The intoxicating allure of port-side football clubs, where shady nights give way to hopeful days

The intoxicating allure of port-side football clubs, where shady nights give way to hopeful days

As the team bus drove into an ambush, failed policing gifted fanatical supporters with a giant moving target. Bottles, bricks and anything else that could fly through the air with malicious intent rained down onto the Boca Juniors bus. They were driving towards the second leg of the Copa Libertadores final in Buenos Aires. It was the first time the fierce rivals had met with the illustrious trophy at stake.

Over 6,000 miles and 15 years prior, Marseille had managed to play their cup final, winning the Champions League against AC Milan, becoming the first French side to do so. Before the dust had settled in this unique port city, allegations of match-fixing saw them relegated to France’s third tier and banned from European competition. They were viewed as a disgrace, dragging the reputation of French football through the muck, much like the events in Argentina recently were.

River versus Boca is unlike any other rivalry on earth. There’s something about Marseille, too. Then we have Napoli, the angels with dirty faces from Italy’s south. What about the St. Pauli of the 1980s? The German side was a focal point of revolutionary politics, their club an embodiment of its ideals. These sides are all linked to criminality, politics or a singular culture that is infinitely alluring.

Although separated by geography, yet somewhat linked by ideology, these cities and their clubs have something else in common – they’re all situated in ports, a gateway to the world where cultures clash and coalesce.

Certain characteristics run through their streets like DNA. Ports have, since time immemorial, been a country’s gateway to the world. It’s a place where not all faces look alike and not every street smells the same. Restaurant kitchens flirt with the nostrils of passers-by and bars speak an international tongue.

They’re multicultural hubs with a dark side. Criminality is rife with prostitution, violence and trafficking. A key logistical and tactical point, these cities lend themselves to power struggles. The people in such places are hardened by and wise to the whispered goings on. Some people shouldn’t be looked at; others should have a spotlight shone on them.

The football clubs have a multifaceted relationship with their demographic. They are simultaneously the product of the people, shaped by their outlooks, and the people a product of their club. Life is indelibly influenced by the success of these important establishments. Both have a hand in the socio-political mechanics of life in these parts.

 

Life In a Portside City

 

I grew up in one myself: Edinburgh. It was a place that was founded on heavy industry, on trade and people plying theirs. Leith Docks became a major shipbuilding area and other industries flourished as a result. Historically, whaling, glass, lead and whisky production lined the pockets of the areas working-class constituents.

Order  |  Boca Juniors

The men were tough and the women the same. Although Leith is now a rapidly gentrifying area, there is a spirit and attitude that is woven into the fabric of the place. Pub talk, rumours and myth are steeped in deep respect of all that came before. A few bars with arcade machines is unlikely to make that vanish.

The most interesting and complex of human endeavour and understanding has been punctuated by the dichotomy between good and evil, chaos and order, light and dark. These cities epitomise this duality. They are one place in the day and another at night.

Where there was heavy industry, there was a desirous workforce that longed to be satiated after their back-breaking shifts. Sailors alighting after months away at sea and night-shift workers knocking off as the sun rises are running on a primal desire for carnal pleasure. Drinking dens and brothels performed their clandestine duties and, although many have closed down, the ghosts still lurk, even in a more legal and upmarket manner. 

Anyone that has lived or even visited one of these places will have experienced the intangible magnetism that reverberates through the brick and mortar. They feel dangerous and transgressive, yet hopelessly exhilarating. The darkness of the night – the crime, the prostitution and the bar room brawls – is forgotten when the sun rises.

Founded as a church side by local priest Edward Joseph Hannan, Hibernian were a team of Catholic immigrants that lived in squalor in Edinburgh’s Cowgate. Transcending early adversity and resistance from the predominantly protestant population and football’s officiating bodies, the club travelled up through the leagues and was held up as a model for the more successful Celtic on the country’s opposite coast.

Present at the club’s earliest meetings was a young boy called James Connolly. Young James would be a ball-boy for the club before moving to Ireland, where he built up a formidable repertoire of literature on the socialist ideals adopted by the country’s working-class, largely as a means of showing solidarity against the ruling powers. His ideas came from those early meetings and their subsequent growth into a club. 

Hibernian’s close community links forever intertwined the fortunes of Leith with the club. The predominant ideas of the time symbiotically shaped one another. The unionistic and working-class socialism of Leith informed Connolly’s philosophy – the impact of which had yet to be felt.

