared on These Football Times

09/12/14

Political Football: A Force for Good

Russian President Vladimir Putin plays w

“To be honest I was nervous about coming to summer school in England because of this F****** political situation in Russia.  I wasn’t sure I would make friends but I had no problems and everyone was very friendly.”

It was intriguing to hear the insight of this Russian teenager while working at a British international summer school. The student had arrived in England with preconceptions. He was well aware of deteriorating diplomatic relations after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and believed that forging new friendships might prove difficult.

His situation was thought provoking. The rise in nationalism and political tensions across the world mean sport is faced with a similar conundrum. Prior to the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, several English athletes approached Team England asking for guidance on how to respond to heckling from a partisan crowd. With the Scottish referendum on independence just weeks away there were fears that Scottish nationalists would use the games to voice animosity to the ‘Auld Enemy’. A spokesman for the Glasgow 2014 games reassured Team England that such an event would not materialise. “While friendly rivalries will exist between athletes on the field of play, we look forward to Scottish crowds expressing their passion for world-class sport in a family-friendly atmosphere.” Indeed the English athletes received a warm welcome but such security concerns are increasingly salient.

From the most egregious example of the murder of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team by Palestinian Nationalists at the Munich 1972 Olympics, to the political shenanigans surrounding the Olympic boycotts of the Cold War era, athletes’ apprehensions regarding their security are not misplaced. Such overt political statements are inimical to sport’s integrity as well as security.

Ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics there were real concerns regarding the safety of gay and transgender athletes, spectators and campaigners after the Russian government passed a law which criminalised support for ‘non-traditional’ relationships. During preparations for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, England manager, Roy Hodgson, expressed his concerns for the safety of both fans and players after violent protests had marred the Confederations Cup a year earlier. In 2012, ahead of the Euros in Poland and Ukraine, the British Foreign Office and ex-England defender, Sol Campbell, advised fans of a different ethnicity to stay at home because of entrenched racism and violence. When asked on a Panorama documentary – Euro 2012 Stadiums of hate – whether fans should travel to Poland and Ukraine, Campbell replied “Stay at home and watch it on TV…Don’t even risk it…you could end up coming back in a coffin.”

This sense of insecurity is bound to have a knock-on effect. The family of England footballer, Theo Walcott, decided against travelling to Euro 2012 after heeding the warning of Campbell and others. Walcott’s brother, Ashley, tweeted:

“Unfortunately my dad n i have taken the decision not to travel to the Ukraine because of the fear of possible racist attacks and confrontations.

 ‘Something’s aren’t worth risking but begs the question why hold a competition of this magnitude in a place that cannot police itself for foreigners of any creed to feel safe.”

Furthermore, is it possible for athletes to give their best performances in such hostile environments? Some of the responsibility lies with international governing bodies and their decision making processes when choosing venues to host major sporting events. That said with the proliferation of nationalist sentiments across Europe, it is likely that new cultural, social and political tensions will erupt in host nations. Following the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 back in July, Russia once again came under intense scrutiny with politicians – notably the UK’s deputy leader Nick Clegg – calling for FIFA to axe Russia as the hosts of the 2018 World Cup. “…You can’t have this – the beautiful game marred by the ugly aggression of Russia on the Russian Ukrainian border.” Clegg declared.

A World Cup in Russia could certainly stir feelings of tension and apprehension among those involved, especially if Ukraine were to qualify. However as David McArdle (co-founder of Futbolgrad) argues, stripping Russia of the World Cup would further isolate an already isolationist country and would also act to strengthen Putin’s rhetoric against the West. This is the crux of the debate. It’s yet another illustration of the old canard that politics and sport should be kept apart. This is a beautiful but romantic ideal. Sport and politics are inseparable as demonstrated in FIFA’s belief that rather than boycotting Russia 2018, the tournament can be used as a “force for good.” A political statement if ever there was one. What FIFA are backhandedly suggesting is that football should be used as a political tool. Thus rather than pretending there is no ‘political football’, the solution lies in tackling the problem head on. Shaun McCarthy, ICSS Director of Research and Knowledge Gathering, has suggested that the most prudent way forward involves forging some form of convention that protects sport from corrosive aspects of politicisation.

