Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Pitch battles

Anne Coddington and Mark Perryman introduce the fan-led counterculture resisting football's transformation from people's game to corporate plaything

October 3, 2007
8 min read

Football is no longer stuck on the back pages. Players, transfers, intrigues are just as likely to be splashed across the front of your paper accompanied by daily supplements full of football news while entire TV and radio stations are dedicated to the game.

Football has never been bigger and this has been accompanied by what academic Steve Redhead describes as ‘post-fandom’. It’s a process that has helped the game become more inclusive. Watching the game from the sofa, or on a big screen down the pub, almost anywhere in the world, has vastly expanded football’s audience. Redhead describes this new relationship to football as ‘an ambivalent condition, which has become more and more pervasive’.

This ambivalence is breaking the traditional link between clubs and the places they are named after. (Question: Which is the only one league club not named after a place? Answer at the end of this piece.) And the process is increasing the commodification of fandom, seeking to turn fans into something most of them would never aspire to becoming: customers.

Football counterculture

This is the state of modern football. But there exists a counterculture among the fans that, while not political in a conventional sense, and certainly not taking the shape of an organised campaign, is nevertheless clinging to a set of ideals in stark contrast to the corporate power seeking to control their game.

At its best, this counterculture of writing, the visual arts, t-shirts and more embraces inclusion as a central value of fandom, welcoming the new fans swept up by the game’s excitement and emotion, while laying claim to the tradition of the people’s game. No one ever said this was a match that would be won or lost in 90 minutes, but it’s a pitch battle that the corporations are certainly no longer having all their own way.

Fanzine survivor

When Saturday Comes (WSC) was founded in 1986 as a photocopied

fanzine. Ken Bates, then the owner of Chelsea FC, which he’d bought for £1 in 1982, was the fanzine’s first target, and 21 years later he’s still

plunging a club he owns towards financial ruin. From its earliest editions WSC helped put those opposed to the ruination of their clubs in touch with one another; in effect, it established a community of interest among an impressive number of fans. It now sells about 21,000 copies monthly and has a readership of some 100,000.

The magazine’s publisher, Richard Guy, is convinced that the reason for its success is the stance the magazine took, and has continued to take. While WSC has thrived, football magazines from the major publishers IPC’s Goal, Future’s Total Football and BBC Worldwide’s Match of the Day have failed and been forced to close. In contrast to them, WSC has remained resolutely anti-establishment. Its illustrations and cartoons are wickedly funny, while the photography is not only high quality but mostly original too.

WSC began in an era of fans producing self-published magazines – fanzines. Most of them have now gone, but Richard Guy says they have reappeared in another form: ‘They migrated to online – the skills that produced the best of the fanzines were easily transferable to websites. The big difference is that now they are two-way – forums and messageboards are central to all of them, communication is becoming democratised.’

WSC has a web presence too, which Guy believes will increasingly complement the magazine’s content while helping it to reach a new generation of fans. But the fact that in almost any large newsagent the passion and humour of fans who haven’t surrendered to the monopoly game is poking out from among all the other magazines is testament to the imagination and enterprise of When Saturday Comes.

When Saturday Comes is available from W H Smith, published on the first Wednesday of every month, www.wsc.co.uk

You’re booked

The range of writing about football that followed the success of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch includes a clutch of unashamedly internationalist books. These provide a cosmopolitan sense of what it means to be a football fan and stretch the footballing imagination way beyond the sometimes limiting parochialism of club and country.

David Winner’s Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football is regarded as one of the finest of its kind. ‘I was inspired by the second generation of Dutch Total Football, Marco Van Basten and Ruud Gullit,’ he says. His aim was ‘to find a completely different way to write about football, mixing game and players up with subjects ranging from art to architecture.’ Using football, he provided an insightful, and richly amusing look at what it means to be Dutch.

Winner is convinced that the cultural changes represented by football deserve to be taken seriously. ‘We need to examine why it is so powerful culturally,’ he says. ‘It provides a drama and a poetry hardly anything else can match. Football is the number one global form of communication, something now shared right across the planet.’ Yet beyond the coterie of football sociologists and anthropologists the

magnitude of the worldwide cultural importance of football scarcely attracts any serious comment. Just a game? It’s certainly more important than that.

Picturing the game

Homes of Football is a photographic project Stuart Clarke describes as ’emerging out of the rubble of 1980s football.’ The 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives, was one of a series of tragic low points that affected the game in the decade. Clarke’s response involved photos focusing on the sense of locality that made football so special and that both the tragedies and the responses to

them now endangered.

‘I called it Homes because it’s always got to be plural, about clubs big and small, fans who share the same feelings, follow the same match day rituals,’ says Clarke. Collected together in a series of books, postcards, a travelling exhibition and Clarke’s own gallery in Ambleside, Homes of Football (www.homesoffootball.co.uk) has become incredibly popular amongst supporters.

‘Of course not all fans are the same, but our histories are linked whoever we follow. It’s a kind of elementary socialism, all having a stake in this game together,’ says Clarke.

The shirt off your back

Hugh Tisdale is the designer behind Philosophy Football (www.philosophyfootball.com), the t-shirt company he co-founded with Mark Perryman, one of the authors of this article. The designs feature quotes from the great philosophers, such as Camus, Sartre and Nietzsche, with similarly wise words from the best players, such as Pele, Cruyff and Cantona.

Tisdale explains his ambition: ‘I’m more interested in reaching

1,000 people with ten words on a t-shirt, than ten people with a 1,000-

word essay.’ His favourites? ‘Baudrillard, Hobsbawm, George Weah, our Palestine shirt.’ Not the sort of line-up usually associated with football and Hugh admits the shirts are unlikely to be worn by supporters attracted to the dubious fashion qualities of bri-nylon. ‘Not many would buy one of ours and a club shirt. But look at how awful most of those are. They should come with a free full-length mirror to show

how bad you will look in it.’

Instead Hugh prefers the everlasting qualities of a classic club kit:

‘The club’s name, its colours, its achievements – that’s what a shirt should represent.’ Strewn with sponsor’s logos, it’s another tradition gone, but not forgotten. Hugh has one set of images he’ll always cherish: ‘All those pictures of George Best in a red United shirt. At least he never had to play with Bargain Booze Drinks plastered across it.’

Which is the only league club not named after a place? Port Vale FC. Arsenal doesn’t count: as any Spurs fan will tell you, the club is named after its true home, Woolwich Arsenal, and has no business relocating to north London

Anne Coddington is the author of One of the Lads: Women who Follow Football and a senior lecturer in sport journalism at the London College of Communications. Mark Perryman is the author of Ingerland: Travels with a Football Nation and lecturer in sport journalism at the University of Brighton

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum