On June 22 2015 Adam Taylor of the Washington Post wrote an article entitled “Why do Italian soccer fans and other foreigners fly the Confederate flag?”. In it the author ties the furious debate over the Confederate flag’s role in American society to the wider world by using a topic I am very close too—international soccer. The Confederate flag is, indeed, a complicated issue; to some it represents “a source of Southern pride and heritage, as well as a remembrance of Confederate soldiers who died in battle” while to others it is “a divisive and violent emblem of the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist groups.” So is it history or is it hate?
Mr. Taylor’s article seems to lean towards the latter and a Canadian high school student who labeled the flag as “racist” is quoted. Why a Canadian is quoted in a piece about US Politics I do not know. When explaining the Confederate flag’s presence in European football stadia Mr. Taylor also notes that:
“[M]any can’t claim ignorance when it comes to the flag’s connotations of racism and slavery. In fact, it’s likely that for a few Napoli soccer fans – in particular the hardcore “ultras” often at the center of match-day violence – it is just another reason to fly the flag of the Confederacy. Racist and anti-Semitic chants are alarmingly common all across Europe, and fans from clubs like Spain’s Real Madrid and France’s Olympique de Marseille have also been spotted flying the flag.”
Unfortunately this matter deserved more than a passing paragraph labeling the flag’s usage by soccer fans as just racism and hatred given that the article’s title is directly about soccer. Such a simple and superficial look at the subject only serves to mask real cultural and political issues that go beyond American (or European) racism which are being overlooked by many media outlets including—in this case—the Washington Post.
The author would have been better served doing research into the subject in the vein of what he writes in the context of Napoli, a football team from southern Italy:
“In southern Italy, for example, it appears some see a historical parallel at work, pointing toward their own absorption into the Kingdom of Italy in 1861 and the perceived economic and political problems since then.
In ‘Nations Divided,’ a 2002 book by historian Don Harrison Doyle, the author recalls the explanation given to him by an Italian colleague for the southern Italian embrace of Confederate symbols. ‘We too are a defeated people,’ an unnamed professor of American literature in Naples told Doyle. “Once we were a rich and independent country, and then they came from the North and conquered us and took our wealth and power away to Rome.”
This is closer to the truth. While it is true that some right wing fans of European football teams—particularly in eastern Europe where there are many instances of anti-Semitism and racist chants in stadiums—fly the Confederate flag due to its racist connotations; Swastikas are much more prevalent than Confederate flags in terraces where right wing fans are in the majority. Most other fans fly the Confederate flag for more innocuous reasons. In fact, these are the same reasons many Americans in the south fly the Confederate flag: It is a sign of local identity and local pride in the face of perceived domination—both political and economic—from a distant center located in a different geographic (and sometimes economic) region.
Take the Civil War as an example. Many argue that the US Civil War was fought over slavery; that interpretation is just the tip of the iceberg, even if the Washington Post will shame you by labeling you a racist if you might think otherwise. The Civil War can also be seen as a colonial war: The Industrial North, with its superior manufacturing capability and economic base (in 1840 71 percent of the nation’s railroads and 87 percent of the nations banks were in the North) had to control the South as it was the country’s agricultural center. By 1860 90 percent of the United State’s manufacturing output came from the North; the North produced 17 times more cotton than the south, 3,200 firearms were produced in the North for every 100 produced in the South, and just 40 percent of the Northern population were involved in agriculture at a time when 84 percent of the Southern population was. In order to continue receiving raw materials like cotton to support the North’s industrial revolution the South could never be allowed to secede—it would have crippled the United State’s economy. Now the internal colonialism interpretation of the Civil War has also popped up recently in order to explain Ferguson and the racial divide in the US, but such interpretations still fall flat for me in the face of the economic truths of the matter. To explain social issues using the simple term of “racism” ignores real problems and only serves to divide societies further.
Mr. Taylor’s article cites France’s Olympique Marseille as one of the teams that fly Confederate flags in the stadium out of hate. But Marseille’s ultras, Commando Ultras, are a left wing group. Alongside the Confederate flag one can also see images of Che Guevara, and their fans have also hung banners that read “Marseille is anti-fascist” and “Love Marseille Hate Racism”. Please note the Che Guevara image on the “South Winners” banner: Being “southern” is a huge part of the Marseille fans’ identity.
The ultra group Apei Rotan of PAS Giannena, a team from Southern Greece, are leftist as well and they also display the Confederate flag alongside Che Guevara’s image.
Image Courtesy Of: http://z6.invisionfree.com/UltrasTifosi/index.php?showtopic=4518&st=8382O.
And the fans of Lokomotiv Plovdiv in Bulgaria—a railway worker’s team formed during the communist era—also display the Confederate flag during matches.
1. FC Nuremburg, from southern Germany, fly a Confederate flag at matches because of their identity as a team hailing from the south of the country; since Nuremburg was the site of the Nazi trials they are especially sensitive to any kind of racist displays in the stadium and their fans are apolitical.
Despite coming from leftist and apolitical backgrounds some teams display the Confederate flag at matches. It is because, to many fans, the Confederate flag’s image represents things that go far beyond the simple “racist” image that is—unfortunately—underlined. In the United States the populace is sharply divided over what the Confederate Flag means yet mainstream media won’t hesitate to make a hero out of someone who lowers the flag. Blindly championing the removal of a symbol related to a nation’s history is a slippery slope, and it is when the divisions between what is seen as wrong and right get blurred is when societies only get further divided. By labeling one flag simply and solely as a racist symbol cheapens debate and doesn’t do much in the way of unifying people, it just harshens people’s views of one another irreconcilably; maybe five percent of those who support the Confederate flag do it out of hatred, and even that may be a generous estimate.
For so many others—especially football fans—it means much more. For Napoli fans it is a protest against southern Italy’s domination by northern Italy. For Marseille’s fans it is a sign of the “southern” identity of the country’s second city against the richer northern capital city of Paris. For Lokomotiv Plovdiv’s fans it is a representation of the country’s second city, Plovdiv, in the face of economic and political dominance from the country’s capital of Sofia. A kind of provincial pride is in place, perhaps. And for PAS Giannena and 1. FC Nuremburg the flag simply reflects the teams’ identities as representing southern cities.
The global North/South divide between rich and poor is also manifested in countries whose two major cities are often separated by very different economic conditions. Thus the Confederate flag should be seen in some contexts as a sign of respect for local identity in the national periphery and as a form of protest against—and reminder of—the homogenizing, conquering, identity put forth by the national center. The attacks on the Confederate flag by some professors and graduate students labeling it only as a sign of hate not only erase history, but also cover over real economic and social problems that are common to all people—black and white, American and European, football fan and non-football fan—by making those that disagree racist, bigoted, “others”. And that is the kind of simplistic division and fascistic thought process that cannot bring people together in the long term; life—like football—is much more complicated than that.