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diplomatic tensions across the world, the old canard that sport and politics should be kept separate is increasingly outdated.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

02/2/15

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

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“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

01/7/15

Unwelcome Change: Steven Gerrard and the Bigger Picture

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The dust is finally beginning to settle after an announcement that Liverpool fans would have been dreading for some time. Steven Gerrard, a man voted by the readers of Sky Sports and the Liverpool Echo as the greatest Reds player in history, is leaving after 25-years at the club. But what does this outpouring of emotion reveal about people’s fear of change and the fragility of identity.

Gerrard’s decision to embark on a new venture in MLS next season is understandable. For a born competitor who still has plenty of energy left in those industrious legs, the prospect of having your game time “managed” is less than appealing. Of course, much has been written regarding the 34-year-olds departure and he has rightly received the highest plaudits. He has been eulogised as a ‘legend’ and one of the greatest ‘one-club players’ in history. The sceptics have taken umbrage to the latter assertion.

By definition, perhaps it would be wrong to put the Merseyside man alongside club icons such as Paolo Maldini, Francesco Totti and Ryan Giggs, purely due to the fact that these players have only played for one club throughout their professional careers. That said, although Gerrard will be plying his trade in the United States next season, it would be unfair to question his loyalty, especially when this is predominately based on a transfer to Chelsea that never happened. It’s a spurious slur. Although Liverpool’s captain marvel handed in a transfer request to join the Blues in 2005, the move never materialised. Despite the temptation, he decided against joining Roman Abramovich’s revolution and his only peccadillo was considering a lucrative and career changing offer. Few players wouldn’t.

But that’s why Gerrard’s decision to leave Liverpool has fuelled such strong opinion. Loyalty is a diminishing commodity and players like Gerrard are a dying breed. With the opening of yet another January transfer window, many supporters across Europe will anxiously be scanning the gossip columns, hoping beyond hope that one of their club heroes or prized assets doesn’t give into the lure of a remunerative contract or the promise of silverware.

There is often a disparity between the loyalties of a supporter and that of a player. It’s one of football’s great taboos. Fans usually proclaim they will follow their club “till they die”, while players and managers swap clubs as if it were a game of musical chairs. This mercantilism isn’t a new phenomenon and throughout history, armies and noblemen have chopped and changed their allegiances, dictated by the opportunity of prosperity and riches.  It is a reality that exists in everyday life, people jump ship when offered a more profitable job and indeed the world of recruitment is built around this premise. However just as in football, the act of moving to a rival firm or business is still frowned upon and condemned.

For Liverpool fans and Gerrard admirers, much of the furore surrounding his imminent exit is dictated by angst. What will life be like without Stevie G? Liverpool will lose a club bastion, a player who personifies their ideals, while the Premier League loses one of its most exciting home-grown talents.  Lifelong Liverpool fan and current employee of the club, Rickie Lambert, labelled his teammate as “Mr Liverpool” while manager, Brendan Rodgers, admitted his captain would be “irreplaceable.” The most passionate of fans feel that they belong to their club while at the same time owning a portion. If you give your body and soul to something, you hope for the same in return. The Liverpool captain gave that to his club and he embodied the footballing qualities supporters so dearly desire. But this makes his departure even harder to bear. Losing such a prominent figure can be traumatic. The retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson clearly damaged Manchester United’s cohesion and efficacy and they have only recently showed signs of recovering.

But the clamour surrounding Gerrard’s departure may also tap into a broader social issue which has a contemporary pertinence, that being insecurity surrounding identity. Most people are desperate to have a clear sense of identity or in simpler terms, belonging. These are usually constructed by our social milieu, which normally includes family, peers, geographical location, nationality and social class. The economic downturn and political maelstrom in recent times has left a generation of disillusioned individuals, individuals who are desperate to feel a part of something. In this ever evolving and globalised world, it is increasingly difficult for people to map out a clear identity and in some cases this uncertainty has allowed ideological extremism to proliferate.

Football, described by ex-England international Kevin Davies as ‘too tribal’, has long provided a source of identity with clubs acting as rallying points for shared values. Unfortunately, the construction of social groups in a footballing context has also given birth to extremism in the form of hooliganism and on the continent, radical political ideology within Ultra groups.

But returning to the significance of Steven Gerrard, there is no doubt that in purely footballing terms his departure will have widespread implications for the club, its supporters and the Premier League. Love him or loathe him, there are few men who have struck balls as sweetly or governed midfields as imperiously over the last decade or so. But analysing the fallout of Gerrard’s decision in solely footballing terms is superficial. Football, sport in general, is a microcosm of society and thus the emotional reaction reflects a social trend.

