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.

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.

 

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.