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What the Confederate Flag Really Means To Some Football Fans

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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.

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Images Courtesy Of: http://z6.invisionfree.com/UltrasTifosi/index.php?s=03c052ddcebea9d571a0727a1ae09964&showtopic=4518&st=8393

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.

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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.

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Image Courtesy Of:http://hooliganstv.com/lokomotiv-plovdiv-botev-plovdiv-28-10-2014-pyro-and-fights-in-plovdiv/.

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.

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Image Courtesy Of: http://z6.invisionfree.com/UltrasTifosi/index.php?s=03c052ddcebea9d571a0727a1ae09964&showtopic=4518&st=8393

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.

 

Stadion Lokomotiv/Lauta, Plovdiv, Bulgaria – (PFC Lokomotiv Plovdiv): Lokomotiv Plovdiv-Botev Plovdiv (1-1) Matchday

Comments Off on Stadion Lokomotiv/Lauta, Plovdiv, Bulgaria – (PFC Lokomotiv Plovdiv): Lokomotiv Plovdiv-Botev Plovdiv (1-1) Matchday

Some more pictures of the Plovdiv derby in the Bulgarian Cup quarterfinals. For more information on the stadium please see my Stadion Lokomotiv/Lauta pictures posted earlier, taken during a visit before renovations were completed.

 

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Bulgarian Derby Daze Part 2: The Battle for Plovdiv: Lokomotiv Plovdiv-Botev Plovdiv 10.28.2014

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Before the excitement of the Eternal Derby can wear off I take the two and a half hour train journey from Sofia to Plovdiv for the first leg of a Bulgarian Cup quarterfinal tie and Bulgaria’s second biggest derby, The Battle for Plovdiv. As I watch the snow-covered countryside roll by me from the dirty window of the train’s last wagon, I know this is just the calm before the storm and that keeps me from being lulled to sleep by the beauty.

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In Plovdiv I head to the Old Plovdiv Hostel, a nice building in the old city with a friendly staff (one of whom has a keychain in the shape of a Botev shirt) that give me the run down on how to get a match ticket. Apparently the tickets could be sold out but, as the receptionist says, “If I use charm and looks I can find a ticket. My friend—very good looking—charmed the girl in the ticket office and she liked him so she found him a ticket.”

“Do you think . . . my face will work?” I ask smiling.

“Just comb your hair I think,” she says, returning the smile. I make a mental note of it and hope for the best as I head out, down St. Petersburg street to the Lauta Stadion, but not before catching the Botev faans drinking en masse on a side street under the watchful eyes of riot police.

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Lokomotiv Plovdiv (The Smurfs) were formed in 1926 as Sportclub Plovdiv after the merger of two Plovdiv teams Karadzha and Atletik (For more detailed history please see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PFC_Lokomotiv_Plovdiv). Sportclub soon fell victim to Sovietization policies and consumed smaller ethnic clubs like Erevan and Shant (Armenian teams) and Parchevich (a Catholic club). This forced assimilation in sport changed Sportclub’s name to Slavia Plovdiv in 1945 when it became bigger as a result of the mergers, and eventually made it a founding member of the Bulgarian top flight in 1948.

Meanwhile, in a parallel history to Sportclub, the union of railway workers got a team in 1935—ZSK Plovdiv—and gradually became a force in Plovdiv’s footballing scene. ZSK soon became Lokomotiv Plovdiv after Sovietization, joining the ranks of other Eastern bloc teams such as Lokomotiv Sofia, Lokomotiv Moscow, and Lokomotiv Leipzig. But they were still mired in the third division.

That changed in 1949, when the Bulgarian Communist Party decreed that sports clubs would serve as fitness departments of important state enterprises such as the police, army, and railways. This was the same time that Levski Sofia became Dinamo Sofia in line with Stalinization. With politics now intertwined with sports, the smallest club in the city—Lokomotiv—were merged with the largest club—Slavia—by virtue of Lokomotiv being a team supporting a state enterprise, in this case the national railways, to become Torpedo Plovdiv. The chaos of the mergers took its toll, and Torpedo was relegated in 1955. It would take until 1961 for the club to return to Bulgaria’s top flight, but when it returned it would be finally known as Lokomotiv; the end of Stalinaztion meant that clubs no longer had to be related to specific state enterprises.

1964-65 saw the team make its best run in Europe, a run to the quarter-finals of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (the former UEFA cup), which was the beginning of a rise in the club’s fortunes domestically before a second relegation in 1980 While the team has been decidedly average on the field since then (despite a rare championship in 2012), it is notable that their fans were the first to organize in Bulgaria, founding an official fan club in 1988. The political regime at the time was not favorable to independent civil society organizations then, but it is still a good example of a football club being able to challenge a totalitarian state system.

On the other side of the derby is Botev Plovdiv (The Canaries), the oldest continuously functioning football club in Bulgaria, founded by students in 1912. The club takes its name from another Bulgarian national hero, Hristo Botev. Like Vasil Levski, Botev was also a nationalist revolutionary leader in addition to being a famous poet. After Levski’s death he led the 1876 April Uprising against Ottoman forces, returning from exile in Romania before being killed in battle.

