The marketing of fanaticism

By Paul Gardner

Not that you needed a reminder, but this weekend's big games were a glaring example of just how international pro soccer has become -- at the club level.

Three super-games were rolled out for us this weekend -- two in England -- the Everton-Liverpool Merseyside derby, the top-of-the-standings London derby between Arsenal and Chelsea -- and in Spain El Clasico in the Camp Nou, Barcelona vs. Real Madrid.

So: in the two English Premier League games, of the 44 starting players, only nine were English -- fewer than 25 percent. In Spain, 10 of the 22 starters were Spanish -- nearly 50 percent.

Nineteen different countries were represented, from five continents -- only Asia was absent. The largest contingent of players - 13 -- came from Spain, with 10 of then playing in El Clasico. Then came France with 12 players -- at least one on all six teams.

And the coaches: two Spanish, one Chilean, a Frenchman, an Italian, and a Scot. Which underlines the stark fact that there is not much that's English about the Premier League these days.

Does all the talk about how important soccer is as a community activity make any sense at all? The city of Liverpool has long bred the most fanatical fans in England and -- one has been persuaded to believe -- the most zealously turf-minded.

It was, after all, the Liverpool coach Bill Shankly, who uttered the notorious -- and highly mischievous -- blather about soccer being more important than a mere matter of life or death.

Just this past week, we've had a glimpse of the deep-rooted antagonisms that haunt the city. When Everton's plan for a new stadium in nearby Kirby was turned down by the British government, Robert Elston, the Everton CEO, made a series of low-key statements to the effect that it now made sense to talk -- again -- with Liverpool about the building of a new stadium that the two clubs would share.

The reasoning has always been that if AC Milan and Inter Milan can share the San Siro without the world coming to an end, why should Everton and Liverpool not work out a similar logical -- and highly money-saving -- agreement? And cost is a hugely important factor, as Elston stressed. Liverpool, also seeking to build a new stadium, is finding it difficult in the current recession, to find the necessary capital.

But barely were the words out of Elston's mouth when "a senior source" at Liverpool told England's Sunday Mirror: "There is absolutely no chance that Liverpool will be sharing a stadium with Everton. It will never happen."

Something deep inside my soccer soul tells me that is the right attitude. What is a soccer club if it doesn't have a home to call its own? Who wants the fans of a hated rival club sitting in his season-ticket seat every other week? But something else, something less visceral and closer perhaps to the reality of modern sport, tells me that a shared stadium ought to happen.

Not only in Liverpool, but in other cities too. I'm looking again at those remarkable figures that I cited above. How does one reconcile those with the parochial history of soccer clubs in England and most other countries? Does it make any sense at all for Liverpool and Everton fans to be so fervid about teams most of whose players have no link whatever to the city itself?

I find it difficult to understand - not the support that the clubs get, but the fanaticism that goes along with it. More -- I am decidedly suspicious of the fanaticism. For this reason: because it is something that is featured in great heavy, mind-numbing doses in so much of the marketing that now envelopes the sport.

In short, the extremes of fanaticism are being encouraged by the salesmen in their attempts to get you to spend more and more of your money on club shirts and other regalia. Read the ads, listen to them on TV, and wait -- it won't be long -- for the word "passion" to appear; then will come other emotive keywords like "love" and "heart" and "life." Oh yes, make no mistake, you are being invited to take your club and its results very, very seriously -- more seriously, perhaps, than ... well, ask Bill Shankly.

And when an activity becomes that important, how can you not spend your money to support it, or to support your children who support it? I cannot see the cynical commercialism that lies behind the blatant invitations to fans to be as "ultra" as possible as a healthy component of soccer.

What started as praiseworthy local pride has become something much less dignified. At its worst, soccer fandom now borders on mindless zealotry. Is it to be wondered at, then, that the sport attracts a whole variety of unsavory nationalistic groups? That it has yet to quell the constant menace of hooliganism? What a sad reflection that one of the biggest -- if not the biggest -- financial items in the organizing of any major soccer tournament is now the cost of security arrangements.

The sport, very obviously, has lost its vital local roots -- indeed has been losing them steadily for decades. I lament their disappearance -- but I regret even more the blind fanaticism that has entered the game in a vain attempt to make out that they still exist, or that they still retain their former importance.


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