Only One Wenger, More than One Fan Group

Arsenal fans unveil a banner in Brighton.

Arsenal fans unveil a banner in Brighton.

In looking over the news from the FA Cup, I came across an example of what I hope to find in my field research.

An article from the Telegraph has a story about a fight that broke out among Arsenal supporters at the Brighton and Hove Albion v. Arsenal FA Cup tie. The fight broke out when the match was tied 2-2 and one group of Arsenal fans unfurled a banner saying, “Arsene, thanks for the memories, but it’s time to say goodbye.” Another group told them to put it away, and a fight broke out within the Arsenal supporters section.

This is exactly what I want to find out about. What sort of self-policing do the supporters groups have? What sort of conflicts happen between members of different fan groups? How do they negotiate space in away sections, which probably have a more random ticketing situation than the season ticket holder sections at Emirates (in Arsenal’s case)?

Clearly in this case, the group with the banner wasn’t appreciated, and dealt with by the other supporters present. By the end of the match the Arsenal section (Arsenal won 3-2) was chanting, “One Arsene Wenger.” So not only was there a violent reaction against the banner, but then the supporters then felt the need to declare their support for the manager following the incident (and once the game was safely theirs again).

It’s stories like this that let me know I’m on the right track.

Epiphany!

Last week I had a meeting with my committee to sit down and sort out what I was going to do and how. The purpose was to narrow down what I was going to investigate and start thinking about research questions. After about 5 minutes it was clear that my project was getting bigger, not smaller. On the upside, I think I’ve found that I could keep writing on this for the rest of my life, the downside is that I was left with almost more options than when I started. So we finally left it at me needing to get a proposal together for next week that will give me a focus, a question, and hopefully a way of answering the question.

How to do this has been gnawing at me all week, what to do is just as bad. I admit part of my difficulty is that I had temporarily lost my sounding board – my wife. She puts up with all my babbling about soccer, so is actually a good judge of whether I’m on the right track or not. She also understands academic angst. Sure enough, she got home from a conference and before we’d even had a chance to talk my mind was already working out a bit of an idea.

So today, I sat down to read an article from a journal that I think is pretty relevant to my research: Soccer & Society. (My secret goal is to get published in it) I was reading an article about interpreting fan rivalries and it basically provided an overview of what had been done and what needed to be done, and how to do it. There I was sitting in my office reading away, and my thesis was staring out at me from the paper! All I was missing was the chorus and the light from above as I read it. I’ll paraphrase it a bit here, but basically: “Somebody should really look at how fan rivalries contest space and defend territory by looking at the frequency of the conflicts and the historical roots of the rivalry – that would be some interesting research.” Admittedly, I need to work on my academic-ese, but that is one of the questions that I was discussing with my committee and then there it was sitting in a journal for me. Ta-Dah!

The biggest question I’m left with now is where? My committee and I agreed that England is probably best just to remove the language barrier consideration (and there are some top-notch rivalries there), but now that puts a different constraint on my fieldwork. If I’m going to look at fan rivalries, I’ve got to got to some games, preferably some good rivalries, and it has to happen this summer. Hmmm. Season ends in May (which also makes the rivalries most critical at that time of year with all the promotion/relegation battles), so working backwards, I have to go through ethics review by no later than mid-March, meaning I have my proposal late Feb., meaning I’ve got to have the basics and a good question now. I’m leaning right now toward Preston North End and Blackburn, but I  don’t think they will be playing each other this year, my only hope is that one of those sides is facing promotion/relegation while I’m over there. I think what is ultimately going to determine my choice is a good look at the fixture lists for May. Premiership would be great, but expensive and big. Championship could be interesting with less of a global element, and I’d even consider League 1 or 2 if the right combination of teams and fixtures came along. So my job tomorrow is to plot out all the games in the top four flights of English soccer during the month of May (playoffs excluded for the moment, but that may factor in later depending on how things pan out).

An idea and now the beginnings of a plan.

Participant Observation?

I’ve found the potential downfall to my academic research, it will likely be the largest obstacle I face in my field research and I’m not sure how I can approach this difficulty: watching a match.

