Monday, October 02, 2006

The Platini-Wenger Theory of Identity

There is a lot both to like and dislike about Michel Platini. On the plus side, he played for St. Etienne (allez les verts!), he was capitain of the marvelous French team of the early 80s, he was the greatest no.10 of that decade, and he did a decent job as lead organizer of the France '98 world cup. On the minus side, he hangs around with Sepp Blatter, and indeed appears to be operating as Blatter's stalking horse candidate against long-time rival Lennart Johanssen for the UEFA Presidency.

One of the tenets of Blatter-ism is talking a lot of bollocks about the romance of football before there was a lot of money in it (yes, I know how ludicrous it is for FIFA, of all organizations, to bemoan money in sport, but the hypocrisy of FIFA discourse knows almost no bounds). And Platini talks a lot of Blatter. Take his comments in this weekend's FT:

"Football has always been based on identity and rivalry. There were the people Arsenal against the people of Tottenham, the people of England against the people of France. Moldova against Georgia. Today there is no more rivalry. If the president of a club like Chelsea isn't English, if the coaches aren't English, if the players aren't English, I wonder why Chelsea plays in England."

All of this, to put it mildly, is bullshit and not just because Platini has conveniently ignored the fact that the Chelsea line-up sports four England internationals (five if you count SWP). Has the man been to a Spurs-Arsenal match lately? Does he genuinely think Italy and France no longer have rivalries? What possible factual basis can one have for suggesting that rivalries no longer exist in an age of globalized football?

Intriguingly, Arsene Wenger - not a man usually given over to twaddle - made a similar point about two weeks ago amidst rumours that a Russian consortium was sniffing around Arsenal. At that time, Wenger said he opposed foreign takeovers of clubs because they would deprive the club of its local identity. Yes, that Arsene Wenger. The French coach of an English club who regularly fields eleven foreigners. Dr. Kettle, meet Mt. Pot.

What unites Wenger and Platini clearly feel that a club's identity is somehow determined by its ownership. This might be true in Spain, where the club is "owned" by its socios, but it's hard to argue elsewhere. And anyway, why should a club's identity be determined by its ownership rather than, say, its players and coach? Ask most fair-minded people, and they'd tell you that American-owned ManU was still more British than either Chelsea (Russian owner, Portuguese coach, a half-dozen decent English players) or Arsenal (English owner, French coach, no English players worth mentioning apart from Foetus Walcott).

Surely, though, identity comes from the fans - especially those in the stadium. To the extent that identity comes from the players it comes from adhering to local styles of play. Arsenal can have as many foreigners as it likes provided they provide plenty of effort and keep clean sheets. Blackburn could be entirely composed of Fijians and Samoans provided they gave their opponents a good kicking every match.

And, let's not kid ourselves: though affinity for a style of play matters, let's face it - winning matters more. Barca fans hated the "foreign" Dutch rule of van Gaal; Frank Rijkaard is equally Dutch but is popular because he wins trophies. Mancunians' opposition to the Glazers stems from the fact that he is a renowned tightwad and has saddled the club with a load of debt. If Man U had been bought by someone with deeper pockets promising major signings every year, would FC United exist? I wonder...

What makes the "personality" or "identity" of a club is a fascinating question, surpassed only by what constitutes a national football "style". Is it a PR trick? Clever public diplomacy? Or is there a tangible basis to sporting identity?

Your views, please...


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