Liverpool supporters, who have long been linked with the left-wing, socialist tradition within the city, immediately embraced Gerrard, a working class lad and boyhood fan of the club. His story resonates with many of those who sit in the Kop end; he grew up on the Bluebell estate in Huyton during the 1980’s, a period of austerity as the city resisted Margaret Thatcher’s reforms. Gerrard himself recently admitted had he not been playing for Liverpool, he would be watching them in the stands.  The tributes that Lambert and Rodgers paid to their captain illustrate how the clubs identity has become inextricably linked with the man. Without their emblematic leader, are Liverpool and their supporters losing a key component of their identity?

Gerrard’s departure signals change and in the eyes of many this change is unwanted. People are desperate to cling onto the halcyon days in which they grew up, in this case watching Stevie G in his iconic number eight jersey, the captains armband adorning his sleeve as he taps the ‘This Is Anfield’ sign in the tunnel before leading his red army into battle. It is a situation reflected in today’s society, one in which change is met with apprehension and uncertainty is influencing people to revert back to what they are comfortable with. Unfortunately for Liverpool, as Steven Gerrard sets off across the pond, a part of their identity will go with him. It seems identities are being redefined and not everyone is a fan.

@LH_Ramon25

03/25/14

Ferenc Puskas: The Football Star That Awoke a Nation.

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(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.

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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.

12/14/13

An Anglo-Italian Perspective

 England v Italy - UEFA EURO 2012 Quarter Final

It has been a week since the World Cup draw and the dust has settled on what was a fascinating event. Last week I discussed the social and political implications of the World Cup in Brazil however the prospect of Italy – England has forced my hand to write something a little more light hearted and certainly closer to home.

When Sir Geoff Hurst picked up that little plastic ball on Friday the 6th of December at Costa do Sauipe a wry smile came to my face. It just had to be, Italy versus England.

It is a tie which should provide me with the ultimate internal conflict, something akin to your alter egos, sitting on each shoulder, whispering sweet nothings in your ear. “Italia, tifa Italia – Italy support Italy, no its got to be England you should support England” (the conversation would go something like that). Hailing from England with an Italian father who like many on the peninsula has a vehement passion for football I should be experiencing an International schism. Not the case. For reasons little known to my self, apart from the fact my mother isn’t the biggest of football fans, I have always had a stalwart attachment to the Azzurri. Call me unpatriotic, question my ‘love for my country’, apparently something politicians do these days to besmirch a journalists reputation, however it does not make an iota of difference to me.

That said the point of this article is not to discuss the mundane topic of my own allegiances but to compare and contrast two nations whose footballing history makes them behemoths of the World Cup arena.

Whether its Forza Italia or Come on England I will be juxtaposing the media reaction surrounding these two European heavyweights of Brazil’s World Cup Group D.

Press Reaction 

England

It is safe to say the English media quaked at what was undoubtedly a cruel draw. Not only were England condemned to face  Italy and Uruguay (two nations in the top 10 of the FIFA rankings) but they would also have to play their opener in the sweltering heat of the Brazilian Jungle.

Greg Dyke's reaction to the bad news (Photo from The Guardian)

Greg Dyke’s – Chairman of the FA reacts to the draw (Photo from The Guardian)

For much of the press, Greg Dyke’s reaction to the draw said it all. He was caught on Camera pulling his finger across his throat. In typically English fashion this already signaled doom. For Matt Dickinson of The Times the gesture “perfectly captured the story of England’s anguish” while The Guardian described the group as “probably as treacherous as anything Hodgson could have dared imagined”.

It was not just the quality of the group, which also included a potential banana skin in Costa Rica, but also the location of England’s first game – Manaus. The stadium lies in the heart of the Amazon Jungle where temperatures can soar above 30c and humidity can be as high as 80%. The Sun duly published a double spread headed “Amazon Pain Forrest”. The only consolation if you can call it that is that England will be playing Italy, another side who will be unaccustomed to the perilous conditions.

Generally the media reaction in England epitomised the country’s tendency to veer towards cynicism and pessimism regarding their prospects in major events. Events which are frequently anticipated with a catalogue of woe and a sheepish expectation of failure.  It is in stark contrast to the jingoistic, conquer all attitude of the English during the height of the British Empire, although that said there were some who tried their best to rally this type of sentiment. Steve McManaman appeared positively buoyant after the draw speaking on ESPN “I think we’ll be very happy with that. We know how the Italians play. I don’t think there is any problem there”.

No doubt as the World Cup draws closer and closer, whether it be the fans or the press, there will be some sort of wave of enthusiasm that sweeps England and suddenly you may start hearing “well why not, why can’t England go all the way, at least the Semi’s”.

