Gabriel Kuhn's Blog

Grassroots Football: Values, Examples, Potentials

By Gabriel Kuhn

This article originally appeared in Stir Magazine.

Modern football is often criticized for bringing the history of football as the “people’s game” to an end. Authors like Matthew Bazell (Theatre of Silence, 2008) speak of the game’s “lost soul.” With respect to professional soccer and its ever increasing commercialization, such views are hardly surprising. Earlier this year, the 24-year old Sporting Gijon defender Javi Poves quit his job in protest. He was quoted by the Spanish daily ABC as saying, “The more you know about football the more you realise it is all about money, that it is rotten and this takes away your enthusiasm.”

However, the professional game is only the surface of a global football culture that, on the grassroots level, remains as much a people’s game as it has always been. In the alleys and backyards, on the meadows and beaches, the traditional “soul” of football is still alive. The 2010 documentary film Pelada, which follows Luke Boughen and Gwendolyn Oxenham, two U.S. soccer enthusiasts, on their journey playing pick-up games in twenty-five countries, is but one example to demonstrate this.

At its core, grassroots football shares many principles with grassroots organizing, championed in many alternative and progressive circles: self-management, horizontal organizing, anti-commercialism, a strong community base, etc. Grassroots football can take on many forms. This article attempts to present some of them.

The classic: the pick-up game

On the most basic level, grassroots football consists of kickabouts and pick-up games. Whether it is on college playing fields, city parks, or neighbourhood playgrounds—in many places, people simply gather at more or less regular times and in more or less organized fashion to play casual games of football. The rules—usually very loose—are established locally. Very often, the fun and the community aspects are at the centre, sides change constantly with a flow of arriving and departing players, scores are hardly kept, and referees unnecessary—it is an entirely self-managed affair, very much the opposite to the strictly regulated and contested professional game. While we ought not romanticize and forget that occasional arguments, and even fights, can erupt on such occasions, that certain social groups—especially women—often remain excluded, and that (micro) power structures and territorial claims can be part of the experience, many kickabouts and pick-up games are conducted in an open, welcoming, and peaceful spirit. People enjoy the company of others, making new friends, and, of course, playing football.

The events also provide a setting, in which football proves its reputation as an “international language”: visitors, travellers, and migrants can often connect to local populations ways that are impossible otherwise, be it because of language barriers or because of prejudice. On the football field, class or educational backgrounds do not matter—if anything, middle-class college kids have to prove that they can be “part of the people.” The improvised football ground is a place that challenges many of society’s barriers.

Community Football: 17 SK

On the basis of the social values entailed in grassroots football, people around the world have established more sophisticated versions of the pick-up game variety, mainly in founding projects providing a more organized framework, with reserved playing fields, regular hours, and individuals taking on responsibility for basic equipment (balls, goals, jerseys). The casual character of the game does not change, however: scores are not necessarily kept, sides are switched around, rules are flexible and decided upon democratically, and referees are replaced by self-responsibility. Often, the motivation is to make use of football’s social values in the context of local community organizing and social work. One recent example is 17 SK, a community sports club founded in Stockholm in early 2011.

17 SK emerged from Nätverket Linje 17, a network of community projects along the southern end of Stockholm’s subway line 17. Nätverket Linje 17 describes itself as “an umbrella for different initiatives and activities of local groups focusing on a variety of issues, from organizing talks to involvement in local schools and collective gardening.”

In this context, the idea behind 17 SK was, in the words of the initiators, to “create an environment in which people can play sports with a sense of community and without competitive pressure. We also want to use sports’ potential to bring people together, to get to know one another, and to share joy, laughter, and exercise.” Flyers including this credo, and an enchanting artwork by Fiona Moyler, borrowed from an article about “Revolutionary Football” in the Irish RAG: Anarcha-Feminist Magazine, were distributed in the neighbourhood to launch the project.

The results have exceeded all expectations. 17 SK started with one mixed game a week. Soon, a women’s game and training session, open to transgender people, was organized on another evening, then a second mixed game on the weekend, and finally a football school for children, including kids at the tender age of two. All this happened within a few months, when a total of about one hundred people, ranging in age from twelve to sixty-five, had attended the games, the majority not tied to activist circles and hailing from a variety of countries rarely seen represented together at local political meetings: apart from Sweden, there were players from Argentina, Austria, England, Gambia, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Russia, Somalia, the United States, and other countries I now forget.

