Dismissing Dulwich Hamlet: Football as a radical space?

In The Observer this weekend, there was coverage of non-league London side, Dulwich Hamlet FC, who are dismissed by some as little more than the latest in a long line of hipster hangouts in that city. But this is to do a disservice to the people who have started following Dulwich Hamlet in their thousands and the club that has embraced them and brought these new fans into the fold. The high quality of the football undoubtedly helps, but as the article relates this success is multi-faceted. It’s worth noting that in fact many Hamlet fans appear rather less than impressed by The Observer article’s representation of the club:

There a number of forces at play here that require unpacking and to go beyond the headline in The Observer that called Dulwich Hamlet the most hipster club in London.

Since the early 1990s and the growth of television revenues for football thanks to the expansion of satellite and now digital television – in England primarily, but throughout Europe and into the new markets of Asia – top-flight football is increasingly out of reach to fans unless they are willing to commit huge sums of their disposable income each week, or each season. The other option is to enjoy trips to the biggest grounds as a kind of weekend city-break holiday. But consistent, dedicated following of such clubs can prove a huge, and even unjustifiable financial burden. In most large stadia now fans exist as televisual backdrop – as noise generators to create atmosphere for the far larger television audience. They have become a prop.

Part of the – especially the Premiership’s – expansion into new markets saw football come once again onto the radar of an expanding affluent middle-class who lapped up the safer, if slightly sanitised, new product presented in “the Premier League era”. But since the recession in 2008, many of the children of the period when this version of what football was came to be so dominant have had to learn to live with declining expectations thanks to the ever-greater precarity imposed in a whole range of areas of their lives. As a result, for many of these people, myself included, there has been a turn away from the highly-globalised and a rediscovery in some respects of the benefits of the local and the frankly more affordable.

And while yes, some of this can be seen in an occasionally contemptible gentrification of not just working-class localities, but of working-class culture, nonetheless it has largely seen a positive development for the game at lower-levels or in countries like Ireland where the domestic league stands in the giant shadow cast by the behemoth across the water.

And again, it might well be easy to laugh and poke fun at people who decide to don a St. Pauli t-shirt, or even Barcelona jersey (any radical credibility that club had in the past is now a mere chimera – a kind of footballing greenwashing), to only follow non-league, or the League of Ireland, as somehow stubbornly and consciously anti-fashionable in their tastes – hipsters in other words. It might feel like the footballing equivalent of conscientious consumerism but in fact there’s much more to it than that. But the truth is identification with an array of international clubs who are or have in the past been about something more than just the final score is an articulation of a wider

At the end of an article written by Yavor Tarinski originally for New Compass and reposted on libcom.org entitled “Football as a commons”, the author notes that:

Therefore, the turning of football into a common, managed directly by the players and the fans, is a feasible possibility and has already been attempted. In the words of Eduardo Galeano: football “is much more than a big business run by overlords from Switzerland. The most popular sport in the world wants to serve the people who embrace it”.

It might be better to see a club like Dulwich Hamlet, more famous examples like St. Pauli of Hamburg and Borussia Dortmund, Bohemians of Prague, and even in Ireland Cork City FC and the other League of Ireland clubs increasingly concerned to make their clubs intentional communities rather than mere commodities as attempts to put into practice ideas of a shared commons through their football club; through the cultures they are trying to encourage: cultures placing varying degrees of  importance on things like solidarity, tolerance, friendliness, and community action and engagement.

All of these clubs may be unsuccessful ultimately in sustaining models that are exemplified by the increasingly successful supporter’s trust movement gaining traction in Britain and Ireland as they encounter significant challenges (the main one being sustaining interest in member ownership beyond the usual initial impetus of saving a club in crisis). But, as organised community spaces where ideas of clubbing together, voluntarism, and similar values are given priority in the operation of a club then it may be that enclosed football grounds will ironically provide a space for a conception of a commons that can work.

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