Football has social responsibility to help Europe's refugee crisis
As ever, the fans got there first. It was about a week ago that images started to filter through of banners displayed by supporters across the Bundesliga, at Borussia Dortmund and Hamburg, at Werder Bremen and at Wolfsburg.
All of them said the same thing. Within a few days, the phrase they bore would become a slogan pretty much everyone in Europe had heard, though it took the death of Aylan Kurdi -- the 3-year-old Kurdish boy whose body washed ashore on a Turkish beach after the boat in which he and his family were trying to reach Europe capsized -- to wake a continent from its slumber. Two words to sum up a mood: Refugees Welcome.
The clubs were a little slower, but gradually, they have responded, too. Bayern Munich were the first, announcing last week that they would make a donation of €1 million to aid and assist refugees arriving in Bavaria; they will offer football kits, too, and hold German-language classes through their academy.
Celtic were next, confirming they would offer a portion of their ticket sales from a friendly game over the international break to a charity working with those fleeing the chaos in the Middle East. That was followed by another generous donation from Real Madrid. This week, FC Porto's president, Pinto da Costa, wrote to UEFA suggesting that every club donate a single euro for every ticket sold for their opening game in the Champions League.
That is just a snapshot: there are many others, clubs big and small, rich and poor, who have their own plans in place. Some have offered money, regarded by most aid agencies as the most effective way to help in humanitarian crises; others, like Malmo and Rayo Vallecano, are taking a more proactive stance, encouraging fans to take part in programmes helping refugees to settle.
It is also a simplification, a neat timeline to explain how football has galvanised in the past 10 days or so. The reality is substantially more complex.
Some of the images of banners at Bundesliga grounds are more than a year old; Borussia Dortmund invited some 220 asylum seekers to their Europa League game against Odd BK, a week before Kurdi and his family made the desperate journey. They have been involved with a local plan to help refugees for some time.
There has been a Refugees Welcome banner at FC United of Manchester games, in England's nonleague, for two weeks. This is not what a cynic might call (as one did to me on Twitter with all the enthusiasm of a parrot who has been taught a clever phrase) "sanctimonious virtue-signalling." There are those in football who have been doing this since before it was cool.
For many, it is this week that the refugee crisis -- hundreds of thousands of people travelling from Syria and the Middle East through Turkey or Greece and on to Macedonia, Serbia and the European Union -- has permeated their consciousness. It can seem like football has been no different, responding to the change in public mood. Such an interpretation would be unfair on those who have been alert to what has been unfolding for some time.
There are many, many others better qualified than me to assess the rights and wrongs of how Europe, and all of its constituent countries, have handled what many regard as the greatest humanitarian challenge of our time. This is not the place to offer a personal view or to proffer a half-baked solution. But it is worth considering what role football has to play in this circumstance and others like it, particularly as there are moves afoot to see similar banners to those on display in the Bundesliga in English grounds this weekend. Thus far, Aston Villa, Charlton Athletic and Swindon Town are among those who have volunteered to bring the movement onto English shores. The Premier League has made it clear it has no objections to fans using their stage to express their sentiments.
Football, as I have written before, is inherently political, and has always been thus, from Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao emerging as symbols of resistance to Falangist Spain to Dynamo Dresden and Dinamo Tbilisi being manipulated to stand as potent examples of Communist power.
But, because politics are inherently divisive, the game's authorities have made a concerted push in the past 20 or 30 years -- as football has fallen ever more under centralised control -- to prevent the sport being used to make a point: think Robbie Fowler being fined for wearing a T-shirt expressing his support for Liverpool's striking dockers, to Sepp Blatter, after Serbia's Euro 2016 qualifier with Albania was suspended after an Albanian flag was flown by a drone over the pitch in Belgrade, declaring that "football and politics do not mix."
Clubs can be fined if their fans -- as Celtic's, for example, did about Bobby Sands -- make political statements from the terraces. There is a faintly cowardly but inherently understandable logic behind that stance: where do you draw the line between, say, political posturing and sectarianism or nationalism? Is it not safer just to say that none of it is allowed and be done with it?
Strictly speaking, expressing support for refugees is political. To say that refugees are welcome is to adopt a political standpoint, just as claiming that they are not would be. What happens if one group of fans -- and there are plenty of clubs where substantial sections of supporters lean quite far to the right -- unfurls a banner and their opponents, or even another group of their own fans, object to it?
That, certainly, is the fear expressed by at least one Premier League official to The Independent last week, suggesting that committing one way or the other risked alienating whichever section of their support base did not agree. It is why many fans, upon seeing those banners in Germany, remarked that these issues have nothing to do with football.
We would not expect clubs to discriminate as to who could support them on the grounds of race or creed; why should politics be any different? All of that, though, is outweighed by one very simple thing: while football and politics do not mix, football and social responsibility certainly do.
Clubs, as they are quick to remind us, are not simply businesses. If they were, they would not be able to count on our unwavering support; as with any business, we would simply shift our affections to whichever provided us with the best product or the greatest value.
They are uniformly keen to advertise their basis in their communities, to suggest that identifying with them is to identify with something greater than merely a shirt or a badge. And they have all, again, pledged their allegiance to the values that their communities would like to think they represent: unity, diversity, acceptance. This is one of those times where we get to find out if they mean it or not.
The refugees boarding boats in the dead of night in Turkey or Libya, waiting patiently, anxiously at train stations in Macedonia and Hungary, risking their lives and enduring hardships most of us can scarcely imagine to deliver their families from slaughter or persecution or brutal autocratic regimes come from a host of countries. The vast majority are Syrian, but there are Iraqis and Afghans and Eritreans and a host of others, too. Some are Sunni, some are Shia, some are Christian, some no religion at all.
But in every picture that you see -- every picture of a boat on the Mediterranean, every picture of a family trudging through southern Europe -- there are football shirts. Knockoff Barcelona or Real Madrid strips, the bright red of Manchester United or the deep blue of Chelsea, on thin bodies with desperate faces.
These people have not come to Europe because of football, but it would be foolhardy to deny the ambassadorial role the game boasts. It is one of the continent's great cultural exports. It has the power to bring people together -- even as, nominally, it pulls them apart. It is a universal language. It binds us to people in far-flung corners of the world of whom we otherwise know nothing.
Football has traded on its universality for long enough. It has grown fat and rich on television contracts and foreign tours. It has said we are all part of one family, one set of families. And that means it has a duty to respond now, to show that this is not a one-way street, to show that it meant what it said. That is the point, surely, of being a family: that you are there for your family when it needs you.
Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.