[26 June 2007]
I was fortunate enough to see this year’s Champions League Final between AC Milan and Liverpool FC in the Southern Italian city of Bari on a big screen in a piazza with 600 demented soccer fans. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of that crowd were pulling, and pulling hard, for Milan. As a pizza maker I spoke to earlier that evening explained, “I am Italian, so tonight I am Milan.” I’m pretty sure that’s what he was saying, anyway.
But as I sat sipping my eighth café macchiato looking over the square at the on-screen action, it dawned on me that not every Italian present was rooting for the Rossoneri (red-blacks, for you non-Italian speakers). A group of half a dozen Baresi teenagers, somewhere between 13- and 15-years-old, sat directly in front of me, groaning at every Liverpool miss and cursing every Milan attack. While the rest of the crowd roared on their countrymen, these young mavericks held nothing back in their support of the English team. I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out why.
Until a minute before halftime, when Milan scored. At that point the crowd went mad (naturally) and the youngsters were joined by a previously absent ‘friend’, dressed in official AC Milan shirt and shorts, accessorised with a giant AC Milan ‘numero uno’ foam hand, getting in their faces with undiluted abrasiveness about how his team was about to win the Champions League. At this precise moment everything became clear. The kid was a glory hunter. And a dick. The gang, presumably followers of the local, perennially unsuccessful team, AS Bari, were doing everything in their power to will failure on Milan. It all made perfect sense.
Milan, as a geographical note, is about as far away from Bari as you can get while still being in Italy. Yet this annoying kid wasn’t alone. Hundreds of Baresi had discovered AC Milan shirts in their wardrobes. And scarves. And flags. Unlike our friendly pizza man, these people weren’t Milan fans for one night only. They were Milan fans through and through.
Which, in true Carrie Bradshaw fashion, made me wonder; what is it about fans that make them pledge their allegiance to these eternally successful, globally recognisable, corporate-backed sports teams from hundreds of miles away?
Actually, that’s a pretty simple question to answer. Everyone loves a winner. AC Milan has won the Champions League (or the European Cup, as it was previously known) seven times, if you include that night against Liverpool. They’ve won Italy’s domestic league 17 times. Owned by ex-Italian president and billionaire Silvio Berlusconi, they’re in the very top strata of Europe’s soccer elite. They’re always going to be on TV against high profile opposition, whom they’re going to beat most of the time, too. AS Bari’s best season came when they finished 7th in Series A back in 1947. No competition.
This is hardly a phenomenon exclusive to Italy. Everywhere team sports are followed with passion, fans flock to the winners. In London, my hometown, every day you’ll see grown men walking the streets wearing Liverpool or Manchester United shirts. And it’s remarkable, but not surprising, how many more Chelsea supporters you see out and about since the Russian oil oligarch Roman Abramovich started pouring hundreds of millions into the club, allowing it to win the league for the first time in decades. The closest professional soccer team to my home is actually Barnet FC, an unlovely little team that shows no likelihood of ever emerging from its current position in the bottom half of the division three below the haloed Premiership. I have never seen anyone wearing a Barnet shirt on the street. Never.
For the unrepentant glory hunter, it doesn’t matter how far away the stadium is, there’s always an excuse to justify the passion behind the shirt. “I supported them when they were shit”, “My Mum’s from Manchester”, or, most commonly, “You’re just jealous. Fuck off.”
This issue isn’t merely confined to England or Italy. In Spain, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona dominate income and supporters. Bayern Munich is by far and away Germany’s biggest club. It’s is not just limited to soccer, either. Australians grumbled when Brisbane Bears fans started crawling out of the woodwork during the team’s recent dominance of Aussie Rules football.
As an exchange student at university in the US years ago, I continually bickered with a native New Yorker who, despite an abundance of NFL teams in his hometown, insisted that his passion for the Dallas Cowboys had been with him since birth. They just happened to be at the apex of their Troy Aikman / Emmitt Smith glory years at that precise moment. And why exactly has the UNC-Duke basketball rivalry reached such epic proportions? Who realised that so many people across America received their education at these two Carolinian institutions?
The New York Yankees have obviously turned themselves into the most recognisable, and probably best supported, sporting brand on the planet, but Boston’s not far behind. Presenting the Red Sox Nation as some sort of plucky underdogs has been a stroke of genius, even though, behind the Yankees, they have the highest payroll of any MLB team. If it’s about supporting the underdog, where is the Devil Ray Nation? The Memphis Grizzly Nation? The Arizona Cardinal Nation?
It’s not difficult to understand the psychology behind the big teams’ fans. There is something instantly lovable about winners. The clubs or franchises inevitably have a storied history, the pick of the most talented and exiting players, and a nationwide community of fans to feel connected to. But more than that, it’s the continual reinforcement of victory that’s so enticing to the glory chaser. Victory is the affirmation that your support was worthy and valid. Indeed, it’s was clearly the individual fan’s emotional energy poured at the TV during the game that spilled through to the players, giving them that extra one percent to snatch that last moment win. That’s what it feels like, anyway. When the championships inevitably arrive, it’s a moment to savour forever. You, as much as the team, can bask in the triumph, your name carved in stone for eternity. You were there. You were the best. No time for losers, because we are the champions.
You’re half expecting me to write that this isn’t what being a team’s fan is about. Supporting the local underdog has a dignity all of its own. Like Jamie Farr and his Toledo Mudhens or Robbie Williams and his obsession with Port Vale, it’s about savouring the small triumphs, being part of a dense, closely knit, locally-based community of true supporters. The lows build character, making the occasional triumphs so much sweeter than those whose brilliance is reinforced on a daily, weekly and annual basis.
Sadly, this is bullshit. There is no glory in life away from the bright lights of TV and international recognition. Remember when Barnet FC upset Norwich City in the League Cup in the early ‘90s? Thought not. Remember three Dallas Cowboys Superbowls in four years? That rings a bell.
And so the teenagers of Bari will probably spend many more years sitting in the piazza rooting for the opposition while their friend dances for joy over Milan’s repeated triumphs. There is no simple conclusion about what teams you should or shouldn’t follow. Just try not to follow sporting fashions, stick with your local teams and, in the event of glorious victory, do your best to carry yourself with dignity. Contrary to Freddie Mercury’s suggestion, have some time for losers.
And accept that as much as right thinking sports observers hate the eternal winners and their Diaspora of fans, some of us can’t help being tied to them. Because when I was that exchange student, I was fortunate enough to spend my year in the USA studying at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Tar Heels rule. Duke sucks. Some things aren’t open to debate.
Photo from Community.IExplore.com