The Singing Section

As a non-Manchester United fan I can’t help but laugh at the news that they are going to trial a ‘singing section’ at their Champion’s League match vs Real Sociedad next month. Manchester United, the club with 659 million* fans seems to be having difficulty getting its stands at Old Trafford to make enough noise.

Old Trafford on a noisy day

Old Trafford on a noisy day

What a come down for current Manchester United manager David Moyes. I had the chance to watch his final game as Everton’s manager at Goodison Park and they sang for him throughout the game, the sound from the Gwladys Street stand was deafening, and all he had to do was give a slight wave in acknowledgement of the singing and the stand went nuts, louder than before. Goodison Park’s capacity is just over 40,000, but the old fashioned stands cram them in so tight it feels like you’re right next to the pitch and everyone is in a bit of a fishbowl. Old Trafford, now rebuilt to 75,000 seems to struggle to develop as much noise with nearly twice the capacity. Both stadia were originally designed by Archibald Leitch, the godfather of football grounds in England, although expansions and modifications over the years have changed what he designed a century ago. In the case of Old Trafford, the expanded capacity and the need for sightlines for those extra fans has probably diminished the closeness that the smaller, older version of Old Trafford provided, and altered the acoustics by opening up the stadium somewhat. There are similar concerns about the new Wembley, as the shallow bowl of seating allows for better viewing, but apparently at the cost of the noise that can be generated by the fans. This perhaps demonstrates why Man U felt is was necessary to hire a acoustic engineer last season to assist with the atmosphere.

Manchester United’s inability to generate noise at Old Trafford has become a bit of a joke among its opposition teams, and one that neither they, nor I, would put down exclusively to the architectural configuration of the stadium. The creation of the singing section would seem to show that what really is concerning the club is the ability to get a mass of fans together that can even make the required noise. Remember there are two (big) clubs in Manchester – United and City. City doesn’t seem to be having these problems because they draw the majority of their support from the local community, ones who are ready to sing their hearts out for the club.

United has become the tourist team, drawing fans from all over the world coming just to see a game at Old Trafford. This again touches on the debate of what a true fan is. Is it someone who lives and breathes the team because they are the local heroes? Or someone who is willing to follow from across the globe, and just prays for that chance to one day get to a game? United’s dominance of English football for the last 20 years, and the bandwagon effect of that success is probably part of the reason behind that rather bloated number of 659 million fans. Some of them are reds through and through, others are reds because…, hey they do win a lot of games! But bandwagon fans are not necessarily the most attached fans, nor are they the most informed and passionate fans should they ever get to a game at Old Trafford.

In Liverpool, the Kop is seen as a refuge for the local fans, you have to be ready to sing and you’d better be ready to cheer on Liverpool if you’re going to sit there. As I sat in the Kop, I heard some man yelling behind me, “If you’re not singing, go sit in the Main Stand!” And I know exactly what he meant, having sat in the Main Stand at the previous game, that Main Stand is filled with tourists there to watch Liverpool because it’s Liverpool. They may know “You’ll Never Walk Alone” but many won’t be singing it, because they are too busy taking a video of it to prove they were there. As for the rest of the songs, they may not even know them, and instead watch the Kop perform its repertoire. United has the same problems, but on a bigger 75,000 seat scale.

So to solve this problem, the ‘singing section’ idea has come about. A section dedicated to people who will loudly sing and cheer for United. It’s being first offered to season ticket holders, then general United members to try to get the most passionate supporters involved. Interestingly, they are being located in the South East corner of the stands – this is where the visitors’ fans usually sit. Have they accidentally been seating the opposing fans in an acoustic sweet spot? And what to do with the Real Sociedad fans that now have to sit elsewhere? The original plan was to stick them up in the third tier of the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand – sounds like a nosebleed section to me. Thankfully the police vetoed this plan (not a fan of sticking away fans that far away from the game), and United instead has configured an away section in the East Stand.

So one part of the East side will be dedicated to singing United supporters, and another section of the East end will be filled with noisy Spaniards. That’s going to make for an interesting dynamic, rather than the usual division between two ends, both the loudest groups of supporters will be located within singing distance from each other.

* 659 million fans based on a study last year, including 110 million fans in China alone.