Like other teams in Bulgarian football, Botev’s name was changed in 1947 due to Sovietization and endured a nine year period of being known by various acronyms (DNV, DNA, and SKNA) before a return to their original name at the end of Stalinization in 1957. The team again lost their name, which evoked the pre-communist period, from 1968 until the fall of communism when the team was known as Trakia Plovdiv.

The first of their two titles was won in 1929, four years after their first international match against Fenerbahce of Istanbul. They were part of the brand new Bulgarian A PFG in 1951 before suffering relegation in 1953. They returned the next season, and five years later their current Hristo Botev Stadium was completed. This paved the way to their first Bulgarian Cup title (1962), a second championship (1967), a second place finish (1963), and a run to the quarterfinals of the 1962-63 Cup Winners Cup, eliminating Shamrock Rovers and Steaua Bucharest before bowing out to Atletico Madrid.

The 1980s saw the team endure its best decade when they secured six top three finishes—despite not winning any championships—before again falling into mediocrity and ultimately collapsing four years ago. After 47 seasons in the top flight Botev were relegated at the end of the 2000-01 season. Although returning to the top flight the team was never a force, and in February 2010 the team was relegated due to financial problems. Luckliy for this derby, however, the team bounced back. Despite having started the 2010-11 season in the third division, an experienced squad managed 37 wins and one draw out of 38 matches which took them to the second tier before a return to the top flight in 2012-2013 when they finished fourth.

 

Outside the Lauta Stadium I am met with riot police, as is to be expected. This means that beer will not be an option tonight. I buy my ticket from the first ticket booth I see, to the left of the entrance gate. I later learn that tickets sold there are only for the uncovered stand, where the Lokomotiv fan groups such as Lauta Army and Lauta Hooligans congregate. For a more relaxed viewing experience get your tickets in the booth on the right side of the fan shop, along the foot path that leads to the covered stand—that is where tickets for the covered stand are sold.

The sky is a beautiful light grey as the sun sets in Plovdiv above the players preparing to take the field. I’m staring at some comical pictures of Botev coach Velislav Vutsov that are being given out to the fans and I’m left wondering what on earth they mean. Beyond me Lokomotiv’s fans make a choreography that, apparently, is for the club’s 88th anniversary. After the show, its time for football.

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The game is a back and forth affair with not a lot of quality. It is clear that Botev are the stronger side, but Lokomotiv are holding their own with their fans behind them. Every five minutes or so the fans in front of me heckle their rival’s coach, hurling insults at him that I wish I could understand—after all, the goat picture is still making me laugh. On the stroke of half time Lokomotiv’s veteran captain and four-time A PFG scoring champion Martin Kamburov takes a free kick beautifully, putting his side up 1-0.

 

The second half starts just as the first half started: beautiful girls in the stands and me eating sunflower seeds, huddling for warmth in the falling temperatures.

“WHHHHOOOOOOOOOOOSHHHHHHH……POT POT POT POT POT POT!!!!!!!!”

I’m immediately taken out of my daze as missiles are fired from behind the goal to my left, sending bright red fireworks into the night sky over the stadium. The Lokomotiv stand opposite me is ablaze, and I can see now why the ultras waited for night to fall to put on their show. Gradually the red dots in the sky begin to fall slowly, almost suspended in the air, like snow drops. Small parachutes open up and the red flares slowly drop onto the field. Even the players are no longer concentrating on the match—they’re all staring into the sky!

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After a short delay while the players pick the parachutes out of the sky play resumes—lucky for me, this derby will not be stopped like others in the past. Now it is Botev’s turn to light their flares. Their end, bathed in black and gold (the colors chosen to symbolize unity between orthadox and catholic students, respectively) now turns to orange.

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It is their final attempt to push their team on, and as the final whistle nears I decide to stay—I won’t leave early like in Sofia. I feel something—call it intuition—but I just get an odd feeling that something will happen. The minutes are ticking down, and the fourth official raises his sign—five minutes are added on.

 

Attacks go closer and closer for Botev and I think I know what will happen. A corner is sent in, the ball is knocked out for another corner. A great save by the Lokomotiv keeper keeps the narrow lead. Then another corner—and 1-1. Young striker and Bulgarian U21 international Alexander Kolev (http://www.transfermarkt.com/alexander-kolev/profil/spieler/239527) has equalized in 90+3. I knew it had to happen. Silence. Just the Botev players running to their fans—it is almost surreal. I follow the disappointed fans out into the night, the team to advance to the semi-finals of the Bulgarian Cup will be decided in December’s return leg. They are in a daze from the shock goal, I’m in a daze from two derbies in four days.

 

For those who are curious (like me) I have also included a poem by the aforementioned Hristo Botev:

To My First Love

Hristo Botev

Leave behind this song of love,

Don’t fill my heart with poison –

I am young but never knew what youth is.

And even if I knew, I don’t want to remember,

That, which I have hated

And which I have trampled before you.

 

Forget the time I cried

For your gentle glance and sigh:

I was a slave back then – dragging chains,

And for just one smile of yours,

Frenzied, I despised the world

And trampled my feelings in the mud!

