An Unwanted Rivalry

wimbledonDec. 2 marks round 2 of the oldest club cup in the world the English FA Cup. Now round 2 doesn’t usually draw too much attention outside of England as most of the big names don’t enter the tournament until later. In England though, this Sunday will be a special one if only for one game on the schedule: MK Dons vs. AFC Wimbledon.


Well, there’s a history in this game that is ten years in the making and the neutrals are probably looking forward to this more than some in the two clubs are. Ten years ago, the financially struggling Wimbledon was given permission to move 60 km away to Milton Keynes. I know here in North America we’re thinking: yeah? so? Teams move all the time, the NFL Raiders moved and moved back. Last season the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes (formerly Winnipeg Jets) played the Winnipeg Jets (formerly the Atlanta Thrashers) and the new Jets also played the Calgary Flames (formerly Atlanta Flames – which should tell you all you need to know about hockey in Atlanta). In baseball, three of the five teams in California have histories on the east coast (A’s from Philly, Dodgers and Giants from New York). Again, the structures of the leagues is so different that it alters how teams can exist and move within the league structures. We take it as a fact of life that you can lose your team at the whim of some rich guy; in England, the Wimbledon move was almost unprecedented and was seen as a move toward the American franchise system.

When Wimbledon left to become MK Dons, from the ashes rose a new club basically centered around the old fan base, but with more of a stake in the team so the would never lose the team again: AFC Wimbledon was founded. Despite the fears of franchising, the opposite has proved true with the foundation of a number of community-owned teams in reaction to ownership struggles (AFC Liverpool and FC United of Manchester). The AFC Wimbledon team started way down in the 9th tier of English football, but over the last decade has worked itself up to League 2, achieving promotion about every two seasons along the way. MK Dons sits in League 1, and so the inevitable was approaching, everyone knew at some point old and new would have to meet. Sure enough, the draw for the FA Cup put the two teams together should they survive their round 1 matches. Obligingly, Wimbledon beat York in extra time, and MK Dons easily saw off Cambridge in a replay. With news that the meeting was set, the media has gone nuts playing up the rivals.

While MK Dons looks at it as a way to close the past, AFC Wimbledon have struggled with how to approach this game. The scars are still very fresh for many of the fans and executives. The fanzine of AFC Wimbledon refuses to acknowledge the existence of MK Dons and never reports on them. Many fans of AFC have declared that they will not go to the match, because they refuse to give a shilling to “that club” – again avoiding the name. Even the AFC Wimbledon Chief Executive has said, “It is, as I have said in many, many press interviews, a game that was always going to happen someday. Personally, I wish it had happened after I relinquished this role, but so be it.” The AFC board have also refused any traditionally hospitality at Stadium MK, and will instead sit with the away supporters.

One side anticipates the match, the other approaches with anything ranging from trepidation to outright hostility. Nor do these teams meet on even terms, Wimbledon is a League below MK Dons, and almost two considering the current placing of AFC near the bottom of League 2 and MK Dons near the top of League 1. MK Dons have home field advantage, you could argue that AFC Wimbledon has something to prove. I expect MK Dons to win, but everyone loves an underdog, especially a wronged one.

I’m interested in rivalries, but what if the two teams don’t want to be rivals yet are thrust into the role through circumstance? There is no getting out of it in this situation, whatever happens on Sunday will be seen through that lens. There is clearly animosity between the two, but is this some match up that AFCW or MKD will ever look forward to? The role of history in the creation of rivalries is so important and the history of these two is poisoned.

The Ugly Game

Europe’s other cup – the Europa League, continued its group stages today, but not without some off-field problems.

Tottenham Hotspur was in Rome to play Lazio, which should have been a chance for two teams to celebrate a fan favorite that happened to play for both, Paul Gascoigne. Instead, all the news focused on the bar “The Drunken Ship” where visiting Tottenham fans were attacked by a masked mob of about 40 men armed with paving stones, metal bars, and anything else they could get their hands on. The mob attacked from multiple directions, trapped the Spurs fans, some American tourists, and others in the bar and proceeded to beat and attack the fans until they were through.

The immediate reports after the attack focused on the idea that it was a group of Lazio supporters that attacked the Spurs fans. On the surface this is of course the most simple explanation: the two teams were scheduled to play, Lazio has known fascist elements in its ultra groups and Tottenham fans relish their Jewish connections as the “Yid Army” and roots in a Jewish section of London.

While the last part is likely part of the reason for the attack, there is a problem with conflating all violence against football fans as football fan violence. It later came out that one of the suspects arrested in the attack was not a Lazio supporter, but an AS Roma supporter instead, which makes the Lazio vs Spurs story a less satisfying explanation.

