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Football and Geopolitics: Behind the FIFA Scandal

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May 27 2015 will prove to be a day that lives in infamy—the day scandal rocked world soccer’s governing body, leaving 14 FIFA officials under arrest in Zurich, Switzerland. This is, of course, old news. I’ll try to make it interesting by putting the whole surreal event in a geopolitical context. Lets start with the basics. It was the United States Department of Justice that spearheaded the operation in a 164-page 47-count indictment. In some ways it felt like turning back the clock; the United States of America emerging from its isolation to ostensibly “save the world” by crossing the oceans as in World War One and World War Two. Of course, there were reasons for this particular move since parts of the scandal pertained directly to the United States of America; the Economist outlines them nicely. A video version for those averse to reading is available courtesy of CNN.

The United States has, since World War Two, controlled much of the world system indirectly through both formal and informal international organizations, befitting its hegemonic role. Financially it was initially through the Bretton Woods system, since then it has been the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. Politically control came first through Woodrow Wilson’s brainchild the League of Nations, now there is the New York headquartered United Nations. Culturally the United States has been able to influence the world to a great extent as well; first through Hollywood and music, now it is through technological advancements such as iPhones and iPods, Google, Facebook and Twitter that American culture is felt the world over.

The one sphere in which the United States has failed to make a global impact is, arguably, the world of sports. Indeed the results of a 2014 Harris poll, which has asked Americans aged 18 and older the simple question, “What is your favorite sport?” every year since 1985, tell us that Americans are very USA-centric when it comes to sport.

 

America’s Favorite Sports in 2014 (Courtesy of ESPN)

The National Football League (NFL)(Professional [American] Football): 35%

Major League Baseball (MLB) (Professional Baseball): 14%

College Football (NCAA): 11%

Auto Racing: 7%

National Basketball Association (Professional US Basketball): 6%

National Hockey League (Professional Hockey): 5%

College Basketball (NCAA): 3%

 

The top three vote getters—and more than half of the entire poll’s respondents and 60 percent—listed sports played almost entirely in the United States as their favorite sports. The next highest sport listed is Auto Racing. Although this is a global sport—think of Formula 1 and Rally cars—I personally believe that responders had NASCAR (Again, very American) in mind when answering this question. That leaves the NBA and the NHL—just 11 percent of all respondents called these two their favorite sports—as the only ostensibly international sports to make the list. I say ostensibly because although basketball is played all over the world—and the NBA has been making itself more international with each passing year—it is still a very different game than FIBA’s Euroleague, to name one. Hockey is international in the sense that the NHL has 7 Canadian teams (alongside 23 American teams), but I’m sure very few responders cited in this poll had ever watched a game from Russia’s KHL. Hockey also has a fairly small fan base, limited to those living in northern climates along a belt stretching from Vancouver to the steppes of Central Asia and going only as far south as, perhaps, Zurich, along that belt outside of the United States.

Soccer is certainly the one place in world sport—and world culture, for that matter—that the rest of the world has a chance to best the United States. And it is this chance for “the rest to beat the best of the West”—the battle between the global South and global North played out on the pitch—that gives international football, and the World Cup in particular, its unparalleled allure. The recently departed Eduardo Galeano’s masterpiece Soccer in Sun and Shadow explains the phenomenon well without explicitly saying it (and therein lies the book’s genius, at least for me). So why did the United States focus its power on FIFA, what I explained in my thesis was arguably the first international organization and the globe’s first foray into global civil society, when the US isn’t even interested in the sport? The answer may lie in the organization’s history. FIFA was founded in 1904 in the midst of a different era, the era of empires when the hegemonic power base was located in colonialist Europe and old world territorial powers such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russian Empire, and Ottoman Empire were in decline. Fledgling nations rushed to achieve FIFA membership in order to affirm their independence—to states such as Lebanon, Syria, and others, emerging from the ashes of empires that had long controlled them as dusty peripheral provinces from lavish imperial palaces in far-off capitals, FIFA Membership was what NATO membership now means to Georgia, what European Union membership now means to Ukraine and Serbia. Membership to FIFA was a bold statement to the world: We Have Arrived! And this feeling has not gone away. Today there are 209 members in FIFA. Compare that to the 193 official member states of the United Nations. Look at Palestine’s attempts to push Israel out of FIFA if you don’t believe that FIFA membership can provide succor to those unable to get a seat at the United Nations at which to air their grievances. Perhaps the United States moved to strike a blow at an international institution that had strayed from its original goal of bringing together nations in fair play for everyone’s benefit; it was not founded to line the pockets of a few corrupt officials after all. So, like the American interventions in both World Wars, this can be looked at as another benign intervention by the world’s superpower in order to save the (sporting) world from itself. But there are other theories as well.