Event organisers, national and international governing bodies must attempt to seize the opportunity to use sport to bridge divisions. As with the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, it must be a priority to ensure that all those visiting the 2018 World Cup in Russia feel confident that the utmost is being done to uphold the integrity of the sport but also the security and well-being of all those involved. Let’s stop pretending we can keep sport free from politics and rather focus on how we can harness a positive relationship between the two.

03/25/14

Ferenc Puskas: The Football Star That Awoke a Nation.

Ferenc-Puskas-007

(Ferenc Puskas 1927 – 2006. Photo from www.theguardian.com )

Cristiano Ronaldo is set to leave yet another indelible mark on the history of Real Madrid. With 240 competitive goals to his name, he sits just two behind ex-Galactico, Ferenc Puskas, who is fourth in the Los Blancos all time scoring charts. This puts the Portuguese phenomenon on the brink of surpassing yet another landmark in his decorated career.

However while the 2013 Ballon d’or winner will exceed Puskas’s achievements within the realms of football, the Hungarian’s exploits beyond the field of play transcend any goal scoring honours. In light of events in Ukraine the story of this revolutionary footballer is worth re-visiting.

Born in 1927, Puskas is Hungarian footballs greatest exponent. Short and stocky of build, the striker was prolific at both club and international level. For Hungary, he scored 83 goals in 84 appearances and in 1954 he led his nation to a World Cup final, narrowly losing 3-2 to the might of West Germany. Puskas was in footballing terms, light years ahead, capable of producing brilliance others could barely fathom let alone replicate. However while many marvelled at his bewitching left-foot, the powers in his own country saw his ingenuity as a problem.

Having been occupied by Germany and then Russia, Hungary had endured times of significant hardship during World War Two. Under the ‘iron fist’ of the Soviet Union the country’s new hard-line apparatchik, Matyas Rakosi, had implemented a state dictatorship rivalling that of his comrade Joseph Stalin. Freedom of speech was non-existent. Thousands of Hungarians were sent to camps and prisons. Like so many other Communist states, sport was used as an ideological battleground. Football became both a vehicle of solidarity and one with which to challenge the West.

But in a political system which espoused collectivism, Puskas was a free spirit. He played for a team that was the antithesis of the martinet regime they represented. The ‘Marvellous Magyars’, an epithet you would hardly associate with a Communist dictatorship.

In 1953, on the 25th of November – led by their virtuoso captain – the Magyars travelled to Wembley unbeaten in three years. However facing England was a different proposition. The English were indomitable at their prestigious home and football remained a proud bulwark of a diminishing British Empire. This was a clash of two footballing greats with contrasting ideologies. England’s Capitalist Imperialism vs. Hungary’s Communism. Gusztav Sebes the Hungarian coach (and member of the Communist government) re-affirmed this:

“The bitter struggle between capitalism and communism is fought out not only between our societies, but also on the pitch.

Captains Ferenc Puskas and Billy Wright lead their teams out at Wembley Stadium back in 1953.

Left Hungary captain Ferenc Puskas, right England captain Billy Wright, leading their teams out at Wembley Stadium back in 1953.

Hungary triumphed sweeping England aside 6-3. Puskas scored two, including his famous – drag back goal – which screamed individuality.

A year later the two sides met again, this time at the newly built Nepstadion in Budapest. Hungary eviscerated England 7-1, Puskas again scoring two. The Hungarian government attempted to bill these successes as a triumph of the Communist system. Yet the performances had been down to the sprezzatura of players like Puskas who defied convention. Football allowed Puskas to do things exactly the way he wanted.

