Are far-right football fans using Coronavirus as an opportunity?05 May 2020

AmongstthemanyspontaneousactsofunitysincetheoutbreakoftheCoronavirusithasbeenheartwarmingtowatchorganisedfootballfangroupsacrossEuropeofferingsolidaritytohealthworkersandassistancetothemostvulnerableinsociety.

Young people familiar with the impact of collective action and the need to support social causes are stepping up for their local communities at a time of crisis. In mid-March, when the number of confirmed cases in Spain grew by over 2000 a day, Rayo Vallecano ultras displayed huge banners to support health workers in front of Madrid’s Hospital Universitario Infanta Leonor: ‘Only People can save people. Health Workers, you are our Pride. Best of strength’.

Similar messages praising health workers sprung up in Austria, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Romania, Switzerland Sweden, and other countries. Ultra groups have also been offering assistance with the delivery of groceries and medicines to elderly members of their communities, collecting money for local hospitals and joining the call for better protection and compensation for health workers.

German fan magazine Fazination Fankurve has published a database of ultras offering help in the communities in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. German journalist Felix Tamsut has listed many initiatives in a Twitter thread. European supporter organisations SD Europe and FSE have recently mapped the growing list of international fan actions around Covid19.

It shows what can be done, how football fandom can be a social movement that extends to more than just turning up for your team.

FAR-RIGHT INVOLVEMENT

Part of the European fan-scene also involves a less welcome aspect of street politics. The numbers of far- right influenced and neo-nazi groups that have sprung up in the last decade (and in some cases died away) is a feature that European football has been coming to terms with for a while. And while we acknowledge how supporters can be a force for good, many far-right fan groups have also jumped on the bandwagon and become active during the crisis.

The Mayor of Madrid Isabel Díaz Ayuso was criticised in March for endorsing a statement by a far-right group of Atletico Madrid fans ‘Frente Atletico’ on Twitter. The group, whose usual work includes Nazi salutes at football matches, released a statement offering support to the city, although it was unclear by which means they were actually offering to help.

It is worth knowing that ‘Frente Atletico’ is one of the oldest and most organised far-right groups in Spanish football. In 2016 members of the group were arrested on charges including hate crimes.

Other examples of this type of attempt to hijack community responses to the Coronavirus crisis include supporters of Croatia’s Hajduk-Torcida Split who stepped forward to help a local hospital with supplies and physical assistance.

The influence of Torcida Split in the social life of the region of Dalmatia, where Hajduk has been the source of pride for generations, is hard to overstate. But members of the group are also known for spraying Celtic crosses and swastikas on every second wall in and around Split, chanting ‘Kill the Serbs’ during Europa League matches, and are linked to much of the covert activities taking place in the region’s daily life.

Not to be outdone, Torcida’s fierce rivals and notoriously nationalistic Bad Blue Boys of Dinamo Zagreb, have also been seen helping out at a local hospital.

Right wing fan groups across Eastern Europe in Poland, Russia, Romania, Bulgaria have been collecting donations for hospitals and delivering groceries for the elderly. Fans from Lech Poznan, Legia Warsaw, Wisla Krakow, Widzew and others have been donating money, delivering masks and disinfectants to local hospitals. Some groups, such as LKS and Widzew Lodz, have even been helping hospitals on one day and getting involved in forest fights on another.

NO EPIPHANY TAKING PLACE

Pavel Klymenko of the Fare network explains why community has now become important, “The involvement of extremist groups in citizen responses to the crisis illustrates the complexity of fan movements around football. Despite attacking minorities and the most vulnerable in their communities in normal times, far-right groups see it as a patriotic act to help their community in crisis, it is also a means of gaining legitimacy in wider society. We should treat these actions with caution, there is not an epiphany taking place, once the pandemic is over normal service is bound to resume.”

Michael Colborne, Policy & Practitioner Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, writes that far-right movements are not just lending a hand during Coronavirus, but taking advantage of the occasion as a public relations opportunity.

“Why would far-right groups devote so much energy to volunteer work during the pandemic? Of course, leaders and members of these groups will likely tell you it’s because these folks are patriots, only interested in helping out their country and their fellow citizens… That may well be part of it, but work in the community like this, which has obviously been more heavily pushed and promoted during the pandemic, serves a much more basic purpose — self-promotion.”

If a reminder is needed of what drives some groups it comes in the continuation of violence. In March, as lockdowns and quarantines were being rapidly announced across Europe, some hooligan groups in Russia, Ukraine, Belgium and the Netherlands were determined to carry out their pre-arranged fight commitments.

Only two weeks ago Danish and Czech hooligan groups reportedly met for lockdown dust-ups. Suffice to say that social distancing and the need to keep pressure off health systems was not uppermost during these encounters.