As many know, the nexus of the FIFA scandal lies in the bribes received by officials in return for, among other things, votes in choosing World Cup hosts. The hosts of the next two World Cups—as chosen by the aforementioned officials—are Russia (in 2018) and Qatar (in 2022). Both of these countries have something else in common—they are, on some scale, geopolitical rivals of the United States. And both won the right to host their respective World Cups over the United States’ interests; chief US ally England lost out to Russia in 2018 and Qatar beat out the United States’ own bid for 2022. Clearly, the United States could not sit idly by when the chance at winning a considerable amount of soft power influence in the world for themselves and their ally went by the way side. Russia has long been a geopolitical rival to the United States; Qatar is using the confusing situation in the Middle East to cement their role as a regional power in a region key to the United States’ foreign policy interests and hope that hosting a major sporting event such as the World Cup can add to their influence in the region. South African Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula represents another voice from the global South who criticized the U.S. move by mentioning the U.S./British alliance, saying that it is “for the United States and Britain to fight their own battles: ‘We have fought colonialism and defeated it and we still fight imperialism and we will fight it whenever it manifests itself.’

With the stakes this high, the United States’ move may still pay off. Although FIFA insists that there will be no re-vote for either the 2018 or 2022 World Cups, signs are showing that nothing is certain. Human rights groups have called on Qatar to publish the death figures for workers building stadiums for the tournament and it is estimated that 1200 migrant workers have died in the construction since 2014. Long-time FIFA president Sepp Blatter—who was reelected days ago despite the scandal—resigned on June 2 from his position at the head of Soccer’s governing body. These events—along with UEFA president Michel Platini’s long standing issue with the 2022 World Cup’s potential to affect the European football season—signal to me that a re-consideration may be on the cards.

In such a globalized world—where the World Cup has become bigger than ever—it is only fitting for the world’s sole superpower, the United States, to take a leading role. And in this increasingly interconnected world it is equally fitting that geopolitics is intimately linked with cultural and sporting events.

I find it refreshing that some action has been taken against corruption in world football. But there is still more to be done—the Economist warns that the endemic corruption in sports goes beyond just Sepp Blatter because “sports corruption is a reflection of wider problems—sport merely being an organism to which criminal succubi attach themselves—it is too formidable for sporting organisations to tackle alone.” For the sake of the game we all love let’s hope the United States’ intervention keeps the game from turning into a vehicle to make the rich richer. In David Goldblatt’s words, “the entire football industry has traded on the notion that the game really is the most global cultural practice in the world, a rare form of universalism on a divided planet. That, if nothing else, is worth salvaging from the wreckage.” I can only agree.

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Image Courtesy Of: http://pulse.ng/sports/football/sepp-blatter-resignation-sepp-blatter-resignation-the-football-world-reacts-id3822195.html

London Fall Football Fest 2014 (10.01.2014-10.06.2014): Six Days, Four Matches, One City

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Ölümle Yaşamı Ayıran Çizgi, Siyahla Beyazı Ayıramaz Ki . . .

The Line That Separates Life From Death Can’t Separate Black From White . . .

Those poetic lines come from Beşiktaş supporters and they became a bit of a mantra for me during my recent trip to London. It was four matches in six days, punctuated by all sorts of lessons learned on either side of lines that separate so many instances of life—things that are so close yet so far apart. One often thinks of white and black as opposites—symbolizing life and death, respectively. Yet, in the context of one football team, these two opposites are inseparable; separate they may mean two different things but together they symbolize something that is very much alive: love for one football team.

 

London Fall Football Fest Part One: The Line That Separates Football Crazy From Just Plain Crazy

 

Çocukluk aşkımsııııııın!!!!!

Sen ilk göz ağrımsıııııın!!!!

You’re my childhood love!!

You’re the first apple of my eye!!!

 

The tune—if it can even be called that—rises from a single tinny voice somewhere behind me. Imagine the most off-key singer you’ve ever heard . . . then ten times worse. This is something like that. I haven’t turned my head yet, neither has Ekin. We want to make it crystal clear that we are not with this man.

 

Kimseyi, kimseyi sevmedim senin gibiiiiii…

Sevdanın uğruna terkettim herşeyiiiii…

No one, I’ve loved no one like I’ve loved you…

I’ve abandoned everything for the sake of your passion…

 

No, we have certainly never seen this man in our life.

