Asia Pacific

Football Fans Have Something to Say



September 14, 2015 16:40 EDT

Fans in the Middle East, Europe and Asia highlight the importance that sections of the football family attribute to social justice.

Soccer fans are on a roll in the Middle East, Europe and Southeast Asia. Fans in Turkey and Egypt have defeated legal efforts to criminalize them as terrorists, while Malaysian ultras are tackling corruption and mismanagement of their country’s soccer association. In Germany, the pitch anticipated the government’s shift in policy toward the wave of refugees sweeping Europe, with fans expressing support a week before the country opened the floodgates.

Although these incidents were unrelated and occurred in widely different political and social environments, they share a number of things in common: They all focused on aspects of social justice, repression, corruption and compassion toward the needy.

The incidents further highlighted the soccer pitch’s significance as an early indicator of societal distrust in government and institutions. That distrust was similarly expressed in the recent electoral victory of controversial leftist Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour Party. Corbyn’s success constituted a rejection of corporate politics.

Turkey in the Spotlight

In the latest development, Turkish prosecutors advised an Istanbul court to drop all charges against 35 members of Carsi, the militant support group of storied club Besiktas JK. The defendants had been charged in a nine month-old, ill-documented, political showcase trial of seeking to topple the government of then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and belonging to a terrorist organization—offences that could have put them for life behind bars.

Carsi, one of Turkey’s largest fan groups, has long campaigned for social justice-related issues. In 2013, it played a key role in the biggest anti-government protests since Erdogan’s rise to power in 2003.

The prosecutors’ turnaround followed the acquittal earlier this year of 26 members of Taksim Solidarity, an umbrella group that was among the leaders of the 2013 protests in Taksim Square. The court’s decision has come at a moment when Erdogan has been cracking down on his critics, including media, in the run-up to parliamentary elections in November. In June, President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to win the majority it needed to form a one-party government.

Here Comes Egypt

While Erdogan’s autocratic tendencies stop far short of the brutality that Egyptian General-turned-President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi employs, Turkish and Egyptian efforts to stymie militant soccer fans—who in both countries have often emerged as a backbone of popular protest—often develop in step. Like in Turkey, Egyptian courts were employed in unsuccessful attempts to criminalize militant fans, who had played a key role in the 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

Earlier in September, militant Egyptian fans forced the Interior Ministry to partially lift the longstanding ban on spectators attending soccer matches, which was enforced to prevent the pitch from re-emerging as a platform for dissent. The decision was widely seen as a potential signal that Egypt’s military-backed regime recognized that its brutal choking off of all public space was backfiring.

Like in Turkey, Egyptian soccer fans scored their tactical victory in advance of parliamentary elections, which will have no veneer of being free and fair, unlike the Turkish ones—even taking into account Erdogan’s undemocratic measures against his opponents.

In Egypt, Sisi recently appeared to pour salt on open wounds after first arresting his agriculture ministers on charges of corruption and then appointing a new prime minister, Sharif Ismail, whose image is tarnished by allegations of corruption.

Mortada Mansour, the controversial, larger-than-life president of crowned Cairo club Al Zamalek SC, was quick to criticize Sisi’s appointment of Ismail, warning him on television not to become another Mubarak. Mansour had earlier accused Ismail of nepotism following a dispute over a player with ENPPI SC, a club controlled by a state-owned company, with whom Ismail has long been associated.

Even Malaysia

Corruption and mismanagement were also at the root of ultras forcing the abandonment of a Malaysia-Saudi Arabia World Cup qualifier, in an effort to make President Sultan Ahmad Shah resign. Shah has headed the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) for 30 years. Eleven fans were arrested in connection with the incident.

Malaysian soccer, much like Malaysian politics, has long been dogged by accusations of corruption. In 2014, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Agency detained 16 players, including nine from the Police Football Association, on suspicion of match fixing. Malaysia has in recent months been rocked by charges that $700 million held by beleaguered Prime Minister Najib Razak involved illicit payments.

“Sorry players. Sorry Malaysians. Sorry Saudi Arabians. But it had to be done,” the group, Ultras Malaya, said on Twitter. “Our protests have been going on for three years. We have gone through all the official channels … We do not care what others think,” a leader of the group identified as Freddie Been was quoted as telling local media. “We had to hit FAM where it hurts the most. We had to humiliate FAM to get the message across,” added Al-Fadli Awaludin, a founder of Ultras Malaya.

Responding to charges by Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin that the ultras had embarrassed Malaysia, Been said: “I should ask him: When we were beaten 10-0 [by] the United Arab Emirates, did he not feel embarrassed?”

Countering repression and corruption were at the core of Middle Eastern and Malaysian fan activism for social justice. German and British fans focused on making compassion the yardstick of European policy toward the mass of people fleeing wars in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, many of which Western powers either ignited or exasperated.

Different Story in Europe

Fans displayed banners during various German Bundesliga matches in support of Europe’s responsibility toward refugees, days before the image of a dead Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy, went viral. “Welcome Refugees,” many of the banners read. Similar banners appeared during English Premier League games.

In response to Marina Hyde’s assertion that the refugee crisis could give meaning to the artificial construct of a football family, fans in Britain launched a fundraising campaign; Bayern Munich reserved $1 million for efforts to aid refugees; and clubs like Celtic, Real Madrid and FC Porto promised to play their part. “If such a thing [like a football family] can ever be said to exist, then this issue gripping Europe should be among the very closest to its heart,” Hyde wrote.

Many fans and some clubs would argue that their proactive welcoming of refugees long preceded Hyde’s Guardian column or the recent adoption of more welcoming policies by the European Union and western European governments.

Nonetheless, the response to Hyde’s clarion call, as well as fan protests in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, illustrate the importance that segments of the football family attribute to social justice. Rory Smith said on ESPN FC: “While football and politics do not mix, football and social responsibility certainly do.”

He astutely wrote: “Football has traded on its universality for long enough. It has grown fat and rich on television contracts and foreign tours. It has said we are all part of one family, one set of families. And that means it has a duty to respond now, to show that this is not a one-way street, to show that it meant what it said. That is the point, surely, of being a family: that you are there for your family when it needs you.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Muhammad Ghafari

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