Euro 2000

Chauvinism and money Football thugs ape official ideology

The European football championships have seen the predictable return of a lamentable spectacle. Hundreds of England football fans rioted in Brussels and Charleroi, fighting it out with local Turkish and Moroccan immigrant youth - rival football supporters - and the Belgian police as well.

Over 600 'three lions' supporters were arrested during the events surrounding England's sole victory of the competition, the 1-0 win over Germany. The chauvinist hoopla surrounding the defeat of the 'historic enemy' was short-lived, however, as a few days later England went crashing out of the competition at the hands of Romania. Far from being expelled from Euro 2000 because of the rampages of its fans, as the European soccer authorities threatened after the Germany match, England's competition ended with a damp squib for the army of fans who went there - whether with peaceful or warlike intentions.

The press and the government went into a rage over the antics of England fans. The government, of course, had been put in a difficult situation - despite its 'law and order' rhetoric it proved unable to stop known and convicted 'hooligans' travelling abroad. Much as Jack Straw would like the power to take away the passports of those who have a previous record of violence at soccer matches, the current law does not allow such an attack on freedom of movement. All that remained was to tip off the Belgian and Dutch police as to who to watch out for as they stepped onto the continent, so they could refuse them entry, having temporarily restored internal European Union border controls for the competition.

Blair's government, which prides itself on its 'cool Britannia' image of alleged tolerance and diversity under the rule of the 'free market', finds itself in an embarrassing situation when Britain's 'image' is damaged by invasions of its European neighbours by sieg-heiling boneheads, chanting, 'No surrender to the IRA', and other chauvinist irrelevancies. The Tories' Ann Widdecombe, of course, as usual competes with Straw as to who can call for the tougher penalties against 'mindless thugs'.

England fans' notoriety goes back to the 1960s. The most infamous event in their history, however, was in 1985, when a riot by Liverpool supporters caused the crushing to death of 38 followers of the Italian team, Juventus, at the Heysel stadium in Belgium. The standard wisdom, then and now, was that this was simply a matter of the decay of the moral fibre of British society, of respect for 'the law' and other such bastions of conservative social order. Yet the chauvinism of many of the street-fighting thug elements belies this - the chanting of anti-IRA slogans by many, the xenophobic sentiments expressed against foreign fans, above all the 'patriotism' of the demonstrators: all this shows that there is political overlap between many of these thugs and at least some of the 'law and order' politicians who denounce them.

Of course, this is not new. At the time of the Heysel massacre, which occurred in the aftermath of the defeat of the heroic miners' Great Strike in 1984-5, it was observed by many on the left that the miners had stood for the exact opposite of the chauvinism of the soccer thugs. Instead of British fans attacking 'foreigners' on the streets of European cities, what you had was British and French miners standing shoulder to shoulder and singing The Internationale.

The parallels between Thatcher's British chauvinism over the Falklands and the flag-waving thuggery of the soccer thugs was so obvious that it was difficult to miss it. Indeed, the unashamed jingoism of the Thatcher government was symbolised by the sentiments expressed by her skinhead sidekick, Norman Tebbit: his notorious 'loyalty test' was precisely over the support or otherwise of immigrants for England sports teams - for him the nub of the issue was cricket. Those who failed to wave the national flag for 'our boys' - whether in the Falklands or on the football or cricket pitch - were labelled 'unBritish' and thereby implicitly fair game for the thugs.

Nowadays, things are much more subtle. The Blair government, with the support of the bulk of the ruling class, has embarked on a project that is meant to give the appearance of being inclusive. Thus rather than paying grudging lip-service to anti-racism, as with Tory regimes in the past, the current administration has embarked on an aggressive attempt to coopt the struggle against racism into mainstream bourgeois politics, and thereby to neutralise 'anti-racism' as an axis for struggle against the capitalist system itself.