Columbus Discovers Soccer

Pregame hype

Dempsey vs Chicharito

With a 2-0 win tonight the USMNT has all but qualified for Brazil 2014. CONCACAF is always dominated by the big two USA and Mexico teams, leaving the rest of us sorry North/Central American and Caribbean countries to fight over the scrap spot and a playoff against New Zealand. So the prospect of Mexico stumbling out at this point – and they may – is rather shocking for any place that conveniently finds itself covered by the Monroe Doctrine.

That’s not really what interested me about the game though. I was watching (and listening) to see how the Columbus, Ohio fans reacted to their new cheerleaders. Not a Dallas Cowgirls sort of cheerleading, but the Capos that were sent on the USMNT dime from Seattle to Columbus to help get the fans going. So you get the privilege of hosting a national team game, but are then told basically that another city’s fans are better than yours. Whether you agree with the fan evaluation or not is beside the point, it was done in such a way that came off a bit insulting to Columbus fans. I don’t think it got to the point where those fans would then stop supporting their team, but I’m guessing that the American Outlaw (US supporter group) membership in the Ohio region just dropped significantly. As one tweet I saw during the game said, “this is our house. being sung at Mexico or the Seattle Capos?”

Aside from the slight to the Columbus fans, one thing really bothered me about the Seattle Capo’s plans, a moment of silence for 9/11 in the middle of the game. Yes, I know it’s September 11 and there was a horrible event on this day 12 years ago, but it is difficult to stop a crowd from making noise for 71 sustained seconds during a match (from 9:00 to 10:11, the American Outlaws wanted a moment of silence). That Mexico was putting on a lot of pressure at that point and had a free kick during that span ended up ruining the effect by ineffectively taking the crowd out of the match. Silent crowds can be incredibly intimidating – usually against the home team, but the moment of silence is best left for pre-game ceremonies, not for the middle of the match where the action can ruin what would otherwise be a solemn remembrance. What would have happened if either side scored during that time? An effective use of the silent crowd was last December when German fans around the Bundesliga were silent for 12 minutes (!) to protest changing fan policies and ticket prices, but that’s German fans for you, they get all kinds of respect for their fan community. Something Columbus fans can only dream of at this point.

 

Call and Response

When I returned from my fieldwork at the end of May I wrote about the simmering fan resentment of English football fans. Now, two weeks into the season, we’ve seen the Premier League respond in some clever ways: directly to the supporters groups, and more broadly to the public at large.

The direct response to the supporters groups is a win for the #footballwithoutfansisnothing movement that held its protest at the EPL HQ on June 19. Back on Aug. 22, the Premier League confirmed to the supporters that a pool of £4 million (£200,000 per team) had been set aside for the express purpose of assisting supporters with away travel. Some clubs have already begun using this to subsidize the away ticket prices for fans purchasing through the club, or through booking supporters coaches and trains. Of course flush with a bit of success, that doesn’t mean the #footballwithoutfansisnothing is just going to pack up and go to the game, I think they’ll be around for a while and continue to press for more from the EPL.

Barclays Premier League

From the new EPL campaign

That of course means that the EPL has to keep working on pleasing its fans beyond just chipping in for train fare. So if you’ve watched any of the games in the first two weeks you’ll have noticed #youarefootball (advantage EPL for the shorter hashtag) ads flashing periodically on the electronic hoardings. Check out the ad that they are trying to direct you to, a real tear jerker. Notice that in the entire ad there is not one image of a player or a pitch and it only through some of the cues (scarves, jerseys or background) that you can even pick out what team the fans are cheering for. Brilliant. This is exactly what I was talking about last time and what the Chicago Fire seemed to not get with their blog. The #youarefootball ad gives you such a warm fuzzy feeling that it’s difficult to hate that super rich club of billionaires that jack up prices every season. Without the fans, football (or soccer) is nothing.

A Friendly in an Unfriendly Land

Afghan fans prepare to host Pakistan for the first time since 1977

Afghan fans prepare to host Pakistan for the first time since 1976

For most North Americans, their only association with Afghanistan is the long running war against the Taliban. I found this article on Al Jazeera about the recent Afghan – Pakistan friendly in Kabul shows the other side of Afghan life. It is an interesting contrast to so many of the stories about soccer matches that bring the tensions and politics between the two sides to the game, that in this war zone, perhaps the best thing to do is leave that outside for 90 minutes and just enjoy the game for what it is.