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Instrumental in the 1916 Easter Rising, Connolly is a popular and mythologised figure in Ireland and has now become a recognised part of Edinburgh and Hibs’ story. A recent campaign saw his name and likeness resurrected around the city. Resonating with Scotland’s striving for greater economic equality and unified identity, his resurgent presence serendipitously coincided with Hibs winning the Scottish Cup in 2016 for the first time in 114 years – exactly a century after his death in Ireland.

Although founded in the Cowgate, Hibernian were quick to move to Leith and establish a base there. As the industry grew, so too did the stature of the club as crowds would swell in Easter Road to figures that beggars belief compared to today’s footballing economy. Swelling the crowds were local workers. In between shifts at the docks and the pub, the overflowing arena of football was part of their patchwork of makeshift communities.

Originally independent from Edinburgh, Leith merged in 1920, over 30 years since Hibs had been there, after a referendum where the people of Leith voted against it five-to-one. Against their democratic will, it passed. Nearly a century later, the area retains a strong spirit of being different to Edinburgh – in many ways, embracing being exactly what the capital is not.

Hibs became a bastion of the local Irish immigrant community and, as an extension, the working-class and deeply socialist contingency of Leith. The club’s presence can be found in many of the old pubs; likewise a tour of the club’s history is as much a guided stroll through the streets of Edinburgh’s docklands. Within the club and the district, the spirit of independence lives on. It’s rare to find someone from Leith tell you they’re from Edinburgh.

 

Outsiders Mentality

 

People from these places, especially ones embedded through generations, have an attitude hardwired into their brain. It has an effect that never leaves anyone well into old age. Lessons of who and what to trust often come from the mouths of our deeply wrinkled and weather-beaten grandparents. They are outsider realms populated with people raised on an attitude of ‘us and them’. This attitude has allowed these teams to grow to a magnitude beyond imagination, even if it’s not all recorded in trophies. 

In The Guardian, Phil Hoad writes of Marseille: “The reality is that many of the people here consider themselves to be Marseillais first – and only.” Before French, Arab, Asian or the spectrum of hues of pigmentation, the people carry a tangible air of independence about with them. It’s an exclusive gang to be a part of, but one that will look after you. Consequently, fans embrace their club on a much deeper symbolic level than teams from other cities without these characteristics. 

What is attractive about Hibs, as well as Napoli, St. Pauli and Marseille is part football, of course, but also part the club and what it represents. Beyond a football team, they are an attitude. They stand as much for themselves as they do in opposition to others.

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Football clubs are all embodiments of the collective character of people and place, from the founding fathers all the way to the newest fans. Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this arises through Hamburg’s St. Pauli of the 1980s.

Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano said in Fútbol a Sol y Sombra, “Contemporary history texts fail to mention it, even in passing, in countries where soccer has been and continues to be a primordial symbol of collective identity. I play therefore I am: a style of play is a way of being that reveals the unique profile of each community and affirms its right to be different.”

The radical St. Pauli of this time was far from what it is now. Their football was their statement. But their football extended to the chants, the kits and the location. Leading the way in German football, the side had a principled approach on how to run a club. The underlying message was pro-community, anti-commercial, corporate, global and, of course, fascist. Fans were integral to the club, taking a pro-active hand in local matters ranging from protests to fundraising.

Links between the club, community and players gradually disintegrated, although they are still held aloft for their historical ties to these typically left-wing political movements. When the club became a marketable entity, it coincided with the “cleaning-up” of the nearby area to their famous ground. Again, the early spirit of the area became a part of the club, but gentrification hit hard. As soon as the area had lost its edge, so too did the club. Their outsider status had been cruelly removed.

 

A Curious Contradiction

 

There’s also a curious contradiction in these places. Whilst city-centres have seemed like centre-left political strongholds for the last two decades, the radical elements manifest in the docks. In Post Cities and Global Legacies, sociologist Alice Mah notes that the claims to radicalism in port cities “relate to histories of casual dock labour, rooted in traditions of working-class solidarity and struggle, and to histories of grassroots resistance in excluded migrant communities.”

This doesn’t just lend itself to radical leftism – rather, to extreme politics on either side of the spectrum. Greece’s ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn party have a particularly strong presence in the country’s second city: the port of Thessaloniki. This city is home to Aris and PAOK, two sides with strong political affiliations.

