I recently moved a stone’s throw away from Emirates Stadium in London, where Arsenal Football Club plays (“football” is what we call soccer here in the UK). I can hear the crowd roar and chant when the wind is blowing in the right direction, and see the glare of the flood lights on my way home at night. And yet, it’s inconceivable that I would be able to afford to enter this modern-day temple of corporate football. Even the cheapest ticket will cost you about $66. Perhaps that’s why, on March 15, I decided to check out another London football club, Clapton. There, in the neighborhood of Forest Gate, the spark of a football revolution is brewing. In the shadow of the City of London a group of football fans are rebuilding a culture that neoliberalism has sought to destroy.
A member of the Essex Senior League, Clapton FC plays its home games at the historic Old Spotted Dog Ground in Forest Gate, which has been the team’s home field since 1888. In order to get to the pitch you have to pass by the boarded-up and derelict Old Spotted pub and walk through a tire mounting shop. Entry costs $10; students and people under 18-years-old pay just $5. There are none of the usual security checks and you can stand anywhere you choose. Once inside, at first sight it looks like any other ground. The official stands with its shell seats are empty. But across the field, behind the players’ benches, is an old scaffold structure with a tin metal roof painted red and black: the colors of the Scaffold Brigada—Clapton FC’s supporter group—and traditionally the colors associated with Spanish anarchism.
Formed as “Downs FC” in 1877 and re-named Clapton Football Club in 1878, the club’s history is tied up with London’s East End—a first point of arrival for Jewish, Bengali and other subsequent waves of immigrants. Forest Gate, in particular, has a fraught history tied up in racism and fascism—2015 will mark the 30th anniversary of the Newham Seven case, in which the police sided with a group of skinheads who had attacked young immigrants. Over time, football became an outlet for leftists of all stripes, and what started as a couple of friends going to Clapton games, waving banners and chanting songs, has grown into a network of “Ultras,” passionate and politically-minded fans, including locals, punks, students and political activists who call themselves the Scaffold Brigada.
When I first arrived at Old Spotted Ground, never would I have imagined that I’d reconnect with two activists whom I hadn’t seen since the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, or talk to punks who have been playing gigs with their bands since the 1980s. People come from as far as Brixton and Surrey to watch a football match that will never be shown on television.
“After 24 years of local campaigning against racism, fascism and police brutality,” says political activist Kevin Blowe, of the local anti-racist organization the Newham Monitoring Project, “I’m still astonished about the idea that a group of football fans on my doorstep…are backing a rejection of racism that isn’t just a liberal ‘let’s be nicer to each other through sport’ message, but deliberately associate themselves with a militant, direct action tradition.”
“I come to Clapton because of the songs, atmosphere and camaraderie,” Nisha Damji from South London adds. “Being brown and a woman, knowing that Clapton is antifascist makes me feel welcome and included.”
There are also those who love to watch football and have been priced out of corporate arenas. “What struck me about [Clapton] is that its identity is set not by the management but by the fans,” says Nathan Bolton, one of the many new supporters of Clapton FC. “Nowadays, most grounds are identical, over-priced and with no atmosphere. What’s happening at Clapton is an attempt by fans to model a club along their own lines.”