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?

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D-Day (Derby Day)

As I sit here surrounded by the news of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement and the buzz over his successor, I’d best get my thoughts out over what appears to have been the final Merseyside Derby for both Jamie Carragher and David Moyes. Carragher had announced months ago that he’d be retiring at the end of the season, and Moyes looks increasingly like he’ll be moving up the M-62 to take over at Old Trafford.

My first experience was trying to get to Anfield itself. The local bus network operates a special line on matchdays on double-decker buses from downtown. However, these weren’t as full as I had imagined and the passengers were reflective of some of the knocks against Liverpool compared to Everton. Liverpool is the glamour club that has a huge international reputation based on its successes through the ’70s, ’80s, and up to the “Miracle in Istanbul” in 2005. Everton is the local team, it has always pulled its fans from the area and although it has success as well, not at the same level as Liverpool. The added twist to this history is that Everton was the first team to play at Anfield. A falling out between the Everton board and Anfield’s owner, John Houlding, in 1892 led to a split and Everton’s move to Goodison park, and Houlding setting up a new club called Liverpool at his now vacant stadium. So this rivalry becomes still more tangled through the family history of the two clubs.

Back to the buses, my bus remained nearly empty but for a French family, two Australians, a Canadian (me) and two locals. On arrival at Anfield the streets were filled with fans and vendors and crowded pubs literally spilled into the street as fans attempted to get a few pints before the game. One pub right next to Anfield is covered inside with scarves from teams from around Europe and the rest of the world. But to show what a rather small world it is, I no sooner got to the pub when I ran into two Belgians who had travelled down to Sheffield with me the previous day (same idea as me, make the most of the fixture change). I had to buy a souvenir, so naturally I chose the match day scarf that was half Liverpool red, half Everton blue (only to find out later that people who bought those are called day-trippers).

After a walk around the stadium I headed in to find my seat. It became clear to me as the crowd filled up that there was something about my particular section’s seat allocations that lent itself to resales to visitors: to my right were two Icelanders and a Mongolian, and my left were two Irish, and two Dutch. All of the complaints from locals that games are increasingly difficult to attend seemed to be on display, and that I was also part of the problem. That said, for the 42,000 seats available to Liverpool fans – and every single one was filled – the majority are clearly in the hands of locals. Particularly in the Kop end for the most rabid fans and the section that was only converted to seats in 1994. At the opposite side from the Kop, in the Anfield Rd stand, 3000 blues took their place for the game.

The Kop raises their banners prior to the game

The Kop raises their banners prior to the game

There is certainly a routine aspect to parts of the performances between the fans, the chants and songs almost play off each other. From my seat in the Main Stand, near the Kop it was nearly impossible to make out the chants of the Evertonians, but going the other way it was easy to hear taunts of “No trophies for 18 years” (to Que Sera Sera) “Always a blue, almost a Manc” (clearly insulting to anyone from Liverpool) and their own tunes “Glory of Anfield Rd”. All of this of course is nothing to the introduction of the teams and the requisite singing of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. During this particular game, Liverpool had planned a tribute for the support of Everton through all of the ongoing struggles about Hillsborough. On cue and just as the YNWA tune began to play, the Kop all held up placards thank Everton through a Tifo. Being at the angle I was at, unfortunately, made the design difficult to make out completely.

Blue smoke rising from the Everton fans

Blue smoke rising from the Everton fans after the match

In a new twist to the performances this season, both teams brought smoke bombs for YNWA, a red for the Kop and a blue for the blues. Evertonians actually set off about 5 through the course of the game, and each time stewards attempted to find the source, but as it was occurring in the middle of their section, it was difficult for them to pinpoint an individual. In talking to a steward the next day, she said this is a problem for some of the disabled spectators, who are seated nearby, as some of them have breathing difficulties that are triggered by the smoke.

I’m not actually going to go into the game in much detail, as it was generally regarded by all as a bore draw. For all of the tension that goes into the lead up to that particular fixture, the fans were left disappointed by the actual play of the game. However, if there was one group that was relieved by the outcome it was the police and stewards, who find a bore draw much nicer to deal with than a win, blow out, or controversial game. After the game, I managed to get out to Anfield Rd quickly to watch the toffees (Everton fans) march back to their pubs near Goodison Park. As I stood on the side of the road, listening to the buzz of the police helicopter, the fans continued their chants along the way back, and began to point at the Liverpool supporters along the road chanting, “You’re not from here. You’re not from here.” Again emphasizing the “localness” of their own supporters. Moving down the road, I joined a number of Liverpool fans at The Arkles pub, one of the approximately thirteen pubs in the immediate area where fans gather after the game.