“John, what was our flight number?”

“Let me check . . . 519.”

“519? What kind of a flight number is that?”

“I don’t know man! It’s on the boarding pass!”

 

Hayatın anlamıııııı

GALATASARAY!!!!!!

Hayatın anlamıııııı

GALATASARAY!!!!!!

 

The meaning of life is….

GALATASARAY!!!!!

The meaning of life is….

GALATASARAY!!!!!

 

The off key-tune keeps interrupting us as we try to fill out our immigration cards. Our minds have turned to mush after traveling and now, at 12am, this one-man sideshow is really the last straw. By now others have noticed him and are starting to stare. The UK citizens line is staring, and the non-Turkish contingent in the non-UK citizens line begin to send disapproving looks his way. He seems to be oblivious as I look him over.

He is definitely a strange looking fellow. But, then again, you’ve got to be a little off to be belting out Galatasaray songs in the middle of the night below the UK BORDER sign in the passport control line at London Stansted Airport.

I just hope that his ill-timed display of team pride won’t disrupt our entry; our purpose of visit—to see some football matches—could mean we get painted with the same brush as our wayward friend in line behind us. After all, the UK BORDER sign puts us in our place. We are all guilty until proven innocent here.

 

We inch through the line at a snail’s pace, everyone is being scrutinized down to the last detail. I’m not worried about getting to where we need to go—the busses to central London run 24 hours a day from Stansted. However, I am worried about the exchanges taking place behind me.

“I can see the light! We will get the three points from Arsenal!” He sounds confident, judging by the sound of his voice. Perhaps he hasn’t watched the first five matches of the season.

“What light? Have you seen us play lately? I’m treating this as a sightseeing trip!” Someone gives him the answer I would have given.

“A sight-seeing trip?” He gets in the other man’s face. “If you’re just here to see the sights then you can’t say ‘Galatasaray’!” He is definitely out of his mind and I just turn to Ekin. We share the same grave looks, looks we know all too well from living in the same country some 3,000 Kilometers away.

 

Gözlerime bak! Gözlerime baksana!! (Look into my eyes! Look me in the eyes!)” he has now found another adversary and is staring him down in a zero-sum game. After all, they don’t have anywhere to go—they’re surrounded by velvet ropes on either side. Another man tries to intervene.

Yapma, değmez. Haydi kardeşim, en azından burada yapma (Don’t do it, its not worth it. Come on brother, at least don’t do it here)”. I chuckle at the “don’t do it here”. Its clear that this man will cause some trouble in England—this just isn’t the time or place for it.

 

Ekin and I laugh at this with the people behind us in line. They are at least normal. One is a girl who has lived in London for seven years, another is a middle aged man who has come to see the game, like us. He says he is looking for tickets to the Beşiktaş match as well and Ekin—ever the optimist—assures him that some can be found.

“Well, if not, all I want to do is watch this Galatasaray match safe and sound.” He pauses as if for effect and all four of us look over our shoulders. “I mean, there will be people like that.”

Yes, there will indeed be people like that. I can read Ekin’s mind as we stand, immigration papers in hand, waiting for our turn to be examined beneath the UK BORDER sign. All we can do now is stay away from those who live on the other side of that line separating football crazy and just plain old crazy.

 

London Fall Football Fest Part Two: The Line That Separates Turkey From Europe (And England From Europe, For That Matter)—Arsenal FC-Galatasaray SK (4-1) 10.01.2014

 

We’re seated in the Arsenal seats but we may as well be in the Galatasaray section. Only a single police officer separates us from our fellow fans to the right; nothing separates us from the Arsenal fans to our left (who would surely tear us limb from limb if they knew our true allegiance).

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Before I can get settled and take in the atmosphere of Emirates Stadium it seems as if the game is already over. Danny Welbeck has already netted two goals in the first half hour en route to his eventual hat trick. Not that this surprises me of course, I just thought that Galatasaray would be able to at least hold “the Gunners” off until the second half—such is the hopeless hope of a football fan. “Two nil, to the Arsenal…two NIL, to the Arsenal!” rings out across the Emirates Stadium, and I just hope that those around us don’t notice our conspicuous silence.