 

Forget about the madness,

The warmth of love is now extinguished

And you can’t rekindle it in my chest,

Which is overcome by deep sorrow,

Where everything is covered with wounds,

And my heart of evil is shrouded with loathing.

 

You have a beautiful voice – you’re young,

But do you hear the forest singing?

Do you hear the destitute crying?

That’s the voice my soul craves for,

And there is the place that is calling for my wounded heart,

Where it is always drenched in blood.

 

O, don’t speak those words of poison.

Hear the moan of the forest and foliage,

Hear the wailing of centuries old storms,

How they tell word by word –

Tales of old times,

And songs of tribulations to come!

 

Start singing this song,

Start singing, young love, with sorrow,

Sing about the brother who sold his brother,

And how strength and youth wither,

How a lonesome widow cries,

And how homeless children suffer.

 

Sing, or hush and leave!

My heart is trembling – it will fly away,

It will fly away, my love – wake up!

There, where the land is rumbling and thundering

From shrieks that are chilling and evil,

And songs of epiphany over graves…

 

There… there the storm cracks branches,

And the sword enfolds them in a wreath;

The ghastly valleys are agape

Where grains of lead are screeching,

There death wears a gentle smile,

And the chilled grave offers sweet rest!

 

Ah, these songs and this smile,

whose voice will start singing?

While I am lifting a bloody glass,

Before which even love is silent,

And then, I will start singing myself

About what I love, what I long for and what I hold dear.

 

Translated by:

© Yana Raycheva

 

ДО МОЕТО ПЪРВО ЛИБЕ

Остави таз песен любовна,

не вливай ми в сърце отрова –

млад съм аз, но младост не помня,

пък и да помня, не ровя

туй, що съм ази намразил

и пред тебе с крака погазил.

 

Забрави туй време, га плачех

за поглед мил и за въздишка:

роб бях тогаз – вериги влачех,

та за една твоя усмивка,

безумен аз светът презирах

и чувства си в калта увирах!

 

Забрави ти онез полуди,

в тез гърди веч любов не грее

и не можеш я ти събуди

там, де скръб дълбока владее,

де сичко е с рани покрито

и сърце зло в злоба обвито!

 

Ти имаш глас чуден – млада си,

но чуйш ли как пее гората?

Чуйш ли как плачат сиромаси?

За тоз глас ми копней душата,

и там тегли сърце ранено,

там, де е се с кърви облено!

 

О, махни тез думи отровни!

Чуй как стене гора и шума,

чуй как ечат бури вековни,

как нареждат дума по дума –

приказки за стари времена

и песни за нови теглила!

 

Запей и ти песен такава,

запей ми, девойко, на жалост,

запей как брат брата продава,

как гинат сили и младост,

как плаче сиротна вдовица

и как теглят без дом дечица!

 

Запей, или млъкни, махни се!

Сърце ми веч трепти – ще хвръкне,

ще хвръкне, изгоро, – свести се!

Там, де земя гърми и тътне

от викове страшни и злобни

и предсмъртни песни надгробни…

 

Там… там буря кърши клонове,

а сабля ги свива на венец;

зинали са страшни долове

и пищи в тях зърно от свинец,

и смъртта й там мила усмивка,

а хладен гроб сладка почивка!

 

Ах, тез песни и таз усмивка

кой глас ще ми викне, запее?

Кървава да вдигна напивка,

от коя и любов немее,

пък тогаз и сам ще запея

що любя и за що милея!…

Lokomotiv Plovdiv 2010 Home Shirt, Lazarov 77

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While visiting Lokomotiv’s Stadium–the Lauta–I was lucky enough to have this shirt delivered to me. There was no stadium store, so I was at the mercy of  a fan who had connections with the team. The shirt is the  classic black and white striped kit that Lokomotiv have worn for years, and sports the beautiful Lokomotiv badge as well. Although the shirt carries the Puma logo it seems to be a fake, with no inner tags. Despite that, the fabric is very similar to some late 1990s Adidas shirts as well as a few real Puma shirts from the late 1990s as well. Because of the nice fabric, I decided not to write this shirt off whole-sale. It is also not unknown for smaller clubs to actually use fake shirts on the pitch–I’ve seen it in the Turkish lower divisions. Also, when factories for various brands are located in third countries like Bulgaria and Turkey shirts can be produced at the same level of quality as the originals. Indeed, Zdravko Lazarov–the Bulgarian striker whose name is on the back of this shirt along with the number 77 (sewn into the fabric)–is wearing (what I assume to be) this shirt in a club photo.

As a fan of Turkish football it is a strange coincidence for me that Lazarov played for 7 years in Turkey from 2000 to 2007 with Kocaelispor, Gaziantepspor and Kayseri Erciyesspor–these were the most productive years of his career as he scored 60 goals in 197 appearances. Amazingly, Lazarov is still playing in the Bulgarian league as of the 2013-2014 season for Lokomotiv Plovdiv at 38 years young.

 

My Thanks to Yana Raycheva Whose Translations Were Invaluable in Acquiring This Shirt.

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The Beautiful Lokomotiv Plovdiv Badge, With Cryllic “L”

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A Club Photo of Zdravko Lazarov