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
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 – Futbolgrad – David 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
“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
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.
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.”
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.