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As the match starts to slip away from Galatasaray I can feel the tensions rise and the policeman next to us starts to scan the crowd, the nervous look showing in his young eyes. Like the oppressive humidity before an oncoming rainstorm the air is heavy and the inevitable thunderclap comes in the form of sound bombs. Then comes the downpour. Flares are literally raining down onto the pitch as the Galatasaray section is bathed in an orange glow. Smoke rises into the London night and that old familiar burning scent comes to my nostrils. I can’t help but think that “this is football”.

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The grass has caught fire and Galatasaray keeper Fernando Muslera picks up one of the flares as Wesley Sneijder does his best to calm his fans down.

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The Arsenal fans, for their part, are watching with a mix that is equal parts fear and glee. Fear because it is an unpredictable situation, glee because London has not seen such a colorful night in a long time. While pyro shows are common in Eastern European stadia, they are virtually non-existent in Britain. It is that strange sense of being both in and out of Europe that the English love to cultivate.

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The PA announcer is barely audible as bottles begin to fly in the Galatasaray section. Arsenal fans in the upper decks are egging on the visiting supporters below as they return fire, not to be outdone. Extra police are called in to form a ring around the unruly supporters while the riot gear gets distributed among them. The policeman to our right takes off his vest and calmly dons his helmet as the Arsenal fans hold the tune “Who are ya?!” It is definitely going to be a long night, I can read it in the faces of the cops swarming around us.

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The Arsenal fans are booing the Galatasaray fans with each chair that is thrown into the air. Their reaction is the right one—after all, you don’t go into someone’s house and ransack it. But this is football. The hooliganism that Britain terrorized Europe with in the 1980s has now come back to them. I would have preferred it if my fellow fans could have shown a modicum of self-control but that isn’t always possible. I think back to the man in the line at passport control. No, it isn’t always possible at all, and I’m not surprised. It is the childish glee of the Arsenal supporters that surprises me more. But it too is normal. After all, they can relax. They are the ones on the other side of the line. They are behind their police. They are an island. They are in Europe. And Turkey is not, it is that simple.

 

By halftime it is 3-0, seven minute into the second half it is 4-0 as Danny Welbeck completes his hat trick and I’m bracing for the chant “Five nil, to the Arsenal. FIVE nil! To the Arsenal!” but it never comes. Keeper Wojciech Szczesny is sent off just past the hour mark and Burak Yilmaz sends the substitute keeper the wrong way to grab a consolation goal and make it 4-1. My consolation is that four of the five goals came in the goal directly in front of me. But it is a hollow feeling, scraping what little happiness we can get out of a night where the lines between Turkey and Europe showed themselves as clear as the bright orange flares burning in the smoky air.

As the police dogs come onto the field to prevent a pitch invasion after the final whistle we file out, headed to the Arsenal Tavern down the road to drown our sorrows in a few pints of London Pride.

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London Fall Football Fest Interlude #1: The Line That Separates Art from Art

 

I don’t think I’ll ever understand modern art. I’m trying to work off the previous night’s stress before tonight’s Tottenham-Beşiktaş match by taking in some “high culture” to offset my days and nights spent in the “low culture” of football stadiums. The day before it had been the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square, today it is Tate Modern on the banks of the Thames. As I stroll through the exhibits I find it difficult to wrap my mind around what constitutes “Art”. The masterpieces I saw at the National Gallery blew me away. On the same level as the pieces of the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg they inlcuded, among other things, Monets, Friedrichs, and what was probably the first “Instagram collage”…from 1642, a portrait of Cardinal Richelieu by Pilippe de Champaigne.

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Now, I can only laugh when a mirror on canvas is presented to me as art. As if the mirror wasn’t enough, then there is of course a beige octagon on the wall. Or vertical brush strokes, painted until the paint runs out. Those too are art. I was hoping that the beers I drank at the Globe Theater—the absurdity of Shakespeare’s famous venue housing a watering hole aside—would kick in at the Tate but I have no such luck. I look at myself in the mirror, criticizing the lines on my face and decide “No. This is much too ugly to be art”. Or is it?

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I remember a conversation I once had with a friend, himself an aspiring artist. When I told him that I disliked some of the pieces of modern art on display at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) museum—after all, is a simple black canvas with a red square art?—he told me that was exactly what art is supposed to do. Anger or dislike are still emotions just like love or enjoyment, so—even if it is not positive, if it elicits an emotion in the viewer then it is indeed art. By his definition then yes, I suppose Tate modern is certainly a tour de force of emotionally stirring artwork!

