You can’t take the politics out of football without killing it

Kenyan club Mathare United is the result of a massive programme of self-help and urban organisation in one of Kenya’s worst slums. Photograph: Dai Kurokawa/EPA
Football authorities, from Fifa to the FA, are keen to argue that the sport is a benign force, an agent of positive social transformation even. They portray football as the universal game for a global world, an instrument of soft power and peaceful diplomacy and a device for overcoming social divisions. They are not entirely wrong. However, as the recent events in Scotland remind us, the picture is more complex. The interception of crude postal bombs sent to Celtic manager Neil Lennon, his lawyer Paul McBride QC and Celtic-supporting former MSP Trish Godman, is the latest instalment of a very long history of sectarian politics, violence and intimidation, inside and outside Glasgow’s football stadiums.

While few football rivalries have the same visceral unpleasantness as Celtic and Rangers, the enmeshment of football with political violence and extreme social tensions is not uncommon. In Israel the fans of Beitar Jerusalem have actively aligned themselves with the most extreme elements of the settler movement. In the dying days of Yugoslavia, a game between Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb descended into a stadium-wide violent confrontation of an explicitly political and nationalist character. The ultras of both sides would form the shock troops of the ethnic cleansing that was to come.

Why should football, of all sports, of all things, magnetically attract such extraordinary political claims and energies? In part this is a function of its sheer popularity, and as a team game it naturally aligns itself with, and becomes a symbol of, neighbourhoods, cities and nations. The flow of the game and the bitter turns of luck and fortune it produces may have some part in explaining the superheated emotions it inflames.

However, the most important reason that football can be claimed as an instrument of politics, benign or malign, is the nature of its crowds. Despite the relentless commercialisation, policing and pacification of football stadiums, the crowds will not go away and they will not stop singing. As anyone who has had the misfortune to witness the alien vacuum that is a game played in an empty stadium will know, they remain utterly indispensable to the spectacle.

In one way, we are lucky that in our otherwise depoliticised, individualised and over-planned world, there is somewhere where large crowds can reinvent their own identities: a place where marginal and unheard communities can create their own institutions and their own voices.

There are many examples of the positive function football can have: Spartak Moscow, for example, used to provide a lonely outpost of autonomy and protest in the otherwise totalitarian wasteland of the Soviet Union. While Dynamo Moscow were the team of the state security services, Spartak was the team of the remnant intelligentsia and the quiet dissenters, their victories celebrated as a precious moment of autonomy.

There’s Assyriska, an Assyrian football club formed in 1974 in Sweden, where a significant community of this Levantine people had settled. Over the last 30 years it has made it to the second division of Swedish football and has become a potent symbol of the global and stateless Assyrian diaspora. The team’s games are watched on the internet in California and Australia, and Assyrians from across Europe come to Sweden to watch them play.

Mathare United are the standard-bearers for Kenya’s worst mega-slum and the sporting pinnacle of a massive programme of self-help and urban organisation. The club was born from MYSA, the Mathare Youth Sports Association, which offers 25,000 kids regular football coaching and leagues. It’s one point for a draw, three for a win and six for doing your environmental clean-up and eight of the squad better show up. They do, in their thousands, and Mathare, for the first time, actually has a waste disposal service. More recently, in Cairo, the ultras of Al-Ahly and Zamalek – deadly enemies for a century – joined together in the vanguard of the “day of rage”. Their training in confronting the police proved very useful.

However, this all comes at a price. Solidarity and identity are most effectively created under conditions of threat, in symbolic and practical opposition to others. Football’s competitive quality, physicality and legions of away fans provide this in spades.

The reflex action of many is to call for the removal of politics from football; an operation likely to kill the patient. As with most cultural forms, from the cinema to the novel, the politics of football will be what we make of it. For those already locked into sectarian conflicts, racist politics or authoritarian manipulation, football, its crowds and its rivalries, offers enormous potential for recruitment and demagogy. For those who want to promote a politics of universalism, fraternity and equality, its canvas is equally attractive. If we want the chance to pursue the latter, then we must accept the possibility and threat of the former.