Italy

In Italy the press reaction to the draw was at times just as sceptical but manifested in a totally different manner. La Gazzetta dello Sport ran the head line “Italy Pays the Price” with the overview reading “After Blatter, Zidane gave us another ‘headbutt’ by picking us Uruguay, England and Costa Rica”.

Apart from the fact that the analogy in this headline could be construed as slightly inappropriate and disrespectful to one of the games biggest names, its real agenda lies in one of the Italian media’s favourite tough luck stories. Corruption and scandal. Anyone who knows Italy well will be familiar with the peninsula’s love for a conspiracy theory. So when it was announced that one of the European teams from pot 4 was going to be moved into pot 2 and face the possibility of being drawn with another of the strong European sides, everybody in Italy ‘knew’ the Azzurri were going to be that team.

Among the Italian media there was a continuation of this theme. The Corriere dello Sport  went with the headline “Scandolo”  – “Shameful World Cup draw gives us England and Uruguay, while France get an extremely easy group despite being a long way back in the FIFA rankings”. The headline tells you all you need to know. While it reveals a similar candid level of uncertainty among the press surrounding Italy’s chances of success, it is above all because the world and its wife are ‘against’ them.

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Totti given his second yellow vs South Korea by referee Byron Moreno in controversial circumstances (Photo from espnfc.com

This however should not come as shock. In 2002 after Italy were dumped out of the World Cup by hosts South Korea (in what must be said were controversial circumstances) Pietro Calabrese editor of La Gazzetta and a doyen of the Calcio journalist world wrote “We were knocked out in order to level out some problems between us and the bosses of FIFA and UEFA…Italy has no weight…Shame on them…Shame on the World Cup”. Having read this episode in John Foot’s book: Calcio the author goes onto describe other incidents in which the press became embroiled with such stories. So while the media focused on the cruel draw dealt to Italy, much of the comment was centred around conspiracy.

Tutto Sport opened with a rather less controversial headline – “Italy scare Cavani and Rooney”. This was one of the more positive press reactions to the draw yet the paper were quick to highlight Prandelli’s comments regarding Costa Rica. “Prandelli surprised everyone ‘I fear Costa Rica and the climate'”. This is the last team you might expect the Italian coach to highlight but given Italy’s past failure to get out of a group full of minnows (1966 & 2010 immediately spring to mind) the media were picking up on what  is sometimes Italy’s Achilles heel – complacency against the ‘smaller’ teams.

There is a saying the country gets the press it deserves and in this case the media speaks volumes for Italy and England. While the English press wallowed in the nation’s misfortune the Italian press were quick to apportion some of the blame on FIFA and the system. In one case its bad luck and in the other– its wilful conspiracy.

11/9/13

Il Calcio: Uniting and Dividing Italy

On Sunday evening 3rd place Juventus will host 2nd place Napoli in what is the most eye-catching game in this round of Serie A fixtures. With both sides tied on 28 points, sitting just three behind a rejuvenated Roma it is an opportunity for either to stake a claim for the Serie A title.

However the fixture is not solely a meeting of two title contenders. It is a meeting of the North and the South. Another illustration of the regional divide that exists in Italy. Just like the Renaissance era – when civic states battled for supremacy on the peninsula – these two bastions of Turin and Naples will renew a territorial rivalry which has its roots in Italian history.

Campanilismo is an Italian word perhaps best translated as fervent local patriotism. It symbolises a sense of identity, a sense of pride and belonging to your place of birth. A feeling which can often be much stronger than any sense of national identity. When introducing their place of origin I have often heard Italians say Sono Vicentino (I’m from Vicenza), Sono Napoletano (I am from Naples) before saying Sono Italiano (I am Italian).

Napoli fans expressing their loyalty to their city. Interestingly the fans have spelled Neapolitan - Napulitan...a mistake the editor puts down to spelling. However it is perhaps a reference to the Italian word Pulire - To Clean. If so it is another example of Napoli fans subversively mocking the discriminatory chants used against them which describe Neapolitan's as people who are dirty and smell . (Photo from http://www.theguardian.com/ taken by Tom Jenkins).

Interestingly the fans have spelled Neapolitan – Napulitan…a misspelling or subversive irony? Pulire is Italian – To Clean. Another example of Napoli fans mocking the discriminatory chants describing them as dirty?? (Photo from http://www.theguardian.com/ taken by Tom Jenkins).

Why?? Just under three years ago Italy celebrated its 150th anniversary of its Risorgimento and its birth as a nation. Compared to England  a unified nation for over a 1000 years  this is no time at all. Like a jigsaw puzzle where the remaining pieces do not quite fit, Italian national identity remains an enigma.

