Historically, sports have always been a grassroots endeavor. Whether one is part of a local team playing an arch rival or a fan in the stands at a contest broadcast across the world, the game derives its meaning from those who play and their supporters. As anyone involved with sports knows, this meaning raises spirits and inflames passions. Most likely begun as a means for humans to get together and burn off some energy, their modern realization in all its forms continues to be an arena where passions run high and games take on a meaning well beyond their objective importance. Because of this meeting of people and passions, sports have often been manipulated for political and pecuniary ends. In today’s world, both these phenomena are present internationally in the most popular sport of them all–football, often known as soccer.
This is the subject of Gabriel Kuhn’s newest book, Soccer Vs. the State:Tackling Football and Radical Politics. A former semi-professional soccer player, Kuhn explores sports ground currently tilled by writers like Dave Zirin. However, while Zirin critiques the entire world of professional sports, Kuhn focuses entirely on soccer. Interspersing leaflets, interviews, and articles with his own contextual narrative, Kuhn presents the reader with an alternative vision of soccer from the World Cup to grassroots football clubs organized by squatters and political activists. Underlying it all is a critique of modern capitalism and its effect on the sport.
It is difficult for fans of professional sports in the United States to conceive of their favorite teams not being owned by a a group of multimillionaires or a corporation. From MLB’s Yankees to the WNBA’s Mystics, the reason these teams exist is to turn a profit or, alternatively, to operate as a tax write-off for the owners. Sport itself is secondary to almost every owner. With the exception of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, who are owned by several thousand of their fans, the fan of professional sports in the United States and Canada is nothing more than a consumer whose credit cards exist for the pleasure of those who own their favorite team.
The phenomenon of multimillionaire ownership of soccer clubs is relatively new. According to Kuhn’s history, many teams were founded by workers and existed within a framework that prevented corporate ownership. As the purchase of several English Premier League teams over the past few years by foreign and British corporations proves, this is no longer the case. With these changes in ownership has come a change in the way the fan is treated. To the dismay of the most devoted working class fans, fewer standing room tickets (known as the terrace) are sold. Instead, ownership is insisting on reserved seating at higher prices. This practice not only limits the fervor of the fans who previously stood on the terrace, it limits the number of those fans admitted into the stadium. To their credit, fan clubs of teams that have instituted these changes have protested the reduction in terrace tickets and have met with some success in getting more such tickets.
Like most sports, soccer is riddled with sexism, homophobia, and racism. Kuhn describes several efforts by fans and players challenging these negative phenomena. From Germany’s Bundnis aktiver Fussballfans (BAFF) to various players who have openly challenged the racism of other fans and players, Kuhn describes and active anti-racist culture within international soccer. He further describes various fan cultures known for their leftist and autonomist politics. Most famous of these are the fans of Hamburg’s St. Pauli fussball club. The team itself is not noticeably anti-establishment. Indeed, its stadium was named after a Nazi who used slave labor to make his millions. However, during the peak of the German squatter’s movement in the 1980s, the team was adopted by residents of Hamburg’s Hafenstrasse squats. These fans began showing up at games with antifascist flags and banners. Eventually, the team came to be a favorite of left and autonomist soccer fans around Europe, with their away games packing stadiums with left and anarchist punks and politicos. The BAFF’s fanzine exists today, although with a less political edge to it than in days past.
If you are a soccer fan, this book is a must, especially if your politics lean left. The same applies if you are just a sports fan in general. Imagine a Major League Baseball game where the bleachers are filled with fans making their opposition to anti-immigrant legislation known. Imagine a whole section of fans not standing when those warplanes fly over while the Star Spangled Banner is sung. Gabriel Kuhn, like those writers alluded to at the beginning of this review, gives the sports fan who finds the displays of nationalism and unabashed commercialism so prevalent on the playing field an alternative vision of what sports fandom could be.