Spoiling the Broth; how football’s relationship with politics changed

You get some hot tips as you go through life, things to go by from people who’ve been around the block. Look both ways before crossing the road, don’t get in a car with anyone from the BBC, don’t eat yellow snow, don’t stand up in a canoe, never cross the streams, and for the love of god never, under any circumstances, mix your football with politics. As a kid that seems about right, what is politics anyway? Boring people in suits arguing about who’s fault everything is, whereas football is the polar opposite of that – the epitome of fun and free time, you played it in the streets and watched it when it was on the telly and you didn’t know or care who Neil Kinnock was, happier times in many ways.


Football wasn’t always sexy – in the 80s and long before the profligacy of shiny identikit out-of-town stadia it was a game of attrition watched by ever declining crowds of miserable people in grey towns from crumbling terraces.


The general media usually ony stopped by to point out a particularly abhorrent incident of hooliganism or racism (of which there was plenty), but by and large it was considered a low-brow and somewhat dangerous culture. There was plenty to back this line of thinking; by the mid-80s you’d have the Luton / Milwall riot and Heysel as the reputation of the game began to bottom out. By the time 96 fans were unlawfully killed at Hillsborough in 1989 football fans had been so demonised that the shameful cover-up cum hatchet job that followed from the police and Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper was, broadly, accepted as truth.


If the 1980s were the game’s lowest point, then it was also the time when the political arena began agitating for a permanent fix to the ‘football problem’. Thatcher was in power so anything was up for suggestion – an archaic ID card system being one of them – and old Mags even had something of a ‘war cabinet’ set up to try to tackle this mindless violence. Football was seen as a pressing, real concern that needed some form of political ‘solution’.


In the end football got a much better fix for itself with the dawning of the 1990s; a money fix! When football decided to sell the farm and monetise whatever it could in a brash show of ultra-capitalism the obvious things changed: new all-seat stadia, bigger crowds, better paid players, safety and security improvements, a generally slicker and more professional product.


There were also the non-tangible effects; football’s public image went through a total transformation thanks to a media-led obsession with the youthful Premier League, Oasis in their Man City shirts and a whole new youth culture meeting a new shinier version of the old game at just the right time.


It’s about then I remember seeing Tony Blair more and more in the football news, little snippets here and there about who he supported (nobody) or how keen a player he is (he wasn’t) and then the cosy images of him doing keepy-uppies with Kevin Keegan.


Even in my pimply, teenage stupor I could see the significance of this. When i started watching games on TV and going to the odd League of Ireland game when the old man would be arsed, it was still ‘old’ football: cold, grey and full of unbridled hate and harsh language.


Now, it was something the politicians and the establishment as a whole wanted to be a part of, to be seen together with its start, to exploit a game they’d happily washed their hands off just a decade earlier.


The use of football as a political makeweight is almost as old as the game itself but that tended to be centred around the jingoism and nationalism that is more often seen in regards to international football. Interest tended to be fleeting, lasting as long as the success did, before forgetting all about football and moving on to the next flavour of the month. Nothing that has come before truly compares to what football has now become. With this, trying to discern what people mean by ‘politics’ in relation to football has become more difficult.


Increasingly over the last 10 years I see things that don’t quite sit right, the type of thing that should only be happening on an especially grim episode of Black Mirror. The politicians that wanted to stand beside football and bask in its reflected glory, are now in the workings of the machine.


Should we be surprised then that the administration of the game and indeed of the individual clubs has taken on something of a totalitarian hue? Recently, Celtic banned 900 fans for the actions of a few and Police Scotland arrested twelve people over offensive banners. If politics is the game of spin then this case certainly seems like an opportunity for someone to signal that they are ‘doing something’ about this ‘scourge’ of banner-waving. A combination of UEFA’s birds eye scrutiny and the ridiculous ‘Offensive Behaviour’ Act certainly gives them two reasons to do so.


Celtic will take the stance that this is a UEFA competition and they’ve never been shy about handing down a fine, closing a stand or even a stadium. Rangers recently got a smack on the wrist over their fans throwing paper. I’m all for keeping unacceptable stuff out of the ground, where possible, but this level of litigiousness is going to incubate a culture where fans are genuinely restricted in how they can support their team. Clubs are likely to become even more preoccupied with vetting every banner, flag and t-shirt slogan that could be considered contentious or offensive. Celtic banning 900 fans in such a uniform manner was wholly depressing but not at all surprising; it is symptomatic of the modern game.


It’s made even worse that it’s mostly young fans that are targeting through this overzealous policing of expression. I had my time of going all over the country with my friends following my team in the 1990s. We sang questionable songs, we brought pyro and beer into the ground and got into some incredibly sketchy capers, but those were probably the best times of my life. Celtic banning people is stopping them having that for themselves; wherever you might stand on someone’s identification with a religion, cause, flag, country or sentiment, regardless of who they support, I don’t think you should be excluded for flimsy or faux political reasons.


Ban people for being violent or racist, ban people for being arseholes if you must, but you can’t tell me there’s any justification in banning a kid who might have been standing next to a guy who might have been holding a banner.


In the wise words of Ernest Benn, ‘Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.’ Even at Celtic Park, there has been a lot of these dark arts recently.


90 Minute Cynic is a football website covering the important issues in the modern game. We follow European football with a distinct focus on the Scottish & English Premier Leagues. As part of the Hail Hail Media network, we cover Glasgow Celtic on our very popular podcast. We also seek out interesting and funny stories from all corners of the globe, bringing an analytical yet enjoyable spin on football podcasting.

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