The old cliché that football and politics should not mix has taken a bit of a beating in the UK this weekend. It’s quite exceptional that a former Prime Minister is granted a ceremonial funeral without a commemoration from football, but no English club has risked inviting derision with a mark of respect for Margaret Thatcher. She was not popular in many of the football’s heartlands, and had a questionable relationship with the game to start with.
In Finland yesterday there were no such qualms about bringing a political campaign into Veikkausliiga’s opening match, when TPS fans unveiled a tifo in support of gender-neutral marriage. While nowhere near as contentious as Thatcher’s legacy in the UK, it was a brave move from fans often derided as simple hooligans in a sport perceived to be rife with homophobia. Fins aren’t generally keen on politics mixing with sport for sound historical reasons, but this was a different kind of politics to that practiced by some football clubs in the past.
— TPS-kannattajat (@TPS_Kannattajat) April 13, 2013
The pre-match tifo at their game against Honka proclaimed the fans’ support for Tahdon 2013, a campaign for a gender-neutral marriage law in Finland. ‘Tahdon’ is the Finnish equivalent of ‘I do’, but also means ‘I want’, offering a neat link between TPS hopes for the coming season (a championship medal), and backing for a long-running campaign in support of gay rights. There is a football link, in a recent Urheilulehti article that claimed ‘dozens’ of Veikkausliiga players are gay and closeted. The article provoked more sadness than anger or disbelief, and maybe that played a part in the fans’ decision-making.
The Tahdon 2013 campaign, meanwhile, failed in parliament due to splits in the centre-right National Coalition party, with liberal and conservative members taking different views when the bill came before a legislative committee. Now campaigners are aiming to force MPs to re-consider via acitizens initiative, which is a legislative innovation that ensures parliament has to look at an issue if it gains the support of 50,000 Finns within six months. The petition in support of gender-neutral marriage currently has nearly 150,000 signatures with five months still to go to the deadline. Campaigners believe they can mobilise younger voters to force the hand of their older, more conservative representatives in the legislature.
Finland would be the last Nordic country to allow gay marriage, which is a source of some embarrassment for more liberal Finns, as TPS fans can probably now be designated. One mark of the campaign has been an emphasis on equality, as a value that almost everyone claims to hold. It is an attempt at removing the partisan political aspect of this legislative process, as shown by Alexander Stubb’s reaction when his party colleague and chair of parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee Anne Holmlund was criticised for perceived foot-dragging in bringing the proposal to MPs. He asked supporters of the law not to ‘politicise’ the issue, saying it was ‘too important for that’:
Rakkaat kanssaihmiset ei politisoida tasa-arvoista avioliittolakia. Se on liian tärkeä juttu. Hoidetaan tää kimpassa kotiin. #tahdon2013
— Alexander Stubb (@alexstubb) February 14, 2013
His actions showed that supporters of the bill prefer to regard it as a human rights question rather than a political issue. Accepting this undoubtedly made it easier for TPS fans to back the campaign. Once they decided the issue was about equality rather than politics, they were not breaking the deep-rooted Finnish taboo on politicising football, but instead supporting a marginalised group asking for equal treatment.
The depoliticisation of public sporting space is an ongoing process in Finland, where many clubs had clear political identities during the cold war (some smaller organisations still do), and Turku football used to be much more politically charged than it is now. The oldest club in the city is Åbo IFK, a Swedish-speaking organisation founded in 1908. The working class club in the city was Turun Weikot, which started out in 1912. Then came TPS (Turun Palloseura), founded in 1922 as a bourgeois fennoman rival for IFK.
In 1929 there was a split in Turun Weikot, with the social democrat committee members leaving the more orthodox leftists—which in the Finnish context means they were close to the Soviet line, following their defeat in the 1918 civil war—to set up Turun Toverit. Weikot were then shut down, and played under various names until they regained the Weikot branding in 1972. All four clubs have been multi-sport entities, not just football teams.
Finland would, in those days, have found it difficult to produce a George Orwell—a staunchly anti-communist figure who was firmly rooted in the left and strongly opposed to fascism. Geo-strategic considerations, exiled Finnish communists close to Stalin’s leadership, and the bitterness of the civil war ensured that the Finnish political spectrum ran Social Democrat-leftist-communist-Moscow. The taboo on politics in sport is a way to avoid re-opening deep and painful wounds from some of the darkest moments in Finnish history.
The modern Left Alliance is trying to shed this historical baggage under new, youthful leadership. Part of their strategy is an alliance with economically right-wing allies on the Tahdon 2013 campaign, which does seem to have very widespread support among people under 30.
Where once politics was dominated by clubs and unions with deep roots in politics and the class struggle, for many Finns it is now a much more fleeting pastime involving an online signature expressing a stance on a single issue. In that context, a tifo in support of gay rights—which would be a brave step for football fans in any country in Europe, including Finland—is more understandable. Tahdon 2013 is a kind of well-marketed post-modern value-based politics that draws heavily on popular culture, and is therefore perfect material for the progressive Finnish football fan.
So while the tifo is a certain kind of political act, it’s not clear that anyone supporting the campaign is ready to admit that they stooping quite so low as involving themselves in political discourse. Least of all the football fans.