“Far & Near” column published in the Hindustan Times (16 August, 2016)
The return of the English Premier League this past weekend came as a relief to the millions of fans around the world (including me) who subsist on its weekly drama. Few sporting competitions attract as much ardour and attention, with broadcasts in 212 countries and territories to a potential TV audience of 4.7 billion people. The league is the UK’s ultimate “soft power”. Obscure, post-industrial English towns like Burnley and Sunderland are now well known everywhere from Singapore to Seattle. On match-days, New York-based fans of Tottenham Hotspur gather in a Manhattan pub to chant in what they quaintly assume are English accents.
Thanks in part to this global appeal, EPL teams recently secured an enormous TV deal worth over £5 billion. They spent hundreds of millions of pounds this summer in acquiring marquee players, including the French midfielder Paul Pogba, who was bought by Manchester United for a global transfer record of £89.3 million.
But even as the league attracts superstars, even as it leaps from one commercial success to another, even as its teams swim in cash and its audience expands around the world, all is not well. The EPL offers the most theatrical example of the tensions bred by globalisation.
Local fans are unhappy with the state of the commercialised game. They question the motives of the mega-rich foreign owners who have taken over many English clubs. They protest the expensive tickets that price out the sport’s traditional working-class supporters and deaden the atmosphere in the stands. They bemoan the disloyalty of “mercenary” players (60% of Premier League players are born outside England), who only form tenuous links to the clubs that pay their salaries. The common refrain that “money is ruining football” echoes in pubs, radio call-in shows, and online forums. Both out of necessity and in a quest for authenticity, younger and less affluent fans often choose to follow lower division clubs.
Fans believe that EPL clubs are betraying their origins. Unlike franchises in American sports or cricket’s Indian Premier League, football clubs began organically as social institutions. The London club Arsenal (which I grandly refer to as “my team”) was originally the team of the munitions workers at the Royal Arsenal. Eager to draw local Manchester men away from gangs and alcoholism, a few clergymen in 1880 decided to form the team that would become Manchester City. Last season’s champions, Leicester City, began as the old boys’ association of a school.
Most clubs in England have this sort of local history. According to the writer David Goldblatt, football clubs are “the most important carriers of urban identities, their stadiums more central to our sense of place than town halls or shopping malls”. Anybody who has flown over London cannot help but notice how the city landscape bends to football stadia, how the winding streets of Victorian row-houses radiate from rectangular splashes of green.
Ever since the Rupert Murdoch-enabled formation of the Premier League in 1992, however, that sense of rootedness to place has eroded. Clubs increasingly float free as commercial products, optimised for a global audience of people like me in New York or HT readers in India. “The teams in the Premier League are becoming interchangeable brands without much connection to the places they claim to represent,” writes Financial Times journalist Gideon Rachman.
We shouldn’t discount the genuine claim that “international” fans have to the clubs they love. People in Manila or Mumbai or Mombasa can be just as knowledgeable and passionate about Liverpool as somebody born and bred in Merseyside. They can even feel the euphoria and sadness of sport with greater intensity. Tragically, a Kenyan Arsenal fan committed suicide in 2009 after a defeat to Manchester United; a Kenyan Manchester United fan took his life in 2015 after a defeat to Arsenal.
English fans of EPL teams want to believe that their clubs still represent specific communities and histories, that they’re not simply ciphers for commercial revenue in a time of borderless capital and information. The EPL’s administrators continue to gustily muscle into markets in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Local sentiments may not have the strength to restrain the league’s global aspirations.
The withering of EPL teams’ connection to place is unfortunate. I was lucky to live in north London for three years and watch Arsenal many times in the flesh. It was wonderful to be part of the solidarity and spectacle of a match, even if it carried only echoes of that more primal, muddy era before the advent of the glitzy EPL. You felt an almost physical sense of collective endeavour that fandom from afar cannot replicate. Walking home after a loss, I would look at the gloomy faces peering out from shops and pubs. It seemed like the entire street, the entire neighbourhood was in mourning.