Or: How are you going to keep the fans down on the farm after they’ve seen Barcelona?
On my way to work this morning (picture me standing at the absolute front of a crowded 148 bus, making its way down Lake Shore Drive toward the sunny skyline of Chicago), reading a few pages of Arthur Hopcraft’s legendary The Football Man, I came across this sentence:
But the process of the running down of small clubs in the Third and Fourth Divisions had already begun, not because players wanted more money but because a more mobile, more amused population was ready and able to travel further for its enjoyment.
This is from the chapter “The Player,” and Hopcraft is writing about the the years 1960–1963, when, after years of being treated like chattel by the club owners, English players finally won the right to negotiate their own contracts and to be paid commensurately with their talents. It’s a dramatic story, and one that has been repeated at different times in different sports. But what really resonated with me, at this moment, was the idea of more mobile fans who are willing to travel farther for their football, given the promise of more entertaining games.
At the time, that must have meant that, despite your family’s allegiance to, say, fourth-division Whatsit Wanderers, who play at a small ground in your village, rising wages and ease of travel meant that you might consider an hour’s journey to see a bigger club in an actual stadium. And, having seen the game played at a higher level, the Whatsits’ regular fixtures begin to lose some of their allure.
Fast forward 50 years, to the era of ultimate mobility. Many Villans of my acquaintance make an annual pilgrimage back to Brum to catch a game—some travel more than once. (An upcoming Villan of the Week is this very day flying from San Diego to B6 for the Cardiff City fixture, may he bring us many goals.) You would think that all this travel, the ability to choose, would make us fickle. And yet. While many of has have second teams, or take in local games for the atmosphere, and truly voracious fans pick a team in La Liga, Serie A, the Bundesliga, and even MLS, I’ve never heard of someone who, say, stopped following Villa and chose another team because it was more convenient. It’s unthinkable.
So increased mobility allows us to choose any team, but once chosen, that team stays ours.
And think about TV, the ultimate in mobility. Now we can watch almost any game played anywhere. (Although China is still mostly out of reach; my younger son, who is learning Chinese at school, regularly complains about not being able to watch Chinese games.) Last night I watched parts of two Champions League games I had recorded, played in Spain and Germany, games played at the absolute highest levels. Before the advent of televised games, such a wealth of viewing was unthinkable.
Of course, I wonder whether this embarrassment of riches ultimately diminishes the game in some way. I love that I’m able to watch the very best players in the world, of course, but having seen their exploits, the players on my team pale in comparison. How can a local hero live up to Lionel Messi? And, when we can watch as many games in a week as our wives, children, jobs, and hemorrhoids will allow us to, isn’t each moment of genius a tiny bit devalued? (Not that I have hemorrhoids; I’m just saying there’s a limit to how much one can sit on one’s arse.) I don’t have the best memory to begin with, but I’m guessing that we all have a harder time remembering details, now that we can watch countless games in countless ways each year. When your local team was literally the only game in town, surely each moment mattered more, was remembered more.
Once I started following Villa, I found myself that much less interested in my local team, the Chicago Fire. The Fire aren’t as good as Villa, certainly most days, and they definitely don’t play equally challenging teams. So, in theory, if I spent last night watching Barcelona’s mesmerizing tika-taka, how can I stand to watch Villa hoofing the ball forward every time it reaches our keeper on Saturday? Well, in theory, I couldn’t, but that’s one of the mysteries of life, because, as much as I also enjoy watching the glamour teams in Champions League, I always come back to Villa. I chose them, or they chose me, and we’re stuck with each other, no matter the distance.