A tale of two LFC banners: flying the AntiFa flag in Ukraine

Posted: July 14, 2010 in Euro jaunts, Fan Culture, Supporters' football

Written in summer 2010, about a tournament in 2009, to explain why I didn’t go back to the same event again this year.

Part 1. The flag-making habit

Bill Shankly once compared LFC’s assembled red throng, with their red flags and their banners, to the “show of red strength” at a Chinese communist rally. Over the years I reckon I’ve spent more time sticking and sewing words and symbols on to red flags and banners than most of Chairman Mao’s most devoted followers ever did.  But as somebody once said, “if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone, anyhow.” So for me it’s a flag for every occasion, like this one for a supporters’ match in Madrid which took place at a time when the campaign against Hicks And Gillett was really starting to kick in.

And you know by now that my Sunday league team, Republica IFC, also plays in red, so that’s meant plenty more occasions for red banners like this one:

Of course, some of the best ideas can’t be done with iron-on letters and have to be made professionally. As long as someone at the printers owes you a favour that is ! Like this one I had made before the Athens final in 2007, showing a scene from the Parthenon marbles, but with the heads of Gerrard and Gattuso photoshopped on. Unfortunately it proved so popular in Syntagma Square on the day of the match that somebody stole it. Kind of like the Elgin marbles theft in reverse, really.

But it was a whole decade ago now when, inspired by the silhouettes of Che Guevara you see in leftist Ultra crowds all over Europe, me and my mate Alan decided to have the iconic image of Shankly made into our famous flag. These days you’ll see several big images of Shankly on flags on the Kop or at Euro away matches, but when we had this made (this time it was Alan, a graphic designer, who was owed a favour by the printing company),  it was not only the first Shankly flag, but was, as far as I know  the first  such “silhouette flag” of any major club legend anywhere. Now you’ll see silhouettes of club legends on all kinds of clubs’ banners all over the place.

Our flag has appeared on stage at the Liverpool Empire in “The Shankly Show”, and at the first mass meeting of the protest group “The Spirit of Shankly”, before they had their own version of the Shankly logo (pictured on the Kop, right). Our flag appears three times on the LFC club video that celebrates its first season of life, the treble-winning season of 2000-2001. It’s there once in Cardiff for the FA Cup final victory over Arsenal (where I’m told Alan Green mentioned it admiringly in his radio commentary too), once at Anfield for the UEFA semi-final victory over Barca, when it leaps up above our heads as Gary Mac’s penalty hits the net, and once at that dramatic final in Dortmund.

This massive banner is made of heavy duty weather-resistant, fire-proofed material and it was a hugely weighty thing to lug around, and after all the cheap airlines started to charge for hold luggage,  I never bothered taking a big bag on Euro trips any more. Big Shankly has not been overseas since 2005 when I made a lighter “hand luggage” version for the final in Istanbul. Here he is on a second visit to Istanbul in 2007:  The slogan “these are the days”, is intended as a deliberate contradiction of the song “those were the days”.  And here’s the low-calorie “Shankly-Lite” in Bordeaux in 2006, where it became the focus for our meet-up with the “Devils Bordeaux” ultra group. As I mentioned, the original flag was fire-proofed.  But this is the story of how “Shankly-Lite”, a focus for friendly meetings between myself and Turkish fans, or groups of French and English fans in the photos above,  came to be burnt alive by a not-so-friendly fascist ultra group in Ukraine.

Part 2:  Eurofans 2009

I’ve written plenty, elsewhere on this blog, about the well-established annual tournaments my various teams have been to around Europe over the years like the Mondiali Antirazzisti (Anti-Racist world cup) in Italy, the Alerta! Network’s AntiRa tournament in Hamburg, or the Worldnet event in Leeds for supporters’ teams.

But when some of my friends from the “This is Anfield” website accepted an invitation over the internet to attend a new event in Lviv, Ukraine called “Eurofans 2009”, they were always taking a step into the unknown. This tournament for supporters’ teams was devised to promote this city and the wider region (Karpaty, i.e. Carpathia in English) in the lead-up to Euro 2012, for which Lviv is a host city. The “This is Anfield” crew couldn’t raise a full squad, and so they asked if anyone from my (now defunct) Liverpool supporters’ XI would like to make up the numbers. After finding out that some of my old friends from the Inter supporters’ team would also be attending, along with another particularly hard-drinking rabble from Atletico de Madrid, with whom I was bound to have a few friends in common, well I couldn’t resist signing up as the Liverpool lads’ veteran centre-back.

Then, just four weeks before flying out there, I attended a talk at another tournament about the increasing fascist violence around football in Ukraine and Russia. Those who actively oppose racism in the stadiums are increasingly likely to be attacked as they go about their daily lives, and many have been murdered. Fascist symbols are openly displayed and racist slogans regularly chanted at many big matches. So, when it came to making a new flag the trip as I always do, the choice of slogan was easy. I learned a bit of Russian 20 years ago so I was able to copy the slogan “Solidarity with Anti-Fascist Football supporters in Eastern Europe” (for which the Russian and the Ukrainian is the same) from a sticker I’d been given, and cut it out in my usual iron-on fabric. 

