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Farewell to Boleyn Ground/Upton Park: Community and Modern Football

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I will preface this with an admission: I am not a “fan” of any team in the English Premier League, although I do have sympathies for certain teams. Among those teams is West Ham United, a team I saw play two falls ago on Green Street. As someone who appreciates fan culture, I enjoy the ritual of “bubbles” at Boleyn Ground/Upton Park. After the final match at the ground, with West Ham pulling out a 3-2 victory over Manchester United, I am left thinking “what next?”.

The pageantry of the celebration was amazing and did justice to the end of an era. But I cant help but realize that this end of an era is yet another manifestation of the modern football that many fans are speaking out against.

Slaven Bilic, the Croatian coach of West Ham United for whom I have great respect after his year in Istanbul with Turkish side Besiktas, made his own views clear on the move to the Olympic Stadium. He noted that “The Upton Park stadium was a first home. No matter where you move after that – if you move to a fancy apartment, a big house or to a mansion – your favourite one is always the first. You are losing something because it is impossible to make the Olympic Stadium a fortress”. His analogy is apt—even if the new surroundings will be posher, they cannot replace the memories (and atmosphere) of “home”. His assertion (referring to Arsenal’s ground change) that Highbury felt dangerous, while Emirates is for selfies, is also spot-on—new grounds have become tourist destinations.

Of course, not everyone agrees with me. Dave Kidd of the Daily Mirror seems glad to be rid of Boleyn Ground/Upton Park, where the author first “witnessed serious violence, hardcore racism, drug-taking, frightening levels of crushing and the warm feeling of having your leg urinated upon by a man who was never going to travel across a sea of humanity to the toilets at the sides of the North Bank.” While it is hyperbolic, I’m sure that all of the incidents mentioned have, indeed, happened inside the ground. But…then again…in what old ground have such things not happened? I still remember my first baseball game at the Boston Red Sox’s iconic Fenway Park; a drunk man vomited at my mother’s feet and the language was not something I should have heard at that age. That was, needless to say, the last Red Sox game for my mother. But that was the 1990s; since then rising ticket prices have been the preferred way to keep undesirable elements out of the stadium—without destroying it and building a new ground. While the pre-match violence was unfortunate, it is hard to believe that the move to a new stadium will stamp out this kind of behavior either. To blame the ground on the activities of patrons seems wrong to me, and I cannot agree fully with Mr. Kidd’s claims that the Boleyn Ground/Upton Park “should not be mourned” and that it is “not worth idealizing”. It is fan mentality—not a stadium—that incites violence.

It is not just for the fans that I lament. The effect of the ground’s closure is felt even harder by the small businesses that make a living on the game-day experience of football fans, the establishments that make game-days around the world. The BBC did a great piece on the future of Upton Park (the neighborhood), detailing the local issues. The owner of one pub estimated that he would lose two thirds of his income—almost 500,000 Pounds—while a restaurant owner claimed that a quarter of his earnings come from West Ham fans. The Mayor of Newham is more optimistic, noting that the families moving into the 800 new flats being built in place of the stadium will contribute to the local economy and that “only a few businesses” set up to cater to fans will suffer. While this may be true, it is certainly the end of an era. As the BBC notes, fans will no longer crowd the Upton Park tube station (as even I have).

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bbc.com/sport/football/36170590#orb-footer

As stadiums move—often in the name of money—from their traditional locations within the community to outside of the community, a piece of the game is lost. As this happens, it is important to remember that it is not just the fans that are affected. There are many others—from small-business owners to part time programme sellers—that feel this change not just emotionally, but financially as well. The old style football supporter—who was tied to the team because, perhaps, they could take in a match from their flat—is on the way out as well. For me, the disassociation of sport from place is what really hurts; sport adds meaning to geography. Unfortunately, in the world of modern/industrial football, it seems like money is the only thing that matters.

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Images Courtesy Of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3583769/UPTON-PARK-PICTURE-SPECIAL-West-Ham-bid-farewell-Boleyn-Ground-style-Winston-Reid-scores-winner-dent-Manchester-United-s-Champions-League-hopes-emotional-night.html

From Super Bowl to Liverpool: Extreme Capitalism on Both Sides of the Ocean

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In the United States the Super (Stupor) Bowl came and went last Sunday, leaving me in a stupor as always, over the excessive commercialism and heavy drinking that characterizes America’s biggest (!) holiday. The Carolina Panthers were upset by the Denver Broncos in the only game on earth where an off-hand (or maybe not so off-hand) post-game comment can net a business 13.9 million dollars in just hours. It is also the only game on earth where workers are paid 13 dollars an hour to…serve 13 dollar Bud Light beers—one step above (or below, depending on your level of taste and health-consciousness) water—to people who have paid up to 10,000 dollars a ticket.

