Football supporters have a bit of a bad rap, and often for good reason. But, for a lot of people, football has done a world of good by offering them a support system, a sense of belonging and a community. The beautiful game has done a huge amount of good, from forming tight knit communities, to alleviating dire poverty, to giving enormous joy to kids who see themselves in their heroes. Since these stories of hope and love are so rarely reported on, I wrote this ode to what happens when football is used for more.
A lot of clubs use their positions and wealth in the form of charitable aid. Rangers’ charitable foundation has raised over £4 million pounds – money that helps Unicef deliver vaccines, supports the Glasgow Winter Night Shelter, and aids Armed Forces charities. And they’re far from the only ones – practically every team in top flight Scottish football has some sort of charitable wing that helps social causes home and away. Fans have also gotten into the act by organising collections at matches for local foodbanks or rallying around different causes. After the controversial display of Palestinian flags by Celtic ‘ultras’ when playing Israeli opponents, Hapoel Beer Sheva, fans raised £176,000 for charities working in the West Bank and Gaza in contempt of the subsequent fine.
This is more than just an afterthought for the clubs, though, as they often grew in areas of extreme deprivation – several clubs were explicitly founded for humanitarian purposes. Irish immigrants in Edinburgh slums created Hibs; Manchester City was intended to curb local gang violence and alcoholism; Orlando Pirates, a team from the township of Soweto in South Africa, gave strength to the local black community. The material good done by football clubs is hard to underestimate. This is a tradition that continues today, with new teams in Kibera, Nigeria’s largest slum, generating employment opportunities for their community. For instance, Kibera Black Stars calls itself a “community club”, and views football as a catalyst “for social integration and personal responsibility.”
Arguably more important than the direct financial aid however, is the community cohesion. The mere act of following a team links people together in a totally unique way. There’s camaraderie with perfect strangers once you sit through ninety minutes of pain and pleasure next to them. I chest bumped an elderly woman at a game a few weeks ago. When you support a team, you’re part of something much larger than yourself.
This community spirit can transcend club divides. This might seem counter-intuitive considering football tribalism, but more often than you might think, people overlook their rivalries to offer sincere respect. Admit it – we were all rooting for Leicester City once it seemed like they might just do the impossible and win the Premier League last year. When Wales and Iceland did better than anyone believed them capable of at the 2016 Euros, there was genuine happiness (and not just because Iceland beat England!) I’ve been fortunate enough to witness a game against Barcelona and, like every game he plays in Spain, when Andrés Iniesta was subbed off he got a stadium wide applause for that World Cup winning goal.
This is because good football is truly universal. When I was in Thailand (and totally found myself, yah), kids wanted their favourite players’ names written on their arms – Messi, Ronaldo, Suarez. Just look at the Afghan kid who made a Messi strip out a plastic bag. After the picture of him went viral, he actually got to meet his idol.
With community comes strength, and unfortunately fans sometimes have to seek collective strength in the wake of tragedy. After the devastating Hillsborough disaster, which ended in the deaths of ninety-six Liverpool fans and a subsequent cover-up, victims’ families fought for justice for twenty-seven long years. Without the support of the footballing community around them, including from local rivals Everton, the fight would have been even harder, and may not have gathered the necessary backing. The city-wide boycott of The Sun newspaper, following an awful front cover in the days following the disaster, continues to this day which is a testament to the power of community cohesion. When the findings of the final inquest were released last year, clubs around the world marked the long delayed justice and commemorated the victims and the heroic families. It could have been any one of them. No one should go to a match and not come home.
Football is far, far more than just a sport. It’s a way of locating yourself in a wider context, of finding friends around the world, and of improving your home. It’s universal, transformative and inspirational, and for so many people, football stands as a beacon of hope in the darkest of times.
[Louise Wylie @womanpendulum]