Friday, September 14, 2007

Rivalries

The globalization of football, like globalization in many other areas, has led to both a spreading and a concentration of wealth. All of us get to see a lot more quality football, but that quality football is increasingly concentrated in just a few leagues or even teams.

Take the Premiership, for example. Fifteen years ago, almost a backwater in terms of prestige and certainly not the most attractive thing to watch - now, more watched than any other league in the world. The decline of football in many weaker African nations (e.g Tanzania or Mauritius) is often ascribed to the increasing ubiquity of the Premiership, which sucks viewers away from the domestic game.

In North America - outside the Latino areas which have their own allegiances to various Latin American leagues - the major source of televised football is also English. Most of us see the game in fundamentally English terms and almost all of us identify our primary team as being an English one (except, of course, for those of us cursed by the presence of TFC, whose subterranean awfulness is beginning to take on the characteristics of a H.P. Lovecraft novel).

English football clubs seriously groove on this worldwide notoriety. Nothing gives them more pleasure than to have mirror websites in Thai or Korean or to tell their AGMs that they have 50 million fans in China. It becomes a local riff of FIFA's meme about the global game; as football united billions in the love of a match, so too do Man U unite over a hundred million fans worldwide - plus possibly a few in Manchester itself - in their love of Fergie, Rooney, Nani, Giggsy, Scholesy...

(hmmm...note to self...must write blog-entry speculating on possible nicknames for Ronaldo ending in obligatory "y" sound...)

But football identity is not just above who you love. As Pierre Bourdieu noted, we define ourselves by what we dislike as much as by what we like. This is why football rivalries are so important. Except that the problem is, I'm convinced that none of these "global fans" actually care about historic rivalries. And it is this, fundamentally, that creates a gap between locally-experienced fan-dom and overseas fan-dom.

Take me, for example. I have spent an unhealthy amount of the last ten years watching and obsessing about Arsenal. And yet I cannot, really truly cannot, bring myself to hate Spurs. Giggle, occasionally, but not hate.

Why should I? Unlike London Gooners, I don't live cheek-by-jowl with these other norf Landaners. I don't even know any Spurs fans personally (though there seem to be some very nice ones over at OTF). What have Spurs ever done to me? Man U and Chelsea really get on my wick, sure. I really hate them. Not too fond of Blackburn, either. But Spurs? They're harmless. I even kind of like Martin Jol and what he's done with the club.

Similarly, do you think ManU's 50 million Chinese fans care a fig for the rivalry with City? Or that a majority of Barcelona's overseas fans could even spell "Espanyol"? Not likely. But does that mean they love the team any less? No. They just love it in a very differently-constructed social context.

In introducing the Premiership around the world, Rupert Murdoch has brought half of the fan experience - the nice bits involving following a team through thick and thin - to hundreds of millions of people outside the UK. But this does not mean that the Arsenal or Man U "community" has grown. For the price of extending the presence of a few clubs has been the irrevocable fracturing of these clubs' communities because they no longer all hate the same people.

Some people, no doubt, will choose to interpret my inability to hate Spurs as an example of a fair-weather, overseas, cosmopolitan fan who is far too effete and plastic to be a "real" fan. So be it. But I think it would be plastic of me to pretend to hate a rival for whom I feel nothing simply so I can fit in with the constructed reality of other Arsenal fans. So help me God, I just can't hate Spurs.

I guess, in this way, modern football has two types of teams: "local" ones with small, intact supporters communities and "global" ones with vast but fractured communities. It is an essential - perhaps the essential - trade-off in modern football.

2 Comments:

Anonymous ursus arctos said...

I somehow missed this (insert derby-related despair gag of your choice here), but tend to agree with your general principle (though I think you overstate it).

One of the ways in which overseas supporters often differ from those "at home" is that it can be more difficult for them to fully embrace all of the visceral hatred that tends to be embodied in the concept of "rivalry".

For me the "can be" is particularly important (and the point at which I take issue with your post), as it by no means impossible. For example, I bow to no one in the depth of my profound hatred for all things Real Madrid. But such hatred simply isn't as much of a given as it is for local supporters.

My personal theory is that such hatreds are established in childhood and hardened through the "banter" that characterises a large part of the discourse among adolescents and young adults who care about football. The first bit explains why I would support the Devil's Own Spawn against the New York Mets, whereas the fact that I was in my 20s before I ever met a Gooner tends to explain why I can't really bring myself to hate Arsenal with the requisite passion expected of a "true" Tottenham supporter.

2:30 PM  
Blogger Antonio G said...

I *was* kind of shocked you hadn't said anything about this yet, Urs.

Fair point about the "can be". And I suppose it is always possible that as we become increasingly globally interconnected, with increasing membership on multinational football message boards (hang on a minute...) a truly global supporters' community might emerge, so that teenage Everton fans on the Merseyside and Yangtse alike will all develop equally lifelong hatreds for Liverpool because, y'know, true scousers are pretty much equally irritating no matter where you find 'em.

Although here again, the key word is *might*. I just wouldn't hold my breath.

Question, though: do you hate Real because of your love for Barca/ Atletico, or do you just hate them on general principles? I'm in the latter category.

3:23 PM  

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