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THE HIGH PRICE OF BEING A FAN

 

By C.B. Liddell

TOKYO, 6 DECEMBER 2007 —Soccer is the ultimate reality TV – spontaneous and unscripted – but it is also so much more, especially when viewed from the bosom of a seething mass of humanity, all sharing the same intense emotions. It provokes pulsating passions and gives birth to myths and legends. In certain cases, it even starts wars and can power political change. Maybe the great manager of Liverpool FC team of the 1960s, Bill Shankly was onto something when he said "[soccer] isn’t a matter of life and death, it’s more important than that."

Inevitably, with something with such mass appeal, it has also become a major source of income, with the top clubs paying fortunes to attract the best players, then recouping their outlay through vast sponsorship and TV deals. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in England’s 20-team Premiership, now the biggest soccer league in the World. In 2005-06, the Premiership had a revenue of £1.4 billion ($2.8 billion) and a wage bill of over £1 billion, putting it well ahead of Europe’s other leagues.

For a sport that has always been about local identity, working-class culture, and England’s unique sporting ethic that sees winning as somehow incidental to the finer aspects of any game, the success of English soccer and its globalization has created a palpable dilemma: how can the grassroots essence of the sport be protected and maintained as it grows beyond all measure? This is a challenge that bedevils the recent publication of United Opus, the latest in a series of gigantic sporting books by Kraken Opus. While turning a tidy profit, the book sets out to serve as the family bible of Manchester United, the club with the best claim to the title of biggest team in the World’s biggest sport.

Weighing in at a hefty 37kg, this family bible of the ‘Red Devils’ is not a tome to casually leaf through, but more like of barely-mobile altar between covers, to be opened with a degree of awe and reverence, and possibly the donning of white gloves. The scale of this print icon is underlined by the price tags, which range from the $6,000 UNITED, a limited edition of 9,200, to the $8,500 ICONS , a limited edition of 500.


Sir Bobby Charlton, Karl Fowler (CEO of Kraken Opus), and players from the current squad (Darren Fletcher and Mikael Silvestre) unveil the Manchster United Opus in Tokyo.
Photo: C.B. Liddell 

The main difference between the four versions on offer are the autographs they carry. While the UNITED edition is signed by Sir Bobby Charlton, member of the great Man United team that won the European Cup in 1968, and Sir Alex Ferguson, the club’s firebrand manager, other pricier editions carry the signatures of several of the club’s other great personalities. These come either from the great team of the 1960s, skillfully rebuilt by the manager Sir Matt Busby, following the tragic Munich Air Disaster of 1958, which killed eight players in an already promising team, or the team put together in the 1990s by the present manager Sir Alex Ferguson, a living legend as famed for his apoplectic nature and the ‘hairdryer treatment’ he gives underperforming players as for his soccer acumen. Almost as an afterthought there is also a Korean edition, signed by one of United’s lesser known players, the Korean Park Ji-Sung, who, it seems, was bought partly as a marketing device to help the club access the lucrative Far East markets.

In its 800 pages, the book carries 400,000 words and contains 2,000 photos, many of them gatefolds, selected from an original 3 million. 45% of this content is previously unpublished and includes lengthy articles by top soccer writers, including James Lawton from The Independent and Hugh McIlvanney from The Observer.

In this vast corpus of words and images what is most noticeable is the book’s appeal to the club’s roots, traditions, and its defining event – the 1958 Munich Air Disaster – when a great young team was wiped out, only for the few survivors, including the manager Matt Busby and midfield general Bobby Charlton, to build an even greater team from the ashes. At heart this is a tale of a very British team, with the occasional nod in the direction of continental and foreign flair – like the French striker, Eric Cantona, who made an enormous impact in the mid 90s and the Portuguese goalscorer Cristiano Ronaldo, who is perhaps the team’s most high profile player at present.


David Beckham and Rio Ferdinand with the Premier League Trophy
United Opus
© 2007 Copyright Kraken Group

Against this dominant picture of a team whose defining personalities and historical character are still overwhelming British, the present-day reality of a globalized Premiership, in which less than 50% of the players are British, sits uneasily. As an example of the game’s globalization, Sir Bobby Charlton, who appeared at a press conference in Tokyo to launch the book in Japan, made the point that the club has an estimated 75 million fans worldwide, more, it should be noted, than the population of the entire UK.

However, compared to their main domestic rivals, Chelsea, Manchester United can still claim to be a team with a British character, something that may have helped them to edge last season’s championship despite spending a lot less money. In that season both teams had 20 regular players (those making more than 20 appearances over the season). In the case of United, 11 players were British as well as their manager. Chelsea, by contrast, could only claim 6 British regulars, while their manager was Portuguese.

