The phrase “The World’s Game” would ring hollow if soccer were not recognized as a unifying force for all continents and cultures. If this lofty platitude is true, it would be hard to deny that the game makes an ideal backdrop for civil discourse.
You may already be typing “#StickToSports” but that hashtag is an affront to the only respected universal language this world has left.
The infusion of politics into The World’s Game has been well documented. Examples span one hundred years (Ireland’s two national teams date back to 1924, but the seeds were planted in the previous century), but the U.S. national teams have seen their fair share in recent years. Among others, a men’s game in East Germany and a women’s game in Iran were memorable for obvious reasons. And just this summer we witnessed the first clash between Donald Trump’s politics and the world of sport with the 2018 qualifying game between the U.S. and Mexico.
Contrary to the conflict and confrontations organizers had prepared for, there were only isolated incidents (boos for the American anthem, thrown beer cups, the usual Mexican chant) which were overshadowed by displays of mutual respect on both sides in light of Trump’s new migration policies. One American fan said, “I want the Mexican people to know that our country isn’t like that.”
Dramatic examples of political displays can be seen at the club level throughout Europe, such as Legia Warsaw’s tifo commemoration of the Warsaw Uprising. The club was fined for their vivid statement, but the tifo’s purpose was less a political statement than an appeal to human emotion.
The same cannot be said for the polemic class of supporters continually gaining traction throughout Europe, known as ‘Ultras.’ Many make the famed hooligans of yore look tame, earning a reputation in the media as the “most deadliest” supporters.
This extremism has no place in our game, or in our world for that matter. But a tamer, more effective version has a place everywhere. Civil discourse.
This is Not Political
A Supporters Group is inherently in an ideal position to bring attention to issues faced by its surrounding communities. Whether focused on club or country, the passion of a Supporters Group for its team supports and stimulates a passion for confronting the issues facing its members. At its core, an SG is a melting pot of individuals from various communities who, without their club, without the game, would be unlikely to meet and communicate.
Common ground is often the most difficult goal for two sides to achieve, but it is critical in a discussion of the world’s problems. The American and Mexican fans were all brought together by one thing: Love of the game. Having now had the opportunity to bring two potentially opposing sides together on that common ground, when could be a better time for a conversation about real issues held in good will and with respect?
Soccer has proven to be a powerful piece of common ground for Americans overseas, including troops in the Middle East who use the game to relate to their local counterparts. It has also proven useful here at home, when immigrants and refugees are placed in host cities, like Clarkston, Georgia, with little experience in intercultural relations.
The potential impact of our civil discourse extends to other minority communities within our own culture as well. One MLS club recently seized a tragic opportunity to make a statement of unity.
Lions with Pride
Orlando City SC, also known as the Orlando Lions, showed a unique willingness to make a symbol that often draws ire from the #StickToSports camp a permanent feature of their new stadium. Forty-nine brightly colored seats arranged as a rainbow stand out among the royal purple in Section 12, commemorating the victims of the Pulse nightclub attack on June 12, 2016. Club co-founder Kay Rawlins told the Orlando Sentinel, “More than anything, I think what it’s done is show that as a team, as a sport, we can be a voice in the community and we can stand up for a section of the community that’s been maligned in the past.”
While the attack angered all for its terroristic nature (ISIS quickly claimed credit), uniting America against radicalism, the permanent memorial installed by OCSC is a more polarizing issue. The rainbow flag represents not only the 49 victims of a terror attack on our home soil, but also a ‘maligned’ minority with a long history of fighting conservatives for equal rights. The #SticktoSports camp can’t argue with the memorial, but they have long fought against the symbol which was used.
It was not a political statement. It had nothing to do with marriage law or gay rights. The memorial was installed as a sign of unity with one of the many communities the club represents and triggered discussion about how a club can support its neighbors.
Just this weekend, the #TakeAKnee movement again swept the nation, most notably the NFL where it began last year. Contrary to most media portrayals, #TakeAKnee has nothing to do with politics, but with the rights of all the people the American flag is supposed to stand for.
Similarly, the focus of the ‘We Dream Together’ tifo displayed in the supporters section at the MN United FC match against Philadelphia on September 9. The banner was in support of those effected by DACA, including the club’s own supporters, fans and neighbors.
As the football season winds up and soccer winds down, we can expect to see many more of these displays in the stands.
Unity in the Stands
The dynamic of American soccer does not lend itself to the same flavor of ‘ultra’ fandom seen in Europe. The violence and hatred displayed by some of those groups spawn from a long history of life-and-death football and geopolitical strife, while the American game is too young and regulated. But this youth offers a unique opportunity for SGs to redefine what it means to support a club – and for a club to redefine support of their community – and perhaps even to redefine ‘ultra,’ by planting positive roots in their surrounding communities.
In stadiums often resembling mini U.N.s, with all walks, all faiths, represented both on the pitch and in the stands, supporters groups should be utilizing the unifying force of The World’s Game as a platform from which to address the many issues that could dramatically effect the lives of its members and neighbors.
To do so is not a political action. It is a human one.
So. Scarves up! Rise up in the stands. For each other.