The rise and fall of left wing football

The rise and fall of left wing football

THE ARGUMENT SURROUNDING THE RELATIONSHIP between football and politics is one that has been raging since the sport began and one that will no doubt continue until the end of time. Whilst many are vehement in their belief that the two should be kept as separate as possible, others are keen to point out the important role that football, and sport in general, has played in helping to change the political landscapes of their day by highlighting the underlying problems in society and giving a voice to those on the fringes.

Whilst this has diminished considerably in recent years with the increase in wealth and wages in modern football – not to mention the globalisation of the sport and the increasingly prominent view that clubs are no longer representatives of a local community but a brand to sell to the world market – there are still some within the game that are clinging to their beliefs that, even in the current ultra-capitalist-dominated environment, football remains a vehicle for social change and a way to proudly trumpet political beliefs.

One such club is the oft talked about Italian side Livorno. Hailing from the port city of Livorno on the western coast of the country, the club have consistently been the flag-bearers for left-wing football since their founding almost a century ago. And when you examine the events surrounding the aforementioned founding and the important role that Livorno has played in Italian politics, it is easy to see why.

As the birthplace of the Italian Communist Party, the city and left-wing politics are indivisible, with a pride for communism and their working-class industrial roots being an integral part of the local community. As such, this honour has become a key facet of the club and its supporters, resulting in a fan base that is as dedicated to leftist political beliefs as they are to their team. This was perfectly summed up by the club’s now-defunct ultra group, the Brigate Autonome Livornesi, who lived by the credo that “the struggle of our lives is that of the working class, of anti-fascism and of anti-capitalism, and so it will be in eternity, wherever we go”.

Every team needs a hero, and Livorno certainly had one in Cristiano Lucarelli, a former striker for the club who was born and raised in the city that he promotes with such gusto. The evidence of his admiration for Livorno was plain for all to see and, as such, he became well known across the world as one of only a handful of professional footballers who refused to stay silent about their political beliefs.

An open and unashamed supporter of communism, Lucarelli would celebrate goals with a dual clenched-fist salute to the fans, whilst his shirt number, 99, paid homage to the Brigate Autonome Livornesi, which was founded in 1999. His political beliefs landed him in hot water with the Italian national side, however, after he celebrated scoring for Italy’s under-21 team by revealing a Che Guevara t-shirt underneath his jersey, and the gesture resulted in him being blacklisted by the senior side until 2005, when he was finally called up by then manager Marcello Lippi.

The Argentine revolutionary’s face is a frequent sight on banners and flags at Stadio Armando Picchi, Livorno’s home ground, as are proclamations of support for leftist causes and organisations such as the Irish Republican Army and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, as well as the annual honouring of Joseph Stalin’s birthday with a choreographed match day tifo.

Less communist but still historically entrenched in left-wing politics are St. Pauli, a second-tier German club hailing from Hamburg. Traditionally seen as the leftist representatives of the city, St. Pauli now boast supporters’ groups and dedicated fans from across the globe, many of whom are attracted to the club’s distinctive culture and identity as an anti-fascist and radical group focused not only on football but also on social change.

St. Pauli was the first club in Germany to assemble a set of “fundamental principles” to dictate how the club is run and, like Livorno, the background to their leftism can be seen as a mirroring of the political environment that has been ever-present in their local community.This was particularly true during the 1980s when Hamburg, and in particular the nearby Reeperbahn area, was a hotbed of radical and leftist political thought, centred in the plethora of cafés, pubs and squats. As a result, the St. Pauli football team became an important part of the politically active local leftist community, acting almost as a meeting place for many of its members. Fans were often involved in organised demonstrations concerned with squatter’s rights and low-income housing, as well as clashes against neo-Nazi hooligans from other German football clubs.

To coincide with this exciting time, St. Pauli boasted a footballing hero that, like Lucarelli, refused to stay silent about his political beliefs. His name was Volker Ippig, and not only did he espouse leftist ideals, he lived them. With his free-flowing, dishevelled blonde hair and delightfully scruffy beard, Ippig was a far-cry from the well preened, bijouterie-laden footballers that grace our screens today, and his life away from the football field was every bit as radical.

Whenever he entered the pitch, Volker would raise a clenched-fist salute to the St. Pauli fans, many of whom were dear friends of his as a result of the time that he spent living in the local Hafenstraße squats. He would take time off to protest and work in a nursery for disabled children, and on one occasion he quit playing football temporarily in order to join a workers’ brigade in Nicaragua. Not only was he an embodiment of the club’s beliefs, he was a vital component of the tight-knit local community; one of the last of a dying breed and an important part of the St. Pauli story.

The rest of the tale, however, is not so cheerful. As is the case with many counter-culture symbols (just look at Che Guevara t-shirts, the Soviet hammer and sickle, and, in many ways, punk rock in its entirety) St. Pauli, and in particular their iconic skull and crossbones motif, has become a fashion statement, a watered down version of what it used to mean and a symbol that has almost entirely lost its original meaning. Even Ippig has expressed dismay at the state of the football club in modern times.

