Review of
Will Simpson and Malcolm McMahon, Freedom Through Football: The Story of the Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls (Bristol: Tangent Books, 2012)

Within alternative sports circles, the Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls of Bristol have reached quasi-legendary status. Among the various sports clubs prioritizing community building, solidarity, and fun over competition and profit, the Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls stand out as one of the longest running, biggest, and most influential. Now, on the twentieth anniversary of their foundation, we are presented with a history of the club in book form. Will Simpson and Malcolm McMahon have risen to the task, providing us with all the crucial facts, reports of the club's major activities, analyses of its inner workings, entertaining anecdotes, and numerous pictures and illustrations, including state-of-the-art DIY flyers from the earliest days. Since the original Cowboys were a football team and since footballers remain the strongest contingent within the club (with no less than seven active teams), the focus on soccer is not surprising; however, we also learn about Cowboys and Cowgirls playing cricket, netball, basketball, and even, during a short-lived attempt in the 1990s, rugby. In telling the club's story, the authors do not gloss over the problems that all social projects of this kind inevitably encounter – here, they include death, substance addiction, and internal conflict. Simpson and McMahon handle these difficult issues with remarkable care and dignity.

The idea of sports clubs focusing on community rather than competition is not new. In fact, it is at the heart of the original amateur ideal. The problem with traditional amateurism, however, is two-fold: 1. It often had a class bias, where the ideal was primarily sustained by those who could afford it, that is, by people who had no need to earn money from playing sports. 2. It was apolitical, pretending that sports can be played in an environment supposedly unaffected by society's power structures. What distinguishes conscious clubs like the Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls from this tradition is that they fall into neither trap: the non-profit approach to sports is not based on class privilege but on a general discomfort with commercialization and careerism, and – while moral policing is shunned – there is a strong awareness of sports' ability to uphold, but also to undermine, dominant power structures. It is here where these clubs become legitimate descendants of the early twentieth-century workers' sports clubs that were crucial for working-class culture before nationalism, war, and consumer society set an end to one of the most genuine popular attempts at social change.

Even if unintended, this legacy is also expressed in the Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls calling themselves a "Sports and Social Club", which evokes the memory of the many Spanish and Latin American Clubes Sociales y Deportivos. While some of the latter were committed to sobriety, however, the "all-pervading love of beer" and of other stimulants features strongly in Freedom Through Football. There are some bright spots for straight edge readers, though: not only did the Cowboys get inspired to form a futsal team after playing at a straight edge punk festival in Brazil, but their first trip through alcohol-free EZLN territory in Mexico also brought surprising realizations: "Incredibly, despite all our fears and worries about the army, the checkpoints, guns, heat and insects, we had achieved everything we set out to do. We had even proved that we can function for a week without alcohol. In fact, we all realised that [there] was no possible way we could have coped with the march of death, the 21 games of football and the physical exertions that were required of us with alcohol. That and a week's worth of clean mountain air in our lungs meant that we all returned to San Cristobal feeling on top of the world." Who would have thought?

Since Freedom Through Football is an inside history, it is inevitable that some parts will mainly appeal to readers familiar with Bristol and its surroundings, with the neighborhood of Easton, with the delightful characters that have written Cowboys and Cowgirls' history, and with The Plough, the pub that has always served as the club's headquarters (its former landlord, Cliff Bailey, even provides a preface). This familiarity is far from a requirement for enjoying the book, however. There are plenty of tales highly relevant for both the sports fan and the grassroots organizer. This involves the Cowboys and Cowgirls' tours of Chiapas (the second one involving a figure modestly introduced as "a young Bristol street artist called Banksy"), Palestine, Brazil, and other regions as much as local campaigns in support of so-called illegal immigrants or in opposition to the all-out assault on the commons.

It also involves reflections on how a sports club – or any social project, for that matter – can live up both to certain ethical standards and to the virtue of inclusivity. This is never an easy thing to do, since the interpretation of ethical standards will always differ when people from a wide variety of backgrounds unite. Furthermore, as the authors note, "there has never been a Cowboys manifesto that you have to sign up before joining", despite a commitment to certain principles ("opposition to racism, sexism and homophobia being a very significant one"). Since it is not surprising that these matters have caused tensions among Cowboys and Cowgirls, it is particularly encouraging that they have not led to serious rupture, but, in the authors' opinion, to the club becoming "stronger". The reason was a willingness to dialogue and to actually put inclusivity into practice. Far too often, inclusivity is proclaimed as an ideal, while it is at the very same time undercut by excluding practices. In this light, the Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls have set a remarkable example for any kind of social organizing, one that many activists can, and must, learn from.

The Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls have already left a strong legacy. In 1993, they organized the first Alternative Football World Cup, an event that exists to this day and a crucial factor in the emergence of a worldwide alternative football network reaching from São Paulo, Brazil, to Vilnius, Lithuania. They also kickstarted international solidarity projects like Kiptik (Tztezal for "inner strength") whose self-proclaimed aim is "to support the Zapatista struggle directly through the construction of drinking water systems, ecological stoves, health and mural projects". Not least, they have had a long-lasting impact on the community of Easton. Best of all, there is no sign of stopping!

Everyone is encouraged to join Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls' history by attending their games and tournaments, by supporting their campaigns, or simply by visiting The Plough. Everyone is also encouraged to read Freedom Through Football, which should not be missing on the bookshelf of anyone interested in sports, social justice, and having a good time – it's rare to find a more fitting package.

Gabriel Kuhn

(December 2012)