31 October 2012

Protest songs: mixing football and politics

Whether you spend your Saturday frantically instagram-ing along to “The Internationale” with St Pauli’s socialist ultras, or grunting “E-E-EDL” into a plastic pint of Carling, you’ve decided to cross a line others might not: you’ve brought your politics to the match.

Growing up going to football, you get a sense of what goes and doesn’t among your fans. The usual sprinkling of nationalism aside, politics has never figured much in the stands at Luton games. Once a fairly Irish town, any loyalist or sectarian stuff usually got a pretty muted reaction, and I was always quietly pleased by that.

These days replacing the “IRA” with “No surrender to the Taliban” might get a few more to join in. Often the soundtrack to news reports of another pointless EDL march, it always gets a little cringe out of me.

Remember when you were little and didn’t really care what any of the songs meant? It was easier then wasn’t it?

The rubbish thing about football songs (and political protests) is that there is no way to explain the specifics of your unique opinion while singing from the hymn sheet of the mob. Of course most people wouldn’t want to ‘surrender to the Taliban’ but by joining in with the song for that moment you are united with the rest of the choir. One voice rings out. 

That feeling of unity is one of the reasons we love going to football. But what if those words mean something else to some of the other people singing it? And what’s the next one going to be? And hold on, why the fuck are we thinking about the Taliban during a day on the booze at football anyway? I suppose there are lots of different answers to that question.

Bringing your politics to the football might work better if everyone there was sober. The more extreme might not be so brave and the weaker-willed might be less likely to follow without the morning in Wetherspoons under their belt.

I read that in the 80s some black Luton fans were known for starting monkey chants in the Luton end when our black players got on the ball to pre-empt, dilute and confuse the abuse that was sure to follow from the away fans - and also just for a laugh. Genius in a subversive way, but I’m sure others in the Luton end and on the pitch probably weren’t fully aware of the context.

In a stadium with 10,000 opinions any song that is sung or banner unfurled will only have its meaning twisted and misreported anyway; whether by the rest of crowd, the media or later on by some faceless internet twat on his rubbish self-important blog... so being political on a Saturday afternoon is a tricky act to pull off.

The camararderie of fans sticking together, especially when you're a long way from home, is one of the things that keeps supporters coming back week after week, year after year. So if you were to suddenly hear your brothers-in-arms voicing beliefs on the terraces that you spend the rest of the week condemning, what would you do?

The songs you sing do matter, at least a bit. I used to join in with every abusive ditty going in the name of football: one about Jimmy Davis’ driving being a particular low point.

During the World Cup I worked on a project in Namibia that used football to teach girls about HIV. While there I felt a little bit sick thinking about the charming “20 years of HIV, Elton John is history” B-side that had become a bit of a stalwart back home. Later when I heard it again in person part of me crumpled thinking of the reality of that picture, painted in the boozy breath above the Main Stand.

On a football terrace not everyone is going to hold the same beliefs, even if they talk in the same cockney farmer accent that you do. It’s a place where the rules and sensitivities of the working week no longer apply - we’d be worse off if they did and flouncing will get you nowhere. 

Truth be told there is only one thing you can do at football if you hear a song that doesn’t represent you: start one that does. And make sure it’s loud.


  1. Nice post. I wouldn't give that Elton John song the credit of being 'political' though - it's just vile and embarrassing. For me it completely ruins the sense of camaraderie you mention that should make being in a football crowd special; whenever the crowd sing "Luton Town will never die, 100 years of history, a Luton fan I'm proud to be" I very briefly think back to singing that song at Anfield in 2008 when it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up-- but that sensation is ruined by the realisation that the moronic "B-side" will swiftly follow.

  2. Thanks - wasn't trying to call that song political, just an example of a song that I hate for my own reasons I spose.