I am left trying to work out the thin line that separates the concepts of “art” in my head as I leave the former power plant that is now a modern art Mecca and head down the walking path along the Thames. Teenagers are skateboarding in front of an urban gallery of spray painted “art” while I peruse the nearby used book market. I choose The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence, reasoning that a British author is most fitting. Plus, I think most of us can agree to its merit as “art”.

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London Fall Football Fest Part Three: The Line That Separates The Bad People From The Good People—Tottenham Hotspur FC-Besiktas JK (1-1) 10.02.2014

“Hey! You! Take that Galatasaray shirt off, you can’t wear that here!” I look around with the most innocent “Who, me?” face I can muster as the cop comes up to me. We are buried in the innards of White Hart Lane in the small café area allotted to the Beşiktaş fans–the walls tell me what section I am in.

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“Come on now, put something on over that shirt.” The cop is getting impatient as I attempt to explain. As I tell him that our friend invited me here and explicitly told me to wear my Galatasaray shirt it even seems like he will let me go. That is, until I feel a hand on my collar, trying to get at my throat. It is not the policeman’s hand, and it is not an English voice yelling in my ear. It’s…a Turkish voice.

Cikart o formayı! (Take that jersey off!)”

Sakin ol, polis ile konuşmaya calışıyorum! (Calm down, I’m trying to talk to the cop!)”

Burası siyah beyaz tribünü seni öldürürüm! (This is a black and white crowd I’ll kill you!)”

The cop gives me his best “I told you so” look and all I can do is relent. After all, if these two Beşiktaş men were rational—and could understand from logic—I wouldn’t have a hand around my throat. All I can do is resign myself to falling into the policeman’s clutches. It is undoubtedly the safer option.

“Alright, alright” I acquiesce as he carts me away. I can feel the fifty-pound ticket going out the window, I figure he’s ejecting me.

“Where are your seats?” I’m relieved but he still has his arms around me as I direct him to where we were seated. As soon as I’m released I go for my shirt and begin buttoning it up over my beloved jersey. Ekin does the same as the cop looks on, making sure the job is done correctly.

Ne yaptığıni sanıyorsun? (What do you think you’re doing?)” Asks one of the Beşiktaş fans below us as he watches me button up my shirt.

Formaları çıkart dedi (He told us to take off our jerseys).” I say, nodding to the cop.

Hayır. Çıkartmayacaksın. Forma kalcak. (No, you’re not taking it off. You’re going to keep it on)”.

The cop can only shake his head as they start arguing with him before he wanders off realizing we are in good hands. Sometimes there is no reasoning with football fans.

Aşağıda saldırdılar bize (They attacked us downstairs).” I explain in a bid to clear our names as I slowly take my shirt off, revealing the jersey again.

“Boşver. Burası siyah beyaz tribünü falan değil forma’da ay yıldız yok mu? Burası kırmızı beyaz tribünü! (Forget it. This is not a black and white crowd isn’t there a Turkish flag on your shirt? This is a red and white crowd!).” He’s right—we’re here to support a Turkish team, as if the Englishmen surrounding us—the ones yelling profanities at us from behind the police line—care what team we support. They just know we’re the enemy, football is sometimes simple like that.

 

The men in front of us are definitely the good guys, the great guys. They almost want the people who attacked us to come to our seats so that they can set them straight. As one man says, its better to be in a Galatasaray shirt among the Beşiktaş supporters than be the one in a Fenerbahçe shirt among the Tottenham fans (apparently, there was someone like that in the stadium). One guy gives Ekin a Beşiktaş scarf that he wraps around his neck and I know that here, within five minutes, I have interacted with both spectrums of humanity. Luckily, here good has prevailed over bad in spectacular fashion. It’s one nil to the good guys after all.

Buoyed by the good guys’ support I redouble my singing, belting out Beşiktaş songs at the top of my lungs and sending a few choice words out to the Tottenham supporters to our right, focusing on a particular asshole who is mocking my Galatasaray shirt.

“Keep going in his language,” say the fans around me as I continue in a profanity laced exchange that cannot be printed here.

Luckily Demba Ba equalizes by converting his 88th minute spot kick to save me—and us—the blushes, allowing me to take out my anger at the bad guys by giving it to the Tottenham supporters. They’re not to be out done though, sending bottles and coins our way as a scuffle erupts between the fans following the final whistle. I have half a mind to pick up the coins that were thrown at us—after all, they’re British Pounds Sterling! Before I can do that, however, the cops push us back—there is no separation between good guys and bad guys, Galatasaray and Beşiktaş supporters here. We are all just potential hooligans, and they deal with us accordingly before sending us out into the night.

