Adam Walton reflects on the short lived proposition of the European Super League (ESL), and Florentino Perez’s complete oversight of the sentiments and importance of soccer’s global fanbase and community.
Amongst the dredge of articles and tweets churned up by Sunday’s announcement and subsequent collapse of the European Super League, BBC reporter Dan Roan revealed how elite-club bigwigs were justifying their coup. Roan tweeted, ‘According to source, some of those involved in ESL call traditional supporters of clubs “legacy fans” while they are focused instead on the “fans of the future” who want superstar names’.
These sentiments were echoed by Super League chairman, Florentino Perez, on Spanish television, who claimed, ‘Young people are no longer interested in football. They have other platforms on which to distract themselves.’ Basically, Perez and his cronies don’t care about local fans, because the real money comes from the streams and shirt sales in places like Delhi and Hong Kong.
After I wiped the tears (of laughter and sadness) from my eyes at the thought of a group of billionaires, who would remember the moon landing, determining the interests of younger generations, I came to a minor realisation. I am a Cape Town-based Arsenal fan in my early-20s whose attention and subscription fees are wanted by these relics. The European Super League was created for me. Wow.
This supposed fan-dichotomy relates to a question brilliantly tackled by Jonathan Wilson on The Guardian Football Weekly: is a local fan’s connection superior to the fan who lives 60 000kms away? Do these groups want different things?
I have no familial connection to Arsenal. I don’t have an uncle who played for their youth team in the mid-1980s. I wasn’t bought a shirt with “Henry” printed on the back for my fifth birthday. I would have to drive 13 144,6km on the Trans-Sahara Highway to get from my front door to the Emirates Stadium. Yet I have missed only two Arsenal games this season, and I was furious when I did. My family still talks about a tantrum I threw when the Gunners lost 3-2 to Swansea in 2012. And during the depths of lockdown, when I (like most people) was struggling with the seeming hopelessness of everything, just watching my team play was a soothing two-hour escape from bleak circumstance.
This isn’t a shrine to my footballing loyalty. There are far more moving stories of “foreign” fandom: people waking up at ungodly hours to watch 0-0 draws with Crystal Palace; tattoos of club crests on unmentionable places; life-savings spent on trips to watch favourite teams play. Yes, these fans may not live within walking distance from Old Trafford, but to question their connection to the club is ludicrous.
So where does this connection come from? Of course, there’s an appreciation for the sport itself. But beyond this, there is the inseparable feeling that a community is sitting and watching your team with you. When Harry Kane scores a last-minute winner, a fan in their living room celebrates knowing thousands of like-minded people, who share a passion for a football club and it values, are celebrating with them. It’s a shared emotional experience. Subconscious maybe, but palpably important.
A geographically-challenged fan is also not confined to their living room. I have had multiple conversations in bars with complete strangers about whether Diogo Jota should play instead of Roberto Firmino, or about how Brendan Rodgers gets his teeth whitened. Beyond supporting a club, there is the experience of being a footballing fan, of being part of a community.
This is the answer to Wilson’s question. The experience of a fan in Brasilia might be different from the fan in Manchester. But both value that intangible feeling of connection, in whatever form it comes. It’s what makes someone who has never stepped foot in England cry when a football club in South London win a game. It’s what makes being a fan so fulfilling, and its non-negotiable.