In a meeting with my supervisor the other day we discussed the idea of whether a fan could be a member of multiple groups. My response was that to support two local rivals risks being seen as a traitor to either of the groups. Fan loyalties, if they are divided, reach outside the main rivalries and perhaps divisions so as to preserve the ‘other’ that your core loyalty defines itself against. My loyalties are divided between Arsenal (top choice) and Barcelona: Arsenal has the strongest pull on me, but Barcelona is a comforting fallback when Arsenal continually sells off its best players and then fails to win a trophy (again). As I’ve stated earlier, my biggest problem in Canada is TFC and Vancouver, as I am caught in an awkward position of liking both teams for my attachments to those cities.

Going back to Rome now, the arrest of an AS Roma fan undermines the idea of it being a straight case of fans vs fans. Just a couple of weeks ago the Roma-Lazio derby was its typically violent affair both in the crowd and on the field. These two groups of fans are not going to sit down and sing kumbaya together just so they can beat up some Brits. Instead, my theory is that there is a smaller group that happens to be united, but keeps connections in both ultra groups that is instead responsible. Rather than looking at this as football violence, this should instead be considered a hate attack. Fascist groups often recruit from ultra groups, but after reading Gabriel Kuhn’s Soccer vs the State, I will make a distinction between ultras and hooligans. Ultras fight for their team, whereas hooligans just fight. It is a difference of having a unified purpose (ultras) and nihilism and anarchy (hooligans). Now this attack becomes one directed by a fascist group containing football fans, rather than by football fans who are fascist. Spurs fans become a visible and easy target as both foreigners and as “Jewish”.

It is a subtle difference in the story, but one that is important in understanding the violence as not just a product of the sport of soccer – which is too often the conclusion in North America. Instead, the violence has deeper societal causes that are expressed in the highly combustible cultural experience of sport.

I’m Too Sexy For My Shirt

This Sunday is Beckham’s Grand Finale to his five year stint in MLS. In his time he’s marketed the league to a new group of fans who had at least heard of him – even in the USA where football means something altogether different. He’s also successfully marketed the league to aging European stars as a place to play out their last few years: Henry, Ljungberg, Keane, and Frings are probably here in part because of him.

It’s like Superman swooping down from the sky building up the league and then declaring, “my work here is done.” So Sporty Spice once again leaves his team/league in a better place than when he found it (the exception to the Beckham effect is Milan, but I’ll get to that in a minute). Wherever he’s gone, prosperity and success have followed. He started at ManU, was an important part of the treble winning 98/99 side – which is even more amazing considering that he began that season as the most hated Englishman for his sending off in the World Cup. Later he went to Real Madrid, only a club known as the Galacticos could possibly be big enough for Beckham, and again he left after hardship (put to reserves by future England manager Capello) followed by triumph: back on the first side and winning La Liga. So it was off next to America where he could not only take a team, but an entire league to new heights.

The North American adventure followed the traditional script, he sold a bunch of jerseys and then met with some problem, now it was injuries to the no longer youthful Beckham. Yet even injured, he managed to lift attendance and put the whole MLS on more solid footing. I always thought that the Beckham in America project was about his wife (and I still think that is part of it), but I’ve also grown to realize that he does see himself as much a football ambassador as a style ambassador. His loan to AC Milan perhaps undermined some of his commitment to the MLS project, but his faithful return and his play over the last two seasons have made up for that. The Milan loan also broke his string of bettering the teams he joined, as AC Milan was arguably at its peak at that moment and thanks to the trials of its owner Silvio Berlusconi has fallen far.

I was lucky enough to see him this spring during the Champions League match between Toronto and LA, and I have no doubt that TFC was able to get 43,000 fans into Rogers Centre due to the presence of Beckham. He was the star of the show, yes I got to throw a balloon and streamers at him on a corner in the first half (second row seats are fun), but the moment that sticks out is when he complained about the beer can that the far corner tossed at him just before taking the corner that tied the game for the Galaxy. He fights hard and gets mean when he needs to, he’s less posh than I thought. The fans cheered for Toronto, but came to see him.

And so once again Beckham is headed out, likely on a high note with the Galaxy in their second straight MLS final, but as he removes his jersey on Sunday (in full view of the crowd naturally), what jersey will he put on next? The success of the team is not Beckham’s criteria, it is the style of his arrival and playing that matters to the Beckham story. He began in Manchester, which has its own sort of cool, but wasn’t the fashion capital like say: London. His next moves have been to Madrid, LA, Milan – he lives the good life and he lives it in style. He also has a family to think about. So in the various rumors offered up so far we can see the potential moves for Beckham.

