What was jarring about the appearance of an anti-fascist flag in the front row of the Colorado Rapids’ first game of the season, against the New England Revolution at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, wasn’t that it occurred at a professional soccer game. It’s that it happened at a Major League Soccer game.
Soccer stadiums have historically been hotbeds of political sentiment. The world over, views from all points on the ideological spectrum have found a place on the terraces, where every imaginable political view is voiced and channeled through support for the local team.
Sometimes, it has gone further. The Egyptian revolution of 2011 was fueled in large part by soccer supporters, who organized at games, created a force forged from rival fan factions and manned the front lines of the Tahrir Square protests that helped to overthrow dictator Hosni Mubarak.
But this has been much less true in North America, although, in the early days of MLS, leftist New York MetroStars supporter groups pushed out a nascent right-wing element trying to shoulder its way in.
Yet, quietly but surely, “antifa” – as the anti-fascist movement is broadly referred to – is on the rise in American soccer stadiums. This is a direct reaction to the current political climate in which the far right has made very visible inroads since the election of President Donald Trump.
That such groups need to exist at all, more than seven decades after fascism was ostensibly defeated in Berlin, is telling in and of itself. But what is even more striking is how discreet and careful the new antifa groups, usually embedded within existing and well-established fan groups, really are.
Yahoo Sports was able to identify and confirm the existence of four specific and active antifa groups in North America, within the fan bases of the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League and MLS’s New York Red Bulls, Montreal Impact and FC Dallas. New York City FC, also of MLS, appears to have had an antifa group that has gone dormant.
One of the official supporters groups of MLS champion Seattle Sounders, Gorilla FC, also describes itself as antifa because it “expresses our anti-racist, [anti-]sexist and [anti-]homophobic values,” according to its vice president, Andrew Drake. Los Bandidos, the fan group of the United Soccer League’s Phoenix Rising FC, says it is a regular supporters group that likewise “aligns and identifies with antifa,” said a spokesman. Neither of those groups is strictly antifa, though, but rather a regular supporters group that sympathizes.
Meanwhile, antifa flags have been spotted in the fan sections of Orlando City SC and the aforementioned Colorado Rapids, where one of the capos of the Centennial 38 fan group hangs the flag in solidarity with the anti-facism message.
The strictly antifa groups are guarded in their communications, even though, counterintuitively, the point is to publicly demonstrate resistance to a right-wing societal current. All four were initially willing to speak to Yahoo Sports, but only two – the ones for the Cosmos and Red Bulls – actually did. The other two went silent. The Cosmos and Red Bulls groups agreed to do interviews through Twitter (via direct message) and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of safety and professional concerns.
It is significant that opposition to something so un-American as fascism is now such a delicate and combustible topic that the principals of this movement don’t want their names out there.
Yet the apparent need for an antifa groundswell seems to be demonstrated not just by the soaring election-linked hate-crime statistics but also by the emergence of a right-wing presence in soccer itself. Such an element has seemingly crept into New York City FC supporters’ sections in the form of a group calling itself the Empire State Ultras and several others accused of fascist views, all fashioned after similar fan groups in Europe. They make up a tiny minority of the NYCFC fan base, but they exist nonetheless.
Or, at least, they did. One prominent member of the club’s dominant Third Rail supporters group wondered if the ESU is still an active group, noting their absence from the supporters section in Yankee Stadium and a lack of game day activity or digital presence.
At any rate, two years ago, there was an incident with apparent racist chanting at Yankee Stadium during an NYCFC game. More recently, Empire State Ultras stickers have been spotted around Brooklyn with the words “white power” on them.
American soccer is becoming a proxy battleground for political ideas, just as the sport has always been around the world.
“Our formation as an organized group came with the rise of Trumpism and what we perceived as an elevated threat to our culture,” said the spokesman for Cosmopolitan Antifa, which supports the New York Cosmos. “When you have a supporter section that sings 75 to 80 percent of our songs in Spanish and boasts a legion of immigrant fans, you start to tense up a bit when you have politicians talking about walls and deportations.”
— Cosmopolitan Antifa (@cosmopolitanAFA) April 2, 2017
Cosmopolitan Antifa, which exists within the larger 5 Points supporters group, refused to say exactly how many members it has. “I don’t mean to sound secretive or like I’m withholding, it’s just these things can end up a safety issue,” explained one of the leaders of Cosmopolitan Antifa. “Especially of late in this city.”
Pressed to give a number, he left it at “a few dozen.” But unofficially, he added, “Between our core members and the umbrella network we make up a large contingent of Cosmos support.”
Cosmopolitan Antifa was born from an anti-Trump rally it helped organize in March 2016. While its members had been flying antifa symbolism for years, they formalized to “further promote and protect a diverse, inclusive, and safe atmosphere in the context of supporting the club we all love, New York Cosmos.”
Extraordinary company at the theater for the first CAFA viewing party.
dale Cosmos dale! pic.twitter.com/jTtxsxnReI
— Cosmopolitan Antifa (@cosmopolitanAFA) March 26, 2017
Its efforts mostly take place away from the stadium, though. “On matchday, I like to think is when our work will be required least,” the spokesman said. “We fly banners and all of that, but we’re also actively involved with organizing collections for local and global charities and initiatives that we back.”
“Cosmos has never had any trouble with far right infiltration or groups we see as threatening,” the spokesman added. “But our support is representative of New York. It’s widely diverse and we want to make sure that it will always be a space that is open to all.”
The Metro Antifa group, which supports the New York Red Bulls – but, like many longtime hardcore fans, still refers to the team as “Metro” for its birth name – was born of the anti-fascist element that had always existed in the club’s overarching Empire Supporters Club. But it, too, felt compelled by current events to become more visible.
“While we may not have been overt with our existence over these last several years, we felt that now was the right time to put ourselves in the forefront,” a member said. “We’ve seen that across the Hudson River lies fascist, neo-Nazi elements that support NYCFC. Groups like the Empire State Ultras and Batallon 49 exist and have found their way into the stands of Yankee Stadium. If they can be found in the Bronx, there is absolutely nothing stopping those types of groups from attempting to enter [Red Bull Arena’s] South Ward.”
But like the Cosmos group, Metro Antifa’s genesis also sprung forth from the larger political developments. “The election of Donald Trump has made many people feel scared, like they do not belong in our country,” the member said. “We want to show all Metro supporters that we do not care what your ancestry is, what your skin color is, what your sexual orientation is. If you support the same club we do, you are more than welcome to stand with us without fear of exclusion.”
“Supporters’ ends of soccer stadia throughout this country should be the last place anyone should feel threatened or scared,” he added. “We want to do our part to help with that.”
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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