ALEC LUHN RECENT WROTE A PIECE FOR THE GUARDIAN CONCERNING the escapism provided by the ‘refugee’ Shakhtar Donetsk players. Football at its best does indeed provide the enclosed and exhilarating escapism that many people need in order to forget the misery and mayhem occurring out-with the confines of the stadium.
Increasingly however, such escapism may be giving way to extremism. Michel Platini recently warned: “Europe is seeing a rise in nationalism and extremism the like of which we have not witnessed for a very long time. This insidious trend can also be observed in our stadiums, as football is a reflection of society. Given its popularity, our sport is a barometer for the ills of our continent. And that barometer is pointing to some worrying developments.”
Whilst undoubtedly, the increase in hooliganism and right wing incidents in football stadiums is alarming and indicative of the wider societal problems, it is the involvement of those hooligans in right wing politics on a large scale outside of football that is the major and unique talking point.
As the Ukrainian war is ongoing and still at the forefront of international focus, despite a recent scale back in violence and the removal of heavy weaponry from the front line, we begin our journey in Eastern Europe. An episode of Ross Kemp’s latest ‘Extreme’ series was based in the war-afflicted nation and included a number of interviews with ultras who had joined the fight against the separatist rebels seeking self-governance in the East of the country.
Many of those interviewed had joined or fought with the Azov battalion as it was in their view, a national duty to defend their country. An article in Esquire magazine by Marc Bennetts published late last year, entitled ‘On the terraces at football’s most dangerous derby’ also focused on Ukrainian ultras, some of whom suggested that having travelled across Europe for away ties with their clubs and seeing the standard of living available in EU countries they were more inclined to support closer ties with the EU, which Viktor Yanukovych had famously walked away from at the last minute. However, the ultras more than anything pointed towards a deep desire to protect their country against the nefarious outside influence of Russia and prevent its breakup. It was also reported that a huge range of ultras from across the country and from many different clubs had ignored inter club rivalries and joined forces in solidarity against the bigger threat.
From the start of the Euromaidan protests which precipitated the fall into civil war, there was a distinct right wing element to the protests against Yanukovych. As the warnings reported before Euro 2012 on the racist elements of the Ukrainian support highlighted, the interplay between ultras and right wing views is nothing new in this part of the world. However, the desire of the ultras to actively involve themselves in the maidan movement and thereafter to provide protection to protestors coming under attack from government snipers or later, armed separatists, and to fight on the front line, represents a tectonic shift.
The defending of the “motherland” is undoubtedly something that the majority of people can sympathise with, and the involvement in politics and warfare are not necessarily bad things, especially given the need to defend the country from Russian sponsored aggression. Where this involvement could create problems, as is so often the case in civil war, is when such groups become too powerful for the state to control and for ‘protection of the motherland’ to morph into persecution of anyone not ethnically attached to that area. This often leads to vigilantism, selective justice and endemic racism. It can make returning to peace and stability a much harder proposition post conflict.
The far right has attracted disillusioned and rudderless football hooligans across Europe for many years. As hooliganism has been policed and restricted to relative extinction and football stadia euthanized of the extreme elements of support, those previously involved have had to find other avenues through which to exercise their anger and disenchantment against a society that has increasingly failed to recognise their lifestyle or views as legitimate. The widespread imposition of austerity following the financial crisis and general economic malaise which gripped the Eurozone as a result led, unsurprisingly, to the growth of extreme fringe parties peddling nationalism twinned with anti-immigrant sentiments. Two countries currently at loggerheads within the EU, Germany and Greece, have both been affected in different ways by the interaction between hooliganism and right wing political views.
In Germany, the populist Pegida movement has attracted a wide range of supporters from mainstream conservatives to neo-Nazi factions and football hooligans. Their slogan translates into ‘Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West’ and thus represents a popular theme in political protest parties in Europe today. What is particularly interesting about the involvement of football hooligans in the Pegida movement is that their involvement can be seen as an extension of what Der Spiegel reported in November 2013 as the development of the ‘gnuhonnters’ or ‘new hunters’ phenomenan.
This phrase refers to the coming together of over seventeen different hooligan groups from across Germany to form an allied and united front with the motto ‘comrades in spirit’. In doing so, hooligans have increasingly drawn support from right wing extremists. The crossover between the two groups has rapidly developed with the presence of both in Pegida and their involvement in targeted attacks against police and left wing fans groups. Rioting in Cologne at the end of October last year is seen as a direct manifestation of the combined movement. This putting aside of traditional and often fierce, football based rivalries, to pursue the greater goal of reinstating, in their words “traditional values”, is potentially very dangerous.
