Field Work Awaits

This is my last post on this side of the Atlantic for the next month. Tomorrow I leave for Liverpool and a month of field research on the football fans of that city. My plan is to watch a several games there over the next few weeks and to meet and interview some of the fans of the teams (primarily Liverpool and Everton).

I did a test run of my research methods at the Toronto FC – Montreal Impact game on Wed., so I have some idea of what it is I’m getting into, but I don’t think a sparse crowd of 11,000 at BMO will in anyway compare to the crowd at Anfield or Goodison Park. The biggest limitation is that I can only be in one place at a time, so I will undoubtedly miss some of the action that I’m interested in, but at the same time, in being at a game and watching the crowd (and the game too) gave me some confidence that this is actually doable.

Interesting observations of the TFC Impact game:

  • When the weather sucks it can be more of a factor than any crowd, and will keep the home supporters away (if you came from Montreal for the game you were going to stick it out no matter what);
  • Standing is waaaaay better than sitting in freezing, windy, and wet conditions;
  • I like that TFC fans swear in both official languages – how Canadian can you get;
  • Taking pictures is really easy since everyone else is doing it;
  • Taking audio clips looks odd, but maybe I’m just holding a weirdly shaped phone;
  • The best chant of the night was the “The Massive” chant that goes on between section 112-13 and 109-111. The call and response part of the chant really gets everyone into it – you feel like you’re part of the group and it takes over the whole corner of the stadium – my best instance of how the TFC fans claimed their territory;
  • Biggest limitation – it was difficult to observe the Impact fans as I was at the opposite end of the same East Stand – gotta be more careful in my seat selection (not that I have much choice in England).

So here I go, first match up is this Wednesday. AFC Liverpool vs. Squires Gate in the North West Counties Premier League (9th tier of English Football). Average crowd is about 100, so this should be a bit of a different experience. Will keep you posted about the footy on the Merseyside.

Pitch Invasions

Stoke City Fans invade following promotion to Premier League in 2008.

Stoke City Fans invade following promotion to Premier League in 2008.

Craziness will rule the soccer/football world for the next month. Between now and late May, the season will draw to a close and all of the promotion/relegation battles of Europe will be sorted out.

Some of these are far less dramatic than others: England, Scotland and Germany have all crowned their champions ridiculously early by any standard (Man U, Celtic, and Bayern Munich respectively). But there remains a large number of other domestic leagues and the entire pyramid of subordinate leagues that are still in the process of determining who goes up and who goes down. Yes this may seem like a foreign concept to the North American sports fan, but if a team has an horrible, terrible, no good, very bad season then they get sent to the league lower down. Rather than rewarding poor performance with a good player, they just kick the team out of the league and replace it with the winner of the next best league.

But I digress, what I really want to write about is the importance all the games take on for the various battles that are part of promotion/relegation. For many teams, promotion was never really the goal – they just got promotion to their current league, weak crop of players, financial limitations, stadium restrictions prevent promotion anyway, etc. They may have more to fear from the other end of the table, which makes that moment they escape relegation feel like they’ve just won a trophy.

In contrast to the solo pitch invasion earlier this season during the Manchester derby, the massive “we (didn’t get relegated/won promotion) pitch invasion” works entirely differently than the aggressive assault on the opposition players that occurs at other times. Now part of it has to do with timing, in that the celebratory invasion takes place at the final whistle, rather interrupting the match itself. A proper pitch invasion should also occur during a home game, it isn’t really possible to flood the field with visiting supporters in most cases. If the visitors did invade the pitch, it would no longer be construed as a celebratory act, it would be the invasion of the home side’s space, and could not be well-received by the home fans. So despite the fact that these mass pitch invasions involve hundreds to thousands of supporters, the incidences of hooliganism (which has resurfaced over the last two weekends in England) are not really there – people are too happy to fight. Well, most of them.  The invasion itself is a transgressive act – the stewards will still try to stop the first few before they beat a hasty retreat, and the act itself is reserved for the most important occasions – trophies or promotion. It is a moment where the fans actually possess the space that they’ve been defending all season, despite never being allowed on it. It is there moment of unity with their team, where both can share the field (even if the players usually flee for the changerooms as the whistle sounds).

Here are Barnet’s fans celebrating. (Language NSFW) What are they celebrating? Not promotion, not a trophy. This pitch invasion is to celebrate that they aren’t being relegated out of the English Football League 2. Note in the video, the drama is enhanced by a last minute penalty save, and that the steward still tries to stop the cameraman from entering the field. Much of the celebration then takes place outside the entrance to the tunnels where the Barnet fans sing to celebrate finishing 20th in a 24 team league. Barnet’s Underhill Stadium capacity is 2302 seated , which isn’t overwhelming, but consider that this stadium was packed to watch a team near the bottom of the 4th division of English football to get an idea of how popular the sport is.

