Against Anti-Fascist Football

Alfie Bown

May 18, 2022

In the 2000s, a slew of articles claimed that football had become what the cliched Marx quote famously claimed about religion: the ‘opiate of the masses.’ At its best, sport was apolitical, preventing us from engaging with the social and economic realities of contemporary life. At its worst, if it ever did get political, football encouraged nationalist or regionalist attitudes that would only serve to embolden a rising far-right. In the 2020s, the situation has radically changed, but this position failed to anticipate what would happen. Sport became politicized, but it is serving neither the nationalists nor the revolutionaries. Instead, it remains the ally of a new form of liberal establishment culture. While football presents itself as the pioneer of anti-racism, it's not as far away from its fascist enemies as it likes to believe.

For a long while, the argument doing the rounds was that sport, and in particular football (both American football and soccer), was used by mainstream media primarily as "distraction", keeping a potentially insurgent working population down both by diverting attention away from political events that gave rise to greater national and global inequalities and by channeling energy and frustration into the ‘safe’ space of sport.

At that time, with Silvio Berlusconi as a kind of pioneer, the practice of what is now called "sports washing" also became the norm. Companies, politicians, and nation-states began a strategy of laundering their reputations through sports. Of course, this is in the public eye today with Russian oligarch Roman Abramovic’s ownership of Chelsea now being rescinded under sanction – but it was very much the practice of the decade in which he took over the club in 2003. Sports, and football, in particular, could either turn us evil by encouraging national rivalries or distract us from evil by sportswashing and de-politicizing.

Perhaps surprisingly, the 2010s presented a rather different picture. Alongside mind-numbingly boring liberal defenses of football on the grounds that it is healthy to play, a number of more significant critics on the Left offered a (broadly) socialist defense of sport. With its long-standing connection to working-class communities soccer, in particular, writers like Simon Critchley and Joe Kennedy claimed, could become part of a socialist future. One concrete example of this would be Clapton CFC, the "anti-fascist" soccer club re-founded in 2018 in London. Another would be the rise of Forest Green Rovers and their Eco Park, planned since the same year.

Both - taken individually - are important community-driven attempts to improve the political role of sport for progressive agendas. But the BBC and other mainstream media would be quick to turn such developments into something else - a message that sport is united behind its own liberal mainstream politics. When I watch matches at Clapton CFC, its always been striking how little it conforms to the typical structure of football supporting - but we would never know that from the media. For them, it all seemed like quite the party - environmentalism and anti-fascism united with its working class roots in soccer. What could be better than that?

Football discourse was certainly changing. As social media, podcast hosting platforms and blogs took a greater share of the market, the influence was taken away from the back pages of tabloids and their rhetoric of national and regional identity politics. What we might call the ‘bourgeoisification’ of football began – a new language to discuss football, driven by a more intellectual class of journalists, fans and commentators would take hold – perhaps embodied by then number 1 podcast The Football Ramble. The old jargonistic presenters would be replaced by a new generation of clued-up and socially sensitive (perhaps even woke) spokespeople. But would this new generation of fans, commentators, and even players herald a different future for the role of sport in social life? A brighter socialist football?