Although support has risen for such parties and violent clashes have occurred, the interaction of such movements with society in central and northern Europe, has remained, by and large, a political matter. However, the ability of civic unrest to be caused by such groups and played out in a footballing context are exemplified by recent events in Greece, a country where the stitches of social fabric have become loose.
On February 26, 2015, the Greek Super League was suspended indefinitely following violence at a Super League match between Olympiakos and Panathinaikos. This was the third suspension of football in Greece this season following the death of a fan at a third division game and the assault of an assistant director of a refereeing committee. The league has since restarted and football violence is not a new problem in Greek football with numerous previous incidents.
However, the scale of the disorder and the seeming inability of the authorities to successfully deal with the current problems must be, in large part, due to the breakdown of society and the associated rise of extreme right wing rhetoric, in the shape of Golden Dawn. The entrenched connection between this neo-Nazi party and football hooligans has developed steadily since the party came into existence in the early-90s.
The founders of Golden Dawn created the ‘Galazia Strati’ or ‘Blue Army’ as a means to “defend the integrity” of the national team. They have been involved in a number of high profile football related incidents, including attacks on Albanian immigrants in Greece following a football game between the two countries in September 2004 and more recently, when FIFA fined the Greek FA after fans were cited for doing Nazi salutes during the World Cup play off with Romania in November 2013.
This national Nazi element complements the existing right wing ultras of Greece’s biggest clubs. Their attendance at, and involvement with, football, both internationally and domestically, has allowed Golden Dawn to recruit younger members and football hooligans on an unparalleled scale. The social acceptance of the party and their right wing views has led to a situation where they have in certain areas replaced, or at least complimented, the police as law enforcers. This has led to the problems envisaged above, of unprovoked attacks against immigrants and left wingers and unchecked vigilantism.
IV. A New Problem?
Skin heads, ultra-nationalists and facistas have always had a presence at both football and on the right of the political spectrum across Europe and beyond. It is, however, the extent to which the two have now amalgamated that is frightening. Different groups of hooligans are now cooperating on a massive scale (as evidenced with regards to Pegida and also in Ukraine) and putting aside their sporting rivalries to tackle what they believe to be their biggest rivals: mass immigration and the threat of Islamisation. Never before have we witnessed such a powerful pan-European right wing movement and the ease with which hooligans have been incorporated hints at a deep understanding within these groups, at a leadership level, of how to successfully build membership, support and man power.
This has not so far proved a major problem within the UK, given the relative weakness of the EDL and its related splinter groups. Does this perhaps hint at a more tolerant approach across these Islands? Has an improving and stable economy (when compared to Greece) diluted such anti-immigrant sentiment, or are the British people just indifferent generally to mass protest and civil disorder? It is probably a combination of all three factors alongside the increased prevalence of UKIP as a supposed ‘legitimate’ front for right wing sensibilities. Their involvement in the political mainstream may have placated some from becoming too reactionary and revolutionary.
Civil war, disorder and economic stagnation, in regards to Ukraine, Greece and Germany, respectively, have provided a fertile breeding ground for right wing recruitment. Football hooligans also appear to be the perfect fit, feeling marginalised from ‘their sport’ and from ‘their society’, the vitriolic anger which they once reserved for supporters of a local rival now directed against the political elite and the immigrants who they believe have brought about their fall from grace and continue to milk dry the almost empty udders of the state. In Germany, these feelings may have also have developed from a position of frustration, as for decades Germans have been unable and unwilling to voice feelings of national pride.
X. The Solution?
The policy response required to address these problems is beyond the scope of this article, but there are several steps that should be taken to mitigate any potential damage. The current adherence to the ceasefire in the Ukraine is encouraging and more widely, economic growth and stability are of course imperative to long-term social harmony. The right wing should not be shunned from the political mainstream and must be invited into the political discourse and allowed to set out their issues and grievances. This will result in greater scrutiny and accountability. Seeking to criminalise, as they have in certain situations in Greece with Golden Dawn, will only entrench and radicalise the supporters of these causes.
At the same time, state control over law and order must remain centralised and vigilantism avoided if Ukraine and Greece are to peacefully normalise in the longer term. The football community also has a role to play and clubs must interact with the more radical elements of their support in order to try and encourage diversity and inclusiveness.
Football and particularly, European football, boasts players with a diverse range of ethnicities. The top leagues and competitions are also extremely wealthy with TV deals, prize money, wages and transfer fees at their highest ever levels. In contrast, large groups of European supporters are becoming radicalised to the right as a result of austerity and the harsh economic climate in Europe and their marginalisation and discontent at the ruling elite’s perceived indifference to their plight. It is imperative that this divergence be addressed immediately and that the twin threats of hooliganism and radical right wing politics are not allowed to converge towards a potentially lethal position.