A review of Chris Lee, The Defiant: A History of Football Against Fascism (Chichester: Pitch, 2022).
Pitch Publishing has been carving out a niche for itself in recent years. Next to other publishers’ uncountable soccer titles about famous players, clubs, world cups, and other glorious (or shall we say, commercial?) aspects of the game, Pitch has been releasing books about failed prospects, fan-controlled clubs, and progressive supporter culture. The Roaring Red Front: The World’s Top Left-Wing Football Clubs, which was reviewed on this blog last month, is one example, Chris Lee’s recent The Defiant: A History of Football Against Fascism is another.
In six geographically divided chapters (Italy, Iberia, Central and Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the Balkans, Latin America, Britain), Lee traces … quite a lot. The book is very well researched and includes plenty of information that will be news even to the most knowledgeable of fans, for example about footballers among the partisans in Italy during World War II or in the Spanish Revolution.
If there is anything that raises a question mark it’s the book’s focus. There is, of course, plenty about antifascism in football culture, but there is also plenty about fascism, about politics in football in general, and about progressive fans and clubs that aren’t specifically antifascist. Subchapters such as “Football in the Nazi Death Camps” and “Football at the 1936 Olympics” have clearly some relationship to football and fascism, but the ties to antifascist resistance sometimes seem like a stretch. Then again, it’s petty criticism, as these chapters, as just about any other in the book, are very interesting, so who cares about academic nitpicking?
One could challenge the suggestions that “nowhere in the world is football more political on the terraces than in Italy”, that a rainbow-colored armband by German national team captain Manuel Neuer has much to do with progressive politics, or that “ultras” had anything to do with the clashes between Russian and English supporters at the 2016 Men’s European Championships, but it’s only for those who care to dive into details. The Defiant is a very valuable read for the progressively minded football fan, and the final sentences are worth quoting:
“Sport is political. It always has been and always will be. Politicians who would rather sport and politics didn’t mix have learned nothing from history. While some politicians have been able to exploit the sport for populist or propaganda reasons, football can also be used as a force for good: to educate, to include, to break down barriers and come together.”
(December 31, 2022)