That same year the man nicknamed the “Booming Cannon” led his team to a World Cup final. However the disappointment of losing to their ideological rivals West Germany was too much to bear, both for the Hungarian public and Rakosi. The disbelieving mob poured onto the streets venting their anger at the draconian regime. The protests became a prelude for the 1956 Hungarian revolution.

Rakosi on the other hand took matters into his own hands and found his scapegoat in the shape of Hungarian goalkeeper, Gyula Grosics. Grosics was detained and charged with spying however the case fell through due to a lack of evidence.

Puskas would experience similar treatment. After Hungary lost to Czechoslovakia the national football association banned him for “laziness on the pitch.” However the regime needed its sporting heroes and he was pardoned just a couple of months later.

Hungary’s triumphs on the field and the exploits of their captain created a new sense of national identity. The team’s success helped the country open their eyes to the possibility of independence from their Soviet occupiers. According to Hungarian writer Peter Esterhazy, the success of the Magyars can be seen as a symbol of the 1956 rebellion. In a BBC article about Hungary’s triumph at Wembley, the writer claims Puskas became “the hero of a fairy-tale, who triumphs where ordinary men cannot.”

In 1956 there was a nationwide insurrection. At the time Puskas’s club side –  Budapest Honved – were in Spain for a European Cup game. The Hungarian football federation attempted to prevent the match going ahead however Puskas was defiant, announcing the team no longer recognised the federation’s authority. Furthermore he openly voiced support for the revolution and defected to Spain.

Öcsi

Puskas at Real Madrid

A Communist athlete had taken a stand against a government that had tried to stymie his individuality. The Soviets sent in the tanks and the uprising was brutally crushed. Puskas became a pariah but he began a new chapter at Real Madrid. Fearing for his life, he did not return to Hungary until the fall of Communism in Europe. In 2006 he passed away in Budapest.

But what significance does this story hold today? The 1956 Revolution was during the height of the Cold War era. The Hungarian insurgents had hoped that the West would intervene but help was not forthcoming. Recently Ukraine was plunged into turmoil after a rebellion against their Russian-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Russian troops have since flooded into Crimea in an attempt to annex the Ukrainian territory. The majority of Crimean’s have voted in favour of re-joining Russia but the European Union, the U.S. and Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, have denounced the referendum. Some have warned we are teetering on the edge of a new Cold War.

At the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Paralympic’s, Ukraine pointedly sent out just one athlete as their flag-bearer to protest against Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Two other Ukrainian athletes covered their medals on the podium in a silent protest. The situation resonates with historic events in Hungary. Then as now, athletes used sport as a medium to express themselves. Thus the story of the Marvellous Magyars and Ferenc Puskas could not be more relevant.

Regarded as one of the greatest European footballers of all time, Puskas was also a revolutionary. In a country torn apart by a deep political schism, he was a figure whose footballing achievements helped people forge a new identity. Puskas awoke a nation to the possibility of change.

Ferenc Puskas – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJYXvqenhVs

02/26/14

Football Supporters and Political Protests: A Future Trend?

A demonstrator holds up a flare during a protest to demand the ouster of the Islamist-dominated government in Tunis

The world is undergoing a period of historic transition. Times are rapidly changing and many feel insecure and angry. The worst economic depression since the 1930’s has taken its toll. People are no longer willing to idly sit by and let the politicians decide their future. They have taken to the streets to voice their discontent with the economic, political and social state of affairs in their countries. The unrest in Turkey, Egypt, Brazil, Venezuela and Ukraine are just are few of the recent examples.

On the Channel 4 news, a man from the Donetsk region (a staunch pro-Russian area of Eastern Ukraine) gave insight into why he opposed a move toward the Europeanisation of Ukraine.

“On February the 1st the demonstration for the legalisation of bestiality in Berlin, I heard there are 100,000 people practicing bestiality in Germany.” He continued.

“In Lithuania they were only seven votes short of passing a law where 6-year-olds would learn not only about sex between men and women but also homosexuality.”

