Monday, December 05, 2022

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What is a Football Club?

Via @riciardus on Pexels

It’s an abstract question for sure. It’s the kind of question I imagine everyone thinks they know the answer to, an obvious answer, an answer so basic it doesn’t even necessitate real consideration. But I also imagine each of those obvious answers would be slightly different.



Is a football club its name, its badge? The stadium? The fans? The players? The manager?

It’s something I’ve been thinking about. Over the last season, I’ve subjected my partner to watching a lot of football games. It was arguably the worst season to introduce someone to the game, as empty echoey stadiums and commentators regularly apologizing for swearing, isn’t really what the spectacle is famous for. But nonetheless, she took an interest, and has even learned several players names and characteristics.


She particularly likes Edison Cavani for his work rate and Marcus Rashford for all that feeding hungry children stuff. And she asked the question during a game, a straightforward question which, surprisingly, doesn’t have such a straightforward answer.


A football club is a composite of several parts, all of which are changeable. If all the parts change over time, is the soul of the club still there?


The name of the club, its very identity, that can change. Newton Heath changed to Manchester United. Wimbledon FC became MK Dons. St. Domingo became Everton and Liverpool. A football club must be more than its name, then.


Is it the badge? That’s what players kiss when they score a goal, declaring their love and loyalty to the emblem, to the sacred entity. But even badges change. Regularly. And, moreover, players change clubs, kissing one badge and swearing their allegiance one season, then transferring to another club, another badge, and kissing that one a few months later.


It’s this plasticity of the elements of a football club, I argue, that make it difficult to define where its soul exists. Something that is so easily changeable becomes devalued, less significant traditionally and historically, and tradition and history are two of the cornerstones of football fandom.


And when you think about it, almost everything about a football club changes.


Managers change all the time. My club, Swansea City, had three managers in one season before. Clubs swap managers, rehire managers, and release managers from lengthy contracts so often it’s not even shocking anymore. You might make the argument that there are exceptional managers, like Bill Shankly, Matt Busby, Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsène Wenger, who have become part of the club’s “DNA.” Even so, the ultimate truth is that their clubs were there before them, and will still be there a long time after they’re gone.


While we’re at it, that idea of “DNA” and “philosophy” is over-emphasized in modern football. There’s often talk of teams playing and winning “our way”, with “our unique style.” But when it actually comes down to it, how many different styles of playing football are there? There’s possession, counter-attack, set-piece focused, pressing or “heavy metal football”. There’s a few variations of these, but basically, there’s a very finite number of ways to play the game, and all these clubs who claim to have their own style are overlooking this fact, using it as a way to make their club mean something more.


Players obviously change. Sometimes they change clubs, and then change back within a few months. (Remember Robbie Keane, from Spurs to Liverpool to Spurs? Almost in the same week?) There are obviously legendary players who give their whole careers to their clubs and are loved by their fans, but, even Steven Gerrard once asked to leave Liverpool for Chelsea, and, much like the managers, the club exists with or without them.


The location isn’t sacred either. The stadia. The venues. St. James Park is now the Sports Direct Arena. There’s the AmEx Arena, the Emirates, the Etihad, the Reebok arena. If the club’s soul lies in a corporately sponsored name, then it’s a very cheap soul, and one that like everything else, is changed.


So, if it’s not the manager, it’s not the players, it’s not the club’s name, it’s not the badge, and it’s not the stadium, it’s obvious where the club’s soul comes from then, isn’t it?

The fans. It must be the fans. They’re the ones who never change. They’re the ones who either find a team or inherit one when they’re young and stick with them for life. They’re the ones who don’t go away when their team is relegated, when the owners sell, when the players make transfer requests, when the manager is sacked.


If you look in an earlier paragraph in this article, you’ll see that I mentioned that last season, which was played out in full and a memorable one, was played almost everywhere with no fans. A premier league title, a champions league, an FA cup, all these trophies were won with no fans to cheer. Has football stopped? Have the clubs curled up and died?


Well, some of them almost have, actually. Maybe the clubs at the top of the financial tree are still going through television revenue, but the lower leagues, the hardcore faction, they have not, they have come close to extinction. Even Barcelona are close to bankruptcy. And, indeed, the atmospheres at many of these games in empty stadiums have been accurately described as “soulless”. Clubs can exist without fans but only as husks. A club is a community. A club is its fans, but more than, it’s what those fans become as a collective. It’s a tribe, a place to belong, as evidenced by the volatile, irate reaction to the European Super League, an idea which is likely to resurface again. (And the idea of Spurs and Arsenal calling themselves super clubs still makes me chuckle.)


And the place to belong begins at the bottom of the footballing tree, at the Sunday league level. I recently joined a newly incarnated amateur Team called Stoneway Athletic. We’ve played a handful of games together and are still learning each other’s names, but already the members are hopefully relishing the camaraderie, with shouts of “Up the Stoneway!” being regularly heard.


They celebrate an entity that didn’t exist 6 months ago. But it’s their place in it that they love. That’s why it’s called a club. A place for members. A place to belong. So, the next time someone says, “It’s just a bunch of men kicking a sphere around a field”, you can tell them that’s not what it is. That’s just the excuse for the real thing. The real thing is not something you can see on a TV screen.

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