The organizer, Slavik, e-mailed us that we’d been drawn in a group with a Croatian team, a Ukrainian show business XI and a team representing supporters of Bohemians 1905 Prague. The latter are well-known in Eastern Europe for their staunch anti-fascist stance. One year I even ended up playing for the Bohemians fans’ team at the St. Pauli AntiRa tournament in Germany (when most of their players got too drunk to stand up). To whet our appetite Slavik also sent us a picture before we left the UK of the stadium where we’d be playing, once the home ground of one of the city of Lviv’s top teams. It seemed to me that this big, empty ground had seen better days and would badly need some banners.

So in typical style I took three of the buggers !

Nice one Saint Cyril, nice one son. The red antifascist banner in Lviv.

This was the first amateur tournament I’ve been to which insisted on 90-minute group games, of which we had to play three in two days.  That alone would have been an incredible and unprecedented feat for most of us, but we had to do it and consume about 30 pints of great beer over the 3 evenings as well. We beat the Czechs, were unlucky to lose to the Croatians against the run of play and got knocked out by the “Ukrainian showbiz XI”, of whom some seemed to be ringers from the ex-professional football ranks! Certainly didn’t look like some old Rod Stewart XI anyway. My Inter mates were knocked out in the semi by supporters of the big local team, Karpaty Lviv.

But for me all the real drama happened off the pitch. As I left the stadium on the second evening I was jumped by a gang of 20 young fascists and knocked to the ground. Luckily my bag was their real target and I just got a couple of kicks. Not my camera, not my wallet, they just wanted the bag containing my flags. It emerged from hints over the following 24 hours that some of the tournament volunteers, including one who had befriended our group, were fascist sympathizers and they had probably set me up at the only moment I was alone with them. This was while they were supposedly helping me find a taxi to go to meet my Italian mates from Inter, who were playing their group games at another ground. I should have been suspicious from the moment I saw that one of the volunteers was wearing a Lazio t-shirt featuring Di Canio doing a fascist salute in the Stadio Olimpico, and when this nutter only wanted to ask me questions about  hooligan groups. Never trust a fella in Ukraine whose first question is about Millwall.

The youngsters, it transpired, then passed the banners they had robbed off me on, up the chain, to the real big-time fascist ultra leaders, who the next afternoon turned up at the stadium with 100 followers to support the local team in the final v. Glasgow Rangers supporters. Of the Lviv public, really only a few dozen kids and  students who wanted to practise their English had shown interest in the tournament up to this point, so it was obvious these fascists had come not for the football but to make a political point and to try to provoke a fight. They draped their Nazi-style flags on the pitch side fence, with a local Ukrainian symbol in place of the swastika, and next to these I was shocked to see my own banner, with its anti-fascist slogan …. hanging upside down. Apparently that’s a sign of humiliating your enemies over there – you hang their flags upside down. There were no police or security at this tournament at all, so the Fash were just free to march in and do whatever they wanted. I took advantage of a moment when a local bigwig was making a show of pally negotiation with the thugs, for our benefit (along the lines of “look lads, we don’t want any trouble in front of our guests” while they laughed in his face) to walk up behind him quickly tear my flag back down off the fence. Looking back now, I was lucky to void a proper kicking.

So the irony is that I do still today have my anti-fascist banner, intact despite its upside-down trauma – indeed I took it to the anti-racist world cup in Bologna, later last summer – but my Shankly flag and the other one, well they’d disappeared totally. My friend from “Football Supporters Europe” later told me that a video had circulated on the internet of my beloved Mr. Shankly being doused in lighter fuel and torched !  Those  bastards probably think the picture was of some great Liverpool socialist leader or something. Oh wait a minute – it was! But anyway, I can’t let them win so I’ll just have to make another low-calorie Shankly Lite for my low-budget hand luggage.

Meanwhile the fascists had sent young ‘spotters’ over towards our group in another part the stands, probably to find out if any of us split off as I’d done the day before. One of them drew his finger across his throat when I sussed him. The word went round the other antifascists present, like Schalke and the Bohemians, that we’d have to stick together if we were to avoid getting picked off, inside or outside the stadium. At this point the organisers were still trying to tell us that “these people aren’t racists. They are just nationalists who associate the term anti-fascist with the old communist regime.” Almost on cue as if to disprove this, the thugs they were talking about then marched around to the far side of the pitch to tear down a banner placed there by the “Football Against Racism in Europe” rep at the tournament. We had no hesitation in joining forces to put it back up again – Czechs, Germans, Croatians and Brits all united, and getting  a big cheer as we did so.  But when we went back to the main stand, the fascists in turn marched back and tore it down again, and in the confusion they also stole a banner that read “Schalke Against Racism” and proceeded to “sieg-heil” its shocked German owners. Not racists, huh ? The tournament organisers blushed and went off to prepare the final presentation ceremony.