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It may look like an Eastern European bread line but no, it is just people trying to get home after spending their day trying to eek out a living. Image Courtesy of: http://www.slate.com/articles/business/the_grind/2016/02/i_sold_beer_and_hot_dogs_at_the_super_bowl_and_got_paid_a_pittance.html.

And it is also the only game in the world that can—despite its disgusting embodiment of extreme capitalism in its most repulsive form—distract people from that same gut-wrenching exploitation in the name of…race?! Apparently, it can. The halftime show this year, a musical performance that half of the spectators don’t remember for too much alcohol consumption and half remember all too well for living up to its sideshow nature (Janet Jackson’s nipple anyone?), stole the show again but not for such titillating (!) reasons as Ms. Jackson’s did in 2004.

This year the star was Ms. Beyonce Knowles, the former Destiny’s Child star and now Mrs. Jay Z. Apparently her half-time performance, which featured a Black Panthers’ salute, rubbed some people the wrong way. Indeed, it even divided the black community. Dianca London notes that “Beyonce’s capitalism [is] masquerading as radical change”, and she further reminds readers that

“Beyoncé’s music is created to generate profit much like Super Bowl 50 and its countless ads so many of us consumed on Sunday. Sure, pop music can be influential on an individual and communal level, but it is dangerous when we fail to consider the ways in which songs such as “Formation” or last year’s “Flawless” are essentially an advertisement for Beyoncé’s brand — making her forever evolving activism (and the public’s eager consumption of it) a self-sustaining cache cow with limitless potential…it is alarming how we as a community unabashedly endorse without question or pause the soft politics of pop icons. It’s problematic to consume without caution, even if we see a reflection of ourselves, our mothers or sisters in their narratives. As much as we might feel empowered by the grace of their choreography and the back beats of their latest anthems, we as black Americans should allow ourselves the space to question the messages we are given, even if those messages are tailor-made for us.”

Others were not so cautious. While praising Beyonce Tamara Winfrey-Harris is unable to ignore the fact that Beyonce’s role in—and support of—extreme capitalism is contradictory to her message: “Racism is not just a social ill. It is baked into the American economy. It is a business. Capitalism is a root of the tragedy of Katrina and the biased American penal system and the continuing primacy of European beauty standards. And getting rich is not anarchy.”

Still, however, Ms. Winfrey-Harris buys into the hype Ms. London refuses to accept: “What is undeniable, though, is that popular culture is powerful. It changes minds. An expression of unapologetic Blackness by Beyoncé, arguably the biggest star in the world, is important. Pointing out the beauty in the sort of Blackness society views with revulsion is revolutionary.”

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Beyonce seems out of place. Image Courtesy of: http://hellobeautiful.com/2016/02/08/beyonce-formation-revolution-pop-culture/

As I wrote following the Baltimore riots, the American obsession with race misses the point completely. What a millionaire star does (regardless of whether they are black, white, or green) in ten minutes should not erase the incredible injustice of people—black, white, or green—who are working for 13 dollars an hour to serve 13 dollar beers. It is…insane. And it is a symptom of a global greed that, quite honestly, knows no color. That is why I, like Ms. London, am cautious of putting too much of an emphasis on any “message” a millionaire star might send. Perhaps a better message would have been sent by paying the workers volunteers who set up Beyonce’s halftime show, since—as Mr. Gabriel Thompson revealed—they are paid nothing to “lug the pieces of the stage onto the field for the halftime show, [putting] in at least 34 hours of rehearsal time [for] two weeks” as “unpaid labor, a subsidy of sorts for the Pepsi-sponsored halftime extravaganza”. Remarkable…but true.

On the day before the Super Bowl, on February 6 2016, across the ocean (it might as well be a galaxy far far away to many in the United States) in the United Kingdom, that other world the NFL is trying to get a foothold in, protests against social injustice characterized by greed took a different—and much more effective—form. Ten thousand Liverpool supporters walked out (and certainly they did not walk alone!) for the first time in the team’s 132 year history during the 77th minute of their team’s match against Sunderland. The reason? To protest the raising of the maximum ticket price to 77 Pounds from 59 Pounds. Of course, the fact that prices were raised should not come as a surprise when you know the owners of Liverpool FC are America’s Fenway Sports Group, who refused to respond to fans’ concerns. After all, they also own the Boston Red Sox…home to America’s highest priced Baseball tickets at just over 52 dollars on average.

