Toronto FC and Major League Soccer hypocritically silence fans supporting refugees

Rain poured down at Toronto’s BMO Field this past Sunday as Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC took on the New England Revolution. Nevertheless, Toronto’s loyal fans showed up to rally behind their team. But despite outshooting their opponents, 21-7, the Reds registered a dispiriting loss. But perhaps the biggest loss of the night went to the Toronto fans using the occasion to show solidarity with the millions of Syrian refugees fleeing persecution at home.

During the first half, a group of Toronto supporters proudly held up and waved a bright yellow “Refugees Welcome” banner. But much to their dismay, stadium security arrived 20 minutes later and asked them to remove it. It was an unfortunate scene, especially considering the long history of political and social activism in soccer.

According to the National Post, BMO Field staff told the fans responsible for the display that they were not in an assigned supporters section and, therefore, were not permitted to display the banner. The fans quickly corrected the staff, reminding them that they were indeed in the proper section (Section 111) and had often used signage and banners to support the team. Notably, tickets for the section state that views may be blocked due to standing, banners, or signage.

Still, the few supporters who bravely held the banner were ultimately forced to remove it. They promptly broadcasted the episode on social media.

In contrast to the scenes in Toronto — home to one of the world’s most diverse metropolises — a host of clubs and supporters elsewhere were actively expressing their support for the plight of refugees. In German Cup action, brilliantly unapologetic pre-match displays of support came from St. Pauli FC and Borussia Dortmund.

All over Europe, there have been tremendous displays of support in various soccer stadiums. British group #RefugeesWelcome EPL has been organizing and promoting advocacy throughout England.

Millions of euros have been pledged from superclubs Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, and Paris Saint-Germain. FC Porto lobbied UEFA, insisting that proceeds of Champions League ticket sales should benefit refugee relief programs. Clubs like Roma and FC Barcelona have also conducted fundraisers. Arsenal and Celtic FC donated proceeds of ticket sales and held events for refugees. Even other kinds of football (Aussie rules) recognized that games, generally, provide “sanctuary and opportunity” for refugees and migrants.

Meanwhile, Toronto won’t tolerate a banner in the stands on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Toronto supporter and #RefugeesWelcome activist Ciaran Breen told me that this isn’t a problem specific to MLS or Toronto. “North American clubs are more proactive in protecting apolitical corporate space,” he said.

Somewhere, Eduardo Galeano is turning in his grave.

A representative from Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), owners and operators of Toronto FC, explained that the banner was removed due to venue and league policy that does not permit “banners containing any kind of political message.” (Editors note: The author reached out to MLSE for comment three times prior to publishing and, to date, has not received a response.)

Yet some might argue that showing solidarity with 4,088,099 displaced and desperate Syrian refugees might be a gesture of humanity, not politics.

MLSE’s statement conveniently ignores a basic reality: soccer culture is inherently political. Furthermore, freedom of expression that doesn’t incite racist, homophobic, or sexist thought is a right that should be protected by all clubs. Muzzling supporter voices only sets an inconsistent precedent by selectively curbing certain actions and expressions. For instance, Toronto FC can hardly claim to host an apolitical environment when it hosts an annual, hyped-up “Armed Forces Day.”

Hardcore Toronto supporter Kristin Knowles explained her discomfort with the acceptable version of political expression at games: “Athletes sporting camouflage should not turn into people clamoring to buy the latest special kit from the merchandise stalls. Because soccer is a game; it’s not war. And war isn’t a game, nor should it be celebrated as one.”

When it comes to politicizing sport, Knowles is spot on: highlighting a democratic country’s military at a sporting venue, and then trying to monetize it, is political expression of the highest, and possibly worst, order. Contrasted with the refusal to allow signs welcoming refugees, MLSE’s stance is increasingly uncomfortable when you realize that Toronto and MLS teams hyperactively support military efforts, but won’t allow fans to support the victims of a war. Because that, apparently, is politics.

Toronto fan and activist Edward Hong-Sing Wong, who was present when the banner was removed, explained that there is a lot of discontent expressed by supporters’ groups in response to teams and the league suppressing fan expression, while simultaneously appropriating supporters’ imagery for marketing purposes. It’s a tension that has existed in MLS for years.

But it hasn’t been all bad news in North America. Banners highlighting the refugee crisis flew in other North American soccer stadiums. The day before Toronto’s unwelcome debacle, fans displayed a “Refugees Welcome” banner at a game between Minnesota United FC and the Carolina RailHawks in the North American Soccer League (NASL), the second tier of U.S. Soccer. It was not removed by security staff citing policy.

Closer to Toronto, supporters of the NASL’s Ottawa Fury FC proudly unveiled a huge banner at a match against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. The club supported the action so much, its official account tweeted a picture of the banner.

Considering MLS, U.S. Soccer’s first division, boasts successful players who were once refugees, Toronto and the league may want to reconsider their stance. Both LA Galaxy’s Baggio Husidic and Orlando City FC’s Danny Mwanga are examples of children who escaped brutal conflicts and political instability to seek asylum in the United States. Against unfathomable circumstances, they persevered and now make livings as professional players. It’s unfortunate that MLS is comfortable writing about these player triumphs, but uncomfortable with fans supporting the process that enabled players like Husidic and Mwanga to make it in the league.

Syrian refugee children play soccer at a Syrian refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese town of Majdal Anjar, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)AP

Syrian refugee children play soccer at a Syrian refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese town of Majdal Anjar, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Ultimately, European or Australian soccer shouldn’t be the only regions responsible for standing up for social justice. Soccer is the world’s game. Sure, campaigning for social justice shouldn’t be an obligation for all supporters, but those who choose to advocate for the well-being of other humans should unequivocally have that right.

It’s important for MLS, NASL, and the National Women’s Soccer League (yes, I am also calling out women’s soccer) to promote sites like www.refugeeswelcome.ca or relief efforts. But, at a minimum, these entities should not be silencing supporters aiming to help, during a crisis, to secure the sanctity of apolitical corporate spaces. Hiding behind the notion of sports venues as apolitical spaces is not just propagating a fallacy; it’s also embarrassing in its naiveté and hypocritical.

To the men, women, and children battling against the most horrific of circumstances, simple acts of solidarity and compassion through soccer would show them they are not forgotten, and that the global soccer family does and will always care. Sure, it isn’t everything, but it’s something. And in times like these, having something can make all the difference.

That said, it’s your move Toronto FC.

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