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.

The Name Game

Greatest of all time? Messi

Greatest of all time? Messi

Greatest of all time? Pele

Greatest of all time? Pele

A new year, a new semester, the recap of the old year that goes with it. Every year the annual rite of passage is to hash out lists of the best of the previous twelve months and what to expect in the next twelve; especially in sports where it is a great chance to sit down and run over the highlight reels and find the moments that still amaze, or hurt, or just make you laugh.

 

So it is with soccer and FIFA held their annual gala on Monday to recognize the best of the year: best players, best coaches, best team, best goal. To absolutely nobody’s surprise (except Cristiano Ronaldo’s) Leo Messi was again awarded the Ballon d’or for a record 4th consecutive year. Abby Wambach (USA) won the women’s Ballon d’or, and her former coach Pia Sundhage won the women’s coach award. The men’s coach award went to Vincente del Bosque from the Spanish Nat’l. team. Miroslav Stoch (Slovakia) won the Puskas award for best goal of the year.

But what I found the most interesting part of the evening (apart from Pia’s singing) was the World Best XI: the entire list was from one league. If you didn’t play football in Spain this year, you weren’t playing the best football in the world according to FIFA. It seemed a terrific snub to the EPL, Bundesliga, and Serie A, that not a single player who plays in England, Germany, or Italy – the world’s other top leagues could make the all-star team of all-stars. But then that’s what these lists are, talking points, snubs, accolades and nothing more. This Best XI will never take to the field anywhere except on some kid’s FIFA13 video game. But what this does is keep every sports pundit busy for the next week talking over who is the best player, what is the best league and can Messi be considered the best player of all time?

Oddly enough I was then confronted with a strange parallel in my own studies. In beginning my new geography course, I found my readings essentially traced important names in the field of geography. It is not too much different than the all-star list of geographers. And in that light, while reading the debates over whether Pele, Maradona, or Messi is best, I began to think a little more critically than I normally do as to who makes this list and why is it important. Now ultimately my prof sets the readings, so the final list comes down to their personal choice, but if it is at all like FIFA, is there a sense that it could be skewed a bit to favour one style of play, or in this case one style of geography?

All-star geographer?D. Harvey

All-star geographer?
D. Harvey

As in the case with most of these lists some names stand out regardless. You can’t discuss human geography without David Harvey coming up at some point – perhaps the Pele of Marxist geography. He would be on any list, but then there are others that are more positional (continuing with a soccer metaphor do I use a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 formation) and suddenly the introduction of tactics complicates the list. My course is about critical geography, which would then differentiate the list of thinkers from a course in say economic geography (although I think you’d still find Harvey on both).

This then brings me to my more critical analysis of the names and readings for the course. For the next twelve weeks I will get the overview of a number of these geographical thinkers, the highlight package if you will for a number of them. But at the end it is up to me to be able to sort out the best XI (don’t worry, doesn’t literally have to be 11) for my own studies. I’ll need to be able to defend my choices, but then I can sort out where I am headed in my field.

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.

Moneyball?

So NBC has decided that it better have a backup plan to the NHL in the future.

Last week NBC signed a $250 million 3 year deal with the English Premier League to take the broadcast rights beginning in the 2013-14 season. So the math works out to roughly $83 million a season. NBC also has the rights to the NHL on a 10 year $2 billion dollar contract that began in the 2011-12 season, or $200 million a season. So yes, the NHL is the more valued product for now, but consider that although NBC isn’t paying right now (they just get an extension on their current contract if the season is cancelled), they are also not receiving any product from the NHL. At least the EPL is reliable. Well, okay, the NHL has its own reliability in its lockout schedule.

I’d say that the EPL deal will prove to be a bargain if they market it right (and avoid any tape delays a la the Olympics). The US has a growing soccer interest and MLS average attendances now surpass the NHL and NBA. The EPL is a different breed of sport for North America, the closest comparison has to be MLB where the equity between teams tends to be a bit of a joke, but the league thrives on perennial strong teams like the Yankees (the ones other teams and fans love to hate). The EPL has no concept of balance, yet it is the most popular league in the world. It’s fast, intense, and features many of the biggest names in the sport. No playoffs, no draft, no video review – things that all NA leagues rely on, and except for a rather odd experiment back in the early ’90s no cheerleaders.

The biggest barrier to the EPL in North America is simply the geography. Tape delay is soooo 20th c., but England is 5 hours ahead of the East coast and 8 ahead of the Pacific. The afternoon games in England then become early morning matches – something I’m all too familiar with, but that doesn’t make for the most sociable viewing. The global reach of the European leagues has already put pressure on some of the smaller leagues to adjust their schedule. Teams in Spain have complained that the games have shifted to accommodate broadcast schedules in Asia. North America simply doesn’t have the weight to shift the EPL – consider the size of the new BSkyB contract for the EPL broadcast rights in England are worth $4.86 billion (yeah dollars, not pounds). Suddenly $83 million doesn’t seem so big anymore.

Oh and just a reminder, the NHL is fighting over a total revenue base of $3.3 billion.

Field Research – one pint at a time

How important is geography to watching soccer?: An important lesson in spectatorship on two separate Wednesdays. I don’t need to go up to campus everyday, and so I’ve spent two Wednesdays downtown exploring the places to watch UEFA Champions League games (this was a few weeks ago as I missed today’s games).

