Levelling the playing field

Andrew Dolan spoke to Jack Badu, Tom Perez and Joel Sharples of Football Beyond Borders, a charity that uses football to help create a more equal and inclusive society

December 1, 2015 · 7 min read

What role can football play in softening the impact of refugee resettlement and the sense of dislocation that many experience?

Joel Tom, myself and two of our youth leaders went to Glasgow recently for the fourth birthday celebrations of United Glasgow, a club that works primarily with refugees. It was incredible to see what they have been doing: providing a way for people to meet others, to settle in the city, to have something that gives them purpose and relaxation. They are also given support if they have asylum claims and everyone shows solidarity. London needs something like that.

Jack This summer we went to Germany with some of our students from south London. We had a unity tournament, where we brought together our team, some local and school teams, and a team called Kicks for Girls, who worked with a refugee project in Freiburg. What was good about that and what I’ve always found is that football does level the playing field. In order to progress you need to integrate that person into your world, you need to share with them, you need to communicate with them, and it’s brilliant how young people don’t see social status in any way.

So you had three boys, with very broken English, and rather than it being ‘I’m from Germany, I’m from Iran, I’m from England,’ it was ‘You’re wearing a green bib, you’re on my team.’ After that you realise that this person is just a human being like you. It really does break down so many borders in that sense.

It’s quite difficult, especially living in London, to think about other people. Often you think about what you have and how you can keep it, and the rhetoric in the newspapers is that they (refugees) are coming to take what’s yours, which is wrong. If we could have more games where there is a unity-type tournament, where you’re integrated with other people, it makes it easier to welcome them into your lives.

Going beyond borders is a radical idea, especially considering the current refugee crisis. Do you think you can push this into the mainstream?

Tom A lot of people think it’s just a geographical thing. But you have to think about borders as social and in terms of class and race. You’ve got to accept that they exist. We can’t just pretend we live in a world where inequality doesn’t exist. We have to understand and be conscious of them, and try to go beyond them.

Why is football often held up as a space that should be separate from politics?

Joel All sport is political and there are certain moments when this is thrown into sharp relief. For example, when players like James McClean refuse to wear a poppy it reveals that there are certain political messages that are acceptable within football and that others are clearly not. When people tried to get ‘refugees welcome’ banners into grounds almost all Premier League clubs prevented them.

There’s also the way that football, particularly international tournaments, is used to push through policies that governments wouldn’t otherwise be able to – the ‘shock doctrine’ style of governing. It’s called ‘celebration capitalism’, where you use big celebratory events to push through neoliberal policies, which we saw in Brazil. Football is always political. It’s a battleground; it’s just about fighting to put across the politics that you want to see.

Tom Exactly. Otherwise it’s only people with the power who decide whether football is political or not. I think fans are increasingly starting to realise that they can also have an influence. [At Clapton FC] the club has grown so much of because of the fans, and anyone you speak to now will know about the Clapton Ultras. They’re explicitly political; they make sure that people know they’re anti-fascist. I think people see they’re honest about that connection and use it for good. So rather than just going to the football and singing songs, they’re doing things like food banks and supporting migrants, which I think is amazing.

Regarding Clapton and the activity of clubs like Dulwich Hamlet and FC United, alongside initiatives like the Liverpool Supporters Union, do you think we are witnessing a resurgence of a more politically and socially conscious fan culture?

Jack I’m quite new to this fan culture, but you’re welcomed straight away, no matter who you are – gay, straight, black, white – and that’s what people are looking for. I think that’s where it’s coming from. People are travelling around and they want to have that feeling of being home and you can find it in those spaces.

Joel As Premier League ticket prices continue to rise, more and more people will search for an alternative and find more than they expected. There’s a really good essay by Automnia in which he talks about the radical ecstasy of being in a football crowd, amongst people who you know share the same politics as you, sharing that kind of joy. He sees it as a prefigurative revolutionary sort of moment, which I really like.

Tom What’s changed in the social media age is that pockets of like-minded people are able to find each other, both locally and globally, and can start coordinating. You get these international exchanges. So Dulwich have a connection with Altona FC, which is just a tiny club in Germany, and they go there and Altona come here, and they learn about German football culture and it’s just this incredible virtuous circle. I might be a bit blinded by it but I think there is a lot of potential in it.

When it comes to the role of football clubs in processes of gentrification, how difficult is it to penetrate beyond their cultural and symbolic power and talk about these issues with fans and people in football? I’m thinking here about Tottenham Hotspur’s stadium redevelopment.

Joel It’s incredibly difficult. I listen to various Spurs podcasts and ones you would expect to be if not left-wing then a little bit more socially and politically conscious will talk about the stadium without mentioning the way the club has shirked its section 106 [affordable housing or other ‘planning gain’] obligations, or that the library opposite is going to be demolished, or that the estate next to the stadium is going to be demolished, basically to make way for a Wembley-style vanity walkway.

This is not being mentioned at all. If anyone is going to be pushing that message, or at least acknowledging it, it’s going to be those. If they are not even doing it, it’s definitely an uphill task. So many fans are fed up waiting for the stadium that by the time it does arrive that’s all they care about. With Tottenham, a lot of the fans don’t really live in the area or have a connection to it.

Tom It’s about creating that empathy. I think football can sometimes destroy that empathy because fans often don’t see the area. It’s very limited, especially if you don’t go to the stadium. But even the ones that do will just go there and leave. They won’t really engage in the community. They are not realty connected to the people there so they don’t have that empathy. They’ve got to accept some kind of responsibility and the club also has to accept responsibility.

The interviewees are speaking in a personal capacity. For more information visit footballbeyondborders.org

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