  • Australia is out. Beyond the no already stated, Australia serves no purpose in the Beckham project. It neither advances soccer in that country or the world, and it is too remote from the fashion world to serve as a typical launching pad of Beckham style.
  • Glasgow Celtic is out. Even if Snoop Dogg were to buy a stake in the team – don’t hurt yourself jumping on that bandwagon Snoop (you might make Rod Stewart cry). Glasgow again lacks the style requirement for Beckham.
  • Paris-St. Germain has apparently offered once again to take him. While you can’t argue against Paris for style, and he has lived in France before, the other consideration for Beckham is that his aging body requires a league that he can still look good in: Ligue 1 yes he can do it, Champions League no he’s lost that pace.
  • That leaves three intriguing options that all represent the same goal. As a soccer ambassador, and fashion-forward mannequin, I can think of no better place for him than Asia. By this I mean China, Japan, or Korea. The parallels to MLS are important, he would come as the conquering hero of global soccer he already has legions of fans in those countries, and the risk to his brand by setting up there is negligible. Didier Drogba’s move to China this summer only increased the likelihood that Asian teams would try to land known superstars in the future.

Forget Gangnam style. They’ll be bending it like Beckham after the January transfer window.


What Are You Selling?

Walking by the local mall recently, I spotted these two athletes gracing the SportChek window.

Christine SinclairChristine Sinclair

Steve Stamkos

Beside the obvious “she’s wearing a pink top, he’s wearing a blue” that has been ingrained into us by countless stores (especially babyGap), there’s something interesting in the choice of sport celebrities for this ad campaign: male + hockey vs. female + soccer.

I think in part due to the recent Olympics and the fact that there is no hockey this season, she’s the much higher profile athlete of the two at the moment. That a female athlete is higher profile than a male athlete is a big enough deal, but here, in Canada, for a soccer player to trump a hockey player is almost unheard of. Now Stamkos is a good player, I know who he is and if he were on the ice, I might even know what team he plays for (it is still Tampa Bay right?). On the other hand, Sinclair is now nominated for FIFA’s female player of the year, won a bronze medal and en route to that medal got the entire country behind her and her team for the injustice they suffered against the USA (always a popular Canadian storyline).  So yay to women’s soccer for being able to rank up there with hockey.

But wait a minute. Now we’ve got the other message going on here: that our men play hockey and our women play soccer. I don’t see Dwayne DeRosario gracing the side of a mall anywhere (last year’s MLS MVP), and is there a women’s hockey player that could be up there instead of Sinclair? I think that the success of Canada in various sports is reinforcing some acceptable sporting choices and selection of role models for youth. How could you not be inspired by the Canadian Women’s Soccer team after the Olympics, and same with the Men’s Hockey in Vancouver? But there is the divide, boys find their role models in hockey – cause the CMNT in soccer is not something you aspire to, you choose it if you don’t have dual citizenship with somewhere else (ahem: Hargreaves, Hoillett, and de Guzman). Girls have a choice between the two, but women’s soccer is almost as high profile as women’s hockey (not that that says much outside Olympic years). And three years from now we’re set to host the Women’s World Cup, raising the soccer profile further.

I don’t mind the higher profile the women’s sport is getting, ultimately it’s good for both boys and girls, but I worry that even in the ads we’re starting to say that boys play this and girls play that – which is not healthy for either sport.

The Beautiful Game

A simple post tonight. To recognize a simple moment.

For all my thinking and writing about the fans, today I want to turn around and actually watch a moment on the field.

Tonight is about the goal. Not any goal the goal.

In an amazing display yesterday, Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored all four goals for Sweden in their 4-2 win over England in a friendly. It wasn’t enough that he scored four goals though. In his typical against the grain way he made a mockery of FIFA’s candidates for Goal of the Year by scoring his fourth goal from an overhead kick that lobbed into the English net from about thirty yards out.

Check out the video, put it on loop, and watch the most beautiful goal you will ever see over and over again.

BTW: FIFA announced today that they would not consider Ibra’s goal for the Puskas (Goal of the Year) Award, because they had already selected the finalists. He’ll have to wait ’til next year.

More Than a Game – Real Oviedo v Real Madrid `C

More Than a Game – Real Oviedo v Real Madrid `C.

Beyond my little academic world that I sit in, there is a whole world of soccer out there. One of the blogs I follow has become involved in a campaign to save Real Oviedo (a team in Spanish Segunda B – their 3rd division) from insolvency. Gambetta Football has told its followers how to invest in Real Oviedo, and then to further their support has enlisted the help of a Real Oviedo fan to provide match reports in English.

This is a great read from a truly passionate fan. It also includes a map of the world and all the countries where people who have donated to Real Oviedo come from.

As for its connection to my current research, the singing at 19:26, to commemorate the year of the club’s founding reminds me of the Danny Dichio song that TFC sings in the 24th minute. The ritualization of the club’s history into the performance of the fans just goes to strengthen the bonds between fans and club and has the bonus effect of helping to exert the team fan’s dominance over the soundscape of the stadium.

The good news story of the article is that Real Madrid has invested €100,000 in the team and that the opposition that Real Oviedo faced today was none other than Real Madrid ‘C’.