My first try was an unfortunate choice, but at least I can chalk it up to experience. Shoeless Joe’s – which I could easily rename Hooter’s lite. The less said the better, but it is clear that its main clientele are Bay St. Lawyers with a passing interest in sports and a serious interest in women. I ended up feeling a little out of place because I wasn’t wearing a suit and sitting alone in a bar like that feels kinda pervy.

Moving on to the next week, I was free from the lawyers and tight fitting uniforms. Instead I was at the Football Factory. I think the name sets its priorities. I walked in and had the choice of seating based not on smoking or non-smoking (remember those days), but on Arsenal – Olympiakos, Man City – Borussia Dortmund, and AC Milan – Zenit St. Petersburg. This is my kind of place. Naturally, I was sitting in the Arsenal section, sipping on a Guinness and eating Bangers and Mash; I felt much more comfortable. And that is geography – I’m associating with a place.

Why do I feel more comfortable in one than the other? Cultural differences for sure. As I said before, Shoeless Joe’s catered to a particular audience and served them well, but me – with a slightly different set of priorities did not find the place as enjoyable. The Football Factory met my needs for food, drink, activity (even if I spent my time sitting on my butt) and community – complaining about Arsenal’s wage structure is a easy way to chat with gooners.

So I now have my personal “field research” plan set up: explore every bar that promotes soccer games in Toronto. That should keep me busy for a long time. Oh the sacrifices I make for science.

How Soccer Explains Canada

I’m currently living in what is becoming known as the city where sports go to die. Toronto has some of the least successful franchises in North America. Leafs: no playoffs since 2004, Raptors: no playoffs since 2008, Blue Jays: no playoffs since 1993, Argos: only 2 times since 2008, and then Toronto FC: never, not once, never.

This is a little painful for me. I want to cheer for TFC, I have cheered for TFC. I can’t cheer for any other sports team in this city because I grew up elsewhere in Canada, where we’re all taught to hate Toronto teams on principle. But TFC is an exception to that rule because I moved to Toronto before they were founded, so I was never trained to cheer against them. Unfortunately, they are losing me fast. Partly because of how bad they are, but also due to the arrival of another Canadian Major League Soccer (MLS) team I have been trained to cheer for: the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Soccer has a fragile hold on the country at most times, we are a nation of hockey fans. But the future of Canadian soccer is clearly headed to the West Coast. My prediction is that Vancouver will win the MLS Cup before Toronto, if Toronto ever manages to (which doesn’t seem likely at this rate). I base this on a number of factors that will tilt the balance of soccer inevitably in Vancouver’s favour. For this discussion I’m going to cut Montreal right out because while they are clearly better than Toronto for now, that isn’t saying much, don’t worry Montreal Impact you’ll get your turn.

The first factor I’ll look at is history. The Vancouver Whitecaps are not as new as one would think. They are in their current incarnation a second year MLS team, but the history and following of the Whitecaps goes back to the ’70s in the old NASL. There they were a successful team and even beyond the collapse of NASL they continued playing in whatever top flight league they could enter. This team may just be sprouting in MLS, but it has very deep local roots – something that the 6 year old TFC team cannot claim, yet. Sure there are the immigrant communities that follow soccer out here, but many of them are still attached to the old country teams, not a new team in a new land.

Another factor working for Vancouver is the importance of soccer in the local sporting system. Vancouver barely gets snow worth mentioning, and much of Southwest BC plays soccer through the winter. That is not possible in snowbound Toronto. Here, soccer is the sport that parents fill the empty spots in the hockey calendar with; in Vancouver, the soccer players may take the summer off to play baseball, but soccer dominates. It is a the key sport in a rapidly growing region of Canada. Due to the territoriality of MLS, this makes the Whitecaps Academy a much stronger contender than TFC Academy over the long run.

They win on fan support, future prospects and now the final factor: ability to sign players. Toronto is a fair city, and I’d say a fair bit better than many American cities, but its competing against Vancouver to sign talent. Following the transfers and signings in MLS this season shows a trend, and it isn’t a good one for Toronto. Vancouver is able to attract global players in a way that Toronto is not. Yes, Toronto has Frings (but how much longer can that last), and Koevermans, but who did we get mid season? Eric Hassli, a Vancouver surplus (apologies to Hassli, I actually really like his play and wish that he had some help out here but we truly are hopeless). Vancouver managed to keep drawing in and signing players and efficiently use their Designated Player spots.

Perhaps this points to another Vancouver advantage: passion to win. Toronto is now so accustomed to losing, we’re thrilled with mediocrity. I don’t think minority owner and NBA all-star Steve Nash is ever going to walk into a Whitecaps meeting and say, “Congratulations on making our business targets for the year. Too bad we didn’t make the playoffs.” Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment has so alienated many of the sports locals here that we’re now convinced that it is just bottom line that matters. Yet we stupidly fill the seats anyway.

I think we’re dreaming for the Seattle Sounders option of voting on the GM’s job. In the meantime, Vancouver can dream of that MLS Cup. It certainly looks a lot closer from out there.

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.