In the hours after the game the pub traffic then generally moves to the downtown core where the blues and reds then mix. This is done with far less animosity than in many other English cities, as many of the supporters come from families with mixed support or friends from either side. There is also the shadow of Hillsborough over the fans in the city. As so many Liverpudlians either knew some one killed or injured in the tragedy, fans from both sides seem to have some accord of respect for each other, and save their more vicious rivalry for the Mancunians, who both sides can agree to hate.

Local is the word that frames discussions around football in this city. Local players such as Gerrard and Carragher are celebrated, and local support is key to both sides (even if Everton claim to be more local) and the impending loss of Everton’s manager after a decade to one of their rivals is a sting for many toffees today (and the source of some Schadenfreude for many reds). Local access to the games is important for fans of both clubs, yet there is also an acknowledgement of the importance that a larger following brings the money required for success on the field. The paradox of local dreams in a global sporting environment.

An Unwanted Rivalry

wimbledonDec. 2 marks round 2 of the oldest club cup in the world the English FA Cup. Now round 2 doesn’t usually draw too much attention outside of England as most of the big names don’t enter the tournament until later. In England though, this Sunday will be a special one if only for one game on the schedule: MK Dons vs. AFC Wimbledon.

Huh?

Well, there’s a history in this game that is ten years in the making and the neutrals are probably looking forward to this more than some in the two clubs are. Ten years ago, the financially struggling Wimbledon was given permission to move 60 km away to Milton Keynes. I know here in North America we’re thinking: yeah? so? Teams move all the time, the NFL Raiders moved and moved back. Last season the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes (formerly Winnipeg Jets) played the Winnipeg Jets (formerly the Atlanta Thrashers) and the new Jets also played the Calgary Flames (formerly Atlanta Flames – which should tell you all you need to know about hockey in Atlanta). In baseball, three of the five teams in California have histories on the east coast (A’s from Philly, Dodgers and Giants from New York). Again, the structures of the leagues is so different that it alters how teams can exist and move within the league structures. We take it as a fact of life that you can lose your team at the whim of some rich guy; in England, the Wimbledon move was almost unprecedented and was seen as a move toward the American franchise system.

When Wimbledon left to become MK Dons, from the ashes rose a new club basically centered around the old fan base, but with more of a stake in the team so the would never lose the team again: AFC Wimbledon was founded. Despite the fears of franchising, the opposite has proved true with the foundation of a number of community-owned teams in reaction to ownership struggles (AFC Liverpool and FC United of Manchester). The AFC Wimbledon team started way down in the 9th tier of English football, but over the last decade has worked itself up to League 2, achieving promotion about every two seasons along the way. MK Dons sits in League 1, and so the inevitable was approaching, everyone knew at some point old and new would have to meet. Sure enough, the draw for the FA Cup put the two teams together should they survive their round 1 matches. Obligingly, Wimbledon beat York in extra time, and MK Dons easily saw off Cambridge in a replay. With news that the meeting was set, the media has gone nuts playing up the rivals.

While MK Dons looks at it as a way to close the past, AFC Wimbledon have struggled with how to approach this game. The scars are still very fresh for many of the fans and executives. The fanzine of AFC Wimbledon refuses to acknowledge the existence of MK Dons and never reports on them. Many fans of AFC have declared that they will not go to the match, because they refuse to give a shilling to “that club” – again avoiding the name. Even the AFC Wimbledon Chief Executive has said, “It is, as I have said in many, many press interviews, a game that was always going to happen someday. Personally, I wish it had happened after I relinquished this role, but so be it.” The AFC board have also refused any traditionally hospitality at Stadium MK, and will instead sit with the away supporters.

One side anticipates the match, the other approaches with anything ranging from trepidation to outright hostility. Nor do these teams meet on even terms, Wimbledon is a League below MK Dons, and almost two considering the current placing of AFC near the bottom of League 2 and MK Dons near the top of League 1. MK Dons have home field advantage, you could argue that AFC Wimbledon has something to prove. I expect MK Dons to win, but everyone loves an underdog, especially a wronged one.

I’m interested in rivalries, but what if the two teams don’t want to be rivals yet are thrust into the role through circumstance? There is no getting out of it in this situation, whatever happens on Sunday will be seen through that lens. There is clearly animosity between the two, but is this some match up that AFCW or MKD will ever look forward to? The role of history in the creation of rivalries is so important and the history of these two is poisoned.

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 ┬ádon’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.