By the way, Afghanistan won 3 – 0, they are currently ranked 139th in the world while Pakistan sits 167th. Maybe the politics would have been a little more present in a cricket match?

Opiate of the Masses?

During the South Africa World Cup, Terry Eagleton described football as “the opium of the people” for its capacity to distract the masses from society’s bigger ills. But events over the last few years have demonstrated the potential power of fan movements against authority and that perhaps there is something rotten in the state of football.

#footballwithoutfansisnothing

#footballwithoutfansisnothing

Today I want to look at three events over the last month that  have demonstrated the power of football to unite and organize dissent. First, the smallest case, in English football the biggest most shiny and glamourous league in the world may have discovered that they have pushed their own fans to the limit. June 19 was an important day for the league as it released its fixture list for the next season; always a big day as fans can plot their schedules and bookies can start laying out odds and pundits can start speculating how long David Moyes will survive in Manchester. But the party was crashed by the most unlikely of groups – fans from the EPL clubs who normally refuse to see eye to eye on anything actually protested together outside the Premier League office. The #footballwithoutfansisnothing protest was not huge by any standard, but that it forced the league to have a meeting with the organizers to in some way address the cost of away game ticket prices shows the fans that maybe they do have some power if they can work together.

Ultras together in Taksim

Ultras together in Taksim

Which nicely brings me to case number two: Turkey and Taksim Square. One of the major stories of the protest – before “standing man” saved the day, was that the protest could not have lasted as long as it did or resisted the police as long as they did without the support of football fans. Not just any football fans, but the ultras of Fenerbahçe, Galatasaray, and Besiktas – three of Istanbul’s clubs that violently clash with each other on a regular basis. In addition to fighting each other, they have regular experience battling the police forces, and so the three groups finding something in common in the Taksim protest managed to unite – at least temporarily under the banner of Istanbul United to lend their tactical expertise and support to the other protesters in the park. They are borrowing a page from the Al Ahly and Zamalek ultras that took part in the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt two years ago. And so, far from being the opiate of the masses, football is now resembling Che Guevara’s assessment of the sport, “It is not just a simple game, but a weapon of the revolution.” This may give spectators more to fear in the future, as governments will now be less likely to tolerate disruptions at the matches, as it creates a mass of politically charged and battle-hardened people that can then use those experiences against the government elsewhere.

Outside the Maracana

Outside the Maracana

Which then allows me to turn to my final case today: Brazil and the Confederations Cup. As part of the World Cup, the host country puts on a mini-tournament the year before the cup to test its facilities and logistics ahead of the world’s largest sporting event. Yet the story of the tournament has not been the battles on the field, but instead the ones in the street as Brazilians protest the amount of money spent on keeping FIFA fed while neglecting the poor of Brazil. A poorly timed transit fare increase just as the tournament began highlighted to many that the billions being spent on building FIFA standard stadia around the country may have been better spent on the other infrastructure that so many Brazilians desperately need. It is a case of “bread and circuses”, but they forgot the bread. That the Brazilian Sports Minister, Aldo Rebelo, insisted that, “the security and integrity of fans and tourists would be protected,” (but without mentioning the security or integrity of the protesters) demonstrates where the priorities of the government are. Millions of Brazilians protesting against the sport that is sometimes described as their religion cannot be reassuring to Sepp Blatter and his millionaire FIFA friends who expect a shiny happy tournament that they can sell to the world. My biggest fear is that Brazil wins the Confederations Cup, as that may give the protesters a pause to think that maybe their team does have a legitimate shot at winning the cup next year and that it may prove to be the antidote to the protests – opiate indeed.

Despite that potential, while in 2010 Eagleton saw football as the dear friend of capitalism, perhaps there has been a change in the game since South Africa. And if not in the game itself (which continues to take/make obscene amounts of money), it is the fans that have changed. No longer content to consume, the English fans want respect and dare I say some control over “their” game. Fans elsewhere have seen the sport as a reason to protest over other injustices in their society (Brazil) or has given them the means to protest (Turkey and Egypt).

