From the terraces of the League of Ireland to Bundesliga cauldrons, progressive football fans have delivered the message that refugees are welcome and xenophobia is not, reports Francis Donohoe.
“All Tribes Welcome Here” read the banner that flew at Eamonn Deacy Park in Galway for the Galway United vs St. Patrick’s Athletic EA Cup Final in September. It was an international message with a peculiarly Galwegian twist – welcoming those fleeing conflictto the ‘city of the tribes’.
As Galway United fan and anti-racism activist, Joseph Loughnane explained: “‘All Tribes Welcome Here’ was our message, tying in a principled anti-racism message with a reference to Galway’s historic character. Combining the support of your local team with using it as a platform to share ideas is essential in a sport where messages of hate and conservatism are often thrust upon us by certain sections of football fans.”
In Ireland, Bohemian FC supporters have been the most vocal and visual, in welcoming refugees, which is perhaps unsurprising, as the north Dublin club is situated in an area with the highest concentration of migrant workers and other non-Irish nationals in the city.
In September, the Bohemian Ultras group, the Notorious Boo Boys (NBB), unveiled an impressive flag and banner display featuring the ‘Refugees Welcome’ message at the club’s home game against Longford Town. Earlier that month the club had unveiled a large mural on the walls of its Dalymount ground with the same message.
Most impressive was the NBB’s flare and banner display on the Ha’penny Bridge in the centre of Dublin at 1.00 a.m. on 5th September, just hours before their club would play its bitter cross-city rivals Shamrock Rovers.
Other clubs fans have also shown their support for refugees. ‘Refugees Welcome’ banners have been unveiled by supporters of Derry City and Sligo Rovers at games during 2015.
Across Europe, the banners have been seen at major games in most football leagues. Indeed, some fans have over a decade of commitment to the cause of welcoming people fleeing conflict zones.
Since 2004, Ultras of the German second division team, St Pauli, based in the port city of Hamburg, long a major destination for migrants, have been visiting refugee camps around the city, bringing clothes, food and lawyers to help with often complex asylum applications. It is at this club’s games that in recent years the distinctive ‘Refugees Welcome’ slogan and accompanying symbol of a running family first began to make regular appearances.
Support for the campaign has also come from prominent figures in the international footballing world including Manchester United and France legend Eric Cantona. In late September he said on French radio that he intended to provide accommodation to a Syrian family fleeing the conflict in one of his properties.
Cantona said his own family history made him particularly aware of the plight of refugees. “My maternal grandparents were Spanish Republicans who fled Franco by crossing the Pyrenees on foot. That being our story, it certainly played a role,” he said.
Even Real Madrid, a club more known for a fan base infiltrated by the far right than its progressive politics, provided assistance to a former Syrian football coach to resettle in Spain. Osama Abdul Mohsen and his son had shot to international prominence when he was kicked and tripped by a camera woman working for a far-right Hungarian TV channel, as Mohsen carried his son over the Serbia-Hungary border.
However, with football terraces long-term organising targets for racists and the far-right, some European football games have been marred by anti-refugee displays.
When the European Club Association, which represents the interests of Europe’s biggest clubs, announced that one euro would be donated from every ticket sold for each team’s first home match in the 2015-16 Champions League season, it was met with displays of banners carrying the message “Refugees NOT Welcome” at some games.
This was a particular problem in Eastern Europe. Ultras of Polish side Lech Poznan boycotted their opening home Europa League match against Belenenses in protest. Instead, they hung a banner that said “Stop Islamisation” outside the entrance and a banner at a previous match read: “This is obvious and simple for us, we do not want refugees in Poland”.
In the Czech Republic, Sparta Prague fans threatened to boycott their home game against APOEL in October if the donations were made. “Refugees Not Welcome” banners appeared at Lyon and also at Maccabi Tel Aviv’s match with Hapoel Kiryat Shmona. Yet their hated left-wing city rivals Hapoel Tel Aviv displayed a banner that read: “Who isn’t a migrant here?” referencing the fact that most Israeli families had fled persecution in either Europe or the Middle East.
There were also protests against right-wing attempts to hijack pro-refugee sentiment. A campaign by the rightwing German tabloid Bild, calling on teams to wear pro-refugee messages, many clubs – including St Pauli – refused, believing that the newspaper had fed anti-refugee feeling in the past and this “about-turn” was purely to boost sales.
Unfortunately xenophobic views were also evident in the Irish League when one Glentoran fan club cancelled its trip to see their club play against Cliftonville in September, after the North Belfast Club joined the ’90 Minutes for Hope Project’. This initiative saw £1 from each £10 ticket for the match given to refugee support groups.
However, Joe Loughnane and other football supporters are committed to developing football grounds as arenas for progressive politics.
“It’s not uncommon for a political message to come from the football terraces”, he said, “When Dundalk fans flew a Palestine flag last year, they were fined for daring to express solidarity with an oppressed people. Some of us Galway United fans now regularly fly that flag at Deacy Park.”
He added: “To combat racist chanting, corrupt footballing bodies amongst other things; a sense of community spirit is needed on the terraces – a community that is all-inclusive and actively challenges the right-wing status quo. Where the fans have control and stadiums are politicised, only then will we realise the truly international nature of the sport.”