The Shebab gunman on the left appears to be a Gunner, i.e. an Arsenal fan…
In honor of today’s Champion’s League final, I republish my op ed that ran in the National a year ago.
What was most fascinating about the photograph of the Somali gunman who was part of the crowd dragging the body of an Ethiopian soldier through the streets of Mogadishu that appeared in newspapers last year was his shirt. It bore the number 13, beneath the legend “Ballack”. This particular fighter was declaring his fealty not only to the Islamist Shebab movement, but also to Chelsea football club and its newly acquired German midfielder.
That image reminded me of a 2002 story in the London Sunday Times, in which Hala Jaber painted an extraordinary portrait of a group of young Palestinians training to be suicide bombers. Amid the tension of the boys steeling themselves to kill and be killed, one of the fighters ran in with “very important news”: Manchester United had beaten West Ham 5-3. “David Beckham two score. Very good Manchester,” Jaber quoted him as saying, adding: “The announcement was greeted with unanimous pleasure, amid further calls of ‘Allahu akbar’.”
If they are still alive, it’s a safe bet that the Somali gunman and the Palestinian apprentice-shahids will, on Wednesday, be watching Chelsea and Manchester United slug it out in Moscow for the title of European Champions.
Football has always been a global game, but globalisation has fundamentally changed it. Of course, every child in the world knew Pele back in the 1970s, but they only saw him on TV every four years, at the World Cup. Nobody outside Brazil followed his exploits at Santos FC. Today, though, the football fans of the world follow every minute of the careers of Pele’s Brazilian inheritors — Kaka, say, or Ronaldinho — by watching every European league game.
The number of Brazilian players playing the beautiful game abroad is reported to number 5,000 or more. Brazil’s national team, like that of Argentina’s or any top-tier World Cup contender, is composed predominantly, or entirely, of players based in Europe, which is now the premier global “stage” on which the game is played, and watched. And a surge of foreign investment in English clubs has made them — somewhat improbably, given the woeful state of England’s national team — the powerhouse of the European game.
Not only are two English teams competing this year, for the first time, to be champions of Europe; three of the four teams at the semi-final stage were English. All four English entrants had reached the quarter-final stage, Arsenal having been knocked out by Liverpool before the Merseysiders fell to Chelsea.
Then again, beyond their names, there’s not much that’s “English” about those top four teams. Manchester United, coached by a Scotsman, is unique among them in fielding as many as five English players in a typical starting line up. But United’s recent success has been built around the electric skills of the Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo, and the club’s major acquisitions last season — the Argentinian Carlos Tevez, the Brazilian Anderson and Portuguese-African Nani — all point to an increasingly Latin orientation for the club.
Chelsea’s team, built by a Portuguese manager and coached today by an Israeli, often starts with only two Englishmen. Liverpool, coached by a Spaniard, also usually features just two Englishmen. And, aside from a teenage prodigy who sometimes gets a zippy run-out as a substitute, the French-coached Arsenal usually plays without a single English player.
The predominantly foreign make up of the teams is reflected among the owners, too: Manchester United is owned by the American Glazer family; Chelsea by the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich; Liverpool is the subject of a bitter battle for control between rival American sports moguls and Dubai International Capital; while Arsenal have a transnational gathering of shareholders who include American sports investors and an Uzbek steel magnate.
A further three of the top ten clubs in the English Premiership are owned by foreigners, reflecting a tsunami of foreign investment into the English game. And money buys success. It allows the English clubs to build bigger stadiums, attracting greater revenue through ticket sales, and to buy more and better stars from abroad — which allows them not only to reap the rewards of success in lucrative tournaments such as the European Champion’s League, but also to turn that success into an international “branding” operation through the sale of replica shirts like the one worn by that Somali gunman.
The cosmopolitan line ups of English teams is replicated across Europe, wreaking havoc with the traditional structure of fan support based on neighbourhood or tribal rivalries. In Glasgow, the Celtic vs Rangers rivalry echoes the sectarian Catholic vs Protestant conflict of Northern Ireland, although it’s hard to imagine what Celtic’s Japanese midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura makes of the chant “he eats chow mein, he loves Sinn Fein” apart from the muddled culinary anthropology.
But to the owners of Europe’s top clubs, tribal schisms don’t offer much of a business model. Far more important is to arouse the global passion for your team that prompts, not only the apprentice shahids of Gaza and the Shebab gunmen of Mogadishu, but also the tens of millions of consumers from Shanghai to Sharjah, Delhi to Denver lining up to buy its paraphernalia. It may be all about business, but how bad can any distraction be that — at least for a couple of hours — keeps young men who would otherwise be shooting up the streets channelling their passion into the shooting boots of Wayne Rooney or Didier Drogba, and demanding death only for those — like the referee — who are out of range?