That opiate of the masses is currently causing one bad trip for the sport’s authorities.

Occupy Football

Needs a shorter hashtag, but you get the idea

Needs a shorter hashtag, but you get the idea

I’m back from England now and the fieldwork has given me a lot to think about and chew on. So much so that trying to figure out what to post has been one of the reasons I haven’t blogged in a month. Now at home and with a little distance, what I keep coming back to is the discontent among the English fans. They are still fans and the actual game itself isn’t the problem, but everywhere I went there was talk of how fans felt that they, the local fans, were being cut out of the game. Something is rotten in the state of English football. And if there is one word on the lips of every English football fan it is: Germany. As in “The Germans own 50% of their clubs!” or “You can go to a game in Germany for 11 quid!” It came up in most of my interviews and nearly every conversation I had with fans over the month, which when coupled with the all-German Champions League final at Wembley was too galling for many of the fans. There is a sense that English football is less concerned with who is in the seats than how much money is in the seats.

Beyond attending games I was able to go to three events during my time in England: two meetings in Liverpool – Football Without Fans is Nothing, and Against Modern Football, and one academic conference in Manchester on Football, Fans and Finance. And again all three featured the theme of fans being left out of the game, administration (bankruptcy) and fan ownership. The first meeting, Football Without Fans is Nothing was actually an organizational meeting to set up a protest against the Premier League over away ticket pricing. I’m wishing I could be there on June 19th to watch the fans descend on the Premier League HQ in London to protest on the same day that the League releases its fixture list for next season. While there was a solid agenda and some certainty of how to progress from that meeting, the following evening at Against Modern Football was less focused and showed to me just how fractured and difficult it may be for the supporters to get their message across. Against Modern Football devolved into whinging and a call for boycotts (which, if you’ve ever tried to get tickets to a Liverpool FC game, wouldn’t even dent the demand for seats to be filled with daytrippers).

But the most fascinating aspect of the debates is the way that all the discussions fit into the current political debates in England while I was there. Days after my arrival, the UK Independence Party scored some major victories in council elections and much of political debate became fixed on the UK’s role in Europe. Both debates are essentially about the effects of globalization on England. The problem in football is that it is arguably one of the most important industries in England and certainly its most important cultural export. And so the current changes that many of the fans feel are that they have lost control over their own game (both foreign ownership and some concern over the number of foreign players) – mirroring debates about immigration from UKIP, an increasingly unstable and unsustainable economic model that many of the teams have fallen into – fitting into the national debate about staying in the EU, and very little control over something they regard as “their club” – again, the debate about staying in Europe. That there is a model (Germany and the Bundesliga) that the fans can aspire to that has not just had success for the fans, but success on the field has inspired a number of the conversations and given the upset fans a goal to focus on.

Why is fan ownership so important to the fans? Football traditions in England run far deeper than any franchise in North America, the instability in the leagues has meant that even the greats of the game (Man U, Chelsea, Liverpool, etc.) have a history of being in the lower tiers and have a long history that emerges from the communities that they were founded in and have always been in. Franchises move, but these clubs are part of the community, literally. These fans don’t just feel like they own the team, they really feel like they own the team. In attending any of the meetings, even the academic conference people identified themselves not just by their name, but by which club they supported. It is part of their identity. So the threat that their team could be put out of their reach, or that some owner could blow up the team through mismanagement hurts. Although even then some fans hope their teams “pull a Portsmouth” so that the team can die and rise again under fan ownership – short term pain for long term gain.

So my biggest lesson of my fieldwork was that I can go out there looking for one thing, but discover that I may find something completely different when I get there. I went looking for how fans create and use space in and around matches, and that is essentially what I found, but how I found it was not what I expected. It is exciting though, as looking at how these fans are reacting to what threatens their game gives my thesis a better focus than I had before I left.

I'm in there on the left at the back

I’m in there on the left at the back

AFC Liverpool 1 – 0 Squires Gate

AFC Liverpool CrestThis won’t be your typical match report.

So my first English match was quite an introduction to the game. A short trip out of Liverpool to the town of Prescot to visit Valerie Park, the current home of AFC Liverpool. It isn’t every club where you can get a good chat with the chair of the club just by walking in, but welcome to the 9th tier of English football.

