Sing when you’re losing
Results this week confirmed that as well as finishing the season with no trophies, Manchester United will not play Champions League football for the first time since 1995/96. To make things worse, they will almost certainly be handing the trophy over to old foes Liverpool. With this in mind and the ruthless nature of modern football, it is no real surprise that David Moyes will be sat in his pants watching daytime TV for at least the next few months.
Man Utd fans under the age of 30 have never really known bad times, with a three-year spell between 2003 and 2006 about as bad as it got. Even though they did not win the league in these years, they still at least challenged for top spot and were not embarrassed in the way they have been this season. Because let’s face it, that is what David Moyes’ Manchester United were – embarrassing.
They failed to take a single point from their two big rivals Manchester City and Liverpool, losing by a combined score of 11 – 1 over these four games. Meanwhile, they exited both domestic cups at home to Swansea and Sunderland, with the penalty shootout against Sunderland only lacking the Benny Hill theme music to be the comedy event of the year. The Champions League went slightly better, but the Reds were still eventually well beaten by Bayern Munich, having very nearly been dumped out by Olympiacos a couple of weeks before.
So with this season the worst for an entire generation, you might expect that Samaritans in Salford will be taking on hundreds of extra staff. However, I believe that being a bit rubbish might prove to be a blessing in disguise for the true fans of Manchester United.
Whatever you think of them, Manchester United have some of the best away fans in the country. They travel in numbers, they’re loud and they do manage to come up with an original chant (e.g. anything which isn’t to the tune of Sloop John B) every so often. Then you look at the average occasion at Old Trafford, and the difference could not be more dramatic. I use the word ‘occasion’ rather than ‘match’, because that is exactly what it is for many of the people inside the stadium. It’s a chance to visit the Megastore, wear a green and gold scarf along with a brand new replica shirt and take as many pictures of Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney as their iPad memory will allow them. For a large percentage on match day, the score doesn’t really matter at all. This was made evident during one of the aforementioned defeats to Liverpool, the most hated rivals for many Manchester United supporters. Luis Suarez had just scored the third goal with a couple of minutes remaining, and many of United’s customers were pictured taking photos of his goal celebration.
All of this stems from one simple fact – success. Manchester United have been dominant for as long as many people can remember, and as a result they have attracted followers from all over the world. They’re the most popular team in China, Singapore and probably dozens more countries where the average citizen couldn’t even point to Manchester on a map, let alone actually go there. I have flown from Manchester Airport the morning after a home match, and departures was absolutely full to the brim with people going home with a bag of merchandise and a memory card full of photos.
The sad fact of modern day football is that the club would much rather sell a ticket to an overseas fan for £80 than to Dave from Salford for £30. Rather than choosing the vocal support of a lifelong local red, they prefer to have somebody sit in silence, buy an overpriced burger at half time and then go home with a suitcase full of tat from the shop. It has been this way for some time, escalated by the takeover of the Glazer family and the resulting debt – enough to cripple most small countries, never mind a football club. While some lifelong fans do remain, particularly in the Stretford End, many more have been priced out, or stopped going out of disgust (see FC United of Manchester) at the commercialised experience that is a Man Utd home match.
This problem is by no means limited to England. Nobody goes to a game hoping to see their team lose, but it does feel as though success has become a curse in the modern era. To put this theory to the test, I’ve looked at the atmosphere and overall fan experience for the most successful teams in recent years in three of Europe’s top leagues.
On the face of it, being a Bayern fan at the moment has to be pretty great. They have not so much won the Bundesliga as obliterated it, as long with pretty much any other trophy you can think of. I haven’t checked who won employee of the month at my office last month, but there is probably quite a good chance it was Bayern Munich.
However, ask any football fan in Germany and they’ll tell you that the atmosphere at the Allianz Arena is one of the worst in the entire country, along with the manufactured teams such as Hoffenheim and Red Bull’s advertising project in Leipzig. The Ultras have been forced out of the stadium on numerous occasions, with the club preferring to sell these tickets on Viagogo for a greatly inflated price. For all the talk about cheap season tickets at Bayern (and they are cheap), the club still makes plenty of money from tourists and corporate spectators. As the club continues to dominate European football, you can expect the percentage of real fans and day trippers to change even more dramatically.
To replace the atmosphere they have begun to drive away, the club has resorted to handing out ‘Klatschpappen’, known in English as ‘clappers’. When you are the champions of Europe and can’t get your fans to make enough noise without bashing together bits of cardboard, something is seriously wrong.
The Yellow Wall at Dortmund is arguably the best place to be a football fan in the entire world. It’s loud, it’s cheap and it’s passionate. Not only that, but it’s a truly beautiful place to watch the beautiful game. Honestly, if the hairs don’t stand up on the back of your neck when you see the yellow flags waving and scarves held aloft, you’re either a Schalke fan or the sport isn’t for you.
