Football and socialism together are greater than the sum of their parts

As a socialist and a football fan, there have been periods when I found it a struggle to rationalise these two aspects of my identity. I know from speaking to other people, that the feeling that football and socialism are mutually exclusive is not entirely uncommon. Chomsky’s comments didn’t help, when during an interview he called sports “another crucial example of the indoctrination system”.

In terms of the capitalist model of modern football, with it’s global audiences, billion dollar businesses, gambling adverts and alcohol sponsorships, it is difficult not to agree with Chomsky. And many supporters testify to having witnessed this new model taking over in the last few decades. It wasn’t that long ago that football was still an affordable pastime for working class families and communities to come together. What it has become is something more akin to a multi-billion dollar entertainment cartel, with hierarchies of engagement. The working class are increasingly struggling to afford pay-per-view, while actual match attendance is fast becoming entirely gentrified. Although, as the relationship between football and capitalism appears to hurtle out of control, it is also worth remembering that the relationship between football and socialism is far from dead.

There are still places in the world where football is still a focal point around which communities are strengthened and radicalism is empowered. And there has been some brilliant work done on that. And of course, the economic structure of football clubs around the world don’t all follow the neoliberal model of the UK. German football is very much built around the inter-dependence of club and community. And in terms of the past, when discussing the relationship between football and socialism, it wasn’t that long ago that the two came together in the struggle against fascism. Spain’s recent history is a perfect example of the role football communities can play in exactly these sorts of class struggles.

But it is not just about the roles football and socialism working together play in the wider society, it is also about the role they play in the lives of the individuals engaging with them. I think Chomsky’s comments about how individuals apply their intellectual faculties to sports discussions is very astute. I have spent hours on the stands and in pubs discussing topics as diverse as the psychology of group dynamics in different playing formations, the role of leadership in collective performance, the impact of humidity on the aerodynamics of free kicks, and of course, the ever popular unconscious biases that can afflict referees. All with people who have no ‘formal’ background or education in these highly specialised fields. And I include myself in that group.

Anyone that has spent any sort of significant amount of time talking about football with committed supporters knows that the capacity for critical and rational thinking are not genetically attached to inherited trust funds. It seems to me, that when people get together there is an almost instinctive need to engage in informed analysis and critical debate, whether that is about football, social networking, brand marketing, international politics, or macro-economics. There seems to be a biological need to share thinking and from that develop new shared ideas. And yes, arguably football does shift that tendency away from focussing on actively developing ones’ own community and society, towards a more passive form of commentating on the behaviours of distant others. But there is something more to it than just that.

When religion and politics are still an unknown quantity, football can often be the initial topic of conversation that transcends cultural and ethnic differences. It has the power to act as a catalyst for conversation, which in turn can act as the basis for mutual respect and understanding. There are some that try to turn it into a tool for hatred and division, but I would argue that the only people that benefit from that are the ruling class. That is not to say that football doesn’t reflect the same violence and exploitation, in terms of the race, gender, and class inequalities afflicting the wider capitalist society it inhabits. It does. But at the same time as football and capitalism are locked in a spiralling relationship, football and socialism are not mutually exclusive either. Far from it. In the moments when they are free from the exploitation of the capitalists, and are being shared by normal people, there is something empowering and radical about it.

Perhaps that is why I found the biography of Fred Spiksley such a welcome breath of fresh air. After Mark Metcalf reviewed my first book for the Unite book of the month we got into an email conversation. He told me about his work with the Nicholson’s on the life of Fred Spiksley. Spiksley played football at a time when my great-grandfather was going to Highbury to watch Arsenal play. I never knew him, but as the fourth generation of Arsenal supporter in my family I have heard a lot about him. It is apart of my identity that I share with family, neighbours, friends, the wider community where I live and even relatives I have and will never meet. There is a vein running through football and socialism and community that is about shared identity. It is that vein that capitalism is constantly trying to pull out and destroy. For me, when football is at it’s best, the pulsing vein silences all other noise.

I wrote a review of the biography of Fred Spiksley, Flying over an Olive Grove because I was so moved by it. The Morning Star published an edited version of it on Monday 12th December 2016. I have put up the original (pre-edited) version here. To read it or to download a .txt version of it please click through to the page.