Update: Buenas Suerte Real Oviedo, because I’m a part-owner now.


So NBC has decided that it better have a backup plan to the NHL in the future.

Last week NBC signed a $250 million 3 year deal with the English Premier League to take the broadcast rights beginning in the 2013-14 season. So the math works out to roughly $83 million a season. NBC also has the rights to the NHL on a 10 year $2 billion dollar contract that began in the 2011-12 season, or $200 million a season. So yes, the NHL is the more valued product for now, but consider that although NBC isn’t paying right now (they just get an extension on their current contract if the season is cancelled), they are also not receiving any product from the NHL. At least the EPL is reliable. Well, okay, the NHL has its own reliability in its lockout schedule.

I’d say that the EPL deal will prove to be a bargain if they market it right (and avoid any tape delays a la the Olympics). The US has a growing soccer interest and MLS average attendances now surpass the NHL and NBA. The EPL is a different breed of sport for North America, the closest comparison has to be MLB where the equity between teams tends to be a bit of a joke, but the league thrives on perennial strong teams like the Yankees (the ones other teams and fans love to hate). The EPL has no concept of balance, yet it is the most popular league in the world. It’s fast, intense, and features many of the biggest names in the sport. No playoffs, no draft, no video review – things that all NA leagues rely on, and except for a rather odd experiment back in the early ’90s no cheerleaders.

The biggest barrier to the EPL in North America is simply the geography. Tape delay is soooo 20th c., but England is 5 hours ahead of the East coast and 8 ahead of the Pacific. The afternoon games in England then become early morning matches – something I’m all too familiar with, but that doesn’t make for the most sociable viewing. The global reach of the European leagues has already put pressure on some of the smaller leagues to adjust their schedule. Teams in Spain have complained that the games have shifted to accommodate broadcast schedules in Asia. North America simply doesn’t have the weight to shift the EPL – consider the size of the new BSkyB contract for the EPL broadcast rights in England are worth $4.86 billion (yeah dollars, not pounds). Suddenly $83 million doesn’t seem so big anymore.

Oh and just a reminder, the NHL is fighting over a total revenue base of $3.3 billion.


Last week I had a meeting with my committee to sit down and sort out what I was going to do and how. The purpose was to narrow down what I was going to investigate and start thinking about research questions. After about 5 minutes it was clear that my project was getting bigger, not smaller. On the upside, I think I’ve found that I could keep writing on this for the rest of my life, the downside is that I was left with almost more options than when I started. So we finally left it at me needing to get a proposal together for next week that will give me a focus, a question, and hopefully a way of answering the question.

How to do this has been gnawing at me all week, what to do is just as bad. I admit part of my difficulty is that I had temporarily lost my sounding board – my wife. She puts up with all my babbling about soccer, so is actually a good judge of whether I’m on the right track or not. She also understands academic angst. Sure enough, she got home from a conference and before we’d even had a chance to talk my mind was already working out a bit of an idea.

So today, I sat down to read an article from a journal that I think is pretty relevant to my research: Soccer & Society. (My secret goal is to get published in it) I was reading an article about interpreting fan rivalries and it basically provided an overview of what had been done and what needed to be done, and how to do it. There I was sitting in my office reading away, and my thesis was staring out at me from the paper! All I was missing was the chorus and the light from above as I read it. I’ll paraphrase it a bit here, but basically: “Somebody should really look at how fan rivalries contest space and defend territory by looking at the frequency of the conflicts and the historical roots of the rivalry – that would be some interesting research.” Admittedly, I need to work on my academic-ese, but that is one of the questions that I was discussing with my committee and then there it was sitting in a journal for me. Ta-Dah!

The biggest question I’m left with now is where? My committee and I agreed that England is probably best just to remove the language barrier consideration (and there are some top-notch rivalries there), but now that puts a different constraint on my fieldwork. If I’m going to look at fan rivalries, I’ve got to got to some games, preferably some good rivalries, and it has to happen this summer. Hmmm. Season ends in May (which also makes the rivalries most critical at that time of year with all the promotion/relegation battles), so working backwards, I have to go through ethics review by no later than mid-March, meaning I have my proposal late Feb., meaning I’ve got to have the basics and a good question now. I’m leaning right now toward Preston North End and Blackburn, but I  don’t think they will be playing each other this year, my only hope is that one of those sides is facing promotion/relegation while I’m over there. I think what is ultimately going to determine my choice is a good look at the fixture lists for May. Premiership would be great, but expensive and big. Championship could be interesting with less of a global element, and I’d even consider League 1 or 2 if the right combination of teams and fixtures came along. So my job tomorrow is to plot out all the games in the top four flights of English soccer during the month of May (playoffs excluded for the moment, but that may factor in later depending on how things pan out).

An idea and now the beginnings of a plan.