Under the Influence

Not what you think.

Today in my core seminar we were discussing texts that influenced our perspectives on our subject whether they were geographical or not. That left me a lot to think about, as I have read quite a few book in my subject area, but a number just outside it that have influenced me too.

If I were to trace the origins of my project back to its source I think I’d have to give the credit to Nick Hornby. In “Fever Pitch”, he explained his love of his team in a way that I understood from my own childhood obsession with the Calgary Flames. It helped that we shared the same Premiership team, but it put the idea of being a fan and that it meant more than being a fan into my head. I wanted to understand why the game over there meant so much more than sport over here.

I turned to Franklin Foer next. His soccer started to explain the world to me, but it was clear that he had also been influenced by another that came before him, Simon Kuper. I’ve read “Soccer Against the Enemy”, “Soccernomics”, and “Soccer Men”. In all his books I’ve felt that understanding the sport and the passions it stirs in its fans is a legitimate line of research. For the history of the game I turned to David Goldblatt’s “The Ball is Round” which is simply the most comprehensive history available.

Outside of texts, I’ve played enough Football Manager (computer game) to drive my wife nuts with me watching small dots chase each other around on the screen. She can’t understand why I’d find a game where I don’t actually play the match so enthralling, but apparently she’s not alone with it being cited in 35 divorce cases.

Then there is my wife herself. She’s obviously a huge influence on my research. The poor woman has had to put up with endless one sided conversations about the importance of certain acts of fandom from around the world. She also had to suffer through becoming a Saturday morning widow (although she has come to appreciate her new found solitude), and watching her oldest son succumb to the same soccer affliction that his father has. But beyond her suffering, I’ve watched her do her own research for years, read over drafts and seen her go through the ups and downs of the research process; it has stirred me into following my own interests and she’s always supported me since I decided to do this.


If Karl Marx Played Soccer

I’m taking two classes this semester: the first is the core seminar for geography, and the other is Space, Place and Capitalism, aka “the Marx Course”. Prof. Das is really, really excited about Marx – and has on more than one occasion described Marx as his hero. It’s actually pretty awesome to see someone as worked up about their material as Prof. Das is.

So I was thinking this morning as I went over my readings just before class, what if Karl Marx played soccer? The funny thing is there is tons of stuff out there, some of it dating back 100 years from communists or unionists complaining about soccer as an opiate of the masses and how it keeps them from seeing how they are being exploited. Even recently, some Marxists have written about soccer and its ability to distract society. Luckily some of them realized the best way to talk to the proletariat was to form a football club. And this is I think where Marx would come in.

Oh sure there is rank commercialization of soccer, particularly at its highest level, but that is not the only way of organizing a team. One of the biggest clubs in the world FC Barcelona is organized around a grassroots model where each voting share helps to determine the direction of the organization. (Any coincidence that it plays in the old stronghold of the old anti-Franco Spanish Republicanists?) For the Brits, they’ve got AFC Wimbledon – fans who put together their own team when Wimbledon FC moved to MK Dons. And there are many others. What I’m trying to say is that in these cases, the consumers (okay not the producers) control the means of production. I think Marx would be okay with that. But now lets put him on the pitch.

I don’t think Marx would work well in goal or defense, too much of what I’ve read suggests that he was very critical of everything in capitalist society, that suggests an attacking mentality, so perhaps he would work as a striker. Having had to read large chunks of Capital 1 now, I’d have to object to his pace: there is always a build up in his attacks, but he does use his head a lot, so depending on his height he’d need a large number of through balls and some good finishing as I don’t think he’d be looking for break attacks. That slow build up of his and his insistence on social relations would probably make him better suited for passing than actually shooting (maybe we can put Lenin or Trotsky as strikers, but that is another blog). And since the foundations of materialism and communism originate from him perhaps we can think of him as the general on the field – making the passes and focusing the attack against capitalism. I think he’d fit quite well in the ticky-tacky Barcelona passing game.

Of course then I found this. And Marx was right.

Space…the Final Frontier

A bit of a break from blogging, but I’ve had a bit of a brainwave over the last few days. After talking to my supervisor last week he suggested the idea of looking more at the performance aspect of football fans. (notice how I just slipped into the use of football – I’m going to have to spend some time in my thesis being very careful about my word choices) Then in talking to another student, I mused about writing a conference paper based on the behaviour of Panamanian fans outside the Canadian Team’s hotel when Canada visited for a recent World Cup qualifier.