The level of competitiveness is kept at bay by the project’s guiding principles. Switching sides has proven to be a very easy manner of avoiding the winner-loser pattern. Rules are kept to a minimum and the standard points of contention (throw-ins, corner kicks, role of goalkeepers, etc.) are decided collectively on the spot depending on the number of players, the size of the field, and other factors. Most games have been played on a patch of grass next to the fields of the local football club where portable goals and water are available, allowing the players to make use of often undervalued public resources, which fits in nicely with the anti-privatization sentiments of the Linje 17 network.

The biggest challenge for the mixed games was avoiding the neighbourhood’s “football lads” from taking over the event. Even in Sweden, where women’s soccer enjoys a comparatively high status among the population, a strong gender imbalance is deeply embedded in the game and football tends to be an area in which masculine hierarchies are established and defended. Despite pledges of “inclusiveness” and “non-competitiveness,” this can also spill into projects like 17 SK. However, very gentle countermeasures proved to make a big difference. After a couple of weeks, four “guidelines” were established that prevented some of the most problematic behaviour from recurring and thereby making the games much more welcoming for people with less football experience, which was one of the main goals of 17 SK from the very beginning. These guidelines, repeated at the beginning of every game, were:

1. No hard physical play: no tackles, no high kicks, etc.

2. No hard shots with the potential of injuring people

3. Encouragement between players rather than critique

4. Responsibility to include everyone in the game

Especially number four turned out to be of great importance. Even with the best intentions, it is easy to pass the ball to friends or players you consider most likely to score rather than to newcomers or less experienced players. However, the insistence on the guidelines together with a raised level of awareness proved effective in the long run, and while it would be foolish to claim that all problems were overcome at the end of the 2011 outdoor season, the 17 SK games had turned much more inclusive and enjoyable for everyone – at times, women outnumbered men even in the mixed games.

Establishing a women’s group, “17 Sisters,” was another means to counter the gender imbalance inherent in football and to provide more space for women to play. There is an overlap between the mixed games and the women’s group, with some women participating in both. Others prefer to play only in the women’s games. Among other things, 17 Sisters has contributed to 30-year-olds playing football for the first time in an environment they actually enjoy. The success has been huge. Now, there is a 17 Sisters Facebook group with close to fifty members and indoor facilities have been organized to continue weekly games during the winter. This is a pioneering effort within 17 SK, which will hopefully inspire more indoor activities next winter – significant in a country like Sweden.

Meanwhile, “17 Kids,” the children’s football school, has been enjoyed both by the children and their parents who self-manage the school. Not only can children at the youngest age participate, there is also a conscious effort not to let gender determine early divisions (personally, I consider five-year old boys naming Sweden’s Lisa Dahlqvist as their favourite player a huge step forward), and not to exclude anyone for “lack of talent” or “lack of ambition,” making the common joy in playing the most important aspect instead.

With the first outdoor season finished, there are, of course, plenty of discussions about how to proceed with 17 SK. So far, no 17 SK team has been formed to play in competitions. Shall one, in the future, participate in “Korpen,” a Swedish variety of Sunday Leagues, or at least in amateur tournaments around town? Or would this violate the non-competitive credo? Can the “community project” continue, while a Sunday League team might emerge from it? If so, can both projects carry the same name?

For 17 SK, these questions will be answered in the future. Other grassroots football projects already field teams in Sunday Leagues and amateur tournaments. Many of them prove that this does not necessarily mean to betray football’s social values—in fact, it can be a vehicle to promote them.

From Lunatics to Cowboys

There are many self-managed clubs in football, formed by colleagues at work, the patrons of a certain pub, or the sports nerds of a university lab. All of them are part of the wider world of grassroots football, at least as long as they aren’t run by power-hungry egocentrics and sponsored by local businessmen, which are the first steps towards football being controlled by political and economic interests rather than by the people playing it. Some teams avoid any such development consciously and make up the backbone of what is a constantly growing global network of grassroots football clubs based on principles of self-management, anti-commercialism, and community organizing.

The histories of these clubs differ, but they are all, in one way or another, rooted in combining a passion for football with the desire to make the world a better place. The Lunatics from Antwerp, who want “to combine a great fighting spirit and an attacking mind with the necessary fair play” derived their name from a local reggae band and formed already in the 1980s, “when some young punks and other youths didn’t only want to hang around in the local park, but started kicking a ball as well.” The Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls Sports Club in Bristol developed from a Sunday League team formed in 1992 by “twenty punks, anarchists, hippies, asylum seekers and local kids” into a flagship of alternative sports organizing with twelve current league teams in four sports (apart from football, Cowboys and Cowgirls are to be reckoned with in cricket, basketball, and netball). The Republica Internationale FC, calling itself a “socialist football club,” has its roots in various amateur teams formed in Leeds in the 1980s, before taking its current name in 2001. The FC Vova was born from a football match advertised on a Lithuanian punk website in 2004 – today, the FC Vova Sunday League team draws up to two hundred fans and has its own supporter clubs. The Autônomos & Autônomas FC of São Paulo, Brazil, was founded in May 2006 “by a bunch of punks who were tired of other punks questioning their passion for football and of football fans questioning their passion for punk”; recently, they acquired their own club house.