The team is set to finish 11th in the NWCPL – their best ever showing (in five years of play). And the club and its fans have a positive outlook for the future of their club. This is a team that was formed because they felt they were being priced out of Anfield. Rather than retreat to a pub to watch the big games (of course there is still some of that: Barca – Bayern was on at the same time) or to shift to a lower league team, the group got together to form their own club to bring football back to the fans that really wanted to watch the game live. This is what I’m looking for, AFC Liverpool created their own space so that they could be fans on their own terms, this is a supporter owned club for whom space is important.

Not everything is as AFC Liverpool would like it, they don’t have their own grounds at the moment, they currently are in a ground share with Prescot Cables FC from the Evo Stick Northern League (the division above AFC Liverpool), and while the grounds meet their current needs, it isn’t where the heart of the team is. This is a team that dreams of playing within the City of Liverpool rather than the outskirts. The goal of AFC Liverpool have their own ground in the next couple of years. Currently, only two places meet the field requirements of AFC Liverpool: Anfield and Goodison Park. For a football mad city like Liverpool I was rather shocked to find those were the only suitable grounds. Even the youth and ladies teams for Everton and Liverpool FC don’t play at the main stadia, as they are just too big for the requirements of all but the First Squads of the two clubs. Creating a third ground in the city would benefit AFC Liverpool immensely, but would also seem to fill a rather glaring gap in the availability of good football spaces in the city.

The move to the city would have another huge benefit to AFC Liverpool, they are after all called Liverpool, and despite the ease of getting to Prescot (my commute to work in Toronto used to be longer) Prescot is not Liverpool. A move into the city could bring out more fans that just wanted the experience of watching a game. They don’t see themselves as a competitor or replacement for Liverpool FC, just as another form of the football experience. Being in the city is important because they are Liverpool.

As for the actual game itself, there were some interesting dynamics among the fans. It being a small club, most of the fans seem to be regulars who know each other. There is a clubhouse for a pint before the game, with a merchandise table set up inside, and a small concession that sells football food (steak pie, peas, gravy, chip butty, etc.) The attendance of 82 (Valerie Park capacity: 3000) for the game was likely reduced because it was the second of three home games in five nights right at the end of the season, there was little chance that the club would move in the table, and the Champions League semi was on at the same time. Of the 82 I’d say about 10 were Squires Gate fans, and the rest were AFC Liverpool. AFC has taken on many of the symbols of Liverpool, including the all the symbolism around the 96 Liverpool fans killed at Hillsborough in 1989. There were about eight banners up displaying support for AFC Liverpool (none for Squires Gate), but one of the biggest disadvantages of a ground share is that they have little control over what the host club has up for advertising and they can’t promote their own team through signage. But it wasn’t the visuals that allowed the AFC fans to dominate the stands, it was the noise.

In their short history, one of the new traditions of the club has been to bring noisemakers to the matches. You know the birthday party goodie bag toy with a plastic noisemaker that you spin around and it makes an awful racket – likely thrown into the goodie bags of kids who don’t bring a big enough present. AFC Liverpool’s fans have the bazooka version of these made of wood. It is a deafening sound that rattles around the grandstand and its metal roof and is used when a good shot is made, a good defensive play or at times when the team’s energy seems to wane. What started out as one or two guys has now spread into a larger following among the more dedicated fans. It was such an awful racket that it drove the Squires Gate fans from the grandstand at halftime. This is exactly what I wanted to write about, the domination of the space through noise. When you get to Valerie Park on AFC Liverpool’s day bring earplugs, or go stand somewhere else. Of course this is very similar to the vuvuzelas of the last World Cup, and the noisemakers are apparently banned from top level clubs. My guess is that the noisemakers don’t threaten the game itself, but threaten the organization and control of the crowd at the stadium, and by sanitizing the experience, it is easier to control the crowd. In the longer term it makes me wonder about the culture of AFC Liverpool versus Liverpool FC, as AFCL create their own traditions and culture, they will become more distinct from Liverpool’s culture – the evolution of a new fan supporter culture (which you could argue already existed simply by their willingness to follow this club rather than just LFC).

All in all a fun game, and a friendly introduction to the English game, and an even better fit for my thesis than I thought.