Having watched the interview the man’s scathing attack on the Germans felt slightly reminiscent of the irrational fervour that swept Europe during the 1930’s. Since when have the Germans been known for bestiality? He portrayed them as inferior animals who indulge in these backward practices, much like the blood libel that was sporadically perpetrated throughout the Middle-Ages and 20th century in Europe. This was coupled with archaic views on sexuality; however the man made no coherent economic or political argument for why Ukraine should move towards the East and Russia. It was a bizarre justification for the rejection of the European Union and a worrying one at that.

The man and his compatriots were also wearing orange and black ribbons on their coats. They appeared to be a badge of identity and far from being an expert on Ukraine and Eastern Europe I initially associated the colours with the city’s biggest football club – FC Shakhtar Donetsk. However having consulted Manuel Veth, a Phd student researching economics and politics of Soviet and post-Soviet football, he informed me that the orange and black tassels were actually the ribbons of St George. These ribbons constitute one of the most recognised and respected symbols of military valour in modern Russia. However my supposition that they were connected to football supporters may not be a coincidence.

There are striking similarities between many of the aforementioned protests. One recurring theme which deserves further scrutiny is the role of organised football supporters within the demonstrations in Egypt, Turkey and Ukraine.

The politicisation of organised fans or Ultras is well-documented. On occasion this has led to the dissemination of deplorable political views within the football stadia. However while these organised groups are infamous for their tendency towards mindless chaos, the recent global turmoil has demonstrated the social and political sway they hold. The fiercest of rivals have, if only momentarily, put their differences aside and united in a cause which goes far beyond the echelons of football support.

 Ukraine – Defenders of the right to protest

Protests quickly escalated in Ukraine with thousands taking to the streets. (Photo from http://www.businessinsider.com/)

Protests quickly escalated in Ukraine with thousands taking to the streets. (Photo from http://www.businessinsider.com/)

Parts of Ukraine have become a war-zone in the last couple of weeks and the most recent development has seen president Viktor Yanukovych ousted in what is increasingly looking like a bona fide revolution. One of the more idiosyncratic features of this insurrection has been the involvement of Ukrainian Ultras.

In a piece titled ‘Ukrainian Ultras and the Unorthodox Revolution’ on their blog – FutbolgradDavid McArdle and Manuel Veth state the Ultras are being portrayed by Western media as protectors of Euromaidan. In their words: “Rather than protesting per se they purport to be apolitical, merely protecting those who wish to express their dissent.”

The article acknowledges the Ultras have their own motivations for taking to the streets. These include battling government hired thugs – Titushky and the special forces of the police – Berkut. But they have also demonstrated a level of organisation and political awareness, advocating the right to freedom of speech. Even supporters of clubs in Eastern Ukraine (notoriously Pro-Russian) have in some cases opposed government forces fighting for the rights of the dissidents. The Ultras, like the wider population of Ukraine have grown weary of self-serving oligarchs.

Egypt – A Footballing Coup

Egyptian Ultras take to the street to protest. (Photo from http://mideastsoccer.blogspot.co.uk/)

Egyptian Ultras take to the street to protest. (Photo from http://mideastsoccer.blogspot.co.uk/)

“We always say that our revolution started in 2007 not 2011. Most of the group was thinking freedom all the way. We went down to the streets to be part of the revolution as Egyptian citizens, not as Ultras.”  Taken from the Channel 4 website, the quote is by Ahmed Gaffer a founding member of Al Ahly’s militant Ultra Group Al Ahlawy – soldiers of the Egyptian revolution.

In January 2011, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians spilled into the streets to call for an end to president Hosni Mubarak’s reign. During this period the football stadium was an outlet for popular discontent at a time when freedom of speech was highly curtailed. When the uprising began the fans simply took their defiance onto the streets. Historic differences between the Ultras of Cairo clubs Al Ahly (Ultras Al Ahlawy) and Zamalek (The Ultras White Knights) were put aside. James Dorsey, an academic who writes extensively on Football in the Middle East, summarised their role.

