Monday, August 22, 2016

Football is Political

It's a common refrain that "politics has no place in sport."

I guess it's comforting to people. The idea, I'm told, is that sports should be about coming together, setting aside our differences, and enjoying a spectacle. It sounds nice.

More fun, however, is screaming "GO HOME YA BUMS, GO HOME!" at visiting fans.

So long as football is controlled by corporate interests, we can't really have those "nice" things (not that we'd really want them, as channeling our primal, territorial rage into sport would remain preferable to most alternatives). We do, however, get an inexplicable Michael Jackson statue, insipid adverts for insipid products, and a man who is much more rewardingly and disproportionately adept at dodging defenders than he is taxes. If you want politics out of business, cool. But help us get business out of politics. Otherwise, you're complicit in something you may very well claim to hate: the government censors political banners to control how you think and feel. Rather, the governing body of every major sport censors political expression. It's a business, after all. Politics is a bad look. Some people may feel alienated and profits may go down. Some people may also stab each other, but that's always a risk in football.

Here's a fun tangential thought: A lot of the same people who rail against "political correctness" seem to hate having politics in sports, entertainment, and pretty much everywhere except for their own regimented safe spaces (unless it's their politics). I know, there's nothing remarkable or profound about merely mentioning that hypocrites exist (*eighth grade mind BLOWN!*), but it feels relevant here.

This brings us to last week. Members of Celtic FC's Green Brigade supporters group held Palestinian flags during a Champions League match against Hapoel Be'er Sheva in a showing of solidarity. As this is a brazenly political act, UEFA has a problem with it. Of course, displaying a national flag is not necessarily political (though a nation's flag is always political in the more literal sense), displaying a Palestinian flag during a match against an Israeli opponent is undeniably pointed.

And none of this is shocking. Celtic itself is inherently political (even more political than Israel's presence in a European competition). The club has represented one side of a bitter sectarian divide for most of its history. It was founded to provide aid for the starving children of immigrants. You can't just fucking gloss over that in the hopes of having neat and clean marketable entertainment. You also cannot gloss over the fact that a minority of Celtic fans occasionally sing and chant terrible things, especially toward their bitter rivals, Rangers. This goes both ways in The Old Firm (which doesn't excuse the behavior, but it is what it is). If you disagree with the Green Brigade on the issue of Palestine, that's fine, but you're disagreeing with something fundamental to the club.

As football is a business, even the club sometimes disagrees with itself.

Part of what makes football truly beautiful and fascinating is that so many clubs and their supporters have distinct identities. Ideally, I suppose, the playing styles and personalities of the players and managers come to define those identities. It's timeless drama. However, players come and go. Chasing absurd salaries, very few ever stay put for prolonged periods of time. The people who remain most loyal are the ones paying money instead of making it.

I am not arguing that UEFA shouldn't fine Celtic FC. We have our forms of political expression, the right wing have theirs, and St. Pauli have whatever the hell they're up to. Everyone gets a fine.*

The idea that clubs and their supporters groups should be impotent, colorless, and quiet is what disturbs me. Every supporters group has electrifying apolitical chants and songs, but if football is to remain an art, it must remain a little dangerous.

*St. Pauli don't usually break the rules, I just wish more people knew about this club.


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