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Liverpool fans fly black flags instead of the traditional red flags as they exit Anfield Road. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/feb/06/liverpool-fans-walkout-thousands-ticket-price-protest

The issue of rising ticket prices—and frustration with American owners bringing their brand of extreme capitalism with them—is nothing new in the English Premier League, as evidenced by Jim White’s 2012 article in The Telegraph. It is part and parcel of the industrial football that is re-defining sports in Europe.

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Three years ago Liverpool fans vented their frustrations against the American owners—and their extreme capitalism. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/columnists/jimwhite/9039432/Jim-White-Love-affair-Premier-Leagues-mega-rich-stars-have-lost-touch-with-their-disillusioned-supporters.html

Protests against this type of greed are now spreading. The Football Supporter’s Federation in England is now discussing a wide-spread walkout of all Premier League games this coming weekend, and this article from The Telegraph has a good graphic detailing ticket prices of all Premier League Teams. Ironically, the cheapest tickets—at 22 pounds—are to be found at Leicester City, the odds on favorites to win the championship. Let’s hope they do. In Germany Borussia Dortmund fans skipped the first twenty minutes of their 9 February 2016 German Cup match against VFB Stuttgart over Stuttgart’s 70 Euro ticket prices for the cup tie. The “Yellow Wall” didn’t leave it at that; they rained tennis balls down on the pitch as part of their protest.

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“Football Must Be Affordable”. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bbc.com/sport/football/35464102

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Why Tennis Balls? The BBC Explains: “According to Dortmund fan Marc Quambusch, fans were being ironic. He says Germans use the expression “great tennis” to describe something very good.” Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bbc.com/sport/football/35464102

On two continents extreme greed—fuelled by extreme capitalism—is threatening sports. As fans have said in both England and Germany, enough is enough. In Liverpool’s case, it may have just worked. On Thursday 11 February 2016, the team’s owners announced that ticket prices will be frozen at this year’s level, 59 Pounds for the most expensive seats. It seems that the protest—perhaps backed by British PM David Cameron, worked. Of course, the team also learned a lesson on the pitch. When the fans left at the 77th minute Liverpool were up 2-0…after the fans left, the team conceded two late goals and drew Sunderland 2-2. Were the two lost points worth the proposed rise in prices? I would argue no, since it is good results that garner more money in the long run. For now, Fenway Sports Group did well to back down.

But it still doesn’t change the fact that across the world greed is governing business more and more. Whether in England, Germany, or the United States, there is too much emphasis on money, and it is slowly taking sports over as well. In the United States we should not be blinded by issues like race—which has lowered the societal problem of economic inequality to its lowest common denominator—because it hinders our ability to see wider issues. Sports is a big business, and if we do not stand up against this greed then we all lose—it does not matter if we are black or white for there is no color in being a sports fan. The fact that the biggest story from the Super Bowl was about race goes to show that people are at risk of missing the larger point. Football—and sport in general—is better with fans. Not consumers. Otherwise, there is no passion. And I would hate to live a life without passion.

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Image Courtesy of http://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/feb/08/fsf-premier-league-clubs-walkout-ticket-prices

Boleyn Ground/Upton Park–(West Ham United FC): West Ham United FC-Queen’s Park Rangers (2-0) Matchday

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More pictures of the Boleyn Ground taken during the East London-West London derby between West Ham United and Queen’s Park Rangers in the Premier League. The Boleyn Ground has been home to the “Hammers” since 1904 and, after a series of redevelopments in the 1990s, has reached a seating capacity of 35,016. The club rented the grounds from the Roman Catholic Church in 1912, and a church still stands outside the stadium–grounds for religious and lay worship side by side. The name Boleyn Park comes from the relationship between Green Street house and Anne Boleyn who supposedly stayed there. Now many refer to the stadium as Upton Park after the neighborhood it is in. One can reach the stadium from central London by taking either the District Line or Hammersmith & City Line to the Upton Park station. My one suggestion would be grab a bite to eat–or a pint–around the stadium post match and wait for the crowds to thin out if you’re not in a rush as the queue for the Upton Park tube station is chaotic immediately after the match–it took us about thirty minutes and involved a long walk.

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