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The Ref’s a Tory

Two stadiums in East London epitomize modern British football.

Olympic Stadium — formerly the centerpiece of the 2012 Olympics, a nest of white beams and angular glowing cubes, orbited by global university campuses and ambiguous creative spaces — will now host West Ham United, a middling Premier League club aspiring to global recognition.

West Ham won a lease on the stadium from the London Legacy Development Corporation, a taxpayer-funded body that emerged from the Olympic ashes. The club pays only £2.5 million a year in rent. Considering some of their players make £170,000 a week, the owners got a great deal.

Second comes the Old Spotted Dog Stadium, three miles east. Clapton Football Club, a lower division club in the Essex Senior League, plays there. Stadium perhaps overstates it: once the proud field of a reasonably successful London team, the pitch is neglected by its current owners and has tumbled into obscurity.

Hidden away behind a long-closed pub, the patch of grass surrounded by rusting farm equipment has seats for just one hundred people. The club’s players work part time, and many are unpaid.

West Ham and Clapton FC each represent one end of football’s hierarchy, a vast pyramid that encompasses more than five thousand teams. Those that finish their seasons in the top two or three places can get promoted to the league above, and those that finish last get relegated to the league below. Clapton would need to be promoted seven times to compete against West Ham, Manchester United, or Chelsea.

Despite its low visibility, Clapton FC has become the unlikely center of a grassroots political movement new to English football. A group of disgruntled fans, priced out of modern football, formed the Clapton Ultras, a vibrant fan group that defies the moneyed and antiseptic qualities of contemporary sports.

In contrast to many in East London and Essex — where support for fascist parties and movements has increased in recent years — the Clapton Ultras explicitly oppose far-right politics. Many are recent immigrants, and they have raised money for refugee charities, campaigned against the state closure of LGBT youth clubs, and banned anyone with sexist, racist, or homophobic views. They maintain a fierce independence from the club’s management, and are openly hostile to its owners and administrators.

In a part of London that is being torn apart by gentrification and nationalistic and xenophobic political rhetoric, the Clapton Ultras are reshaping the relationship between sports and politics.

Forza Clapton

I decided to attend their second home game of the season, where the team was set to play Stansted FC, a team from a small village that abuts a major airport thirty miles to the north.

A white, waist-high fence runs around the pitch’s perimeter. A crumbling block of toilets, a small, unused seating stand, and the club’s offices and changing rooms are the only permanent structures. Overgrown trees and weeds crowd the field. An industrial lawnmower lay in pieces next to a shattered floodlight, and a portly looking man peed noisily into some bushes.

Everything seemed desolate and quiet. Three people sat silent at different tables in the shabby club bar. My friend, who supports a different non-league club, understood the feel of football at this level. He repeatedly warned me against getting my hopes up — it was, after all, a Tuesday night game in August at the beginning of the season. It was guaranteed, he predicted, to be a bit dead.

But as we wandered to the northern end of the pitch, where the two hundred or so ultras gathered, excitement surged. It was as if all of the energy that had drained away from the rest of the field — from the broken floodlights and bored looking security guards — pooled among these fans. The songs and cheers that had sounded faint became deafening as we approached.

Eschewing the drab-looking seating provided by the club, the ultras had built their own world. Someone had propped up a large sheet of corrugated metal, possibly the siding of a shipping container, splashed with the words “Clapton FC.” Next to this they had constructed the scaffold, a gnarled, hastily put-together platform sheltered under a wooden roof.

They covered everything in red flags and banners reading “Forza Clapton,” “Heaven is a Feeling,” and “Clapton Ultras Against Homophobia.” The scaffold has a legendary status among the group’s members, who refer to themselves as the “scaffold brigada.”

The ultras mostly consist of people in their twenties and thirties from a variety of ethnic and class backgrounds. Most had gotten jubilantly drunk. In protest of management’s neglect, they boycott the bar, preferring to bring in beer purchased from the grateful local store across the road. A permanent cloud of weed smoke hung over the crowd, a lively mix of native East Londoners and expats from Italy and the United States.

As soon as the game began, the ultras filled the night air with an impressively diverse array of different chants and songs — I counted more than thirty.

While fans new to football are often struck by the variety of chants and songs at British games, it doesn’t take long to recognize established patterns. Premier League clubs will usually cycle between about five or six different tunes, and clubs often share the same melodies. To go to games regularly is to subject yourself to hours and hours of “Seven Nation Army.”

The ultras’ songs, however, were rich, creative, spontaneous, and funny, free of the homophobic undercurrents that run through most football chants. The crowd lacked a leader; different fans conducted at different moments, all working together to create a wall of sound that lasted the entire ninety minutes.

