Monday, 18 December 2017

Should I go the game or the anti-Trump demo?

Last Saturday I was cycling to the Bundesliga game between Eintracht Frankfurt and Schalke 04 when I passed close to a crowd demonstrating against the decision of US President Trump to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. I could hear someone with a megaphone calling to the protesters, who responded to each prompt with a chant about a free Palestine.

Or: 'Demos not football'?
I hadn't been aware that the demonstration was taking place. It would have been easy for me to get off my bike, lock it up, and go to join the demo instead of pedalling on to the football. But I didn't. I didn't even hesitate, even as I was arguing with myself that this was certainly what I ought to be doing.

Let us imagine a (plausible) worst case scenario - that the US decision has catastrophic consequences for the situation in Israel, the Occupied Territories and the wider Middle East region. There is a devastating war involving all the mass consequences that accompany
armed conflict - death, maiming, depression, new and deeper hatred, destruction, starvation, lasting economic deprivation, and migration of the innocent towards comparatively wealthy but hostile countries, many of whom will have supplied the arms and the policies that fuelled the misery right from the very start.

Let us also imagine that in 100 years historians are studying the roots of the conflict. They look at archive material and determine that the starting point for the war was the decision of US President Trump to unilaterally recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. They wonder what kind of resistance there was in the west. They might write, "There were demonstrations in some cities against the US decision. On Saturday December 16th, 2017, in the western German city of Frankfurt am Main, for example, around 1000 people demonstrated peacefully against the US while marching through the town centre."

Only 1000, the historians might think. What was everyone else doing on that day? If they looked in the same newspaper, they would also discover that while the demonstration was taking place, over 50,000 people went to watch a football game. "For every individual protesting against a decision that was to lead to the most catastrophic conflict for a generation, 50 went to watch a game of football." Not to mention how many were out Christmas shopping.

Two days later, that probably doesn't seem strange to any of us. It could, though, strike future analysts as absurdly myopic. What on earth were we thinking?

I can't speak for the 50,599 other fans in the stadium (and I'm well aware that there are good reasons to stay way from this kind of demo in Germany - an earlier protest in Berlin was marred by anti-Jewish chants and mindless flag-burning), but here's what I was thinking:

"I've been calling on fans to boycott the next two World Cups on political grounds, and yet here I am going to watch a game of football when I could be joining a protest against one of the dumbest, most short-sighted, potentially most disastrous political moves of the past decade. Yet I'm still going to the football. It's what I set out to do, and there are not many things that would stop me from going to the football once I'm on my way." (I can't think of any, other than me getting run over.) And I doubt there were many on the anti-Trump demo who'd woken up on Saturday and said, "I'm going to forfeit my tickets for Eintracht-Schalke in favour of marching instead."

A little bit of politics at Eintracht Frankfurt
Inside the stadium the Frankfurt fans held up a banner saying 'Für Immer Waldstadion'. All Frankfurt supporters call their ground the Waldstadion (Stadium in the Wood), eschewing the official Kommerzbank Arena that's been around for the past decade or so. It's a dogged little protest against the ongoing commercialisation of the game, and as political as it gets inside the ground on this afternoon. The banner disappears before kick-off, its point having been made.

Whether I was on the demonstration or in the stadium will have made no difference to either the Israel-Palestine dispute (precarious, hopeless, intractable), or the outcome of the game (2-2). Both events are just part of a long cycle of futile struggle and wasted effort with predictable consequences: in the Middle East - a locked-in dispute teetering on escalation with no solution in sight; in the Bundesliga - another title for FC Bayern München. In that respect, my conscience is only lightly smudged, because as an individual not directly involved, I'm not pompous enough to suppose that my moral decisions make any difference either way.

The historian looking into all this 100 years down the line, however, may justifiably come to a quite different conclusion. What on earth were we thinking?

The contradiction of going to a football match against a background of cataclysmic international events is approached in more detail in Chapter Ten of The Quiet Fan, 'Death: Leyton Orient v Wrexham', when I look back on a Saturday I spent watching a fourth division playoff game while pro-democracy Chinese students were being murdered by the state in Tiananmen Square. (Don't worry, it's not quite as depressing as it sounds.)

The Quiet Fan was published by Unbound in autumn 2018 and is available here.

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