The root of all evil
Everyone wants a Sheikh Mansour or an Abramovich, don’t they?
If you look at football as only being something which takes place on the pitch, then the takeovers of Manchester City and Chelsea were the greatest thing to happen to the clubs by some distance. It’s helped to bring the European Cup to London for the first time, while Sergio Aguero gave most Manchester City fans the best moment of their lives on a sunny May afternoon in 2012.
Whether it’s Everton or Enfield, you can be sure that many supporters have looked on enviously ever since, wondering when it will be their turn for a giant sack of cash and a South American striker to arrive, with all the glitz and glamour that ensues.
The problem is, football is really only all about success for people who don’t attend matches. If you watch on Sky Sports or an illegal stream before boasting to your mates in Shanghai about Manchester being blue, then it is indeed only results which are important. After all, what do ticket prices or atmosphere matter if you have no intention of experiencing them anyway?
No, the problem comes for the supporters of these clubs who have followed the clubs all their lives, and now find themselves supporting a very different club to the one they fell in love with. You see, these people were there when they were playing Bradford City instead of Barcelona, with Slaviša Jokanović or even David James playing upfront instead of Diego Costa and the aforementioned Aguero.
The change at Manchester City has become increasingly noticeable in the last two seasons, with the fan culture at the club maintained fairly successfully until this stage. In 2007 I moved to the north of England and made a number of friends who supported City, and they would occasionally take me to a game with them. Even though the mega money arrived during this time, it was still fun to go to the matches. By the time I moved to the Netherlands in 2013, the signs of change were evident. I went to the European Cup matches against many of Europe’s biggest clubs (and Ajax) and was amazed to see the change that had taken place. While there was (and still is) a noisy pocket of fans in the block to the right of the away end, much of the stadium was quiet. I took the video below which I believe shows the contrast in support perfectly:
It’s got even worse since then, with ‘supporters’ pictured taking a photo of Wayne Rooney and smiling after he’d just scored against them in a Manchester derby, longterm supporters being moved from their seats to create more corporate boxes and insisting on forcing their pre-approved ‘matchday experience’ on people. After so many years making fun of the atmosphere at Manchester United and the way they act more like a brand than a football club, the same thing has happened to City.
Despite the fact I’ve focused on them so far, this is far from just being a Manchester City problem. Chelsea away used to be one of the most intimidating fixtures in the football calendar for an English football fan. The Shed End had a reputation as one of the biggest collection of nutters around, and you could count on it to be loud, passionate and occasionally violent. These days, the most dangerous thing which could happen to you at the Bridge is accidentally getting poked in the eye with a selfie stick.
Perhaps inevitably, especially in such a wealthy area of the city, Chelsea has become a cool place to be seen, like the theatre or a Broadway show. With these people able to pay considerable sums of money for a ticket, it’s no surprise that the corporates have come in and the nutters have been relegated to watching at home or in the pub more often than not, picking and choosing their games due to prices and availability.
And so this…
It’s not just England where this is a problem. In France too, the arrival of money and success has caused serious problems for the supporters who would be there whether it was a European Cup match against Real Madrid, or they were taking on Bourg-Péronnas in the early rounds of the cup. I am of course talking about Paris Saint-Germain, the most recent European goliath. In 2007/08, just as Manchester City were taking the first steps towards superstardom, PSG narrowly avoided being relegated – finishing just three points off the drop zone. A few years later the club from the French capital had another extremely disappointing season, finishing in 13th place while their hated rivals Olympique de Marseille stormed to the title.
Despite this season being a nightmare on the field, the PSG ultras continued to make a name for themselves throughout Europe, with several different groups coming together to create a fearsome atmosphere. Supras Auteuil, Lutece Falco, Authentiks, Boulogne Boys, Karsud, Tigris Mistik… all of these groups competed to be the most impressive both visually and vocally, and the result was something to strike fear into the heart of the opposition fan – while providing a place for the working class people of Paris to express their emotions and pride in their city.