While King Henry VIII waged war on the continent under the English banner, the Italian peninsula was fragmented. Any sense of collective identity was defined by civic pride. Italy as a nation did not exist. Fast forward and some of these underlying divisions remain.

This is exemplified by the North-South divide. So much so that Nicholas Doumanis (author of Inventing the Nation: Italy) claimed that the northern and southern halves of the peninsula appear in social, cultural and economic terms to be two very different countries. To give this context  the regional stereotypes that exist in Italy are to a degree comparable to those in England, albeit in Italy the north is viewed as the ‘prosperous’ half. The comparison stops here, for in England, as far as I am aware, no political party has ever challenged the idea of  a collective English identity.

Lega Nord or Northern League is a regionalist political party which has often attacked the idea of Italian unity by claiming that the south is a burden on the nation. The party’s political programme advocates greater regional autonomy, especially for the North and at times secession of the North altogether.

A Lega Nord slogan: Yes to Polenta (a traditional cuisine from the Veneto area) No to cous cous (a staple food in North African cuisine)

A Lega Nord slogan: Yes to Polenta (a traditional cuisine from the Veneto area) No to cous cous (a staple food in North African cuisine)

Couple this with the view expressed by Gary Armstrong and Alberto Testa (Football Fascism and Fandom: The UltraS of Italian Football) that Il Calcio has constantly mirrored the socio-political environment in Italy and one can begin to grasp the power it possesses, both to unite and divide. It is an issue which has never been more contemporary.

This summer the Italian Football Association (FIGC) decided to apply UEFA’s stadium ban rule (aimed at tackling racist chanting) to what it calls “territorial discrimination”. Low and behold when the fans of AC Milan were found guilty of using derogatory chants, first against Napoli, which led to a closure of the Curva Sud (AC Milan Ultras stronghold), and then against Juventus, which led to the closure of the San Siro (a decision eventually suspended) it caused uproar among supporters across Italy.

Traditionally Napoli fans have been on the receiving end of chants referring to crime, poverty and cholera outbreaks in their city. The following link contains an example of a frequently used chant against Neapolitan’s – http://youtu.be/ZrowkCqT95w  

Translated the chant goes something like this:

Smell the stench, even the dogs are running
The Neapolitans are coming
Infected with cholera, earthquake victims
You have never washed yourselves with soap…
Napoli shit, Napoli cholera
You shame the whole of Italy
Work hard Neapolitan
As you have to bend over (politely put) for Maradona
Diego is shit Diego Diego is shit

However, instead of revelling in a touch of schadenfreude, some of AC Milan’s fiercest rivals, the Ultras of Inter Milan, Juventus and even Napoli voiced support for the Rossoneri’s plight.

With sardonic humor the Napoli fans unveiled a banner at their game against Livorno saying “[We are] Naples cholera-sufferers. Now close our curva!” The Ultras of Juve and Inter then made statements imploring fans across the country to join them in singing those “famous chants of territorial discrimination.”

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(Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images)

AC Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani later said strict rules aimed at tackling racism have been taken to an extreme by the Lega Serie A “I understand that racism is a big problem, a problem in the whole world, but territorial discrimination is something else.”

Long before the arrival of immigrants on Italian shores, regional slurs and stereotypes have been used as insults not just in the stadia but also in day to day Italian life.

So what does this all mean? Perhaps the irony lies in the fact that the Ultras have united in in their fight to discriminate against each other. And therein lies the power of Il Calcio, both to unite and divide elements of Italian society. Supporters across Italy are united in being opposed. Its an oxymoron but it makes perfect sense!

The FIGC introduce tougher sanctions but the supporters continue with their discriminatory chants. And they will go on chanting. For it is embedded in their history. Moreover the Ultras and many others feel it is their right to insult each other.

When another of these historic battles between North and South is enacted at the Juventus Stadium on Sunday night you will be sure to hear those ‘famous’ chants of discrimination. “Napoletani colerosi”, Neapolitan’s – cholera sufferers, Juventini “ladri” – Juventus – thieves in reference to the 2006 Calciopoli scandal.

It is all part of the rough and tumble of the football stadium and it can be viewed as good fun, part of tradition or further evidence for the existence of a fragile national identity. However from one issue arises a multitude of others.

Does the continued practice of territorial discrimination encourage the more extreme elements of Italian society to believe they have the right to actively discriminate. Does territorial discrimination constitute racism? And how is Italian national identity, or lack of, manifested within Il Calcio. These are all questions that warrant further exploration.