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Men’s Football Leftist football: Why these clubs matter and lessons for the left

In the final piece of the series, Stewart McGill explains what not only other clubs, but football as a whole, can learn from the likes of Dulwich Hamlet

THIS is to conclude our series on left leaning clubs and their supporters. Hopefully more from us later. 

My colleague Vince Raison and I appeared on a podcast last night in which the host asked us about what football could do about the toxic masculinity, xenophobia, racism and sexism associated with football and its supporters, not wholly unfairly. 

The stock answer is of course that it is society’s problem, football suffers the consequences of the socialisation system that breeds toxic male attitudes to violence, women, people of a different race, gay people and others. 

This is true but there is more to it than that and football can play a role. A kid that my son went to school with started going to West Ham a few years ago. His social media and the attitudes displayed there are a caricature of those that you’d expect of a young racist West Ham thug; he also follows England abroad and has posted film of him and other morons singing “no surrender to the IRA” and other idiocies to a bunch of bemused Europeans. 

(I realise that not all West Ham and England fans are like this, but it would be foolish to deny that this element exists.) 

Had this kid gone to follow a team much more local to him and that Vince wrote about as part of this series, Dulwich Hamlet, he would have encountered a wholly different group of people with a quite different mindset: anti-violence, anti-racist, anti-sexist and very quick to step on any manifestations of those perversions of the human spirit. 

We become like the people around us, we are pack animals, a tendency amplified in an emotionally charged collective experience like watching football. 

This kid would have turned out to be a different character had he gone to Dulwich rather than West Ham and encountered a very different type of older male role model, those that do not elevate violence to a defining feature of your masculinity; similarly if he were from Hamburg, had he gone to St Pauli rather than SV his experience would have been very different and he would have emerged a different individual. 

Football is important, it matters greatly to many people and is an inherently tribal experience. The impact of tribalism has to be managed or it can become dangerously toxic. I am an example myself: I’m a reasonably educated person and I’m aware that the whole sectarian gig surrounding the Celtic-Rangers game is nonsense and just serves to divide people who have way more that unites them than any divisions over an ultimately meaningless sporting rivalry.

But when I watch the game I am a classic “90-minute-bigot” screaming ridiculous nonsense at the TV; in my defence, after the game I will contact my Rangers supporting friends and comfort them after another demoralising defeat. 

Clubs should do more in the grounds and in the community to moderate this tendency and to encourage their fans to be more like those of Dulwich and St Pauli than those of West Ham and SV; not necessarily the whole left-wing gig but the elements that express key features of civilisation such as not hating someone because he isn’t the same colour. 

The football authorities could also encourage real changes in the atmosphere in grounds if the will were genuinely there. 

Mario Balotelli was subject to hideous racist abuse when playing for Brescia against Verona last year: the horror of the situation was augmented by the attitude of the Brescia coach who basically denied hearing the clearly audible monkey chants; the Verona president, Maurizio Setti, supported his manager’s line, claiming his team’s supporters were simply “sarcastic, not racist.” 

Proper measures need to be taken here, rather than token fines and threats of ground closure for a few games: points should be deducted when the club’s supporters behave like this, and additional points need to be deducted if club officials aggravate the situation with blatantly mendacious denials. 

There are issues with this and it penalises the decent people in the club’s management and innocent players and supporters: but it will certainly guarantee that all those groups do more to address the issue as points deductions will hurt them all where it matters. And some things matter more than football itself, a lesson that the clubs would do well to communicate. 

So, football matters, but does it matter to the left? What can we learn from the experience of left-wing football teams and the global success of a club like St Pauli? 

I first read about St Pauli in the late 1980s in When Saturday Comes (one of the first football “fanzines.)” They were a pretty crap team then in the middle of the German second division, watched mostly by the local lefties (St Pauli has always been a “bohemian” and unconventional neighbourhood) but gaining an international reputation for being the cool, anti-racist side to follow. 

The stadium was never that full so it was easy to go see them in those days. 

Today St Pauli is a huge global leftist brand with supporters’ clubs all over the planet including India, New York and Yorkshire. There is a huge following in Scotland on the back of the Celtic connection. Standing tickets are cheap but really hard to get, the stadium is full pretty much every game. 

The team is still crap but, as we often said during the series of articles, “it’s about much more than the football.”

Irrespective of your views on the commercialisation of the St Pauli Brand, its growth and that of the international network has been spectacular. Vince went to the St Pauli v SV derby in March 2019: there was a huge international turnout to support St Pauli; SV are historically a much bigger and more successful club than St Pauli but their international following is very limited. 

Why so successful? St Pauli, and many of the other clubs we have covered in this series, project a strong, positive image. They stand powerfully for inclusivity and equality and are wholeheartedly against fascism, racism, greed and the impact of rule by an oligarchy based on that greed. 

And they stand determinedly against business football, a particular hatred for the Bukaneros, the leftist fan grouping of the great Rayo Vallecano of Madrid. 

You feel good about being associated with the clubs themselves and the international networks they generate, you belong to something unequivocally worthwhile and positive and feel “cool” in yourself about the statement your support is making. 

The imagery and branding is vibrant, “sexy” and reinforces the positivity. The St Pauli Jolly Roger conveys energy and rebellion without being menacing. The Rayo Vallecano shirt is a design classic, the rainbow away shirt of the 2015/2016 season was a thing of beauty. 

This kit was unveiled with the slogan: “Rayo Vallecano with the unsung heroes” showing six different colours on the stripes related to a different cause. 

The red stripe was for those fighting cancer, orange for those campaigning for the integration of disabled people, yellow for “those who have lost hope,” green is for people striving to protect the environment, blue for those fighting against child abuse and pink is for the victims of domestic abuse. 

The overall rainbow colours for those from LGBT backgrounds and their struggles. 

And the whole thing is “fun.” Watching football and feeling part of a unified collective is a great experience; with many clubs it’s vitiated by the racism and the violence, at St Pauli, Rayo Vallecano, Cadiz et al you just get the shared lefty experience and a good laugh. 

And a real sense of unity and togetherness in expressing support for a range of unequivocally decent principles. This contrasts with the left’s fissiparous tendencies and arguments about what Trotsky said to Stalin in 1919. 

And not everyone is as turned on as I am by discussions about whether Das Kapital is the economic quantification of the existentialist philosophy contained in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, nor do phrases like “access to the means of production” resonate so well as “Kein Fussball den Faschisten” translated by St Sauli’s Glasgow supporters into “nae fitba for fascists.”

Focus on issues that people see as important and use language, imagery and behaviour that resonate and convey an inclusive energy. These are some of the lessons we can learn. 

If you read Our Flag Stays Red, the excellent memoirs of Phil Piratin, it is clear that the party in London’s East End in the 1930s directed its efforts on the two major issues of that time confronting the neighbourhood: housing and fighting fascism. This culminated in Piratin’s election as MP for Stepney in 1945. 

Sadly these are again major issues of our time. Once all is back to normal I plan to be out leafleting at Dulwich Hamlet and Clapton FC matches, with leaflets covering our anti-racist activism and what we intend to do about the housing crisis, issues to which we can all relate and can gain us support from a like-minded audience.

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