Aris are known to flaunt their leftism whereas PAOK have become increasingly linked to right-wing politics, ranging from relationships to Russia at an administrative level to the fascist elements running riot with Golden Dawn activists.

Read  |  A World of Ultras: St. Pauli

Marseille shares this dichotomy. Despite being a multicultural hub, it’s also where the Front National became a surprising success story in the run-up to France’s last elections. 

Whatever specifically resonates with the people of each city, whether it’s the far-left or far-right, they share one thing in common: they react most positively to politicians’ posturing and rhetoric as the anti-establishment vote. The inherent predisposition to a rebellious attitude isn’t loyal to one side or the other.

Identity in port realms isn’t something that’s been formed as much as it has forged. These places, through subsequent generations, have collected stories, myths and behaviours to shape their identity. Often, as a microcosm of larger society, the make-up of a club’s various ultras groups will also cross the political divide. They are reflective of larger societal ideas.

Part of the strength of football clubs is that there is still a genuinely active resistant voice bellowing from the terraces. It’s not only the game itself that unites both sides, but the idea of fandom. Football clubs have come to embody the last stand, heels-in-the-dirt spirit. Despite the outside changes, fans refuse to be launched into a new milieu of social identity.

Football and its fans are traditionally small ‘c’ conservative – even the progressive ones. Being a football fan is fighting against change in terms of television deals, all-seater stadiums, increasing ticket prices and more. These attitudes are portrayed as forward-thinking, but that’s not strictly correct. They come from a reverence for leaving something adored as unsullied by capital.

In Cities and Urban Culture by Deborah Stevenson, we learn that “as individuals and collectives, people seem unable to intervene effectively either to prevent change or direct its trajectory.” The club is a sort of alternative society with its own structure (fans, bloggers, ultras, board, players, songs, fixtures) where people are immune to the homogenising effects of unrestrained capitalism and also able to effect change. 

Strength-in-numbers can only go so far. Football clubs, after all, aren’t directly politicised entities, at least officially. It’s the interactions within the footballing ecosystem, both within a club, a league and beyond globally, that allows these parallel societies to continue to thrive, oftentimes at odds with the rapid social changes occurring around it. People – specifically ultras groups – can direct its trajectory. Highly politicised areas tend to have highly politicised clubs. 

 

The Weight of History

 

Unfortunately, this ability of fans and clubs to retain tradition can only go so far. Mah continues, observing that port city populations “are still struggling to overcome deep legacies of decline, and to resist incorporation of their identities into redeveloped capitalist landscapes.” 

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Money is still the driving force. Since shipping and other heavy industries have greatly slid in their share of the market, football clubs are slowly opening up and even contributing to the changing social landscapes from where they reside.

Although shops and restaurants come and go, a football club’s history will stay. Well-documented and retold, clubs are never as sensitive to economic change as other institutions. With a devoted and loyal fan base, clubs like Marseille, Boca Juniors and Napoli all still represent a certain ideal, even if it is more based on history and ideology than reality.

Of the aforementioned clubs, their average existence is around 120 years. Relatively unchanged, these influential institutions remain the nucleus of their communities. Understanding the demographic and ideological make-up of port cities might sound complex, but the threads that run through them – their propensity to move towards the extremes and the preference for an anti-establishment voice – all paint a consistent picture of a place that is moody, passionate and fed up with the status-quo of their more civil sister cities. 

Granted, port cities have gone through more acute change, socially, politically and physically, than probably any other part of their city or other cities in their country. Heavy industry has become largely mechanised and the reputation of excitement and an often beautiful location by the sea has made these districts and cities prime real estate for investment.

The wild-west charm of these places, rather than making them immune to gentrification, has attracted it. They are no longer the frontier for exploration but sit on the vanguard of globalisation. Besides the central banking districts, the former radical hubs are the most alluring for investment and redevelopment.

The people and football clubs are not immune to the effects of a changing demographic brought about by rising costs of living. Although the effects may take a generation to be felt, the changing face of the clubs’ supporters can already be experienced. Although many sides might not have wanted these changes, they are undoubtedly eager to appeal to their new market. 

Over the last two decades, clubs have lost their names, identity and historic grounds, all in the name of capital. I dare say, though, when we have Qatar Conquerors vs Emirates Flyers, we’ll still have those old clubs by the sea – a stubborn reminder that some things can’t be bought or sold.

By Edd Norval @EddNorval

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