The problem at Dortmund comes when you move into the other stands at the stadium, which has recently not been reflecting the ‘true love’ which is shown by the supporters on the terrace. Earlier in the season, BVB were defeated by Zenit in the second leg of their Champions League Last 16 encounter, but still progressed to the next round on aggregate. This was not good enough for many fans in these other sections of the stadium, leaving midfielder Kevin Großkreutz to remark “Every time we lost possession you could hear moans in the crowd…. Afterwards you can whistle but during the game we need the support”, while Sebastian Kehl added “A home game should be a positive experience and not feel as if we have committed some sort of crime”.
Overall, watching Dortmund is still a wonderful experience and one that I would recommend to anyone who loves football culture, but it seems like the spirit of true support is not safe even here.
Who does it better?
Eintracht Frankfurt – After qualifying for the Europa League last season, SGE have been a bit disappointing this season, struggling against relegation for much of the campaign, eventually moving to safety in recent games. However, despite failing to capitalise on such a brilliant season last year, the fans have been magnificent, winning admirers all over Europe for their loyal support. They have one of the best terraces in Europe, and took more away fans to some of their away fixtures in Europe than most teams could manage at home. They may never win the Bundesliga, but football does seem a lot more fun in Frankfurt.
Ajax have won the league in each of the last three seasons, and will also win it this year unless they have the worst collapse in the history of football. However, they have real problems in creating an atmosphere at home games outside of the sections which are home to the ultras.
If you buy a ticket for an Ajax match and end up standing in Vak 410, you’ll be around supporters jumping up and down, setting off pyro, chanting for much of the match and generally getting behind the side. Sit elsewhere in the ground, and there’s a good chance you’ll be sat next to a tourist with an iPad in their hands and a camera round their neck wondering why Johan Cruyff isn’t playing today. With Ajax being such a famous club around the world for their success and style in the 1970’s, it attracts a far higher amount of ‘customers’ when compared to arch rivals Feyenoord, as well as sides like FC Twente and Utrecht. The title has not gone to Rotterdam since 1999, but when I moved to Holland there was only one place I wanted to watch football.
I can’t deny that Ajax do have some very loud and passionate supporters, but the numbers of them inside the stadium seems to be decreasing every season.
Who does it better?
Go Ahead Eagles – As well as having one of the coolest names in world football, Go Ahead Eagles also have some truly tremendous supporters. They are by far the best away fans to visit De Kuip this season, and were applauded by their Feyenoord counterparts for their constant support throughout the match, an encounter they lost 5 – 0. This is their first year in the top flight for a generation, and having seen such struggle allows them to enjoy the good times even more.
Real Madrid and Barcelona
In modern day football, it is almost impossible to think of Real Madrid without thinking of Barcelona, and vice versa. The clubs absolutely despise each other, but they also need each other. With none of the other Spanish sides able to come anywhere near them in recent years (with the other Madrid side thankfully challenging this trend in 2014), they have relied on the games each other to maintain the interests of their supporters.
When I was younger, El Clasico was a highly anticipated event which I would look forward to weeks in advance. These days, it seems as if they are playing each other every other week. In addition to the extreme commercialisation of both clubs, ticket prices at the clubs these days have forced out many of the long-term loyal supporters. The ultras groups at both clubs are constantly challenged and banned, meaning that the atmosphere at all but the very biggest games of the season is basically non-existent. Players like Messi, C. Ronaldo, Bale and Neymar allow the clubs to be marketed all over the world, meaning the problem is only going to get worse.
Who does it better?
Well, pretty much anyone. Betis, Espanyol, Atleti and Sevilla all have better fans and create a more enjoyable atmosphere than the giants of El Clasico, along with a whole host of other Spanish teams I could mention. However, the example I have chosen is a team that do not play in La Liga, or even the division below that. They are CAP Ciudad de Murcia, a fan owned club in the fifth tier who have made football fun in Spain again. After every game the players will mix with the supporters to show their appreciation and join in the chants, and the atmosphere as a result of this recognition is absolutely outstanding. I can almost guarantee that if you put 100 CAP fans in a packed Camp Nou, they would make more noise than everyone else in the stadium combined. If they ever do make it further up the football pyramid, there’s no question that you’ll have a new favourite Spanish team.
So where am I going with this?
Well, imagine a scenario which involves Manchester United not winning the league for another five years. With Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea improving significantly this season and Manchester City building one of the best teams in the world, it’s perfectly possible. This would be upsetting for the average local supporter, but not the end of the world. After all, before Alex Ferguson came along, they didn’t win the title for more than 20 years.
Compare this to the reaction of a supporter who simply hopped on the Manchester United bandwagon for the lure of guaranteed trophies. Some would stay loyal, but many more would simply stop caring. They’d remove #MUFC from their Twitter bio, buy a Neymar, Bale or Aguero shirt instead of a Rooney one and that would be the end of it. More empty seats would mean the club being forced to reduce prices, coming cap in hand to the supporters they abandoned when the good times came along. With these local fans able to attend matches once again, the atmosphere would perhaps feel more like a football match than a theatre performance, putting the fun back into following United for those who deserve it most.
Winning is a difficult habit to break, and there would probably be a few more 0 – 3’s and 1 – 6’s along the way, but the mediocrity of Moyes could well turn out to be a blessing in disguise for those at Manchester United who are proud to call themselves supporters not customers.