Now to turn it up a bit, Cardiff City FC secured promotion last week, and this isn’t just promotion, but entry into the Premier League. The big show (with a massive TV payout to go with it). This video makes the Barnet invasion look quaint, as Cardiff City Stadium holds 26,000 fans. Watch the players and officials flee, even the stewards make a run for it, and within a minute the crowd has emptied onto the field. Again, the singing and celebration of the moment, without much of the stupid side of soccer that non-followers know all too much about.

So the ground that is taboo for most of the season then becomes for these few moments, the place where fans can celebrate together and celebrate “their” victory for the season, however big or small.

Di Canio Re(Dux)

Paolo Di Canio’s appointment to Sunderland AFC managed to gain some attention over here. Here’s a link to CBC’s The Current discussion regarding Di Canio from Abraham Foxman (Anti-Defamation League, asking for Di Canio to be fired), Mihir Bose (author of Game Changer, talking about English football), and Alberto Testo (professor at Brunell University, discussing Italian fascism).

The discussion just reinforces to me the performative aspect of Di Canio’s fascism. Here was a player who acted out fascist salutes during his time at Lazio (again, a team with a historical connection to Italian fascists), got tattoos to back his fascist credentials; yet on moving to England to play there is nothing from teammates or his managers to evidence any fascist sympathies. Despite all his antics at Swindon, the fascist performance seems to be absent. Instead, his performance in England has been received as a hotheaded Italian caricature. Either he is a gifted actor who knows his audience, he left his fascist ideas back in Italy, or he realized that his fascism isn’t going to play in England so he’s kept his politics to himself.

And in yet another update to the whole situation, Di Canio now steps into the Tyneside derby this weekend as his team takes on their local rivals Newcastle United. The English FA and local police have already geared up for the traditionally tense match with a warning to the Newcastle fans that fascist salutes will not be tolerated. Yes, far from having to warn the Sunderland fans from taking on the assumed political beliefs of their manager, authorities have taken to warning rivals not to use that as a way of mocking Sunderland’s manager.

So if Di Canio has brought fascist symbols to English sport, then so far the only evidence of it is through the use of them as mockery.


I just had this horrible sensation that I am studying the wrong country. I keep reading these posts about how boring English football is and how its lost its atmosphere, and then this comes along:

"On the path of the lost CL Cup"

“On the path of the lost CL Cup” (click to play)

Borussia Dortmund did their Tifo today at their Westfalenstadion as the teams came out for the second leg of their Champions League quarterfinal. I remember from their group stage match against Arsenal last year that there is usually a pretty impressive banner that goes with the Tifo, but the reveal wasn’t as nearly as dramatic. I can’t see the MUFC fans pulling this off at Old Trafford as it might interfere with the viewing in the sky boxes (where people are really there to be seen than to watch the game anyway).

One of the best, and creepiest Tifos I’ve seen. Tifos are any large section displays often done by groups holding up coloured placards to make a design and show support for their team. The first one I remember seeing was one from the Opening of the 1984 LA Olympics – all the flags of the countries at the games, and I had no idea that it was such a big thing elsewhere.

There’s some interesting stuff going on in the Bundesliga these days. Better brush up on my deutch for a PhD. Auf wiedersehen!

Maggie Thatcher

Thatcher at Hillsborough

Thatcher at Hillsborough

Yes, like the rest of the blogosphere I have to note Maggie Thatcher passing away yesterday. But only for reasons strictly tied football. This is not some post to memorialize her or contribute to the hagiography of Saint Margret. Nope just to point out the rather conflicted history she has not only in England, but in English football.

Her legacy in sport largely derives from her being the PM during one of the most troubled periods of English football – the 1980s. In some part this problem was created long before her. England did not build a stadium between 1952 and the end of the 1980s, so the sport faced crumbling infrastructure – much like the rest of the country. Hooliganism first took off in the 1960s, so that wasn’t new either, but put that together with the run down stadia, and broader social unrest (which she did have a hand in) and you can see why the 1980s were the low point for English soccer fans.

Her critical moments in the sport began in 1985. In May of that year, the Bradford City stadium fire killed 56 fans and injured 265. Just weeks later, at the European Championship game in Heysel, Belgium, Liverpool fans charged the Juventus fans leading to a stampede that killed 39 and injured 600 when a wall collapsed.

Thatcher pressured the FA to pull England from UEFA competitions (England was formally banned until 1990-91, and Liverpool banned a further season).