Although Chelsea outspent Manchester United in terms of transfers and wages in season 2006-2007 – United paid £85 million ($168 million) in salaries to Chelsea’s £114 million ($225 million) – the greater cultural cohesion enjoyed by Manchester United’s squad allowed them to outlast a Chelsea team whose major signings – especially the Ukrainian player Andriy Shevchenko bought for £30 million ($61 million) – had trouble fitting in.

With big money flowing into the game from abroad, the days when English teams could compete at the highest level with players exclusively from their local area are long gone, but with globalization running rampant the game is in danger of losing much of the grassroots character that the United Opus so rightly celebrates.

At the start of this season, mirroring Chelsea’s extravagant forays into the transfer market, Manchester United splashed out millions on a group of highly rated Spanish and Portuguese-speaking players with little regard for how they might impact on the cultural balance of the team.

As proved by the comparison with Chelsea’s highly-paid, polyglot team last season, raising issues of cultural unity and team spirit over issues of technical flair and skill is not a frivolous point. As the United Opus so often makes the point, it is hard work, courage, steeliness, pride and self-sacrifice that so often makes the difference over the long and grueling soccer season.

The embodiment of these ideals is the celebrated Irish player Roy Keane, who captained the team from 1997 to 2005. His mental characteristics, rather than any flashy technique, helped weld the young team of predominantly British players of the early 1990s, including current LA Galaxy star David Beckham, into the disciplined force that was able to win dominance of English soccer again after a lull of 20 years. The United Opus makes the most of his qualities, qualities that working class British fans have an instant affinity for.


Manager Sir Alex Ferguson and team captain Roy Keane
United Opus
© 2007 Copyright Kraken Group

"[Keane] is a man of exacting standards, withering in his dismissal of any colleagues who do not share his sense of priorities. And those priorities are plain. Although he ensures he is always properly remunerated, Keane is one of the few modern players who does not employ an agent. He is not interested in the flim or flam that attaches itself to the contemporary footballer. He despises celebrity, preferring the company of a few trusted old friends. What he believes in above all is doing his job to the best of his ability."

This is the image that continues to sell soccer, especially to the hardcore of diehard fans, those who buy the season tickets, turn up at the games in all weathers, and provide the atmosphere of chants, cheers, and jeers. United Opus does right to acknowledge it, but what is not mentioned in the book – what cannot be mentioned – is the way the financial dynamics of the game are starting to sever the roots of the game by making characters like Keane anomalies rather than the norm.

Further proof that the profit ethos that now dominates decisions at the top is threatening the spirit of the game came this March, when England’s new national soccer stadium at Wembley opened after a £778 million ($1.5 billion) rebuilding program. The former stadium, with its characteristic art deco twin towers, had been something of a national landmark. It had also been indelibly linked in the popular mind with England’s greatest sporting triumph in 1966, when the national soccer team, featuring Manchester United’s Bobby Charlton, brought the World Cup back to the home of soccer for the only time.

Anywhere else, this would have bestowed iconic status on the ground and seen it preserved against all efforts at redevelopment, especially as the stadium was well-built and more than adequate to its task. But in England’s fast changing game, where cash is king, the decision to knock down the wonderful old stadium was taken principally because it would allow a tier of corporate hospitality boxes to be built stretching all the way around the stadium. After a string of poor results for the national team at the new stadium, it was concluded that this row of boxes, filled with executive guests rather than real fans, had played a role in dampening the atmosphere and muting the roar of the Wembley crowd.

The Opus is an impressive and ambitious publishing project. While celebrating the traditions of a great sport it is also a reflection of the financial pressures that impinge on its spirit. For soccer to continue as the World’s number one sport, it is vital to protect its essence. Any tree that loses touch with its roots is sure to become just so much timber, waiting to be pulped up into a book that some might consider just too big to read.

United Opus
Justyn Barnes, Editor-in-chief
Contributing Sports Writers: Hugh Mcllvanney, James Lawton, Jim White, Johnathan Northcroft, and Patrick Barclay.
Gary Maddison, Head designer

Hardcover, 800 pages
Kraken Opus (UK, October 2006) 
ISBN-10: 1905794002
ISBN-13: 978-1905794003
£3,000  (Pounds Sterling) 
$6,090 (US Dollars)
€4,167 (Euro) 

United Opus: Special Editions

(1) ICONS edition - signed by Eric Cantona, Denis Law and Bryan Robson
£4,250 (Pounds Sterling)
$8,623 (US Dollars)
€5,904 (Euro)

(2) CLASS OF 92 edition - signed by David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, and Paul Scholes. This edition is limited to 250 copies.
£4,000 (Pounds Sterling)
$8,117 (US Dollars)
€5,556 (Euro) 

(3) STAR edition - signed by Park Ji-Sung . This edition is strictly limited to 300 copies.
£3,500 (Pounds Sterling)
$7,101 (US Dollars)
€4,862 (Euro)

C. B. Liddell is a Tokyo-based journalist who writes on culture for the International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun newspaper. He last interviewed the Japanese artist Fuyuko Matsui for Culturekiosque.com.

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