There has been one story that has been dominating the news over the last few weeks, a difficult and emotive subject, and one that we might not necessarily expect to intersect with football very much, if at all. However, as the refugee situation in Europe continued its lurch from one distinct form of crisis to another, German football supporters at several different clubs hung up banners proclaiming “Refugees Welcome” last weekend whilst clubs themselves showed their social consciences. Borussia Dortmund invited 220 of them along to watch the club’s Europa League match against Odds Ballklubb as part of a ‘angekommen in Dortmund’ – “Arrived in Dortmund” – scheme, which is part of a wider initiative designed to help recently arrived refugees to settle into life in Germany. Other clubs, including Bayern Munich, Schalke, Bayer Leverkusen, and Hannover, have also taken an active role in this initiative.
There had been few such initiatives in the United Kingdom. Flags proclaiming the same sentiment had been seen at Broadhurst Park, the home of FC United of Manchester, over the last couple of weeks, whilst significant publicity was given to a similar that appeared at a Ryman League Premier Division match between Kingstonian and Dulwich Hamlet. On the whole, though, the reaction amongst football supporters had been as muted as the more pessimistic amongst us might have been expected. After all, media coverage of unfurling events in Calais, the south of Greece and Italy, and the Greek Islands over the course of this summer have been relentlessly negative, to the extent that the uncritical thinker might be persuaded that that we’re approaching some form of end times. It had felt as if there wasn’t a great deal of sympathy for those feeling horrors that the vast majority of us could scarcely even imagine. Why should the reaction of football supporters be any different?
Over the course of the last couple of days or so, however, there has been a sense that something might be changing in terms of the public perception of this subject. The widespread dissemination of a series of a photographs of a child who drowned in the attempt to get to Europe from Syria seems to have shifted the debate on this subject and, for the first time, there is a sense that we might even be able to discuss events on the mainland of Europe as a humanitarian tragedy rather than as something that can resolved by “sending them back where they came from,” or whatever variant upon this unpleasant theme the likes of the Daily Express have been pedalling of late.
Finally, however, today has seen some sort of movement on the part of football supporters in this country, with supporters of Aston Villa, Charlton Athletic and Swindon Town becoming the first to put their heads above the parapets by stating that they wish to send a similar message to those fleeing persecution, civil war and intolerance abroad by flying this message. It’s not much, but it’s a start and with a break this weekend for international matches, supporters of bigger clubs have a window themselves to organise to show such support, should they wish to. In the case of Aston Villa, the campaign has the high profile support of former striker turned broadcaster Stan Collymore, who said today that, “I think our great club could and should do our bit to help.” It remains to be seen whether the idea will gain traction amongst the supporters of other clubs as well.
Perhaps predictably, at the time of writing only two newspaper websites – the Guardian and the Independent – have stories, and the Guardian’s Owen Gibson seems rather more sanguine over the prospects of Refugees Welcome being permitted in the Premier League, in which slogans that may be interpreted politically have often been frowned upon, stating that “The Premier League said there was nothing in its rules to prevent clubs from welcoming the banners into their stadiums.” The Independent, whose article on the matter was published two hours after the Guardian’s, sounded a rather more cautious note, with it’s comment on the matter emphasising the Premier League’s truculence towards what it considers to be political banners being shown in grounds and involvement of two Labour MPs, Yvette Cooper and Chris Bryant, who have confirmed that they will be writing to all twenty Premier League clubs requesting that supporters be allowed to display these banners.
It would be unsurprising to see the Premier League see letters from MPs as politicisation of the subject in itself and ban it forthwith. Such is the nature of the Premier League. We shall see, but there have also been encouraging noises on the subject from Scotland, where Celtic have confirmed that their foundation will donate a proportion of the proceeds from a weekend of events to mark the 30th anniversary of Jock Stein’s death, with club Peter Lawwell commenting that, “None of us can understand the true horrors of this situation but as a club we wanted to show our support for those affected.” As some with vested interests have found to their benefit over the last few years, there can certainly be profit to be found in the manipulation of immigration as a political tool, and the commencement of a Refugees Welcome campaign in this country certainly doesn’t mean that public attitudes have necessarily changed that much. The hysteria of certain sections of the press on this subject – and others akin to it – have hardened opinions on an extremely sensitive and complex subject, one fears to unbendable inflexibility. It feels, however, as though broader questions should be put on hold for the time being, at the very least. There are far more pressing matters at hand, right now.
There is a time and a place for a reasoned conversation to be had on this subject, but our concern is football, its politics and its culture, so we’ll say this much and leave the subject well alone on these pages. Football is a blank slate onto which society projects its hopes, its prejudices, its fears and aspirations – a mirror image of itself, in many respects. The extent to which Refugees Welcome gains traction may tell us something about where the barometer of public opinion on the subject stands, but the sport doesn’t exist in a bubble. Whether it succeeds or falls flat, it will reflect society in a broader sense rather than merely the blank slate that football is. What has been occurring in the Mediterranean this year has been a humanitarian tragedy. If nothing else at all, at an absolute bare minimum we should all be able to agree upon that, at the very least.
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