Before long, major social democratic parties across Europe were using sporting clubs and festivals to construct working-class identity and promote solidarity. By 1928, German sports societies had more than two million members, most of whom were affiliated with the Social Democratic Party. These clubs offered escape and a sense of belonging to the masses. Thousands hiked and learned to swim, freeing themselves, however fleetingly, from the grinding indignity of wage slavery. In Austria, during the Red Vienna period (1918-1934), a new stadium was built to host a “Workers’ Olympiad,” which welcomed participants from across the world—a testament to the internationalist impulses of a confident and forward-looking movement. In Britain we had cycling and rambling associations. Another sports world seemed possible, one that needn't be sold as a commodity. But these days sport has become unlinked from the working class political movement, hi-jacked by the jingoistic nationalists, the profit-seeking media corporations and sponsors, not to mention the egotistical oligarchs seeking an identity through being club owners.
One can even imagine aspects of sports that most closely mirror the capitalist ethos taking on a different context in a better society. Competition is brutal and ruthless in capitalism, under which, in many parts of the world, winning and losing carry life or death consequences. But competition in a safe environment can be positive and rewarding. We can imagine the new ways in which work and play could intermingle in a future society governed by equality and abundance rather than exploitation and scarcity. The discipline and pride of a craftsman who hones a skill and the athlete who trains toward perfection will have a larger place in the world.
Nicolaas Steelink was inducted into the American Soccer Hall of Fame in 1971. He was instrumental in organising the Californian Soccer League in the 1950s. Nicolaas Steelink was Dutch and immigrated to the US in 1912 at the age of 22. It was through his contacts playing football that he got introduced to a variety of political activists including socialists, industrial unionists and anarchists. At the time Steelink was angered by the injustices that surrounded him in California. Poor working conditions, war propaganda and censorship that was luring young Americans to their death in the trenches of the Somme, corruption and unpunished lynchings, were among the issues that helped radicalise the young Steelink. He joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and wrote a weekly column for their paper the Industrial Worker.
Following the First World War a number of states passed repressive laws in response to a rising radicalism amongst a large section of the workers. In California the state passed the Criminal Syndicalism Act in 1920, and Steelink was subsequently one of the first of the 151 IWW members to be arrested under these new powers. He was sentenced to five years hard labour in the infamous San Quentin prison for being a member of the IWW. After two years Steelink gained parole and his strong sense of injustice had been reinforced by the experience. He dedicated the rest of his life to continue to fight authority and injustice and continued contributing regular articles to the Industrial Worker entitled “Musings of a Wobbly”, under the pen name Ennes Ellae. He never lost his love for football. It was through football that he found that he could help the underprivileged youth, giving them a sense of comradeship and self-pride. He coached his teams to play flowing, skillful football that expressed his ideas of individual freedom.