Liverpool fans earlier this season

Liverpool fans earlier this season

Four years later, in April 1989, after the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, where 96 fans were killed and 766 injured. The conservative government of the time seemed very unsympathetic to the victims by discussing the drunken fans that caused it when Thatcher toured the grounds after the disaster, and it stuck with the Liverpool fans who spent much of the next two decades fighting for the truth of what happened on that day. After the Independent Panel on Hillsborough released its report on the disaster in Sept. 2012, the Liverpool fans at sang a song for Thatcher.

English football in the 1980s was a reflection of England of the 1980s. Hooliganism isn’t something reserved for fanatical soccer fans around the world. For every country where there is hooliganism among the fans, all you need to do is look at the wider society and you will find some social problem that finds its expression either through violence on the streets or violence in the stadium. The stadium is just the largest regular gathering and almost always televised, so if it happens there it is noticed. Consider the Port Said riot in 2011 by the Al Masri fans that left 77 Al Ahly fans dead. This came during a huge upheaval in Egypt and due to the Al Ahly Ultras role in the revolution, had political connotations as well. Italy, Greece, Portugal and Russia have all had incidents of fan violence over the last year, none of which are the most stable economically or politically. So in the 1980s of Thatcher’s England the stands reflected the street.

But in her passing, the Daily Mail noted that much of the changes that made the English league the most watched in the world have their roots in the Thatcher era and spring from the need to change the game from what it was in the 1980s, while the Guardian argues that she and those around her had no time for the sport and nearly destroyed the game. In her passing, English football fans will be just as divided over her legacy for the sport as they are for what she did for the country.

The Fascinating Fascist

Di Canio at Swindon

Di Canio at Swindon

English football is on its head over the appointment of Paolo Di Canio as the manager of Sunderland AFC, but as this was announced on Sunday following the Man U game, it could not be a April Fool’s Day gag. Although I am studying English football I had never really seen such a clear example of how the different leagues relate to one another until he was hired to replace Martin O’Neill and keep Sunderland from falling into the relegation zone. The hype/hypocrisy from the press over his hiring has again got me thinking about the treatment of non-Brits in the Premier League, particularly in management positions.

Di Canio isn’t just a lightning rod for controversy, he is the lightning. This is the player who, while playing for SS Lazio in 2005, gave a Nazi salute to the AS Roma crowd following a goal and again to Livorno fans, giving him a ban and considerable notoriety (Giorgos Katidis take note: you may never get a chance to play for the Greek team, but you still have a future career in management). Of course, he only fuelled the controversy with his response to the incidents saying, “I’m not a racist, I’m a fascist.” Despite this history, he managed to get hired at Swindon Town, then in League 2, and guided them to promotion, and was on track to see them promoted to Championship before he quit due to conflicts with the club board and ownership. One of the Swindon board members described Di Canio’s spell at Swindon as “management by hand grenade.” Perhaps because you could never tell what was going to happen next with him. Some of the highlights of Di Canio’s management techniques involved: kicking one of his players, mowing the field turf, and offering to spend his own money to keep three players on loan at cash-strapped Swindon Town. He even broke into Swindon’s offices following his resignation to take the team pictures that he wanted. This is a man who will not be stopped. But is he a fascist? Does it matter?

Arguably to the media, David Milliband, Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE), and many Sunderland fans it does. He does occupy a very visible spot in the sporting world now and although kids don’t often idolize the managers, he is very much a more public figure than he ever was at Swindon. However, he isn’t being paid for his politics, and having politically correct views is not a job requirement – winning games is. That said, I think some of the outcry over the whole situation is that it is another foreign manager at an English club. Consider the reception various other non-Brit managers have received this year: calls for Wenger’s dismissal, Benitez out was the cry at Stamford Bridge before he’d finished his first game, Villas-Boas nervy start at Tottenham. Arguably the worst job this year is Harry Redknapp’s QPR, but he’s English and trying to save a team so he’s been cut some slack. See the hypocrisy, it’s tougher to be a manager if you aren’t British because the game is British. It would be like all the Canadian NHL teams being coached by Europeans – Don Cherry would have an aneurysm.

But is he even a fascist? On the whole he probably leans that way, he has a tattoo “DUX” on his arm. However before I found that bit out I was wondering about his performance to the Italian fans those many years ago. Could it be that he was playing the part that was expected of him? Was he just riling up the opposing fans (Mussolini was apparently a Lazio fan) by playing the part of a fascist on a team long associated with fascism? Is it any different than Paul Gascoigne piping in front of the Celtic fans when he was on Rangers? Or Artur Boruc crossing himself as the Celtic keeper in front of the Rangers fans? Players can get just as involved in the performances as the fans. Am I going to turn off Sunderland because of Di Canio – not likely, especially if Crystal Palace get promoted and Ian Holloway is back in the EPL. Di Canio and Holloway  – that would be a press conference to watch.

Until then at least we know that the Sunderland practices will run on time.