European football fans would be forgiven for thinking recent shows of support for #RefugeesWelcome in stadiums across the continent were a victory for the power of football to cross boundaries and borders. Ciarán Breen wonders if it’s quite so simple.
It’s the 14th of September 2015 – a rain soaked Sunday evening in Toronto, Canada, less than two weeks after the tragic death of Kurdish toddler Alan Kurdi shocked the conscience of the world. Fans at a crucial play-off race game between Toronto FC and the New England Revolution unfurl a striking banner reading ‘RefugeesWelcome’. Shortly after stadium security approaches the fans and tells them they’ve been instructed to remove it.
In the days that followed, the clubs owners went on record saying, “As per both venue and league security policies, banners containing political messaging of any kind are not permitted.” In advance of the next home game – following pressure from fans – the club made an about-turn and decided that ‘RefugeesWelcome’ was an important “humanitarian” message and permitted all similar banners.
The fans who made the banner were understandably confused by the mixed messaging. The banner unfurling in Toronto had followed a wave of similar actions that took place at football matches across Europe, starting in the traditional hotbed of political football fandom – Germany – and then spreading across the continent, even as far (shock!) the English Premier League. Over the course of the same weekend in September, #RefugeesWelcomeEFL coordinated a campaign to get as many ‘RefugeesWelcome’ banners as possible in English football stadiums up and down the country.
In response to these events, writer David Goldblatt said, “Football is the main public theatre in which civil society can express their allegiance.” In this context, do the very public acts of support by clubs such as Arsenal and Everton and donations in the millions of Euros from mega-clubs such as Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Paris Saint Germain represent a global movement within football in support of ‘RefugeesWelcome’? Or, does the incident in Toronto reveal the limitations of supporter expression in modern day stadiums?
The last few years have seen the standing debate revisited in English football, as fans at the top of the football tier become increasingly disillusioned with ticket prices and the sanitised atmosphere in stadiums. Increasingly it seems it’s less about the game and more about the ‘match-day experience’. However, as many fans would argue: take away the banners, singing and standing – what’s left? Goldblatt fears we are not far away from spending our Saturday afternoons at “Anodyne Disneylands.”
What does it mean therefore when the powers-that-be at the top of the game permit widespread and visible advocacy for what some may be seen as a political cause such as ‘RefugeesWelcome’? Fans have long been told that politics and sport don’t mix, but when certain messages are welcomed in stadiums and certain messages are not, things seem less clear-cut.
Indeed, even within Major League Soccer, clubs such as Portland Timbers – famed for their hipster following – supported ‘RefugeesWelcome’ messaging, yet in Vancouver a banner was removed, fans were ejected from the stadium and no about-turn was made. In their official response to the incident, the Vancouver Whitecaps referred to fans as guests, as if they were at a Bed & Breakfast and not a football match! Part of the problem is a pattern of security personnel in the U.S. & Canada not understanding the nuances of fan culture, but it’s also that North American clubs are more proactive in protecting apolitical corporate space.
It would seem, therefore, that the issue is less about whether refugees are welcome or not, and more about the micromanagement of supporter expression. Goldblatt poked fun at this phenomenon asking, “What if we put up signs saying, ‘Love people more’? Will that be allowed?”
It remains to be seen whether recent events have set a precedent for bringing politics back through the turnstiles. Football may remain one of the last public commons where thousands of people can gather, share collective experiences, sing together, and in some cases share ideas. But can the suppression of such collective but also individual expression be resisted across the board, or will sightings of alternative banners be restricted once more to places such as Celtic Park and the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund?
Football celebrates, and is nurtured on, the notion of collectivism and celebration. For how long will this banner fly?
Follow Ciarán on Twitter @keep_score.
Are football stadiums the place for social activism, or political sentiments? Have modern grounds become sanitized to the point of sterility? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.