Football’s Political Left Wingers

With the majestic sight of Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and Tyrone Mings standing up to the UK government and fighting against racism and other social ills, our regular contributor Craig Stephen thought it apt to take a look back at some other footballing political activists of the past.

William Leslie

Leslie, a left-half with Elgin City, stowed away on a ship from Aberdeen to Russia so he could meet Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Having found his way to Petrograd, he travelled on the 450 miles to Moscow sleeping rough en route during the long, freezing Russia nights.

 It was never known whether he did shake Lenin’s hand – the Soviet leader may well have been too occupied with other matters to meet a middling Scottish footballer. Leslie was later arrested and imprisoned after a rally in Aberdeen in which he urged his fellow Scots to follow the Russian workers’ example.

Jackie McNamara Sr.

Celtic man McNamara (note the senior in his name) was a member of the Communist Party, a Clyde shipyard shop steward and close friend of the shipyard leader and CPGB candidate, Jimmy Reid. The young McNamara sold the Soviet Weekly and the Morning Star on the street.

At Parkhead, while his team-mates were playing cards, McNamara would be reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist and trying in vain to convert his colleagues to the cause. He was also involved in the Scottish players’ association fighting against the league reconstruction he said would have a heavy impact on players.

Diego Maradona

Maradona supported Latin American socialism, lambasted the Catholic Church, and backed leftish leaders who were hated by the United States.

He backed Venezuela’s popular socialist president Hugo Chavez and, after being treated for his substance abuse problems in Cuba, called Fidel Castro ‘a second father’. The superstar participated in an anti-Iraq War/anti-free trade protest in Buenos Aries and called George W Bush ‘human trash’. Maradona supported Bolivian president Evo Morales and the Palestinian people.

Paolo Sollier

Sollier was a decent if unspectacular player for Perugia most notable for raising his left fist and clenching it in a traditional communist salute before every game. The gesture nearly triggered a riot at Lazio, which he described as “Mussolini’s team.” Right-wing mobs booed him and hoisted a banner reading ‘Sollier to the Hangman’.

Before becoming a professional footballer Sollier was involved with a non-profit organisation working towards equality, social justice and sustainable development. Sollier soon joined the Avanguardia Operaia (or ‘Workers’ Vanguard’) which had Leninist leanings and was involved in militant protests. His politics were as red as the home shirt of Perugia he wore for a couple of seasons in the mid 1970s.

Tony Galvin

Galvin was an Englishman with some Irish ancestry and this saw him playing for the Republic of Ireland under Jack Charlton in the 80s and 90s. At Spurs he was known as ‘The Russian’ as he had graduated from university in Russian studies. At White Hart Lane he found a kindred spirit in law graduate Ossie Ardiles and Chris Hughton a fellow left-winger who wrote for the Workers’ Revolutionary Party’s newspaper Newsline (but admitted later he didn’t know anything about the publication).

Galvin is reputed to have written for cult leftie mag Living Marxism though an online search found nothing attributed to him. What is certain is that he appeared in a living wage trade union poster.

Cristiano Lucarelli

Lucarelli was once fined for celebrating a goal with a raised left fist, and after scoring on his debut for the Italian under-21s, removed his jersey to reveal a Che Guevara T-shirt.

When he joined Livorno he chose the squad number 99 as a tribute to their most prominent, left wing ultras group – the Brigate Autonome Livornesi (BAL99). Livorno also happens to be the birthplace of the Italian Communist Party so it’s a city steeped in radical traditions. He dedicated one performance to a group of local factory workers who had been lain off.

Romario

By far the most popular and successful footballer in our list; the Brazilian genius scored 1000 goals during his career and was part of the Selecao’s 1994 World Cup-winning team.

Initially, Romario entered politics to support the disabled – his own daughter has a disability. After a campaign that centred on opposition to Brazil’s hosting of the 2014 World Cup alleging corruption and a waste of public money, Romario was elected to the Senate in a landslide over his right-wing rival with 63% of the vote. While he was elected on the Socialist Party ticket, he later joined the equally left-wing Podemos party.

Paul Breitner

We have another World Cup winner in our list with Breitner a key part of the 1974 West German winning team that defeated Cruyff’s Netherlands in the final in Munich. He even scored the winning goal.

In a 60s West Germany politically polarised along left and right lines, Breitner claimed inspiration from Che Guevara and read the writings of Chairman Mao. ‘Red Paul’ was even photographed with a copy of the pro-Beijing Peking Review and the Chinese leader on a poster behind him. He read Mao’s Little Red Book and the works of other socialists, but later claimed not to be a Marxist or communist. In fact, the man with the mega-perm was happy driving big cars and piling up the Deutschmarks in his bank account. Doing commercials for McDonald’s would’ve been the last straw for his old left-wing friends.

Volker Ippig

The goalkeeper played for St Pauli FC and identified with the radical elements that made up the club’s fanbase in the 1980s to the extent that Ippig’s beliefs became more important than football.  

He interrupted his career as a player to do other things such as work in a kindergarten for disabled children. Later he quit again to join a workers’ brigade in Nicaragua which was helping development work there. At the Millerntor, Ippig would make his entrance on the pitch with a clenched fist salute in the style of the Italian Sollier (see above). Ippig even chose to live in a squat alongside the people who came to watch him play every week.

Oleguer Presas

An economics graduate, Presas wrote a book with Catalan nationalist poet Roc Casagran entitled ‘Road to Ithaca’ in which they compare Barcelona’s winning of the Spanish Championship in 2005 to the Catalonian freedom fighters and anti-fascists who defended Barcelona against Franco’s troops in 1939.

Oleguer has contributed to political journals, given speeches at protests against the neoliberal EU constitution and has been an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq bringing predictable opprobrium from right-wing supporters of other Spanish clubs.

Javier Zanetti

Zanetti used his status at Internazionale to build links between the club and the Zapatistas rebel group by funding sports, water and health projects in their area of operation in the Chiapas region of Mexico. This was part of a broader effort to aid the group’s struggle to maintain roots and fight for its ideals.

Egil Olsen

The former Wimbledon and Norway head coach, was a card-carrying member of the Norwegian Workers’ Communist Party (AKP).

The AKP was more than a typical communist party with members permanently on ‘activity duty’. It’s not known if managing Wimbledon FC was classified as activity duty or not!

CRAIG STEPHEN

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