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Militant soccer fans are on a roll across Eurasia

By James M. Dorsey

Militant soccer fans are on a roll in the Middle East, Europe and Southeast Asia. Fans in Turkey and Egypt have defeated legal efforts to criminalize them as terrorists while Malaysian ultras are tackling corruption in and mismanagement of their country’s soccer association. In Germany, the pitch anticipated the government’s shift in policy towards the wave of refugees sweeping Europe with fans expressing support a week before the country opened the floodgates.

Although these incidents were unrelated incidents and occurred in widely different political and social environments, they share a number of things in common: they all focussed on aspects of social justice, repression, corruption and compassion towards the needy.

The incidents further highlighted the soccer pitch’s significance as an early indicator of societal distrust in government and institutions. That distrust was this weekend similarly expressed in the electoral victory of controversial leftist Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour Party. Mr. Corbyn’s success constituted a rejection of the dominance of corporate politics.

In the latest development, Turkish prosecutors advised an Istanbul court to drop all charges against 35 members of Carsi, the militant support group of storied club Besiktas JK who had been charged in a nine month-old, ill-documented, political showcase trial of seeking to topple the government of then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and belonging to a terrorist organization, offences that could have put them for life behind bars.

Carsi, one of Turkey’s largest, if not its largest, fan group has long campaigned for social justice related issues, and played in 2013 a key role in the biggest anti-government protests since Mr. Erdogan’s rise to power in 2003.

The prosecutors’ turnaround followed the acquittal earlier of this year of 26 members of Taksim Solidarity, an umbrella group that was among the leaders of the protests on Istanbul’s iconic Taksim Square. It also came at a moment that Mr. Erdogan has been cracking down on his critics, including critical media, in the run-up to November 1 parliamentary elections called after his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to win in June the majority it needed to form a one-party government.

While Mr. Erdogan’s autocratic tendencies stop far short of the brutality that Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi employs, Turkish and Egyptian efforts to stymie militant soccer fans that in both countries have often emerged as a backbone of popular protest often develop in step.

Like in Turkey, Egyptian courts were employed in unsuccessful attempts to criminalize militant fans who had played a key role in the popular revolt that in 2011 toppled President Hosni Mubarak and most subsequent anti-government protests.

Militant Egyptian fans forced the interior ministry earlier this month to partially lift the long-standing ban on spectators attending soccer matches in a bid to prevent the pitch from re-emerging as a platform for dissent. The lifting was widely seen as a potential signal that the country’s military-backed regime recognized that its brutal choking off of all public space was backfiring and threatened to fuel radicalization.

Like in Turkey, the Egyptian militant soccer fans scored their tactical victory in advance of parliamentary elections that in Egypt will have no veneer of being free and fair unlike the Turkish ones even taking into account Mr. Erdogan’s undemocratic measures against his opponents.

In Egypt, moreover Mr. Al Sisi this weekend appeared to be pouring salt on open wounds after first arresting his agriculture ministers on charges of corruption and then appointing a new prime minister, Sharif Ismail, whose image is tarnished by allegations of association with corruption.

Mortada Mansour, the controversial larger-than-life president of crowned Cairo club Al Zamalek SC, who was the main driver behind the failed efforts to outlaw the ultras, was quick to criticize Mr. Al Sisi’s appointment of Mr. Ismail, warning him on television not to become another Mubarak. Mr. Mansour had earlier accused Mr. Ismail of nepotism following a dispute over a player with ENPPI SC, a club controlled by state-owned company Engineering for the Petroleum and Process Industries (ENPPI) with whom Mr. Ismail has long been associated.

Corruption and mismanagement was also at the root of the breaking up by Malaysian ultras of a Malaysia-Saudi Arabia World Cup qualifier in an effort to force the resignation of Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) president Sultan Ahmad Shah after 30 years in office. Eleven fans were arrested in connection with the incident.

Malaysian soccer like Malaysian politics itself has long been dogged by accusations of corruption. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Agency detained late last year 16 players, including nine from the Police Football Association on suspicion of match fixing. Malaysia has in recent months been rocked by charges that $700 million held by beleaguered prime minister Najib Razak involved illicit payments.

“Sorry players. Sorry Malaysians. Sorry Saudi Arabians. But it had to be done,” the group, Ultras Malaya, said on Twitter. “Our protests have been going on for three years. We have gone through all the official channels… We do not care what others think,” a leader of the group identified as Freddie Been was quoted as telling local media. “We had to hit FAM where it hurts the most. We had to humiliate FAM to get the message across,” added Al Fadli Awaludin, a founder of Ultras Malaya.

Responding to charges by Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin that the ultras had embarrassed Malaysia, Mr. Been said: “I should ask him, when we were (recently) beaten 10-0 to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), did he not feel embarrassed?”

Countering repression and corruption were at the core of Middle Eastern and Malaysian fan activism for social justice. German and British fans focused on making compassion the yardstick of European policy towards the mass of people fleeing wars in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, many of which Western powers either ignited or exasperated.

Fans displayed banners during various German Bundesliga matches in support of Europe’s responsibility towards the refugees days before the image went viral of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Kurdish boy whose body washed ashore on a Turkish beach after the boat in which he and his family were trying to reach Europe capsized. “Welcome Refugees,” many of the banners read. Similar banners appeared during English Premier League games.

In response to Guardian columnist Marina Hyde’s assertion that refugee crisis could give meaning to the artificial construct of a football family, fans in Britain launched a fund-raising campaign, Bayern Munich reserved $1 million for efforts to aid refugees, and clubs like Scotland’s Celtic, Real Madrid and FC Porto promised to play their part. “If such a thing (like a football family) can ever be said to exist, then this issue gripping Europe should be among the very closest to its heart,” Ms. Hyde wrote.

Many fans and some clubs would argue that their proactive welcoming of refugees long preceded Ms. Hyde’s column or the recent adoption of more welcoming policies by the EU and West European governments.

Nonetheless, the response to Ms. Hyde’s clarion call as well as fan protests in the Middle East and Southeast Asia illustrate the importance segments of the football family attribute to social justice as well as mounting popular distrust of institutions. Said columnist Rory Smith on ESPN FC: “While football and politics do not mix, football and social responsibility certainly do.”

Mr. Smith noted that knockoff jerseys of European clubs featured in virtually every picture of refugees arriving in or trudging through southern Europe even if soccer was not the reason for the refugees’ flight to the continent.

“Football has traded on its universality for long enough. It has grown fat and rich on television contracts and foreign tours. It has said we are all part of one family, one set of families. And that means it has a duty to respond now, to show that this is not a one-way street, to show that it meant what it said. That is the point, surely, of being a family: that you are there for your family when it needs you, Mr. Smith wrote.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.

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