 “It was Ahly and Zamalek Ultras who led marches into Tahrir Square and in some areas, where security forces had blocked exits, it was Ultras who would stand on roofs and threw down Molotov cocktails.”

They defended protestors against the police and helped the people overcome their trepidation about challenging the regime. Mubarak eventually fell in February 2011. After the Port Said tragedy in 2012 there was a gradual political disengagement from the Ultras. Yet for a brief moment they had discovered that they could wield a political power by uniting, using their experience in defying authority for the benefit of change.

Turkey: Gezi Park and the Football Ultras

Turkish supporters united in Gezi Park protests against

Supporters from Turkish clubs Besiktas, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce united in Gezi Park protests against Recep Tayyip Eerdogan’s regime. (Photo from uk.eurosport.yahoo.com)

Turkey tells a similar tale. In May, 2013, around 50 environmentalists began a protest in Istanbul’s Gezi Park to prevent its demolition. The initially peaceful protest provoked a ruthless response from the Turkish police and the protest quickly swelled with numbers in excess of 10,000.

Many Turkish football fans, especially Beşiktaş JK’s militant Ultra group Çarşi were already opposed to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government (The Justice and Development Party’s – AKP). The regimes introduction of restrictive measures on human rights combined with the oppressive police tactics used at Gezi Park saw Çarşi join the protesters. Yasmin Çongar  a writer on Turkish affairs  claims the Ultras were keen to share their experiences in dealing with tear gas with their Gezi Park compatriots, and they took a front line role shielding the demonstrators from police brutality.

More importantly the insurgent ardour helped achieve something which most sport commentators thought impossible. Just like in Egypt and Ukraine, this political maelstrom saw fans from rival clubs Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş unite. Although their influence did not extend to toppling a regime they played a pivotal role in opposing the government. In recent weeks trouble in Turkey has flared once again and Fenerbahçe supporters have been at the forefront of the largest anti-government demonstrations since the Gezi Park protests on Taksim Square back in 2013.

Football protests and defiance, a history and future

Football has long been a setting where views and opinions are rarely stymied. A trawl through history provides ample examples.

In the Communist, totalitarian state of Soviet Russia, Spartak Moscow (named after the Roman rebel Spartacus) represented a symbol of defiance against the state, who controlled Moscow’s biggest teams including Dynamo Moscow (run by secret police) and CSKA (the armies team). The Hungarian team of the 1950’s (the marvellous Magyars) led by their revolutionary talisman Ferenc Puskas, opened the eyes of a nation to the possibility of change from the rigid functionality of the apparatchik Matyas Rakosi’s regime.

In Nazi-Germany, Bayern Munich – a club with a Jewish president and Jewish manager  battled to survive during Hitler’s dictatorship. The club was persecuted for its Jewish links but Bayern became an outlet for resistance. Their players engaged in acts of defiance such as brawling with Nazi Brown Shirts and one player by the name of Willy Simetsreiter, went out of his way to have his picture taken with Jesse Owens.

 Bayern Munich honour ex Jewish president Kurt Landauer in a game vs. Eintracht Frankfurt. (Photo from http://www.101greatgoals.com/)

Bayern Munich honour ex Jewish president Kurt Landauer in a game vs. Eintracht Frankfurt. (Photo from http://www.101greatgoals.com/)

Today football supporters are uniting against what they see as an intransigent and inequitable hierarchy. These groups are not just a dishevelled bunch of hooligans, what makes them so powerful is that many of them are not mindless. I return to the man I sited earlier who expressed his views on Channel 4.

Are his views xenophobic? Certainly. Does he lack political consciousness? I doubt it. He represents the thousands of people who are uncomfortable with the changes in modern society. These ideas reflect insecurities about socially evolving issues such as national identity, race, and homosexuality etcetera.

