This is Anfield? (Well, no, not really…)

As the silly season (the off-season and transfer window, where there is nothing to do but follow up rumors and speculation) continues, many of the big teams have embarked on their pre-season friendly tours scattered across the globe. These tours give the new squad a chance to play together, young prospects to stand out, and everyone to shake off the rust of a whole month off from the game. The popularity of these games leads to speculation that the EPL is still looking at a 39th game – extending the season by a week and having the teams play a game overseas that might actually mean something. Judging by the amount of money these pre-season tours can pull in for some teams, it’s not surprising that fans in England are worried. Consider the £1,000,000 fee that Liverpool missed out on in May because a potential friendly in Cape Town conflicted with South African league rules. And here in Toronto, the terrible TFC team that seems too exhausted to play a full 90 minutes most weeks is now stuck playing a mid-week friendly vs AS Roma (Aug. 7).

Beyond the financial and player management reasons for doing these tours, most of the teams that spend the pre-season travelling do so to expand their fan base (yes, there are financial reasons for that too). These tours may provide overseas fans their only chance to see their team in action – even if most of the first team gets subbed off after 45 minutes. Which then plays in to that old divide of who are the “authentic” fans: those that are from said team’s home town and live and breathe that team, or those fans that despite the distance separating them from their team, still find themselves connected to that distant team?

In a simple world people would all be fans of local teams, but of course the world is not that simple. People become fans of teams around the world for various reasons:

  • the fan originates from the distant team’s city (I cheer for the Calgary Flames – even if I haven’t lived in Alberta for 30 years).;
  • the fan’s family has connections to the team’s city;
  • the fan follows a specific player (how many Messi jerseys are sold on that basis alone);
  • the fan actually enjoys the way a team plays (I originally started following Arsenal for this reason);
  • the fan can have any number of other reasons, but the above are just a few that occurred to me.
Anfield Down Under

Anfield Down Under

Regardless of the reason, once hooked on a team the individual becomes a fan, often in a way similar to how Nick Hornby describes it at the beginning of Fever Pitch, “suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it.” If you’ve seen the tears of a young boy as his team (Barcelona) gets thumped by Bayern Munich, you’ll understand the suffering can be there even in the most distant fans. In fact, there is something more desperate to the distant fan, as they have been given multiple chances to turn aside, cheer for a closer team, watch a different sport, but they have chosen to stick with their far away team. They will sacrifice a Saturday morning sleep-in to get to the pub for the 7:30 AM kickoff. And if their team should happen to come to town, well, that could just be the moment of their life.

So it is no surprise that one of the videos that keeps popping up over the last few days is from Liverpool’s stop in Melbourne to play the Melbourne Victory. As I expected, the Victory were not the home team, just as Toronto FC was not the home team at Rogers Centre last year. Instead, the stadium was filled to its 95,000 seat capacity with the red of Liverpool – Liverpool was also playing in their “home” red kit. The Melbourne Cricket Ground became Anfield for the day. And no Liverpool performance would be complete without the anthem, perhaps the largest single crowd to ever sing You’ll Never Walk Alone – at least since the terraces disappeared, as the 95,000 capacity is more than double the size of Anfield. Local hotels reported 100% occupancy, an audience of 1 million Aussies watched the game, and the visit generated about $10 million AUD for the local economy.

While the experience of the game and its uniqueness for locals has the fans back in England worried, I doubt the 39th game will come to pass. The current system where the teams can use it as their pre-season  tour is an ideal way to generate money for the team and to shake the squad out with minimal personnel risk (these are friendlies, and rarely do the big stars play the full game – and sometimes they don’t even suit up). With familiarity breeds if not contempt, at least indifference. How do you decide where to play the 39th? Who becomes the home team? Do they play there every season? How many foreign fans will pay to watch Crystal Palace vs Hull? The massive appeal of the EPL is actually concentrated in just a handful of teams, meaning that for every raucous rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone, you’ll get a confused and silent crowd as Z Cars plays.

It’s a Woman’s World

Carlotta Schlein - Swedish Captain

Carlotta Schelin – Swedish Captain

A quick post so I can dash off home to watch the Women’s Euro semi-final between Germany and host country Sweden. I won’t be alone, this is a highly anticipated match in Sweden – having sold out and expecting a large TV audience in the soccer mad Scandinavian nation. The total attendance for the Women’s Euro has already broken the record set four years ago in Finland, and there are still four more games to go. The tournament has met with such success that it has forced a men’s game between Swedish powerhouse IFK  Gothenburg and Helsingborg to shift so it will not conflict with the final. Should Sweden get to the final they are expecting that the TV audience will surpass the 3.8 million that watched the 2003 World Cup final between Sweden and Germany, that’s over half the population of the country – so it’s not just the women watching. I’m glad the women’s game can attract such a high level of attention, as it bodes well for the game not just in Sweden, but in other countries that have latched onto women’s soccer.

Once you’re reaching those sorts of numbers for a country, you’re looking at Superbowl-like numbers, where the game becomes one of those shared cultural experiences. I’m thinking about the importance of the ’72 and ’87 Can-USSR hockey series, or even the recent Olympic gold medal hockey games and how they become important moments for the nation. While these are usually more important as wins, Canadian soccer has its own pivotal moment during the Olympics last year when the women lost to the USA in the semi-final, and won the bronze vs France.

All of which sets the bar very high for Canada in two years when we host the Women’s World Cup. Will we be able to generate the interest in our own country to support the games? The growing interest in the sport in general and the women’s team in particular bodes well. However, the lack of women’s professional soccer within the country makes it difficult for fans to follow on a regular basis. While the CSA is supporting roster spots in the NWSL, there is no franchise located in Canada. It takes time for fans to identify with a team and it’s stars, so Canada is going to need a good performance in some friendlies ahead of the tournament to really highlight who their players are.

But despite the growing popularity, the women’s game still faces a number of hurdles – in a recent post on BBC Sport about the English team’s elimination from the Women’s Euro, almost half of the comments were deleted because they didn’t meet the moderator’s rules or various other offences that get your comment banned from a forum. While yes these are mostly trolls, the degree of banned comments shows a high level of hostility to the women’s game. It was worse than most North American forums where the argument goes that soccer isn’t a sport. Then again, the class connotations of the game in England are far different than in North America. English football is a working man’s game both in play and spectatorship – few Englishmen I met found David Cameron’s interest in Luis Suarez at all convincing. In North America, the “soft” reputation of the sport and its elitist middle and upper class associations has given the women’s game a level of acceptability, and to some degree popularity that is unusual in women’s sport. So oddly, the very class association that has held back the acceptability of the men’s game in North America has given the women’s game a firm base from which to grow.