In 1981, when Ippig joined the club as a fresh-faced 18-year-old, St. Pauli were averaging crowds of just 1,600 but now, at the height of their popularity, the club regularly fills their 29,000-seater stadium, often outselling many of Germany’s biggest top-tier clubs. As a result, the connection between the team and the local community has started to disintegrate, forcing Ippig to speak unfavourably about what has happened to the club that played such an important role in the leftist political scene in Hamburg in the 1980s:

“The Millerntor [St. Pauli’s stadium] was once an outdoor laboratory for German football, and the close relationship between fans, players and management was successful. Today, it is orchestrated; only the myth remains, a lot of fog, and a lot of blabber.”

St. Pauli are arguably testament to the belief that a genuine connection between left-wing politics and football is increasingly difficult in the twenty-first century, with the wealth and power that courses through the game’s veins turning once heartfelt signs of radicalism and protest into profit-making merchandise and empty words of revolt.

Despite this, there are still examples of modern-day players and managers who, like the recently retired Lucarelli, have proudly spoken out about their leftist beliefs, but they are few and far between and their numbers seem to be dwindling by the day.

Most notable is Argentine legend Javier Zanetti, who used his status at Internazionale to help build links between the club and the Zapatistas by funding sports, water and health projects in their area of operation in the Chiapas region of Mexico in an effort to aid the group’s “struggle to maintain your roots and fight for your ideals”, as he wrote in a note that accompanied his first monetary donation.

Further to this, Egil Olsen, the former Wimbledon and Norway head coach, was a card-carrying member of the Norwegian Workers’ Communist Party and has proudly described himself as a Marxist-Leninist, whilst Lilian Thuram, the most capped player in the history of the French national team, famously invited 80 homeless immigrants to watch France play against Italy in 2006 in an attempt to highlight his country’s controversial immigration policies.

Perhaps the greatest example of a modern-day leftist footballer is arguably former Barcelona and Ajax defender Oleguer Presas who was, and continues to be, a champion of the Catalan independence movement, using his unique position on the field to make a stand against the Spanish state.

Born and raised in Sabadell in Catalonia, Oleguer played for various local teams before joining Catalan giants Barcelona, an institution that he believes is more than just a football club, but a representation of Catalonia and its people.

“For me, Barcelona is genuinely special. It is the invocation of a country, representing Catalan national identity and culture. Barcelona was a conduit for feeling when people could not express themselves. To support the club meant to reject the [Franco] regime, and that’s why Barcelona will always be more than a club.”

Although he was a capable, Oleguer refused to play for the Spanish national side, instead choosing to represent the unofficial Catalonia team on six occasions. The holder of an economics degree and author of a novel alongside Catalan nationalist poet Roc Casagran, Oleguer would often cycle from his home to Barcelona’s training ground, and he later moved on to driving a grey van, shunning the flashy sports cars that were favoured by his millionaire teammates.

Since retiring from playing football in 2011, he continues to contribute to political journals, whilst he has also given speeches against racism and the war in Iraq. To this day, he remains a legend amongst Barcelona fans and strongly advocates of Catalonian independence.

With the recent retirements of Oleguer, Lucarelli and Zanetti, are politically engaged, socially conscious and openly socialist football players now a thing of the past? Whilst the game boasts the likes of Joey Barton – who is never shy of voicing his opinions via social media – and Frank Lampard who, rather reluctantly, gave his support to David Cameron and the Conservative Party in 2007, modern-day football players are not known for being outspoken about anything that can be deemed contentious, especially politics.

Whilst the odd ill-judged opinion may slip out on Twitter every now and again, the twenty-first century footballer is a sheltered and well-protected individual, one who is not allowed to have a view on anything just in case it offends a potential sponsor and stops the money flowing.

The extraordinary, extortionate wages that players are paid means that they are left totally detached from the outside world, particularly the working-class world that used to be the lifeblood of the game. In Britain, the 1980s and the continued rise of Thatcherism brought with it a wealthier and more powerful brand of footballer, leaving former left-wing icons such as Bill Shankly and Brian Clough in their dust as they powered forward into a new age of sports cars and mansions, one that has consigned previously important radical leftist clubs, such as St. Pauli, to mere emblems on fashionable t-shirts and trainers.

Now, the closest thing to a socialist hero that the British game has had in recent years is Paul Jewell, the former Ipswich Town manager and owner of a pet tortoise called Trotsky.

Whilst clubs like Livorno still show that leftist politics can play an important role in football, the diminishing sight of professional footballers that are willing to speak out about their political beliefs – or are even aware of them in the first place – means that the sport’s connection with the left is increasingly becoming a thing of the past. It can be argued that the bar is now set too high for a modern-day footballer to be a committed socialist, or that the pressure they are put under by agents and sponsors leaves them unable to say anything at all.

Whatever you believe, it can be agreed that we are unlikely to see another Volker Ippig, Lilian Thuram or Cristiano Lucarelli any time soon, and football is a weaker place for it.

By Ben Cullimore. Follow @bencullimore