Therein lies the risk attached to the mobilisation of Ultra groups. There is a reason why Ultras in these countries have been suppressed. As noble as their revolutionary causes, they have the power and potential to ignite a movement with much more sinister consequences, for example in Ukraine where fascist and white supremacist elements have been highly prominent in the recent uprising. It will be intriguing to observe how the role of the Ultras in the political grappling evolves.

We are witnessing a phenomenon that we can expect to see more of. Football is a game which mirrors the society in which it exists. In Brazil we have seen FIFA become a pariah due to the countries social and economic deficiencies. This in a country where one of their greatest ever World Cup winners, Ronaldo, proclaimed “football is in our blood.”

Bayern Munich fans unveil banner reading "Football is everything including gay" (Photo from http://suedkurve-muenchen.org/wp-content/gallery/fc-bayern-eintracht-frankfurt-02-02-2014/30.jpg%5D)

Bayern Munich fans unveil banner reading “Football is everything including gay” (Photo from http://suedkurve-muenchen.org/wp-content/gallery/fc-bayern-eintracht-frankfurt-02-02-2014/30.jpg%5D)

If football supporters can harness their involvement in politics and fight for positive, social reform, then the role of football in enacting social change could grow ever more relevant. Bayern Munich supporters provided the world with a perfect example when they unveiled a banner in a game against Eintracht Frankfurt this season reading “Fußball ist alles, auch schwul” (Football is everything, including gay).

Who knows people might look back at this period and pinpoint it as a moment of genuine change. Whether that will be for the better or for the worse only time will tell. However don’t be surprised if the role of football and its supporters becomes a leitmotif in this epoch of social and political transition.

02/14/14

Random Rambles Part II: Anelka’s Appeal and More Brazilian Protests

As I said I would be posting a couple of articles with my thoughts on a few current issues and here is the second part of my random rambles, focusing on Anelka’s appeal against the FA’s charges regarding his quenelle gesture and yet more social unrest brewing in Brazil.

Anelka’s appeal carries no weight.

Following Anelka’s ill-advised quenelle salute during a match against West Ham on 28 December, 2013, the FA found the Frenchman guilty of making a gesture alleged to be “abusive or indecent or insulting or improper.” A further statement from English football’s governing body read “It is further alleged that this is an aggravated breach, as defined in FA Rule E3, in that it included a reference to ethnic origin and/or race and/or religion or belief.”

The West Bromwich Albion forward, who faces a minimum five game ban, has launched an appeal against the charges and requested a personal hearing in a move which could see his ban doubled if he is still found guilty after the appeal. In my opinion doubling his ban is exactly the line the FA should take.

Anelka's quenelle celebration vs. West Ham back in December 2013.

Anelka’s quenelle celebration vs. West Ham back in December 2013.

Having written about this incident a few weeks ago in my article European Footall and Fascism, I advocated a severe punishment for Anelka and his appeal merely reinforces my view. Just like his friend and compatriot, comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala (the man who brought the gesture to prominence), Anelka has denied the quenelle is a ‘reverse Nazi salute’ or a gesture with anti-Semitic connotations, instead claiming that its anti-establishment. This is disingenuous.

Whether the quenelle started off as anti-establishment (about which I am sceptical) is largely irrelevant. The gesture has been pictured in front of synagogues, Auschwitz, at the Jewish school where Toulouse gunman Mohamed Merah killed three children, by signs for rue des Juifs (Jews’ Street) and in front of the train wagons that transported French Jews to the concentration camps.

It seems unlikely that this celebration was spontaneous, heat of the moment and without forethought. Especially considering it was during a match Anelka knew was being televised in France. So whether it was a dedication to his comedian friend or not, why did  he feel the need to show his support for Dieudonné on this global stage and in this manner?

