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Militant Soccer Fans are on a Roll Across Eurasia

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 focused 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 Labor Party. Corbyn’s success reflected 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 the 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 Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and belonging to a terrorist organization which offences could have put them behind bars for life.

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

The prosecutors’ turnaround followed the acquittal earlier 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 the moment when Erdogan cracked 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 needed to form a one-party government.

While Erdogan’s autocratic tendencies stop far short of the brutality that Egyptian general-turned-President Abdel Fattah el-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. As in Turkey, Egyptian courts were employed in unsuccessful attempts to criminalize militant fans who had played a key role in the popular revolt in 2011 that 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 it is brutal choking off of all public space was backfiring and threatened to fuel radicalization.

As 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 elections even taking into account Erdogan’s undemocratic measures against his opponents.

In Egypt, moreover, el-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 el-Sisi’s appointment of Ismail, warning him on television not to become another Mubarak. Mansour had earlier accused 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 Ismail has long been associated.

Corruption and mismanagement were 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. Late last year the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Agency detained 16 players, including nine from the Police Football Association on suspicion of match-fixing. Recently, Malaysia has 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, 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 toward 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 the 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,” Hyde wrote.

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

Nonetheless, the response to Marina Hyde’s clarion call as well as fan protests in the Middle East and Southeast Asia illustrate the important segments in the football family that relate 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.”

Smith noted that knockoff jerseys of European clubs were 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. Rory Smith wrote: “Football has traded on its universality for long enough. It has grown fat and rich on television contracts and foreign tours. It has been 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.”