In 2010 it all started to go wrong – with strict measures put in place from the club itself and the French authorities to replace passion with profit. Many of the fans groups were forcibly disbanded by the club, while those that remained suffered such restrictions that it was impossible for them to continue. Knowing that the end of their journey was near, the ultras gathered for one final ‘au revoir’ – putting on this spectacular display against Montpellier towards the end of the 09/10 season.
For those of you who do not speak French or cannot view the video, the first banner reads ‘Paname United Colours’, the united group of Supras Auteuil, Authentiks and Grinta. Another banner follows in English stating “This is the end”, before one final banner in French which reads “You are killing our club”.
It only got worse once the Qatari investors officially arrived on the scene, with the working class men and women of Paris no longer wanted by those in charge. Instead, the target audience became children whose parents would spend money in the club shop, and rich businesspeople who would impress their potential clients by renting out a suite for a game.
It also became impossible to reserve a particular seat in advance for any PSG game, with supporters instead taking their seat once they arrived at the stadium. This makes it very difficult for a tifo display to be arranged or for likeminded passionate supporters to gather together, further sanitizing the Parc des Princes fan scene. There are some hardcore supporters who remain inside the stadium and do their best to replicate the atmosphere of days gone by, but it is like trying to bail out the deck of a sinking ship using an ice cream scoop.
Now look at what has been happening back in England in Manchester and London. It is no longer allowed to hang up flags in some sections of the Etihad, with club sponsored ‘digital flags’ showing up in these spaces instead. This way the marketing suits can promote a nice clean message of their own, without having to worry about those nasty supporters doing something to upset a sponsor or the eager TV audience. At Chelsea too, the club sponsored plastic flags have become a running joke for supporters of many other clubs, with Liverpool fans in particular using this as a stick to beat them with.
While the plastic jokes are tired and over-used, the point is a valid one. The rich owners of the club do not want the supporters to have their own voice, and instead want them to sit down and be a good little customer. Sing the right song when you’re told, wave the right flag when we ask you, pay what we tell you and if you complain about any of it, the manager will criticize you in the press for not supporting the team properly.
Whether it’s Barry the Manchester City fan, Dave the Chelsea fan or François the PSG fan, the story is the same. They were there for their team when they were crap, and now they’re good, they no longer want to be seen with them. Like the lottery winner who leaves their wife to run away lingerie model, I’m sure they’re enjoying life right now, but what will be left for them when the money runs out? If you show supporters that you don’t need them, they will very quickly believe you.
Let’s say that Chelsea and Manchester City enjoy another ten years of success before the owners go elsewhere. They’ll leave behind a shiny new stadium, a greatly extended trophy cabinet and millions of replica shirts in the Far East, but will they leave behind a single trace of the fan culture that once was? Of the friends I mentioned who used to watch Man City on a regular basis, there are already plenty of them who don’t go anymore. With season tickets set to increase in price for the coming campaign, many more of them are likely to be driven out.
This is all fine while the clubs are successful and there is someone to take their place, but if you drive enough people away, all that will be left is an empty plastic seat. Look at Cardiff City, who enjoyed superb crowds during their stay in the Premier League despite the supporters who were lost due to the rebrand and Vincent Tan’s general insanity. However now the club has returned to the Championship, more and more people are becoming disillusioned and attending less matches. I believe the same thing will happen with Chelsea, Manchester City, PSG and any other club which seems to be living the dream, it only takes a moment in the modern game for a dream to become a nightmare. Look at Anzhi Makhachkala, the club who made headlines around the world for signing Samuel Eto’o, Roberto Carlos and many other well known players. Heard of them recently? Last season they were relegated with the least points of any top flight club in Europe, winning just three games.
So if your club is rubbish, broke and unsuccessful, you might just be the lucky ones. If you can buy a ticket for any game you want without having to sell your kidney on eBay, if you can jump around an away end without being told to sit down and be quiet, if you can look around the stand without seeing an iPad or a split scarf, if Sky Sports doesn’t control your fixture list…well, you have something more valuable than any trophy.