For the Sake of the Game: Who We Support and Why it Still Matters

Posted on April 29, 2011 by

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What is the fundamental importance of football? The support of its fans. Brendan begins our three piece ‘For Sake of the Game‘ feature with an overview of the predicament  modern football finds itself in,  before a swift follow up through both sides of the debate later next week.

A few years ago an advert appeared on television which depicted a hypothetical Americanisation of English football. We Laughed. Somewhat naively perhaps, but we laughed. The prospect seemed so far removed from plausibility that it was ludicrous and prompted all the scoffs and chuckles that had been intended. But, with many ruthless businessmen helming Europe’s top clubs, the disparity between the haves and the have-nots, the known and the unknown, has escalated. And, while the likes of Manchester United enjoy a heightened global appeal, we may be inclined to wonder what will become of the lesser known entities, the local teams with the ever dwindling fan-bases.

A recent poll conducted by The Oval Log addressed this issue, posing the simple question: ‘Do you support your local team?’ Amassing some 59.09% of the votes was the option which asserted ‘Yes, they are my team through and through’. This statistic doesn’t exactly reflect the idyllic scenario for which many fans perhaps yearn but it serves as testimony to the notion that affluence is seldom the best bait for luring the football supporter.

The alternative option ‘Yes, but not as much as other teams’ resonated with 22.73% of voters whilst the options ‘No, but I keep an eye on their results’ and ‘No, I’d much rather watch/support more entertaining football’ garnered 15.91% and 2.27% of the votes, respectively. Reassuring though the other 59.09% of votes may be, this 40.91% represents, for many, a more worrisome contingent that may precipitate the demise of local football. However, it seems crude to vilify such supporters for their sincere inclinations, particularly without contemplating from where their loyalty is borne.

By far, the most complex component of the debate is in defining what constitutes ‘your local team’. For some, heritage is more important than geography and, as such, allegiance is primarily the product of upbringing rather than location. In short, it’s difficult to forge any sort of compassionate connection with a club whose association with you is merely by virtue of its proximity to your home, particularly if you currently reside outside the area of your childhood. The loyalty instilled in us from our pre-adolescent years is often unfaltering, regardless of how far we drift from our roots. However, clubs with the most consistently supreme entertainment, and indeed relevance, in football’s landscape are often the most eligible with regard to secondary support. Granted, a portion of fans may elect to follow a second team whose core principles reflect that of their first but it comes as little surprise that the most supported teams in the world are Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona et al.

This is where the somewhat prominent dilemma of football centralisation rears its ugly head and the abundance of enigmatic billionaires presiding over top clubs will do little to quell any apprehension regarding this predicament. The principle endeavour of Abramovic and friends is to accumulate profit simply by ‘marketing the brand’ of the club. The very notion of such business-speak infesting football may cause many a skin to crawl but its presence in the sport, however undesirable, is ever significant, most conspicuously in the last few weeks.

So, what’s the sudden cause for concern? Well, lest we forget, April was the month of the Classico, with juvenile jibes and hype galore; enough to rouse even the passive fan’s interest. But, beneath it all, somewhere in the foreground, hidden in the latter pages of Marca and the like, something happened, and it ultimately may prove to be more relevant than any clash between ‘the cat and the rat’. Getafe C.F., Madrid’s third and often forgotten club, was the object of a takeover by Royal Emirates Group and will subsequently be re-packaged as ‘Getafe Team Dubai’. Yes, that’s right, Getafe Team Dubai of the Spanish Primera División. If that doesn’t resonate with the fans of the Madrileño club then who knows what will. It’s another peculiar disruption to the conventions of football but also an omen for any clubs with a takeover imminent: your club’s pursuit of more recognition may just cost it the fundamentals of its identity.

So, should we beware the fearsome advent of clubs such as Nottingham Wallmart FC or Leeds BP United? Okay, perhaps not quite yet. As it transpires, unsettling though the Getafe story may be, the club is particularly vulnerable to such an acquisition, chiefly due to its marginalised status, its brief history (28 years) and its modest fan-base which is populated partially by supporters whose primary allegiance lies with one of Spain’s ‘big two’. However, the additional 20 million Euro that the new owners pledged to invest in the club next season may go some way to cultivating a more substantial fan-base.

Or at least that will be their operating theory. In practice, such a project may be inhibited by the truism that in the genesis of any re-branded club, local supporter loyalty is at a premium that even the most lucrative investment can struggle to meet. Of course the bandwagon will always await the fair-weather fan but whilst chairmen and investors welcome an elevated global appeal and the consequent revenue bump, there persists the risk of alienating the ‘through and through’ fans, the fans who were brought up with the club, the fans who may not be local anymore but who followed the club in their youth in spite of any unfortunate twists of fate. Such followers may fear, and indeed resent the supporter saturation that could accompany any brand-marketing, however well-intentioned.

The trouble is, the cycle is self-perpetuating. Increased gravitation towards more high-profile clubs is unlikely to aid the monotony of their constant dominance. The more fans they accumulate world-wide, the more successful the club will become, rendering support of local clubs a slowly dying art and consigning the poetic and organic ascent of the underdog to history. But, we could take solace from the fact that those stubborn, loyal fans won’t be going anywhere any time soon, despite the somewhat precarious future of local football support. And who knows? Perhaps a more universally friendly product with the principle aim of offering the most accessible and global appeal wouldn’t be so bad after all. Now, anyone up for some added-time multi-ball?

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Posted in: Global