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The author wearing the questionable jersey beneath the Spurs Shop.

 

London Fall Football Fest Interlude #2–The Line That Separates Being Lost in Life and Just Finding Your Way Through Life

Four in the morning and you’re sitting at a roulette table on Leicester Square. Soon the morning will come and make everything clear. Or so you hope. Until then its one more Maker’s Mark, and one more bet on Red. Or should it be evens? The day has been long but it isn’t over yet.

It started sightseeing and walking all over the city before moving to a London club, dancing with those girls who carry themselves with a sense of purpose, in a way that only the residents of a true world city can. Some were pretty in a British sense—something about the way they wear their hair. Others were partiers, on vacation from Berlin and Amsterdam. Staring at those dancing crowds you realize you’ve come a long way from getting foreign objects thrown at you on the terraces of White Hart Lane. But that’s not the purpose of your journey, they are not the objects of your attention. It can all wait, you say, following your friends into the casino.

You tell yourself you’re not lost, you’re just finding your way through life like you find your way through the crowds of the cities, the club, the casino, of the football stadiums. And that is where you find your confidence even though your life is as random as the silver ball spinning around the roulette table, waiting to land somewhere, anywhere at all . . .

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London Fall Football Fest Part Four: The Line That Separates Dreams From Reality—Southend United-Morecambe (0-1) 10.04.2014

No trip to London would be complete without a little rain, and I get my share of it on a Saturday afternoon. In the drizzle the train pulls out of London’s Liverpool Street station and I settle in for the hour-long ride to Prittlewell in Southend-on-Sea. The train stops at a lonely suburban station and I follow the crowds in what I assume is the direction of the stadium under a rain that is slowly picking up.

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At the central intersection there are a few pubs and the crowds have gotten larger, everyone making their way to Roots Hall Stadium. The mood seems buoyant, which is normal considering that Southend have gone four matches without defeat.

 

I queue for twenty minutes, thankful to be out of the rain, and eventually get my twenty-one pound ticket with…the amazing view of a support column. Thankfully, due to my experiences at Fenway Park I’m not too disappointed. It’s all just a part of the adventure.

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No sooner have I settled in than Morecambe strike, Jack Redshaw hitting a fifth minute shot to put the visitors up 0-1. The home “shrimper” fans are not too disappointed that the visiting “shrimps” have scored—after all, Southend are on a good run of form. I like the idea of the match as a “Shrimp Derby” (both teams have shrimps on their badges) and strain around the column to look at the proceedings. Sitting behind that column and listening to the fans screaming at the top of their lungs I can’t help but realize it is all part of a losing battle. Roots Hall, with a capacity of just over 12,000, can not compete with the big money in London that I saw first hand in Emirates Stadium and White Hart Lane. Yet here these fans are, fighting the good fight of dreams in the face of reality. As football has become more and more about money, it is unlikely that any of these smaller teams will ever be able to truly compete with the teams in the Premier League and Championship any time soon. Sadly there isn’t much to see on the field either and, forty minutes later, its still 0-1 at halftime.

I head down to the bar underneath the stand for a half time pint of Foster’s in order to get the gloomy thoughts out of my head. It’s not surpising that a bar exists in the stadium—after all, the team were formed on May 19 1906 in the Blue Boar Pub! Watching highlights of other League Two matches deep inside Roots Hall I think back to high school. My soccer coach at the time, himself an ex Southend United player, had brought our whole team to London when we were just fifteen. It had been our first real experience in European Football (and European drinking), and for that I am forever indebted. The least I can do is take in a match at Roots Hall in return.

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I decide to watch the second half from the top of the stand—I couldn’t go back to the column, now that Southend were attacking the goal with the obstructed view. Again, there isn’t much action even though Southend go close numerous times. Before the final whistle I get scolded for taking pictures by the steward—apparently it is grounds for dismissal. I told him I wasn’t going to make a live stream of the match via my smart phone’s video camera but he wasn’t amused. I guess, for some reason, I just can’t stop getting in trouble at matches during this London Fall Football Fest.

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I’m not offended, he’s just doing his job. The match ends 0-1 to the visitors, just as the sun begins to break through the clouds. I head to the club shop after the final whistle and grab myself a Southend United shirt. I ask whose name should be on it and after a fierce discussion amongst the workers Jack Payne’s #19 is decided upon. Apparently he has been the best over the past month, shortlisted for the Player of the Month award.

