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.

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.