ESRC Virtual Festival – Beyond the Touchline: Grassroots football and radical politics…

Football has always been political. Its widespread global following and the deep dedication of fans make it a platform through which socio-political issues play out. As philosopher – and avid football fan – Jacques Derrida once claimed: “Beyond the touchline, there is nothing.” In other words, the social, economic, political and cultural events of the wider world manifest in the stadium and through the game, its players and fans. Recent times have seen high profile examples of this, including Marcus Rashford’s free school meals campaign, Jadon Sancho using a goal celebration to call for justice for George Floyd, and Pep Guardiola wearing a yellow ribbon in solidarity with the independence movement in his native Catalonia.

But away from the headlines and spectacle of the professional game, football at a local, grassroots level is also enmeshed in politics. For the past three years, I have been researching “calcio popolare” clubs (literally “popular football”, but perhaps better translated as “people’s football”) in Italy. The calcio popolare movement is characterised by fan-owned and managed teams, set up in opposition to the overtly commercial, commodified and often sanitised version of the game played at a professional level. Many of these clubs embrace and promote values of anti-fascism, anti-racism, anti-sexism and anti-homophobia.

Against the backdrop of the refugee crisis, the rise of right wing populism, and the implementation of the so-called “security decrees” spearheaded by former Interior Minister and far right leader Matteo Salvini, these grassroots teams have sought to create a space where refugees and people seeking asylum would feel welcome and included.

Furthermore, while policies and practices aimed at the inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers are often top-down entities that place emphasis on the need for newcomers to integrate, grassroots football offers spaces and opportunities for newcomers to build “bottom-up” senses of belonging. These senses of belonging are often built through everyday practices like playing the game, socialising with teammates, and supporting the day-to-day running of the club – perhaps, for example, by taking part in fundraising events or cutting the grass on the pitch. Through these activities, players who are new to a locality can build relationships with people and spaces that are more concrete than any abstract notion of “becoming Italian.”

Because these teams are located and attached to particular neighbourhoods, towns or cities, senses of belonging often correspond to these scales – so that calcio popolare players from migrant backgrounds may feel “at home” in the neighbourhood of their team. The rootedness of a team to its local community, and the support, loyalty and connectedness of the community to that team, plays a crucial role in the formation of these senses of belonging.

Just as wider socio-political issues are reflected in and through football, the lessons of these grassroots football experiences have the potential to extend “beyond the touchline” to inform wider debates and initiatives aimed at migrant inclusion. Calcio popolare offers a blueprint for a more participatory, profound and authentic form of inclusion – and throws up a challenge for practitioners and policymakers to consider new approaches to intercultural understanding and social change.

Federico Genovesi
PhD Researcher, School of Applied Social and Policy Sciences
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As part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science in Northern Ireland, researchers and activists will be taking part in an online event entitled ‘Grassroots sport and senses of belonging in neighbourhoods’. The event will be at 6pm on Friday 13 November. All are welcome to attend. Please register here.

Photo by flooy is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA