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).


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.


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

Modern Football and Modern Life: In Memory of Eduardo Galeano, 1940-2015

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On April 13 Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano passed away at the age of 74 in Montevideo. Many articles following his death characterized him variously as a “leading voice of the Latin American left”, a “modern-day Simon Bolivar”, a “critic of capitalism”, and a “U.S. Critic”. Personally, I prefer to look past such politically-tinged descriptions and look at Eduardo Galeano for what he was—and still is—to me: A writer with an amazing ability to look at the seemingly mundane—football for instance—and uncover the subtle details that make it special from a humanistic point of view. While some may not know much about Mr. Galeano and his works (evidently the New York Times didn’t—their obituary reported erroneously on his familial situation and gave a passing sentence to his work on football), it was refreshing to see other outlets focus on the sporting side of the author. Al Jazeera America announced “the beautiful game loses its man of letters” while SB Nation chose to run a review of his classic work on football, Soccer in Sun and Shadow.

Soccer in Sun and Shadow, originally published in 1995 before undergoing reprints to cover the World Cups up to 2010, has been called the greatest book about football ever written. Certainly, when it comes to readability and prose, it is brilliant—and I think one would be hard pressed to find a football fan able to resist turning the pages in order to hear the stories told. It is not written in chapter form, and that is what makes it so readable. As Andi Thomas of SB Nation describes:


“Not a chapterette — the book is shattered into more than 150 mini-chapters, the longest amounting to a few pages, the shortest no more than a couple of paragraphs — goes past without some line provoking a nod or a smile. And laced throughout, almost there in passing, are sketches of football’s great players, taken out of the broader sweep of events and given their own spotlights…. Not all are memorable, perhaps not all are necessary, but it all amounts up to something unique, righteous and quite beautiful: history by turn as jumbled memory, as fractured story, as furious broadside, as hazy dream, and occasionally even as joke.”


This description is apt, since every small installment describes something the reader can relate to; Galeano tells not only the story of a sport’s development but, simultaneously, the story that is 20th century history. We see how football—initially accepted as a form of leisure for working classes during the post industrial revolution period—undergoes a transformation from a fringe curiosity, into an ethnic identity builder, into a show of state power, and finally into a multi-million dollar business that uncovers all the positive and negative qualities of humanity including passion, love, and perseverance on the one hand and corruption, hate, and exploitation on the other. It is in this sense that Soccer in Sun and Shadow truly becomes a classic: using sport as a lens through which to view society and its values as they evolve throughout the years, affected by the changes wrought upon them by competing political—and economic—systems.

In one of the opening “chapterettes”, entitled simply “Soccer” Galeano effectively presents what could be termed his thesis:


“The history of soccer is a sad voyage from beauty to duty. When the sport became an industry, the beauty that blossoms from the joy of play got torn out by its very roots. In this fin de siècle world, professional soccer condemns all that is useless, and useless means not profitable. Nobody earns a thing from that crazy feeling that for a moment turns a man into a child playing with a balloon like a cat with a ball of yarn, a ballet dancer who romps with a ball as light as a balloon or a ball of yarn, playing without even knowing he’s playing, with no purpose or clock or referee. Play has become spectacle, with few protagonists and many spectators, soccer for watching. And that spectacle has become one of the most profitable businesses in the world, organized not for play but rather to impede it. The technocracy of professional sport has managed to impose a soccer of lightning speed and brute strength, a soccer that negates joy, kills fantasy and outlaws daring” (Galeano, Soccer In Sun and Shadow, 6).


He shows how football has become just another business; the division between leisure and work no longer exists—it has become combined. Recently, in professional hockey, this type of business-like attitude brought on by the advent of statistical analyses—focusing on results (and winning) as the bottom line—has led to one classic type of player (the “enforcer”, in this case) becoming obsolete. In many ways, the football of old has also become obsolete. Numerous vignettes focus on players who are sort of “neighborhood boys”, playing for the fun of it. He describes members of the Uruguay squad that won the 1924 Olympics as “workers and wanderers who got nothing from soccer but the pleasure of playing. Pedro Arispe was a meatpacker. José Nasazzi cut marble. “Perucho” Petrone was a grocer. Pedro Cea sold ice. José Leandro Andrade was a carnival musician and bootblack . . . They cured their wounds with salt water, vinegar plasters, and a few glasses of wine” (Galeano, Soccer In Sun and Shadow, 45). Legendary Russian goalkeeper Lev Yashin, who saved over one hundred penalty shots in his career, explains the secret to his goalkeeping exploits: “the trick was to have a smoke to calm your nerves, then toss back a strong drink to tone your muscles” (Galeano, Soccer In Sun and Shadow, 117). Indeed, the players of old are a cry from the professionals of today.

In an evocative passage about stadiums Galeano also briefly hits on football in the Gulf, long before the idea of a Qatari World Cup was hatched:

“Have you ever entered an empty stadium? Try it. Stand in the middle of the field and listen. There is nothing less empty than an empty stadium. There is nothing less mute than stands bereft of spectators. At Wembley shouts from the 1966 World Cup, which England won, still resound, and if you listen very closely you can hear groans from 1953, when England fell to the Hungarians. Montevideo’s Centenario Stadium sighs with nostalgia for the glory days of Uruguayan soccer. Maracanã is still crying over Brazil’s 1950 World Cup defeat. At Bombonera in Buenos Aires, drums boom from half a century ago. From the depths of Azteca Stadium, you can hear the ceremonial chants of the ancient Mexican ball game. The concrete terraces of Camp Nou in Barcelona speak Catalan, and the stands of San Mamés in Bilbao talk in Basque. In Milan, the ghost of Giuseppe Meazza scores goals that shake the stadium bearing his name. The final match of the 1974 World Cup, won by Germany, is played day after day and night after night at Munich’s Olympic Stadium. King Fahd Stadium in Saudi Arabia has marble and gold boxes and carpeted stands, but it has no memory or much of anything to say” (Galeano, Soccer in Sun and Shadow, 21).

As a fan that has made it a point to visit as many stadiums as possible, this passage rings true. In the modern game more and more old stadiums are being demolished to make way for new ones so that higher ticket prices may be justified. In so doing the romanticism of the old stadiums is lost in the sands of time, replacing memories with creature comforts (What would a modern stadium be without Wi-Fi, for instance?). By the time Qatar’s World Cup rolls around the King Fahd Stadium will be considered an antique.


Later on, as the book goes in chronological order from the game’s humble beginnings in squalid slums and working class neighborhoods around the world to the shiny mass-market game played in gigantic stadiums and beamed via satellite around the world world, Galeano shows the progression. In the 1950’s Uruguay’s Peñarol became the first team to wear sponsor on their shirts—it could be seen as the beginnings of what Galeano terms “The Telecracy”, a game increasingly reliant on sponsors so as to attract consumers.

In between we learn how dictators on both sides of the ocean used football. In 1970 Brazil’s dictator General Médici used the national football team’s march “Forward Brazil” as the government’s anthem while Pele’s image was used for government propaganda with the words “No one can stop Brazil”; Chile’s General Pinochet made himself president of the successful club Colo-Colo and Bolivia’s General García Meza named himself president of the popular club Wilstermann. In Spain, during the reign of General Franco, Real Madrid president Santiago Bernabéu simply stated “We are serving the nation. What we want is to make people happy.” Vincente Calderon, president of rivals Atletico Madrid, seemed to agree: “Soccer keeps people from thinking about more dangerous things.” Galeano notes that these leaders were effectively saying, “Soccer is the fatherland, soccer is power: ‘I am the fatherland’; Soccer is the people, soccer is power: ‘I am the people’ (Galeano, Soccer In Sun and Shadow, 137).


The book ends with an important note, one very relevant to the increasingly homogenized world we are living in:


“An astonishing void: official history ignores soccer. Contemporary history texts fail to mention it, even in passing, in countries where soccer has been and continues to be a primordial symbol of collective identity. I play therefore I am: a style of play is a way of being that reveals the unique profile of each community and affirms its right to be different. Tell me how you play and I’ll tell you who you are. For many years soccer has been played in different styles, unique expressions of the personality of each people, and the preservation of that diversity seems to me more necessary today than ever before” (Galeano, Soccer In Sun and Shadow, 200).


Indeed the preservation of diversity has become paramount in a world where previously unique human interactions are increasingly homogenized, taking place via electronic means with friendships on Facebook and relationships on Ok Cupid or Tinder. But the onset of modern football (a byproduct, perhaps, of modern life) is still not without its critics; it is in Eduardo Galeano’s writing that we can find one of the first criticisms of the phenomenon and that is why his legacy will live on for a long time to come.

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Two Posts From Ultra Style’s Facebook Page bemoan the advent of “Modern Football” or “Industrial Football”. The first criticizes the lack of fan passion in modern football, the second–taken from a Atletico Bilbao-Schalke 04 match in the 2012 Europa League–shows a banner unfurled by Schalke Fans protesting high ticket prices. It reads: “€90 per ticket = one euro per minute? Football is not phone sex!”


For an example of his foresight, take for instance one of the new chapters added into the end of the book, referencing the 1998 World Cup. Galeano states soccer’s importance to South America:

“Whether a shared celebration or a shipwreck that takes us all down, soccer counts in Latin America, sometimes more than anything else, even if the ideologues who love humanity but can’t stand people don’t realize it” (Galeano, Soccer in Sun and Shadow, 203).

With the political roles that football fans played recently in both Egypt and Turkey in mind, I would add to this prescient passage: Soccer counts all over the world…even if the ideologues (and ideologies) who love humanity but can’t stand people don’t realize it…


In Memory of Eduardo Galeano: September 3 1940 – 13 April 2015 . . . and Beyond


Image Courtesy Of: http://www.anarkismo.net/article/28087