Last night I watch the Canada vs Cuba game at BMO Field in Toronto. Canada won 3-0, but as I walked out of the stadium I realized that actually being at a game will be a very difficult complication for me if I study fan behaviour – I was totally lost in the match. I’m sure Marcus is slightly embarrassed to have to sit with his dad who yells and screams at the Canadians for 90 minutes, boos the linesmen and ref at appropriate moments and heckles the opposition as they lie on the ground or make the long march to the tunnel following their red card. Once upon a time I was a reserved quiet fan who only made a lot of noise when we scored, but over the last two years of the qualifying campaign I’ve turned rabid. I have become my own research. I’m interested in fan behaviour, but I have become one. Granted I don’t sit in the South End with the Red Patch Boys, but my heart is there.

I’ve noticed the crowd has changed with me over the last two years too. Back when we were playing minnows like St. Lucia, the crowd was smaller, the visitors had vocal support and the team played more tentatively. This year was very different, the team soaked up our encouragement and payed it back at the end, they celebrated playing at home and knew they could count on us to drown out all the visitor supporters. I want next year to have meaningful games, we’ve come so far as fans in Toronto, I don’t want to have to wait and start all over again.

But this brings up the games yesterday. Canada won 3-0 yes, but that was hardly a surprise when all the Cuban subs defected to the US, leaving them with just 11 players on a team that hadn’t scored a goal in the qualifying round and hadn’t even managed a tie. So we won, that should have helped right? Problem is that when Cuba is such a pushover, all the teams have feasted off of them and it hardly made a difference to the pool. More troubling was the 0-0 tie between Panama and Honduras. The conspiracy theorist in me can’t help but think that the tie was planned. Panama plays Cuba next and needs only to draw to qualify, Honduras hosts Canada on Tuesday and the result will determine the group. By drawing Panama, Honduras just needs to win, where if they had lost to Panama they would have needed to beat Canada by at least two goals. Panama just gifted Honduras a lifeline. Oh and Canada will have to get a tie without not only Dwayne DeRosario, but also Olivier Occean (who was given a weak red card by the ref last night).

As you can see I’ve already spent far too long thinking about all the permutations and combinations in qualification. I should actually be devoting my thoughts to midterm papers and readings.

Space…the Final Frontier

A bit of a break from blogging, but I’ve had a bit of a brainwave over the last few days. After talking to my supervisor last week he suggested the idea of looking more at the performance aspect of football fans. (notice how I just slipped into the use of football – I’m going to have to spend some time in my thesis being very careful about my word choices) Then in talking to another student, I mused about writing a conference paper based on the behaviour of Panamanian fans outside the Canadian Team’s hotel when Canada visited for a recent World Cup qualifier.

Of course I’m now super excited and already doing research on all this and finding and not finding what I need. I’m interested in the idea of how fans create space for themselves. It’s one thing to have the chants and flares and signs of the supporter’s clubs inside the stadium, but they also contest space outside the stadium. Sure the home supporters want to own the space outside, but the visitor’s supporters marching in can be a provocative trespass of that space. Not only do the two groups have to negotiate each other, but also authorities who want to maintain some semblance of order about the event.

I took my son Marcus to the Canada – US friendly back in June and we arrived just at the same time the American supporters arrived (not the average supporters – the organized ones). As they held their little march to the stadium they chanted, waved their flags, threw smoke bombs, and generally made a big nuisance of themselves. They moved as one all the way to the gates and went in together. I think back to that now and how they performed their invasion of “Canadian” space. The effect of the large, cohesive group and the noise was a bit of a provocation to all the Canadian fans that they weren’t to be messed with – even if they were actually pretty nice guys (I chatted with a couple of them), and if their fans were that strong, the team must be strong too. What is even more fascinating about all of this in a North American context is the way that the chants, march, songs, signs, flares, etc. is all a borrowed performance from other soccer cultures – especially English. Now I’m left with the question of how the performances around the world are different and why (other than the obvious reason of soccer being a more marginal sport) North American fans do so much borrowing of supporter cultural performance?

So my first semblance of an idea. Obviously still needs some work, but my supervisor warned me I’ll probably switch ideas until some time in December. On the upside that’ll keep me blogging.