What drove me to the shirt was a charity fundraiser for Prostate Cancer UK. The Men United logo to raise prostate cancer awareness in the UK will be displayed on every number of every football shirt in the Football League during the 2014-2015 season. This may not be as famous as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge but it is no less important. Prostate Cancer affects one in every eight men in the UK, and one man will die of it every hour according to the charity. So the next time you pull on a Football League shirt, go the extra mile and get a name and number set to help raise awareness while showing your team pride.

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For the match report please see Southend United’s website at http://www.southendunited.co.uk/news/article/041014-morecambe-match-report-1988517.aspx. For some professional quality pictures of the match please visit Southend United’s website for the Match Gallery at http://www.southendunited.co.uk/news/article/060114-morecambe-gallery-2000937.aspx.

 

London Fall Football Fest Part Five: The Line That Separates England’s Past from England’s Future—West Ham United-Queens Park Rangers (2-0) 10.05.2014

On my last day in London I find myself on Green Street (of Green Street Hooligans fame) getting tickets for an East London-West London derby clash between West Ham United and Queen’s Park Rangers. After getting my tickets from the Boleyn Ground I head down Green Street alone, just to get a sense of the area, and here it hits me how blurred the lines between England’s future and England’s past truly are.

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It is a sight to see. Subcontinental clothiers line the street, windows full of saris that carry all the colors of the rainbow. The colors remind me a bit about my own closet of football shirts back home, and I feel how far I am from the clothiers of Picadilly Circus. Even the signs in the Underground advertise the same things—either sending money to India or Islamic dating. Britain’s colonial past is alive and well here in East London.

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Being a child of parents that come from two different cultures I know how valuable biculturalism can be—but only if it is accepted. Otherwise, it falls pray to xenophobia and racism—destroyed before it can show its benefits. Here on Green Street watching the QPR and West Ham United fans walk together beneath signs for the Al-Madinah bookstore, I see just how complicated the relationship between England’s past and England’s future is.

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Once my friends finally make it into the Boleyn Ground I’m confronted with this harsh reality again and—not being one to hold my tongue—I almost pay the price for it. I understand how difficult it is to accept immigrants and I know that those glassy blue eyes and beautiful blonde girls (who could only be British) are slowly being outnumbered by new arrivals either from the ex-colonial territories or Eastern Europe. Therefore, I understand but could never condone the sentiments of a particular West Ham United fan I encountered at the Boleyn Ground.

The friend I was staying with, Berker—himself Turkish but a man of the world having studied in the United States and lived in London for four years—led us to our seats. We thought we were in the correct row, since the writing noting the letters of the rows had worn out on the steps. Berker told the man sitting in what he thought were our seats that he was in the wrong area. Well, it turns out we were mistaken, standing in Row J instead of row I.

We apologized to the man, but—after explaining to us our error—I heard him mumble “learn the language”. And it pushed me off the deep end. I told him that it wasn’t my friend’s lack of linguistic skills (which he has in abundance, I might add) that brought us to the wrong row, it was the fact that the stadium’s infrastructure was out of date and that the paint denoting rows had worn off in this particular row. Before he could give me a response my friends chided me for talking back to him. Perhaps they are more refined than I am, I’m not sure. But the one thing I am sure of—despite not being part of any firm—is that one line from Green Street Hooligans rings true: “Its not about your friends having your back. Its about you having your friend’s backs”.

 

Our conflict settled we sat down and watched. West Ham went one to the good early on, much to the enjoyment of our ‘‘friend’’ behind us and went into halftime with the lead. At the half I went for a snack, as is my custom—Carlsberg and spicy hot dog was the fare on offer.

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In feasting I missed United’s second goal, right at the beginning of the second half, but I didn’t really care. After all, I came for stadium culture and stadium fare. Plus, I’d already heard the faithful sing “Bubbles” upon entering the stadium, which was truly an experience to behold and something we can all relate to. We all have hopes and dreams that—for reasons out of our control—cant always be realized.

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I’m forever blowing bubbles,

Pretty bubbles in the air,

They fly so high,

Nearly reach the sky,

Then like my dreams,

They fade and die.

Fortune’s always hiding,

I’ve looked everywhere,

I’m forever blowing bubbles,

Pretty bubbles in the air.

 

For a clip of a few renditions taken from Green Street Hooligans:

And for a Punk Rock Cover, why not the Cockney Rejects rendition from the 1980s—London Calling eh?

