During the closing moments of Spain's 4-0 hammering of Ireland in the 2012 European Championships, something occured that I had never seen before. Tens of thousands of Irish fans had travelled from their homes and packed the field in Gdańsk, Poland. All together, they began singing a song completely unfamiliar to me, The Fields of Athenry. It was beautiful and haunting. I wondered what was going on, why were these fans singing so passionately when their team had been humiliated? I just didn't understand what was going on.
The Fields of Athenry was written in the 70's by Pete St. John and performed by Danny Doyle at the end of the decade.The song has become a sporting anthem for the Irish, with fans singing the song in great force whenever the opportunity arises. Here is a selection of the lyrics.
Low Lie the Fields of AthenryWhere once we watched the small free birds flyOur love was on the wingWe had dreams and songs to singIt's so lonely round the fields of Athenry
By a lonely prison wall, I heard a young man callingNothing matters, Mary, when you're freeAgainst the famine and the crown,I rebelled, they cut me down.Now you must raise our child with dignity
At the time the song was written and debuted, Northern Ireland was wrapped in what is now referred to as The Troubles, a period from the late 60's to early 90's where violence and political tensions, specifically Irish unification, were particularly elevated. While The Troubles may have ended nearly two decades ago, the song has retained its popularity. The Irish have taken up The Fields of Athenry because it represents a sort of national dignity, especially in the face of defeat. The song tells the story of a man who is separated from his love when he steals corn during the Great Irish Famine. The man is sent to a penal colony in Australia for his crimes. The Fields of Athenry as a whole is critical of the British conquest, colonization, and subsequent rule of Ireland. The song centers around a humiliation, a man forced to steal food and then caught and punished, and the choice to respond with quiet dignity. By singing The Fields of Athenry in the face of overwhelming defeat, the Irish fans claim pride and solidarity for their country and national team. They refuse humiliation and offer a promise that they will endure with dignity. In other words, it is a political statement.
Quite a few things have happened recently. There was the display by Celtic fans in support of Palestine when they played an Israeli club for a Champion's League qualifier. Robbie Rogers claimed that a player used a homophobic slur towards him during a USL match. And now there's the NFL player, Colin Kaepernick, who chose to sit during the national anthem to call attention to the racism and violence faced by African Americans, a statement that Megan Rapinoe just paid homage to. Whenever such things happen, there are always those who call for a separation between the sport and politics. I disagree with that. I would say that not only can soccer and politics go together, they have gone together for a long time, with important consequences for both.
In much of the world, for much of sporting history, soccer teams were, and remain, very closely tied to their communities. The clubs, both professional and not, became grounds where the community gathered, both in celebration of sport and of the community itself. As such a symbolic place for the community, the problems of the community became visible through the clubs.
In Scotland, Celtic v. Rangers became a rallying point of Catholicism and national independence on one side, Protestantism and British unification on the other. In Argentina, class divides became visible between Boca Juniors and River Plate. In Spain, sport provided a way, in many cases the only way, to protest Franco and his tyranny. In modern China, a somewhat ironic situation has emerged where organized soccer supporters are able to make internal criticisms of the Communist party and their rule of the state. Even pick up games can be political. Take, for example, the Christmas Truce of 1914.
You could look broader at the sport and take note that nations are literally competing against each other. The Copa America was originally organized as a statement of American unity, a way to stand apart and take some power away Europe. The World Cup is a massive statement about which 32 nations matter and which ones do not. One of my favorite excerpts from the tactical book Inverting the Pyramid is a quote referencing the pride that "The Englishman ... had all the advantage in respect of weight, their average being about two stones heavier than the Scotsman [a slight exaggeration], and they also had the advantage in pace." (And how dare those puny Scots ruin the game with such an inane innovation as passing!) Politics simply has been ingrained with soccer, basically from the start.
Ok, so politics and soccer have gone together. But why? Why do soccer and politics go together? Why should they continue to go together?
One of the most visible and well known ties of politics to football is F.C. Barcelona and Catalan Independence. After emerging victorious in the bloody Spanish Civil War, General Franco instituted a brutal dictatorship that lasted decades. Dissidents were severely punished, that is, if they weren't killed or hadn't already fled. Under state orders, the police spied and harassed the populous to deter even the thought of sedition. Individuals could be targeted because of a disgruntled neighbor-turned informant, a corrupt official, or simply arbitrarily. The province of Catalan, centered around the port city of Barcelona, was particularly targeted for its leftist outlook and the province's resistance of the centralization of power in Madrid. However, one outlet for dissent emerged to prominence: F.C. Barcelona. Barcelona's football club already had a long history of political engagement. A handful of the club's players even enlisted for the side opposite Franco's. In the early days during and after the civil war, Barcelona faced persecution by state forces. However, the state eventually relaxed and became more permissive. They allowed fans to shout political chants, to verbally abuse the state, and show pride for province and city without punishment. The club grew to be synonymous with resistance to tyranny and a symbol of hope. The club took up an identity with the establishment of its motto, Mes que un club, More than a Club.
Why did Franco allow Barcelona to become this bastion for dissent? Part of it was logistical. With tens of thousands of fans all in one place, the government was unable to control the every thought and action of the individual. This meant that the collective could make grand displays and statements with the state's hands tied. The club's atmosphere also became a sort of pressure valve. By allowing demonstrations in the stadium, the state was able to keep people from making demonstrations in the street, where the outcome would be uncertain but surely violent.
And here we have one of the best reasons to support the link between politics and soccer. Soccer gives a platform for people to express arguments and grievances and to do it peacefully. Football stadiums offer a place where you have visibility from the community, there are rules of conduct (written and unwritten), and, importantly, government forces have limited visibility. If you peacefully protest inside a stadium, you don't need to fear being beaten by a police officer. If someone gets rowdy, they get kicked out or publicly shunned, not arrested. If you are jeering and shouting in a football stadium, you are directing your ire at a symbol and not a wall of armored police. Soccer gives you an opportunity to have political agency, to actually be heard by someone, without the same sort of fear as a street demonstration or rally. This is not to say that soccer matches can't or don't become violent. Obviously, they do. But these are the exceptions to the rule (and it's debatable exactly how much hooliganism actually has to do with soccer). At most levels, in most places around the world, soccer matches are peaceful.
The days of the Troubles, with the car bombings and secret assassinations are long over, but the issue of Irish unification has not been resolved. The issue continues, but no longer through violence. Today, it's kept alive through symbolic demonstrations like The Fields of Athenry. It is through soccer that the Irish can peacefully make a political point. Through soccer, they can be heard.