Suspect calls were treated to howls of “The referee’s a Tory!” Stansted FC faced a barrage of airport-based jabs, with the ultras singing “We love Heathrow … we love Gatwick, but Stansted, we hate you.”

Many of the opposing team’s players looked visibly surprised: in a league where attendance often drops below fifty, the Old Spotted Dog crowd on this Tuesday night was unexpected.

Unionist Fandom

Football fans in Britain, Europe, and Latin America have always had a strange relationship with the clubs they follow. Modern supporters’ groups have complex, hierarchical organizations and jealously maintain their independence from the club’s official management.

They frequently organize protests and sometimes even elect representatives to sit on the teams’ boards. The relationship between the club and its supporters feels somewhat similar to the relationship between a workplace and a trade union.

Ultras groups — which originally appeared in Italy in the late 1960s and 1970s — most radically manifest this unusual relationship. These spectacular, often militaristic organizations took over particular spaces within stadia and fought pitched battles with opposition supporters. In their dress, their discipline, and their desire to occupy space they took formal cues from the 1968 radicals, although most were either apolitical or associated with the far right.

After a series of high-profile disasters — the 1985 wall collapse at Heysel in Brussels and the 1989 crush at Hillsborough in Sheffield — ultras were brought under tighter control and stadia were restructured. They continue to exist in most leagues as passionate independent groups without the politics and violence that once characterized them. Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, offers one exception, where ultras are still associated with fascism and tribal violence.

Non-league football, a term that describes games played outside the top four divisions, has traditionally been a sleepy, almost pastoral affair — a meeting ground for middle-aged suburban men. The website Non-League Dogs perfectly satirizes non-league’s banality.

But support for these less famous teams has grown, especially considering the price of top-flight football tickets is rising twice as fast as the cost of living. The small-ticket games are also more fun: fans can drink, smoke, and (occasionally) set off flares, all for less than ten pounds.

The Clapton Ultras have jumped at this opportunity to inject non-league play with left-wing politics, popularizing their mode of fandom among the more obscure fringes of the British footballing hierarchy.

In working-class parts of London, other ultras are also turning their clubs into antifascist brigades and centers for political dissent. Since 2012, the model has spread to Dulwich Hamlet and Enfield Town. The ultras who support Mangotsfield United, a tiny non-league team in the distant suburbs of Bristol, has earned fame thanks to their smoke bombs and antifascist banners.

The Clapton Ultras support a number of left-wing groups and causes. Last year they turned their home game against Basildon United into a crowdfunding campaign to support a local LGBT youth project facing closure due to state funding cuts. Supporters regularly bring donations for a local food bank that serves refugees.

The ultras’ loudest political message, however, is their antifascism. The Old Spotted Dog is located in a part of London with historic ties to the far right. And although the club is based in London, it plays against teams from Essex, a county that has, in recent years, turned into a hotbed of United Kingdom Independence Party support. In fact, Essex elected the party’s only member of parliament.

As a result, the Clapton Ultras have become a target for far-right violence. In 2014, a splinter sect of the English Defense League — a militarized far-right group with strong support in Essex and East London — turned up in force to intimidate the fans. Last August, during an away trip to Thamesmead Town FC, far-right supporters wielding bats and wearing masks rushed them.

A New World

The game I attended was a tempestuous, end-to-end affair that Clapton ended up winning four to three, thanks to two very late goals. After the last goal, the crowd erupted into a delirious mosh pit oiled by a mist of cheap Polish lager.

Stansted’s players collapsed in a defeated heap on the pitch, while Clapton’s came and shook fans’ hands one by one. The ultras started chanting, “Well played, Stansted!” — something I’d never seen at a football game before. Dazed, the Stansted players picked themselves up from the grass and applauded the ultras. For some of the club’s players, this was probably the biggest crowd they had ever played in front of.

I got the feeling that if the game had been dull or if Clapton had lost the fans still would have made a ruckus. It felt like they were removed from the game — football had become almost a sidenote to the political community they had constructed. At times it seemed like the team’s manager, the waiting subs, and even the players were more interested in the ultras than the ultras were in them.

The train back to central London passed the Olympic Stadium. The floodlights allowed preparations for West Ham’s first home game of the season to continue late into the night.

As the Premier League grinds back into action this month, cavernous stadiums across the country will fill up. Meanwhile, at places like Clapton, Enfield, and Dulwich, on broken patches of ground and among overgrown weeds and homemade scaffolds, a new world is being made.