There is an argument suggesting the gesture was more anarchic then anti-Semitic as the celebration did not occur in a specifically Jewish place, a fact pointed out by Roger Cukierman, president of the Council of Jewish institutions in France. However this is flimsy at best. Anelka used this argument in a Facebook message in which he asked the FA to “kindly remove” the charge made against him, however Cukierman has further clarified his comments saying the player’s sympathy for the gesture is “clearly suspect”. He hits the nail on the head. Anelka is a 34-year-old man and a close friend to Dieudonné, so the theory that he was oblivious to the gestures more sinister nuances or lacked the foresight to predict the potential fall out from his celebration lacks credibility.

The symbolism of a gesture remains whatever the setting. Take Prince Harry’s ill-fated decision to dress up in a Nazi costume for a party back in 2005. It was a naive faux-pas from a juvenile 20-year-old. However this did not save him from a public backlash, the media running headlines such as “Harry The Nazi”. Of course a gesture is more provocative and offensive in certain environments than others, but that doesn’t negate its symbolism. As soon as the quenelle became associated with anti-Semitism, it developed a symbolic power and a Premier League footballer in today’s society, right or wrong, is a role model to millions across the globe. Therefore Anelka should have known better.

You can bet your bottom dollar there was a young child somewhere across the globe imitating Anelka’s celebration. Even young Romelu Lukaku (on loan at Everton), came out in staunch defence of a man he identifies as one of his footballing idols. The FA lost the initiative having failed to respond with immediate repercussions. They must now look to set a precedent by banning Anelka for a minimum of eight to ten games.

“Protests and more protests in Brazil”

“There Will Be No World Cup”. This was the slogan of one of the recent protests in Brazil. The economic fragility and gross social inequality has seen malcontent spread throughout the country and the public furore concerning government expenditure on this summer’s World Cup has by no means been alleviated. Add this to the fact that 2014 is not only a World Cup year in Brazil, but also an election year with Dilma Rousseff set to run for a second four-year term as president, and the stakes are higher than ever.

Protests flare up in the streets of Sao Paulo. 'There will be no cup' (Photo from www.therepublic.com)

Protests flare up in the streets of Sao Paulo. ‘There will be no cup’ (Photo from www.therepublic.com)

The political protests tainted what was a very successful Confederations Cup for the host nation on the field and they remain a real concern to the Brazilian government who fear that similar unrest could severely disrupt this summer’s tournament. Since the demonstrations witnessed last June, Rousseff’s government have been unable to assuage public discontent. Although recent outcries have been smaller in scale, they have still resulted in vandalism of banks and violent clashes with police, as hardcore groups of protesters nationwide, some of whom call themselves ‘Black Blocs’, cause disruption within some of Brazil’s major cities. The latest development’s in Rio de Janeiro have seen hundreds of people clash with authorities during protests against increased fares for public transport. The skirmishes have been brutal with six people left injured, twenty arrested and a journalist left in critical condition in hospital after he was struck by an explosive device.

Reports have claimed Brazilian security forces are implementing a stringent crackdown, using undercover agents, intercepting emails and meticulously monitoring social media to try to ensure this summers World Cup is not remembered for the battles on the streets rather than the battles on the field.

Having already commented on this issue – Brazil, Stadiums and Protests – all I want to add is this. It is all very well making sure the World Cup runs smoothly and everyone wants to witness a successful event which celebrates football. However as an emerging nation in the world’s global economy, the Brazilian government and FIFA must not attempt to conceal and neglect the country’s social and economic shortfalls under the guises of a footballing fiesta.

Using the words of the recently deceased Nelson Mandela “Sport has the power to inspire and unite people” and football is such a vehicle. Despite the protesters slogans, the ‘show will go on’. But it is the government’s responsibility and FIFA’s (despite their mumbling) to make sure that once the World Cup comes to an end, these social and economic ills are not swept aside once again in preparation for their next major sporting event – the 2016 Summer Olympics. The World Cup has provided the Brazilian government with an audience, they now need to prove the country is worthy of one.