By Jack Peat, Editor of The London Economic
Fanatically ‘anti’ fans are making non-league clubs in London increasingly political.
London is no stranger to the inexplicable mix of politics and football. Class warfare, religious differences, industrial disputes; the terraces of London’s football clubs are the people’s benches of Westminster. But of late, the once concealed relationship between football and politics has come to the fore in the shape of left-leaning Ultra fans.
Ultras are typically the type of sports fans renowned for ultra-fanatical support, often for the wrong reasons. In Europe the right-wing Inter Milan Ultras and Lazio Ultras are some of the earliest examples of organised fan-bases with political weight and there are equivilents across the continent; Spain’s Boixos Nois, France’s Commando Ultras and Portugal’s Fighter Boys 95 just a few. Istanbul’s three prominent football teams – Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe and Besiktas – were, at least in part, behind the 2013 protests in Turkey against police violence and in North Africa the Egyptian Ultras network has been claimed to be one of the most organized movements in Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood, despite the military doing its utmost to suppress them.
In some cases the term ‘Ultras’ and its fanatical connotations has come to be representative of violence and hateful chants and slogans. But that’s largely a misinterpretation. Hooliganism is hooliganism. Hatred is hatred. And if you can be fanatically racist, xenophobic, sexist or homophobic under the ‘Ultra’ umbrella, there’s no reason why you can’t be fanatically anti all those things.
At least, that’s what a new breed of Ultras fans across Europe and now in London are trying to prove. Hamburg-based FC St. Pauli has become one of Germany’s “Kult” clubs. Identified with left-wing politics the club’s supporters are anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-homophobic and anti-sexist which has, on occasion, led to conflicts with neo-Nazis and hooligans that fall under the same ‘Ultra’ umbrella but for entirely different reasons. Where FC St. Pauli combine punk and politics to educate people on equal opportunities, Hooligans Against Salafists (or HoGeSa for short) have rioted in certain cities in opposition to Islamic Radicals and Borussia Dortmund’s Ultras fans have become a foothold for right-wing extremists.
But the ‘anti Ultras’ are gaining a foothold too. Virtus in Verona is a political movement dressed as a football club that has become a bastion of resistance to Hellas Verona, a club which became infamous in the 1990s for displaying swastikas at games, once even hanging a mannequin of a black man at a game as a statement that they would never accept a black player. And the resistance has took hold in London, where Clapton Ultras of Clapton FC and The Rabble of Dulwich Hamlet FC have developed ‘political fanatics’ of their own in the most unlikely of places.
Down the road from West Ham’s Boleyn Ground is the Old Spotted Dog Ground, home to the all singing, all drinking, flare-obsessed anti-fascist punk rock Ultras of Clapton FC. The club currently resides in the Essex Senior League and have a ground that seats 100 people, but their recent surge in fans aren’t concerned with the hospitality, they occupy the dilapidated scaffolding at the opposite side of the pitch creating an atmosphere unlike any other ground in Britain. But despite causing a significant swell in attendance numbers the Ultras haven’t been welcomed by all, not least the chief executive Vincent Mcbean who released a statement in March expressing concerns about some supporters.
The fans have also been the target of far-right groups. In December clashes broke out at Clapton’s away game in Southend as the fans came to loggerheads with fascist groups and complaints about the banners and various pyrotechnics used at games has led to bans. Libcom.org reported that fascists from across the country recently travelled to the ground in an attempt to intimidate supporters visiting Nathan’s Pie & Eels on Barking Road prior to arriving at the Old Spotted Dog ground on Upton Lane half an hour before kick-off. They posed for photographs with a flag outside the ground and put up a racist sticker before police made them disperse and leave the area. Although the Ultras refuse to be intimidated, it’s clear that 2015 will be an interesting year for London’s non-league anti-fascist movement.
In South London is the pink and navy colours of Ryman Premier League outfit Dulwich Hamlet. The club has enjoyed a good deal of success of late at their ground in Champion Hill where fans can enjoy a Dulwich Hamlet ale in the bar before the game as well as an ‘up close and personal’ football experience that’s far removed from the lucrative terraces of nearby league clubs. Sporting slogans such as “Communism is inevitable” and “Ordinary morality is for ordinary football clubs” the fans are rebelling against commercialised soccer culture.
Dulwich exemplifies a new generation of football fan. One who’s cheesed off with the modern professional game but still needs their fix of live sport. One who’s politically active, somewhat liberal and enjoys a good craft ale in pink ‘n’ blue. Furthermore, it demonstrates how non league and fanaticism are actually rather good bedfellows. As Steve Rotheram MP says, “Football mirrors many social issues; women being paid less than their male counterparts; racism in its ugliest forms; homophobia; Islamophobia; antisemitism; sectarianism and sexism, which, despite being societal problems, attract extra attention due to the immense popularity of the beautiful game.” And there’s no other place where that’s better exemplified, or perhaps voiced, than in non-league stadia.
The terraces of non-league football grounds are like communities. There’s no façade on the terraces, and for many of the supporters, that’s sort of the point. It’s therefore perhaps not surprising that left-wing political groups have popped up. As Rotheram adds, “Non-league football resonates with the left, in many ways, it embodies many of its political ideologies.” While Ultras make the headlines for the wrong reasons in Europe’s largest clubs, perhaps we can take solace in the admirable movements in London’s non-league, nonconformist fans.