A dream of uniting UK soccer fans swerves to the far right

A dream of uniting UK soccer fans swerves to the far right
In this photo taken on Saturday, March 24, 2018, people hold banners during the Football Lads Alliance (FLA) march in Birmingham, England. A property manager and fan of the soccer team Tottenham Hotspur, John Meighan envisioned a group bringing together working-class people who felt excluded from political influence _ to stand up in opposition, not to Muslims or Islam, but to extremism. It didn’t quite work out that way, as the Football Lads Alliance found itself drawn into the orbit of Britain’s growing far-right. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

LONDON (AP) — John Meighan had a dream.

A property manager and fan of the soccer team Tottenham Hotspur, he envisioned a group bringing together working-class people who felt excluded from political influence — to stand up in opposition, not to Muslims or Islam, but to extremism. They would be people like himself, fans with a passion for their teams and, in many cases, a fondness for a fight. They would set aside team rivalries and march through London as an expression of defiance.   

At the first demonstration of Meighan’s Football Lads Alliance, 10,000 people marched to protest several bloody weeks in which Islamic extremists had attacked British cities with vehicles, knives and a bomb.

Yet the Football Lads drew little notice. But several months later, a second march swelled to 50,000 demonstrators — with Tommy Robinson among them. A seasoned anti-Muslim street agitator and far-right media star, he filmed himself praising the group as standing “against Islam.” 

“We’re seeing the birth today of a huge organization,” Robinson predicted.

The FLA emerged during an unstable time, shortly after Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union, which was fueled by concerns about immigration and a sense Britain had lost control of its borders. The group’s aims, supposedly directed against extremism, dovetailed with the ideas of the country’s growing far-right culture — a potent mix of nationalism, anti-Muslim prejudice and conspiracy theories that thrives online.

The far right was energized by the brutal attacks that hit Britain in the spring of 2017. Vehicle and knife attacks on London’s Westminster and London Bridges and a bombing at a concert in Manchester killed 35 people in all.

That bloodshed spurred Meighan to action. A soft-spoken man, he once ran with Tottenham’s hooligan “firm” and was banned for a stretch from stadiums across Britain. Now, the 33-year-old father of three has anxiety about the world around him.

As Meighan watched rival fans gather for the FLA’s first march in June, he was apprehensive — not about extremists or left-wing counter-protesters but about the assembled football hooligans, from firms with deep enmities.

His worries were unfounded. The mood was calm and determined as thousands of football supporters laid wreaths in team colors on London Bridge, three weeks after the attack there.

The group had barred flag-waving, chanting and pre-march drinking. “We didn’t want to be stereotyped,” Meighan said.

When it began, the FLA claimed to be “inclusive and acceptable to all colors, creeds, faiths and religions.”

Hope Not Hate, a group that monitors the far right, said the group initially “made a genuine attempt to ensure that it was not a racist group and tried to focus on Islamist extremists, rather than Islam in general.”

But clouds were gathering. Mingling with the football fans for the group’s second London march in October were alt-right bloggers and far-right activists eager to push it in a more extreme direction.

The most influential was Robinson, former leader of the notorious street-protest group the English Defence League.

Robinson’s YouTube channel has accumulated more than 6 million views and fans sing his name at demonstrations: “Oh, Tommy, Tommy!”

Meighan certainly was impressed, calling Robinson “a brave man” who “talks a lot of sense” and urging FLA members to attend Robinson events.

On the FLA’s members-only Facebook page, post after post began to describe Britain as under threat from uncontrolled immigration. Members shared anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic and racist cartoons and posts.

Still, Meighan denied the FLA was a far-right group. “It’s not about Muslim people in general,” he said. But, he added: “There is part of Islam that is evil.”

Like many on the far right, he also spoke as if society was poised on the brink of disintegration, saying more terrorist attacks could spur a “civil war.”

But it was the FLA that began to fracture as it moved into the whirlpool of online far-right radicalism. Egos clashed, members bickered online, and some broke off to form the rival Democratic Football Lads Alliance.

The group’s third demonstration, in Birmingham, attracted only a few thousand people.

Tommy Robinson was there, muscling through the crowd with an entourage while fans leaned in to get selfies. The star speaker was Anne Marie Waters, leader of the far-right party For Britain, who said Islam was bringing “poison” into the country.

Meighan called Waters’ speech “inspirational.” But as the march ended, he was subdued.

“I don’t know if my heart is in it,” he admitted.

A few weeks later, he shocked supporters by quitting, saying he wanted to focus on work and his family. He still posts on social media — attacks on liberals and left-wing politicians, and complaints that critics of Islam such as Robinson are being silenced.

He’s far from alone. Far-right ideas are spreading, and so, say British police, is the threat of far-right violence. Britain saw a deadly van attack against Muslims in London in 2017, and detectives say four other plots were foiled in the year leading up to March.

Robinson can draw large crowds for his anti-Islam rants, and boasted recently: “We’re now mainstream.”

The Football Lads Alliance declared it would soldier on without its founder. But when it gathered in Manchester to mark the anniversary of the arena bombing, just a few hundred people showed up. The attendees stood listening to speeches, then went off to the pub.

“R.I.P. the FLA,” one supporter posted on Facebook.