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How to make English football good again - the view from below

Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football explores the possibilities of fan culture as a social movement. 

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During the international break a mini-spat over the England players’ supposed lack of pride in wearing the three lions shirt and playing for their country, provided a helpful starting point towards the remaking of football as a social movement.

England’s inability to go even 1-0 up against the proverbial minnows of the Maltese football team until well into the second half was blamed on the lack of emotional commitment from Harry Kane et al to end the half-century’s worth of years of hurt. But it was more to do with their actual inability to play.

‘Pride’ is the easy cop-out. What we’re witnessing is the ever-decreasing quality of English football. How many of England’s starting eleven would Paris Saint German be chasing after with their chequebooks, or Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund?

Of course the best eleven England can put on a pitch isn’t all bad but mostly their talent is boosted at club level by playing alongside foreign, more technically gifted and able players. On their own they’re not half as good.  And for the players who turn out for United, City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs a World Cup Qualifier, or even the tournament itself (short of reaching the long-forgotten semi-final stage) doesn’t come close to being the biggest match of their careers compared to the possibly more realistic chance of Champions League glory.

It gets worse. The enormous wealth the Premier League provides to their clubs means even for those players far from the Champions League, the season-long battle to maintain their Premier League status (or indeed, gain promotion to it) pushes England games far down their list of priorities.

Lack of passion? No, the result of commercial calculation.  This is at the core of the sickness of what football has become, the hopeless confusion of mistaking the richest league in the world with the best. It’s no accident that the Championship play-off final is described almost exclusively in terms of the riches awarded to the victor rather than the quality of the football played.

For a while those disillusioned with the Premier League and all that adopted the mantra ‘Against Mod£rn Football.’ We first turned this into a T-shirt having spotted a Croatian Fans’ banner at Euro 2008 ‘Against Mod€rn Football.’ The sentiment was internationalist enough to make perfect sense. But being ‘against’ is the classic oppositionalist default position. A catchy phrase that fits neatly on to chest sizes small-XXL but ‘Against Mod£rn Football’ is increasingly problematic in three ways. 

Firstly, there’s more than one version of modernity. Is the ‘against’ aimed at the growth of women’s football, refugee leagues, a game without borders, the irresistible plurality of where fans come from, race, gender, sexuality and nationality divisions broken down? Being against all that ends with oppositionalism masking conservatism, or worse.

Secondly the business of football has become inseparable from multinational corporate power. The macro-politics to reform the game traditionally adopted by both Labour and groups such as the Football Supporters Federation means any agency to enforce these policies seems almost impossible to imagine. Somehow I think an incoming Labour Government is going to have more immediate issues on its mind than nationalising the Premier League.

Thirdly, therefore, there is a necessity to reimagine fan culture not as hard-pressed consumers but as a social movement with the capacity to make change.

Currently this is very much a minority movement, but all such movements start out with big ambitions and modest advances. Their potential to grow and effect change is dependent on the ability to inspire through small victories which help convince wider forces this is a direction of travel worth pursuing.

We can see this movement in the rise of militantly anti-racist ultra groups, at Clapton, Whitehawk and elsewhere. In the growth of start-up football clubs, Hackney Wick FC, City of Liverpool FC and the women’s football club AFC Unity in Sheffield. In the spread of community ownership up and down the divisions. In the pro-refugees message heard from at least some stands, not on the scale of what was seen across the Bundesliga but present nevertheless.

At the core of any such movement is gender. If football is to become modern for all then the sport’s entrenched masculinity must be challenged. Treating women’s football as different yet equal is a key step towards a truly inclusive game. On this basis the Equality FC initiative at Lewes FC where men’s and women’s playing budgets are the same, is a model for all clubs to aspire to if the pressure ‘from below’ can be built.

This isn’t fantasy football. It is about the remaking of the political, the recognition that it is in popular culture that ideas are formed, the limitations on what is possible challenged and transformations take shape. Brighton, now a Premier League club, playing in their own city, an ambition only made possible because of a 15-year campaign by their own fans is a vital illustration of this possibility, a club culture absolutely framed by that fan-led campaign.  And it is fitting therefore that it is in Brighton at The World Transformed Festival alongside Labour Party Conference that many of those involved in these practical initiatives will be gathered together by Philosophy Football to launch a discussion on what a ‘Football from Below’ might look like.

Any such discussion if it is to have a meaningful purpose demands allies. Labour and the trade unions need to look beyond narrowness of their own agendas and the scarcity of their own alliances. Football is a signifier of so many other spaces in popular culture where Labour and the trade unions need to be present, connecting ideas to lived experience towards change. 

New Labour adopted football in the same way it adopted Britpop as a cultural accessory, providing photo opportunities and celebrity endorsements. It was always a flimsy appropriation born out of a flimsy politics.  Corbynism promises something different, and the framing of a popular, cultural politics will be vital to any fulfilment of that proud boast.  Football just one of what should become countless journeys of putting the ideas of Corbynism into practical extra-parliamentary achievement.

‘Football from Below’ wears the colours of FC St Pauli as our inspiration. But it is time to make that change in our own image too.  From the bottom-up, but not in opposition to those who choose to follow the Premier League moneybagged bandwagon. That would be not only futile but also self-destructive. Instead as a minority we will be pioneering the practical possibility of building a game that doesn’t have to be run in the way it is. Rethinking football as a sport for all, not a business to be run for profit. Idealistic? Sure. But here we go…

 

Philosophy Football’s Football from Below T-shirt is available from here

 

About the author

Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest, The Corbyn Effect, is published by Lawrence & Wishart in September, available here.


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