The supposed “Glasgow Rangers supporters XI” (Huh ! Glasgow Ringers XI more like – more proper footballers than even the Ukrainian Showbiz XI), beat the hosts 3-0 in the final, and the fascist Ultras in the stands melted away almost immediately. We wondered if they were lurking outside planning to attack any of us who gave them a chance. The organisers seemed eager to get the presentation ceremony over with, and in their speeches it was as if the disgraceful events of a few minutes earlier hadn’t happened. “Aren’t you going to say anything to disassociate your organization from what’s just happened ?” I asked Slavik who’d invited us, while his boss was making the penultimate speech. He just looked away, half-ashamedly, like a man with a guilty secret. Luckily the representative from Schalke then grabbed the microphone for an impromptu denunciation of the fascists, and an implicit criticism of the organisers; when it was my turn, my own criticism of them was more explicit.

I’m aware of course that these people have to live in a deeply nationalist place, where the aspirations of generations were crushed by Russian communism and scarred by the fact that millions more Ukrainians were killed by Stalin than by Hitler. Indeed, the partisans who helped fight off Hitler were some of the first to be destroyed by Stalin even before the war had drawn to a close. The previous evening, as our group entered one of the most atmospheric bars in town, there had been a ritualistic question from a bouncer. To enter this underground den, full of resistance and WW2 memorabilia (see photo, right) we had to give the right answer to his question “There aren’t any Russians here are there ?” then we had to down a shot of the local brandy and toast “Glory to Ukraine!” before being allowed in.

I’m also aware that in the ex-Soviet union the term “antifascism” can be falsely associated, by those who choose to do so, with the old regime, communism and anti-nationalism. It’s an easy smear by those who feel threatened by the worldwide trend towards more tolerant, more cosmopolitan societies.

But the organisers of this event tried their hardest, during and after this (otherwise extremely enjoyable) weekend to pull the wool over our eyes. “Not racists” my arse.  In the kind of climate I have outlined, surely an event of this type must stand for an anti-racism and pro-diversity message at the very least, make sure its participants are all on message with that, and make sure violations are not tolerated ?

3. Eurofans 2010 and Euro 2012

In the months following the 2009 tournament I heard that there were attempts by the Football Against Racism in Europe organization to negotiate with the “Eurofans” organisers and make sure that in future their event would have a more convincing anti-racism stance.  F.A.R.E.’s main man in Eastern Europe had told me when we met in Ukraine that his organisation faces very similar problems at home in Poland, and that if they chose to, they too could cower in fear of reprisals from their own local fascist thugs, like the organizers of this event did. Eventually he told me that F.A.R.E. would not be supporting “Eurofans 2010” because the organizers had chosen to do some sort of behind the scenes deal with the fascists to keep them away this year, rather than try to shame them or to tackle their attitudes in any way. Which was good enough, or should I say bad enough, for me to decide not to go.

So, it’s one year on and there was again a Liverpool supporters’ team at Eurofans 2010 last week, but I couldn’t have  felt comfortable going back. I was just glad to hear that the lads all got back safely again. Of course they had a great time drinking beer and singing songs again like we all did last year, because apart from the Fash of course, the local people were delightful, and Lviv itself is delightful. Architecturally, it seems like a fine old central European town, but culturally very East European.This is the European city in fact, which has changed hands between more different European powers than any other city I can think of.  But its recent history means that it’s also one of the least cosmopolitan (i.e. the whitest) cities in Europe, and is it ready to host Euro 2012 ? I don’t know, I hope it goes well but I’m really fearful of who the local racist thugs will try to pick off and what their shenanigans could kick off. It’s all about chain reactions. And I don’t think  a “let’s-all-drink-beer-together-while -papering-over-the-cracks” job like this Eurofans tournament is the way to show whether Lviv is ready. I suppose that’s what you get though when a tournament’s primary backers are the local tourist board.

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Postscript, November 2010. Every October, Football Against Racism in Europe week sees hundreds of events at grounds in about 40 countries. You’ll notice in these photos that the only Ukrainian fan group which made an anti-racist stand this October, the fans of FC Arsenal Kiev,  had to disguise their faces in photographs where all they doing is holding “No to Racism” scarves, because of the very real likelihood of lethal fascist reprisals.

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By the way, a friend of mine noticed a “google ad” for a banner-making company had appeared at the bottom of this page. Sneaky old b*stards ! Please ignore it. I’ve never paid anyone to make a banner yet.

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Comments
  1. Joey B says:

    Stick politics up yer arse

    • nige says:

      Let’s take a couple of definitions from up that arse, shall we? First from Wikipedia:

      “Politics (from Greek: πολιτικός politikos, meaning “of, for, or relating to citizens”) is the practice and theory of influencing other people on a global, civic or individual level. More narrowly, it refers to achieving and exercising positions of governance — organized control over a human community.”

      When racist/nationalist/fascist groups seek to influence our stadium communities and make them places of fear and hatred, let’s oppose them. Zero tolerance.

      “politics/ˈpɒlɪtɪks/ noun 1.the activities associated with the governance of an area, especially the debate between groups having or seeking power.”

      All too often the racists and fascists have been allowed to grab power in an around the stadiums of certain countries by those who said they thought it best to ‘keep politics out of sport’… while letting more and more extreme politics in.

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