The delayed Euro 2020 tournament has been just what a lot of us needed after the gruelling months of the pandemic – thrilling matches, the drama of a big event, plus the sense of togetherness engendered by uniting around a common cause. But can football ever really serve politically progressive aims? Perhaps not in an attempt to answer that question, but rather to highlight the individuals who have suggested that it might be possible, the Red Pepper editorial team has come up with our all-time fantasy football line-up.
Shankly managed Liverpool for 15 years, transporting the club to league and European success and creating the epic fan culture that has persevered through the years. He described his politics thus: “The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It’s the way I see football, the way I see life.”
Who else to kick off our fantasy XI but Neville Southall? His career saw him win the FA Cup and top the First Division twice with Everton, as well as establishing himself as Wales’s first choice keeper for well over a decade. But it is his activities off the pitch since retiring that have caught our attention; our editor Jake Woodier spoke to him about his advocacy for sex workers’ rights, LGBTQ equality and mental health awareness for Issue 232.
British hip-hop artist Akala is best known for producing political lyrics such as ‘Yours and My Children’, and perhaps second best known for his book ‘Natives: Class and Race in the Ruins of Empire’. But as a teenager, he displayed a talent for mathematics and also football, playing as a centre-back in the West Ham youth teams before joining Wimbledon and playing in the reserves.
Neville is a controversial choice due to his participation in the gentrification of Manchester as a luxury property developer, although at least he has opened his properties to the homeless in the past. But Neville certainly started his career as a strong advocate for social justice, representing the interests of players as a Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) union rep from the age of 22. Recently, he has spoken out against racism directed at the PFA’s new chief executive. And he endorsed Labour at the 2019 General Election.
Slaven Billić is perhaps better known to younger fans as the manager who took West Ham into Europe, but he also spent his playing days as a centre-half at West Ham, Everton and the Croatian national team. But he also describes himself as “a true socialist. I know I can’t save the world on my own; but if there is a struggle against unjustness, I always prefer to be on the frontline, and that is my attitude toward life”
Sócrates was a legend who probably deserves his own article; a sensationally gifted attacking midfielder who qualified as a doctor before deciding to pursue his backup option of football. He then became an enormous figure in Brazil’s pro-democracy movement via the project of ‘Corinthians Democracy’ – introducing players’ democracy into the running of the club and using it to challenge the dictatorship. An immense experiment.
World Cup 2019 Golden Boot winner Megan Rapinoe is one of the best footballers in the world. She is also an LGBTQ icon, a pivotal figure in the fight for equal pay between the US national men and women’s teams and an early adopter of taking the knee to show solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. Rapinoe unsurprisingly got under the skin of Donald Trump in 2019 after she swearily rebuked the idea of visiting the White House should her team win the World Cup.
The Argentine Trotskyite J. Posadas and his eponymous movement has reached notoriety on the modern left through memes about nuclear dolphins, aliens and the workers’ bomb. But as A Gittlitz’s recent book – reviewed for us here by Dawn Foster – reveals, his ideology has more to tell us about the weirdness of the Cold War world than you might think. Posadas attempted to escape poverty by playing as a box-to-box midfielder for Estudiantes La Plata in the 1920’s. He often wrote about how football encouraged the sort of teamwork, solidarity and common exertion necessary to co-ordinate the class struggle.
Brazil’s dazzling Number 10, referred to as “Pelé in skirts” by the man himself, has been named FIFA World Player of the Year six times. She is also a tireless advocate for gender equality in football, in a country where women’s football was illegal until 1979. Her message for young women and girls: “Fight against the prejudice. Fight against the lack of support. Fight against it all – the boys, the people who say you can’t. The women’s game depends on you to survive.”
Justin Fashanu’s career was one of notable firsts: he was the first black British footballer to be sold for over £1m when he moved to Nottingham Forest in 1981. He was also the first professional footballer to come out as gay following tabloid threats to out him in 1990. Fashanu remains the only openly gay man to have played professional football in England’s top tiers – a fact that is perhaps rendered unsurprising considering his tragic fate, which involved homophobic abuse from fans and the press.
Diego Maradona’s mesmerising dribbling ability and world-class finishing must surely place him amongst the best players in the history of the game. His politics were unquestionably socialist; he made clear his opposition to the Iraq War as well as support for Palestine. Maradona even had a tattoo of close friend Fidel Castro on his leg, whom he referred to as his “second father”.
The legendary forward was a kingpin at Manchester United in the 1990’s, winning four league titles in five years. But he won the hearts of anti-fascists from all clubs on 25 January 1995 when he directed a kung-fu kick at spectator Matthew Simmonds, who was shouting xenophobic abuse at him. Simmonds was later revealed to be a frequent attender of National Front and British National Party rallies. Despite a lengthy ban, Cantona told the press that he regretted not kicking Simmonds harder. He has since backed various left-wing causes such as justice for Palestine.
#236: The War Racket: Palestine Action on shutting down arms factories ● Paul Rogers on the military industrial complex ● Alessandra Viggiano and Siobhán McGuirk on gender identity laws in Argentina ● Dan Renwick on the 5th anniversary of Grenfell ● Juliet Jacques on Zvenigora ● Laetitia Bouhelier on a Parisian community cinema ● The winning entry of the Dawn Foster Memorial Essay Prize ● Book reviews and regular columns ● Much more!
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