Yet this new inclusivity is also a new exclusivity - of a modified type. Instead of implicit (and sometimes explicit) gradations based on skin-colour and ethnic difference, we now have a project to unite the British population, irrespective of colour or ethnicity, in British capitalism's economic interest, for the 'meritocratic' competitiveness of British capitalism in the world. The Tory opposition broadly concurs with the modified ideology, trying to make use of it to justify the persecution of asylum-seekers as supposedly being the cause of economic harm because of their general poverty and alleged reliance on social security benefits, instead of Thatcher's old lament about the threat to 'British culture' from immigrants.

So we get the current Dutch auction of repression of asylum-seekers, with the humiliating issuing of vouchers instead of benefits - to white Poles and black Somalis alike. This shift in ideology really defines a transition of the British ruling class from the remnants of its old imperialist-colonialist ideology to one that reflects a more realistic understanding of its real world position - as a medium-ranking power with more financial strength than manufacturing or military clout.

Thus the antics of crude British racists in Europe, abusing the citizens of British capitalism's European partners, while aggressively displaying their boorishness to the world's TV cameras, are more of a liability than ever. They can be a good excuse, however, for more 'law and order' crusading and attacks on democratic rights in the guise of fighting against thuggery. It is now highly likely that the British government will take upon itself the power to confiscate passports of people unconvicted of any offence, but who are thought to be 'likely' to engage in hooliganism abroad.

Such a power is an attack on civil liberties, and must be opposed - irrespective of the unsavoury elements who provide the pretext for its introduction. As indeed, the tactics of the police in Belgium, who took it upon themselves to fire a tear-gas grenade into a pub full of customers, only some of whom were unruly football fans. Again, many people will shed no tears for the hooligans, but this is hardly the point. The cops have now acquired the power to carry out indiscriminate attacks on people who are unfortunate enough to find themselves in the presence of such social undesirables.

The changing environment in which British capitalism operates - the much vaunted 'globalisation' of capitalism - has also had its effects on international sport, including football. One visible local sign of this is the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of domestic European football clubs. There have been international transfers for many years, of course, but the scale of the phenomenon has considerably grown over the recent period with the qualitative increase in the commercialisation of the game, the growth of satellite television, etc.

The Chelsea football club, which often takes to the field with a 'British' team wholly composed of players from elsewhere in Europe, is a case in point. So much so that commentators in the bourgeois press can talk of footballers as akin to a strange new caste of international mercenaries. Which only underlines the irony of the chauvinist thuggery that often accompanies international football matches, whether between national or club sides. It reflects both the alienation of many of the game's followers within capitalist society, and yet the lack of any social vision other than the illusions of sport dominated by media-moguls, who manipulate the fans both in terms of ripping them off, and inciting chauvinist orgies that are bound to lead to fisticuffs and worse.

Indeed, over the years, the increasing domination of mega-capital in sport has led to an evolution of the game itself. Slow motion cameras reveal the gamesmanship that is the product of huge monetary rewards for the winners - the pulling of shirts and general increased pushing and shoving in what is supposed to be a game of minimal physical contact, and the acceptance of this as a fact of life by the officials, show the effect of commercial pressures. They are hardly new developments. It is just that the incentive to bend the rules further and further has become much more acute with the growth of global communications and hence the mega-money that is now floating around in international sport.

As a social phenomenon, then, the European soccer championships embody many of the contradictions of global capitalism today. An increasingly cosmopolitan and commercialised game that nevertheless appeals to many of the most base, backward impulses among the masses, it is merely a further development of the distortions of sport under capitalism.

The social content of sport depends upon the nature of the society of which it is a subordinate part. Under an egalitarian, socialist world order, sport can be a means for the mass of the population to improve their spiritual and physical health. Indeed, mass working class movements in the past have used sporting organisations both to cohere their mass support socially and to promote physical fitness in order to enhance the capacity to struggle.

Sport under capitalism can only be liberated from its ever worsening alienated reality by a struggle for the interests of the working class - one that calls into question the very system responsible for distorting all aspects of social life, of which sport is one of many: capitalism.

Ian Donovan