Of course I’m now super excited and already doing research on all this and finding and not finding what I need. I’m interested in the idea of how fans create space for themselves. It’s one thing to have the chants and flares and signs of the supporter’s clubs inside the stadium, but they also contest space outside the stadium. Sure the home supporters want to own the space outside, but the visitor’s supporters marching in can be a provocative trespass of that space. Not only do the two groups have to negotiate each other, but also authorities who want to maintain some semblance of order about the event.

I took my son Marcus to the Canada – US friendly back in June and we arrived just at the same time the American supporters arrived (not the average supporters – the organized ones). As they held their little march to the stadium they chanted, waved their flags, threw smoke bombs, and generally made a big nuisance of themselves. They moved as one all the way to the gates and went in together. I think back to that now and how they performed their invasion of “Canadian” space. The effect of the large, cohesive group and the noise was a bit of a provocation to all the Canadian fans that they weren’t to be messed with – even if they were actually pretty nice guys (I chatted with a couple of them), and if their fans were that strong, the team must be strong too. What is even more fascinating about all of this in a North American context is the way that the chants, march, songs, signs, flares, etc. is all a borrowed performance from other soccer cultures – especially English. Now I’m left with the question of how the performances around the world are different and why (other than the obvious reason of soccer being a more marginal sport) North American fans do so much borrowing of supporter cultural performance?

So my first semblance of an idea. Obviously still needs some work, but my supervisor warned me I’ll probably switch ideas until some time in December. On the upside that’ll keep me blogging.

Vend it Like Beckham

If there is one player who has blurred the line between being a player and being a commodity, it is David Beckham. He is a poster for soccer, but also a billboard for advertisers to hang their products off of. He was a good player (we’ll talk in past tense as his languishing in MLS is really a form of easing into retirement), but never that amazing superstar that was clearly the best player of his time. Yet he turned his ability to take a wicked free kick into a marketer’s dream. I mean he had a movie named after him where he only had a cameo.

Even more amazingly, he has maintained that marketing allure long after his most productive on-field days are behind him. His move to North America served as a marketing tool both to attract MLS fans (how many LA Galaxy jerseys had you seen before he signed?), but also worked to market the league to aging European stars as a place to play out their golden years without the hassle of being  recognized everywhere they went.

Beyond the soccer though, he has always been a mannequin to put new hairstyles, clothes, and men’s care products on. He is synonymous with metrosexuality, and that will be his career once he finally hangs up his cleats. Now he literally is a mannequin – or at least represented in a larger than life statue that has adorned H&M stores around North America (and dare I say worldwide?). We first met silver Becks while on vacation in New York in August, I read that he would be promoting his new line of clothing with these statues at H&M’s midtown Manhattan stores, so since we were in town…

I love the pose, the picture of him in the background smoldering, and the idea that this is all to sell some undies. So I though of course New York would get these statues, but not little old Canada. Oh how wrong I was…

Silver Beck’s Canadian Tour

So now the global brand is hawking his (under)wears in Canada, or at least the larger than life silver version of him is.

P.S. – I will give him credit for some comfortable underwear.

SSHRCing My Responsibility

Down to work.

First weeks are over, classes are running, BBQ is past; it’s time to settle into my first semester. That means planning for next year! Thursday will be a writing circle for all students planning to apply for the major funding grants available from the government, in my case it’s SSHRC (physical geog goes for NSERC) and OGS. Now the actual deadline for these proposals isn’t until late October, but by then I’ll be buried in papers in addition to this, so I need to get moving now.

On the upside, I re-read my full proposal for my application to get into the grad program and it is at least a start for what I could use for my application. Although I’ve recently had some new ideas for where my project might go (patience – I’m doing a slow reveal) the original still works for the basis of a project.

The current proposal is looking at how the local communities around soccer(football) stadia are affected by the gentrification of those stadia. Since the 1990s almost every single stadium in England has been renovated or replaced to comply with safety regulations brought in following the Hillsborough disaster. So with that amount of change over that short a period, I’d like to look at how that has changed not just the socio-economic character of the neighbourhoods, but also how it has affected the club’s relations to it’s neighbours. For instance, does Nick Hornby have to walk farther to get to Emirates Stadium, and how does he feel after all those years at Highbury? My gut is that there is probably some resentment amongst the locals for having to put up with all the construction and then finding out your neighbour jacked up the price of tickets to finance the build (or buyout by debt-ridden Americans – looking at you Glazer). I should know, I currently live next to a construction site where they did a little change in the plans once they broke ground…, but I digress.