The constitution of the Republica Internationale FC contains values that are, essentially, shared by all of the mentioned projects:

“The club will not tolerate racist, homophobic, sexist, prejudicial, or abusive behaviour by any of its members.

The game should be played in good sporting spirit.

 Whilst committed to the rigour of hard physical, competitive sport, players will not behave in an unacceptably aggressive or violent way.

Players should play in a camaraderie spirit of a team, co-operatively advise each other in a positive manner and never offer purely negative criticism.

Players should recognise that the game is played, first and foremost for fun!”

The political potential that lies in playing football on this basis has been summarized in an excellent article written by Roger Wilson, founding member of the Easton Cowboys, for the book Soccer vs. the State: Tackling Football and Radical Politics. Calling “soccer the lubricant, progressive ideas the engine,” Wilson elaborates thus:

“Football (and other sports) can go some way to breaking divisions of nation, race and culture whereas overtly Political interventions often fail.

Ideas such as autonomy, popular democracy, inclusivity, and internationalism can be practically explored outside of the confines of Political organizations.

It can be easier to test ideas like these when there is no overt Political approach. The ideas themselves are more important than political stances or labels.

It is useful to break out of your Political community and enter the political Community, and “expanded” sports clubs can be a short-cut to doing this.

Organizations such as sports clubs can provide social spaces for people to meet, which can overcome some facets of sub-cultural, race, class and gender divisions.

Clubs such as the Cowboys should not be judged on their ability to achieve Political objectives but in their capability to put radical ideas into practice and act as conduits for their spread both locally and globally.”

One of the strengths of this level of grassroots football is the international dimension that comes from being able to send teams to “football festivals” abroad. Events like the Anti-Racism World Cup in Belfast, the Alternative World Cup in alternate locations, or the numerous Antifa Football Cups in Germany allow players and activists to meet regularly, to establish ties, and to exchange experiences and ideas. The best-known of these events is probably the Mondiali Antirazzisti in Italy, organized since 1997. Today, over two hundred teams participate and numerous social and political events are organized parallel to the football games. Soccer games are also organized at political protests. In 2008, for example, an Anti-G8 Football Cup was arranged by the incredibly energetic Rage & Football Collective from Tokyo during the anti-G8 protests in Japan.

A People’s Game to Stay

The politics of football aren’t set. Unfortunately, football can be tied to many political ideas and forces. As pointed out, grassroots football itself can reproduce highly problematic power structures on a micro level. However, grassroots football holds great political potential and keeps the best of football’s history as a “people’s game” alive. Calling football “one of the greatest concepts of humanity,” as the now defunct website did some years ago might overdo it a touch, but there is indeed much to be excited about. There are values inherent in football that can help us form and establish communities based on direct democracy, solidarity, and, not least, fun.

Under ideal circumstances, football is a great environment in which to experience and to experiment with the juncture of individual freedom and social responsibility. People with many different skills have to work together to make a successful team. Individual star players might dazzle, but their role must not be overrated. For him or her to shine, others have to do plenty of work that they are not able to do: form a solid defence line, run down loose balls, tackle opponents, win headers, and so forth. There are many examples in football history of a team of “no names” beating a star-studded side simply because the players made the most of their abilities as a team. Football teaches people to combine their individual talents in the way most beneficial to the social good. When opposing players, spectators, and the social environment of a team are included in this ethos, football can become an important part of community organizing in general. The fun aspect might appear trivial, but it is a crucial moment in the grassroots soccer experience, both for players and spectators. It must not be belittled as “non-political.” The U.S. Anarchist Football Association’s variation on the famous Emma Goldman quote about not wanting a revolution in which she can’t dance, is telling: “If I can’t play soccer, I don’t want any part of your revolution.”

If these values are focused on, then grassroots football can be a unique combination of social learning, political education, community building, and sheer pleasure. Its future echoes that of one of its most prominent incarnations, the Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls Sports Club, as described by Roger Wilson:

“There’s a sense in which the club is one ever-unfolding social experiment. Most sports clubs or social organisations have a limited lifespan and often rise and fall pretty quickly, but nearly twenty years into the Cowboys I have no idea what or where it might lead to next or what the shape of the club might be in five years’ time. Which, after all, mirrors the excitement of playing the ‘beautiful game.’ You never quite know what might happen next . . . ”

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