From EFL to EDL: Far Right Extremism's Pollution of Football
As readers of this website will know, we provide vigorous support of football fans’ power for good and in this, hope to have followed in the footsteps of organisations such as the Football Supporters Federation, Supporters Direct and the editorial line of When Saturday Comes among others.
But occasionally, there can be a reminder of how the sport can become entangled in something altogether less appetising, not to say downright dangerous. It’s our view that the emergence over the past couple of years of the so-called Football Lads Alliance (FLA), later to be largely succeeded by the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) is one such instance.
Among many objectionable things about the FLA and DFLA is the co-opting of the word ‘Football’ at all. That this appears to have been a deliberate technique to veil more nefarious purposes is likely.
If you accept the DFLA’s description of themselves, they purport to be ‘anti-extremism’ and speakers at their events rally around single issue atrocities in an attempt to argue that society is riddled with outrages that can firmly be laid at the door of immigrants, people of colour and the non-English in general.
So, righteous anger at child grooming in Rotherham, Oxford and elsewhere, the London Bridge terror attacks and, deeper into the past, the Birmingham pub bombings of the 1970s are cited as evidence of a need to clean up our streets, to invite anti-Islam speakers to marches, to embrace hate speech in the name of ‘free speech’ and to use the internet to drum up support – the DFLA have a ‘secret’ Facebook grouping that numbers 12,000 people.
Racism by football supporters is nothing new of course. The fascist National Front (NF) used to sell papers and try to recruit outside numerous grounds in the 1970s and 1980s and Bulldog, the paper of the young NF, even had a regular ‘league of louts’ table often topped by Chelsea and Leeds. Shamefully, racist chants and abuse were also common at grounds. But anti-racist fans eventually drove the NF away and that grassroots activism was also supported by the establishment of national groups like Kick it Out. Gradual changes in attitude in wider society and more proactive measures (and surveillance) by the clubs themselves have also helped to minimise racism at football grounds.
But the bad old days have started to creep back – part of a wider trend in society as a whole. That Tommy Robinson (real name, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon), the founder of the English Defence League has been prominent at FLA and DFLA events is significant. The feeling that there is association with other far-right groupings such as Generation Identity, the Racial Volunteer Force and the White Pendragons is telling, that Sadiq Khan and Diane Abbott are held up as bogey figures despite a clear and condemnatory stance towards terrorist incidents in London is a clear signifier.
Far from being anti-extremism, the whole point of the DFLA is to foster extremism.
There is ample evidence for this. This piece from Resisting Hate provides a long litany of offences attributable to DFLA members.
You’ll see that amongst these is Ian Crossland of the English Defence League. When confronted by a Muslim woman, he is quoted as having said, ‘We should send them back to the sandpit they all came from, and then turn that sandpit into glass.’
The DFLA claim to not be racist and to have black and Asian members but spotting a non-white face in any of the online photographs of the group’s demo is akin to trying to locate a polar bear in Antarctica. Posts on the organisation’s facebook page call for Abbott to be ‘run over’ and Khan to be hanged. Darren Osborne, who was convicted after driving his van into a group of Muslims has been held up as a scapegoat while according to this article in The Guardian, racist memes abound.
However, despite ‘mainstream ’politicians such as the UK Independence Party leader Gerald Batten courting extremists, even calling for Robinson to join the party – as opposed to Nigel Farage who always distanced himself from the EDL – there are signs that the organisation is in decline or perhaps regrouping.
Two London demos of June and October 2017 were succeeded by a far more poorly attended event in October 2018 with an estimated 1,500 people taking to the streets, possibly because of a decline in the number of Islamist terrorist incidents in 2018 in comparison with 2017. Within the DFLA, it appears that tribalism is hard to knock on the head – not surprising given that supporters of three of the most prominently represented clubs, West Ham United, Millwall and Tottenham Hotspur are far from easy bedfellows.
Add to that the tendency for the internet to encourage groupings and counter-groupings, depending on the issues that are most important to different factions. Vigilance from the police has also counted for a lot and the various elements of the DFLA do not wield the power of the in some ways comparable ‘ultra’ groups in Italy or Argentina.
The split that begat the DFLA itself in late 2017 is also evidence of a lack of focus –it is said that financial issues were at the heart of the splintering.
So the DFLA may be quiet for now but the inactivity may be as much an evidence of a re-grouping as opposed to a lessening of influence.
The figure of Robinson is central to this and in the convicted criminal and former British National Party member, the DFLA have their figurehead. That’s powerful in this era of populism.
The ‘Free Tommy Robinson’ campaign, chants of ‘there’s only one Tommy Robinson’ as heard at various matches and the general elevation of the 36 year old from Luton as a figurehead could herald something more dangerous in the future. After all, there have been 15,000 strong marches under the ‘Tommy Robinson’ banner, the largest demonstrations of far right extremism in the United Kingdom since the 1930s.
The DFLA may be quiet although their contingent of keyboard warriors are quick to gather strength in response to examples of opposition such as this post at the website Along Came Norwich and the response to the temporary suspension of West Ham youth team coach Mark Phillips who attended the October 2018 demonstration.
But a recalibration of the movement’s identity, the continued pursuance of the personality cult surrounding Robinson and a possible renaming of the organisation could all lead to heightened influence. It’s possible that the DFLA could drop the ‘Football’ and the ‘Lads’ in the same way Italian politician Matteo Salvini dropped the ‘Nord’ from ‘Lega Nord’ in order to appeal to voters from the south of the country. There is also a chance that the DFLA might have more success in regions outside London, especially in places where it can align itself with local far-right groups or traditions.
Not that ‘football’ would therefore be out of the woods. It’s unlikely that any successor organisation would choose to sever links with a supply of angry, disaffected white males. Even if hooliganism and violence are nowhere near the levels of their 1980s heyday, aggression and hatred are still there, especially in the online context.
So how to resist? The setting up of the Football Lads and Lasses against Fascism (FLAF) in 2018 is one step. Stickers are available while groups of black, white and Asian fans leafleted a Luton Town home game in protest at the fans’ association with Robinson, supporter of the club that he is.
That also illustrates an important point. Fans of clubs who like to see themselves as progressive, often with good reason, such as Liverpool and Celtic, shouldn’t fall into the trap of branding fans of clubs whose supporters have a more damaging reputation such as Leeds or Millwall with the brush of being beyond the pale.
West Ham fan Jacob Steinberg has highlighted the activities of the FLA and DFLA in The Guardian while a Luton fan took to the pages of the print edition of When Saturday Comes to register his disgust at the Hatters’ association with Robinson and the FLAF are busy rallying supporters to the cause of anti-hatred.
The demonization of football fans is a long tradition that the DFLA do nothing to dissuade those who are in contempt of the game to indulge in. It’s right to stand up for equality and openness, to celebrate a sport where a large number of its exponents come from the European Union and further away and where everyone should feel welcome; be it in the stands, the pubs around the ground, on message boards and on social media.