One of the things I’ll have to figure out (besides being able to afford a research trip to England) is how to collect the info I’ll need for my thesis. I’m thinking that the socio-economic shouldn’t be too hard to come by, but tapping into the neighbourhood’s emotions will require leg work and interviews. So what will I need to ask, who will I need to ask, and how am I going to be able to do it, these are what I’m going to have to puzzle over before the writing circle.

My other concern is that my proposal engaged with literature, just not the sort of literature that gets valued by scientists. Now this is no slight on Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch is one of my favorite soccer reads, but the people that will be reading my proposal need more than Hornby, Franklin Foer, Simon Kuper, and David Goldblatt, they’ll need the geographers. Now maybe in a decade some grad student will come along with a similar idea and he’ll have Evans to go to as well, but that means I gotta get my butt in gear for the sake of future scholars.

How Could I Say No?

As a welcome to the York Geography Department, one of the Professors (Emeritus) hosts a BBQ at his farm North of Toronto. This is a chance to socialize, meet and greet, and get some good food while hanging around with your fellow grad students and also your profs. It was fun, a nice group of people lots of families, and a soccer game*.

Okay, as I’ve announced, this is a blog about my studies at York while looking at the geography of soccer. Did I have any choice but to play? On the one hand, I’m not in particularly good shape – granted I don’t look like I’m impersonating a soccer ball, but at the same time I’m no Messi (disclosure: actual years spent playing soccer = 0). On the other hand, I’m studying soccer, my classmates and several of my profs know this. I don’t think even a “yeah that’d be fun, but I’ve got this bum ankle…,” would salvage my pride. So off I went to try desperately not to make a fool of myself.

Lessons in how not to make a fool of yourself:

1a) Bring small children onto the field with you, if they play well you bask in their reflected glow, knowing that they must have picked something up from you.

1b) If they don’t play well and get in your way – ready made scapegoat!

1c) If they are really young, adults are afraid to close them down or generally run into them, they make great defenders.

2) Play defense – very underrated in pickup games, meaning you look either a) responsible, or b) modest.

3) If your fitness levels are not that great play goalkeeper (apologies to real keepers – I know its a hard job, I gave up the “last goal wins”).

Final score: Other team won, but at least I didn’t do anything worthy of being posted on Youtube (good or bad).

Oh, and thanks to all the profs who put the BBQ on it was fun.

*Note: only a Geography Department soccer game will ever be interrupted so that a bird just behind the field can be identified.



Trying Out Something New

So here I begin my blogging experience and my son has a new soccer adventure. He is now old enough to play in an under-8 league and so today was the first of two tryout days for the rep team. I’ve been to every one of his games since we’ve registered him in a league and I’ve watched him grow as a player over the last four years. It has also meant that I’ve found a number of friendly parents that are watching right along with me and supporting their boys.

This is the first age group where parents have had the choice to opt their child into the more competitive division. Up until now the league offered supplementary training before gametime to those with an extra hour to kill, but it was open to all comers. Essentially this season of competitive soccer should work the same way, but it’s clear from the tryouts that the level of soccer will be quite different. These kids usually or always attended the supplementary training, and many we know from summer camps and leagues that we’ve previously played in. Now the boys will be receiving three hours a week practice in addition to whatever festivals the teams attend. We’ve hit the point where boys who are interested get extra to be good, by being good they get extra and so on. Very soon they’ll be on their way to racking up the 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers) talks about to become a master at something. Speaking of which, next time I’ll swipe the register so I can get the birthdate data and see if Gladwell is also correct in stating that these competitive leagues tend to be skewed to children born at the beginning of the year. He reasons that the older children (January babies) in an age cohort will be marginally more developed mentally and physically and so will appear to be more talented than a comparable child born in December. With their elite status they then receive more resources, which reinforces the difference in talent that really only existed because of when they were born.

I can see this happening but I don’t think I’ll mention it to my boy with a July birthday.