(Industrial) Football Shirts from England to Eibar

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For those who complain about government’s role in people’s personal lives, the British government has come out against—of all things—the price of football shirts. On Tuesday, April 1 British newspapers blasted US Sportswear company Nike for pricing England’s World Cup Kits at 90 GBP—certainly an exorbitant amount, it is almost 150 US Dollars. Nike countered that 90 GBP was for the exact replica of what the players will wear on the field; a simpler version costs 60 GBP—still almost 100 US Dollars. Sports minister Helen Grant agreed that the pricing “needs a rethink,” while Prime Minister David Cameron supported his Sports minister, saying that Nike is “taking advantage of parents”.

His spokesman, meanwhile, made it clear that “it is ‘clearly not’ the role of the Government to set the price of football shirts, but that £90 is a ‘lot’ of money.” At least they had that much sense to acknowledge what the government’s role should and should not be. In my opinion the opposition Labour Party’s sports spokesman Clive Efford may have hit the nail on the head when he said, “The anger generated by the 90 pound price tag for an adult England shirt is symptomatic of a wider issue of the games traditional fan base being edged out by the growing costs of being a supporter.”

This spat between Nike and the British government will clearly not cause a rift between the United States and Britain but it is still emblematic of the role of corporations in the changing face of world soccer. I remember when, as a kid, I started out on my shirt collecting odyssey. I had no income, so I was reliant on my parents, and even the 45 GBP for shirts in the early 2000s and late 1990s seemed exorbitant. Now the price of shirts has doubled, but with no corresponding doubling of worldwide incomes. Even in my travels during the last few years I have never paid the equivalent of 90 GBP for a new shirt—most shirts I have acquired hover in the 60 to 80 dollar range.

This change in price stems from the English Football Association’s new deal with Nike, which replaced Umbro as England’s kit manufacturer last year. Umbro was—until Nike acquired them in 2008 for 285 million GBP—a wholly English brand. Founded in Wilmslow, Cheshire in 1924 Umbro started as the official sponsor of the Football Association. Their iconic double diamond graced classic England kits (the World Cup winning side in 1966 wore them, which coincided with the start of Umbro’s golden ageLiverpool won four of their five European cups in Umbro shirts1977, 1978, 1981 and 1984). More recently Umbro’s classic Manchester United kit—which they won the 1999 treble in—comes to mind. Indeed in terms of kit manufacturing as well we can see Clive Efford’s words being echoed—traditional fans and traditional brands are both being pushed out as the game becomes more and more globalized and thereby more commercial. The tradition of an English brand sponsoring English football was ended with Nike’s acquisition of Umbro.

Although not about kit manufacturers a story on Spanish football from ESPN.com is worth presenting here, as it is related. Sid Lowe wrote a moving piece on the struggles of Spanish second division side Eibar in the face of industrial football. Eibar, hailing from a small town of 27,000 in Northern Spain’s Basque country, are facing an uphill battle for promotion to Spain’s top-flight, La Liga. Strangely, that struggle has nothing to do with results on the field. Against all odds Eibar sit top of the second division poised for promotion despite playing in the division’s smallest ground to the smallest crowds—they average 3,000 a game—with the smallest budget (3.5 million Euros—how many England shirts will that buy? Answer: 32,294. Enough to clothe all of Eibar and then some). What is even more shocking—at least for a Spanish side—is that Eibar stay within that budget, even while pursuing promotion—they are 422,253 Euros in the black. And where is the rub? It is that Eibar must raise 1.7 million Euros by the end of the season in order to achieve promotion, regardless of results on the pitch.

This stems from a law—Real Decreto 1251/1999—which decrees that “every team has to have a capital equal to 25 percent of the average expenses of all the teams in the Second Division, not including the two clubs with the biggest outgoings and the two clubs with the smallest outgoings in the division”. Thus, the team needs to find the 1,724,272 Euros that will raise their value to the 2,146,525 Euro threshold that will allow them to continue playing in the professional divisions. Sid Lowe notes gravely that this “figure [is] set not by their budget or their ability to guarantee survival, but by everyone else’s.”

I certainly hope that Eibar can survive against the odds since grassroots football is what we all grew up on. 1,724,272 Euros isn’t so much, is it? It is only 15,910 Nike England kits. For a bit of perspective, that number is just half the 30,326 population of Wilsmslow, Cheshire where Umbro were founded 100 years ago.

 

The Controversially Priced England Kits That Could Save Eibar (Courtesy of: http://www.footyheadlines.com/2013/09/england-2014-world-cup-home-and-away.html).

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