With Blackjack, And Hookers
The old-guard North American leagues have large and longstanding fanbases. When they’re at games, the fans can be loud. Deafening. But they’re not usually in any sort of unison. Fans will come individually, as couples, families, maybe the odd small group. They’ll each individually cheer of their own accord for their own reasons at their own times, and often, the stadium employees- public-address, scoreboard, audio- will actively exhort the fans to Make Some Noise or Get Loud at specific intervals.
This is, of course, the utter opposite of soccer’s method of operation. As any soccer diehard knows, soccer fans heavily coordinate in supporter groups that show off massive displays before every game, are led in chants and song for the duration of the game regardless of events on the field, and in every sense are aware of what the people in the seats next to them are planning on doing.
This doesn’t stop at the gates. When club management does something the fans don’t like- really anything short of threatening to leave town, and occasionally even then- fanbases in the old-guard sports might, at some point, threaten a protest of some sort. But it almost never amounts to much, even if vocal and sustained. It’s never quite vocal enough. A brief writeup on Deadspin, a think piece on SportsCenter, a small scene outside the stadium as more than enough people show up to pack the building anyway. Because forget the protest, they’re just here to see a game, or take their kids to a game, and they’re not about to let some ‘whiny brats’ ruin their day out. Even if it carries into the stadium, the most it will amount to are a smattering of individual signs, or loosely directed booing.
Meanwhile, in soccer, the threat of fans staying home in droves in response to management malfeasance- or showing up but taking other measures to express displeasure- is very real. When Perth Glory fans, angered by the club admitting to breaking the A-League salary cap and being thrown out of the playoffs in response- threatened on Facebook to break the all-time record for lowest attendance to a Glory game for Sunday’s clash with Melbourne City- it was taken seriously enough for coach Kenny Lowe to plead with the fans not to go through with it. (They didn’t, or at least, they didn’t seriously challenge the record. Perth won 3-1.)
By the standards of a soccer supporter protest, Newcastle United’s recent effort against owner Mike Ashley was considered a failure even though enough people stayed out of their match against Tottenham Hotspur to register the lowest attendance at St. James Park since a capacity expansion in 2002- a result that in the old-guard leagues would be considered an enormous success.
Liverpool’s supporters, angry at rising ticket prices, hope to do better in a protest of their game away against Hull City on Tuesday. Which in itself is fairly risky, as fan protests are best saved for home games, when the expected support is larger and can be better imposed. But with dedicated sections for traveling fans, the utter absence of them can still make itself felt, as a suspiciously empty clump of seats tends to stick out in an otherwise full park. Cardiff City’s fans did similar earlier this month when Cardiff traveled to face Leeds United, as a statement against what they perceive as excessive security measures taken against them in response to previous editions of the fixture.
It doesn’t, however, end with empty stadiums. The same chants that lift the team up during a match can be used to tear them back down. Flares can be lit; objects can be thrown. Objects can also be demanded. One option for supporters of a particularly underperforming squad is to demand the player’s uniforms, on the grounds that the players are no longer deemed worthy of wearing them. Genoa saw this in 2012 as their club skidded towards a relegation they would in the end narrowly avoid. Red Star Belgrade did likewise in 2013; Roma supporters made the demand last month. It doesn’t happen often, and when it does, it is a tense occasion. The players don’t dare go into the locker room. When they do, they will do so shirtless, save perhaps for one or two who held out… or were spared.
It can go further. In 1990, Charlton Athletic fans went particularly far in an effort to make themselves heard. Their home stadium, The Valley, once upon a time had a capacity of 75,000, but a long absence from the top flight had left them without the attendance to fill it… or the money to refurbish it. After going into administration in 1984, coupled with the Bradford City fire in 1985, The Valley had been deemed unsafe, and lacking the funds to meet new safety requirements, Charlton had to groundshare with Crystal Palace. By 1990, supporters knew the place was beyond repair, but wanted to build what amounted to a new stadium on the same ground, so as to carry over history from one building to the next. The city council, however, said no.
The fans’ response? Form a political party, the Valley Party, with refurbishment as their single issue, and run it against the city council members who had voted against it in order to force the issue. They didn’t win, but they made a strong enough showing at the polls- 15,000 votes- that the council had a sudden change of heart anyway. The result is the stadium they play in now- with a new capacity of 27,111. In 2013, the fans acted again, getting The Valley declared an Asset of Community Value.
It can go still further. If things progress to the point where rooting for the team becomes simply intolerable, there has always been the option of simply abandoning the club altogether and forming a new one to combat it on the pitch. These days, such an option is usually fan-driven, but history has shown the players themselves doing so. This is how, for instance, Brazil’s Fla-Flu derby began: in 1911, Fluminense players, reacting to a dispute with the front office, defected to Flamengo, which didn’t even have a soccer team at the time. Back in December, I told of how fans of Austria Salzburg, suppressed by new owners Red Bull in a 2005 takeover, went off to form a new club named Austria Salzburg. That same year, fed up with the unresponsive leadership of Malcolm Glazer, a number of Manchester United supporters broke off to form FC United of Manchester. The obvious goal: take the new club up the pyramid and one day beat the tar out of the oppressor, doing things the right way. The way the fans actually want. A Wikipedia page of fan-owned sports teams is rife with similar stories the world over. Israel’s FC Haifa and Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem. Indonesia’s Pusamania Borneo. Poland’s Gornik 1979 Leczna. Croatia’s NK Varteks. Mali’s Jeanne d’Arc FC.
Ten years after those breakoffs, though, while each has made substantial and impressive progress, both have a ways to go to reach their goal. Beginning at the tenth tier of the English pyramid, FC United of Manchester- while promoted as champions this season- will start the next in the sixth. Austria Salzburg, entered into Austria’s seventh tier, is currently working on trying to get promoted from the third to the second. Their respective Moby Dicks lie in wait where they’ve always been: at or near the pinnacle of the top flight.
Sometimes, upending the established order is harder than it looks.