Sunday, August 30, 2009

What attracts a Soccer Fan?

Yesterday I attended two soccer games. The first one cost me a total of $11 (two Gatorades and $4 match fees), the latter about $90. The first was very much a community event, the latter was distant and relatively alienating. The latter was better quality, but not by that much in many ways, and it certainly wasn't a philharmonic orchestra.

For a while now I've been wondering about the nature of following football. What got me? What is keeping me? What sort of things "get" people in general? Especially new people, like myself. I've mentioned it before in this blog, but for the context of this article I need to point out that I am very much a "new fan," and as a blogger can only pretend to be a new fan's voice. Over the past three years I've felt the differences between old fans who've known the sport for decades and for whom the A-League is a bold new adventure, and people like myself for whom the A-League is just part of the terrain I'm discovering. For this reason I rarely try to analyse games or players, but am more interested in writing about the experience.

Now I am a fan of Association Football, and I did not become a fan through the A-League but discovered the A-League a few games into Season 2 (It was a 5:0 thrashing of New Zealand Knights, which might have helped my initial enthusiasm). The things that I can identify that came together to make me a fan of the game, were my son's team, the 2006 World Cup and the movie Goal! The point here is that it was the game itself that seduced me, and not any particular team or league.

Ok, what's my point? Well there's a few reasons I am into football. One of them is the beauty, grace and skill of extraordinary athletes playing a complex tactical battle. For this of course, none of the games I watched yesterday really fulfilled. It's hardly dissing the A-League to point out the obvious fact that there is much better quality soccer on free-to-air TV. I watched Arsenal play Celtic the other morning, so please don't even argue with me - there is no comparison. Purely on the criteria of virtuosity, the A-League is relatively expensive and relatively poor at the same time.

There's more though right? Of course! Accessibility and community connection come together as another reason I'm a fan of this sport. It didn't take me long to realise that, even at the venerable age of 38, I could play. I still play in a futsal team on Tuesday nights and it is pure joy, especially when we win, as well as social, and mentally and physically engaging. Pretty quickly I added up just how accessible soccer is, with junior leagues down to the age of 6, women of all ages, disabled competitions, homeless competitions and indeed, for tragics like myself, divisions up to over-55s.

But the A-League fails here too right? I've got mates in good senior teams, both women and mens, mostly playing for West End. The truth is I haven't gotten to them for a while, but I have done and will be trying to catch the finals. These games are free, you can shake the player's hands afterwards and get more than a 'next please' from your comment about the goal, manouvre or foul. You're likely to even be asked if you'd like a drink.

But they're not as good are they? Of course not, but really, is the A-League $50/person/game better? To use the analogy of music, we'll pay $100 to watch the very best, we'll pay $15 to watch a pub band, but will we pay $60 for something in between? I'd argue no. If it's not going to be larger-than-life, we'd prefer the everyday talent of our friends. The A-League, as the most expensive football experience available to Australians, is stuck in the middle whilst charging top dollar, even to watch it on TV.

There's a third reason people, including me, are attracted to football, and has to do with very ancient, probably genetic, urges toward tribalism and place. It's the reason Australians in particular will follow any sport where their team is winning, and why a valiant few will follow their team even if it's losing. Make no mistake I am a Brisbane loyalist and although other sports don't really turn me on, the Brisbane Roar has my interest for the long term, thick or thin. These sorts of fans are the ones you meet on the blogosphere, the ones who wear their team shirts to unrelated social events and join fan organisations. The territory comes with belonging and identity and for single young males in particular (but not exclusively) it probably aids sanity in a bewildering world. As a religion soccer is far more rational than Christianity or Budhism precisely because it is explicitly human contrivance and does not pretend to be breathed from the mouth of God.

But here's the thing. People who just love soccer for its beauty will get up at 4.30am for Champions League games and look forward to the World Cup. Why would they bother with the A-League, especially as it is so much more expensive? People who love to play and watch in their communities are actually likely not to go to A-League games because they have their own games and their own league to follow (anecdotally, I find this is literally true - very few grassroots players follow the A-League except distantly).

And lovers of tribe?

I love the Brisbane Roar, I know their names and try to follow events, but the media is very poor, and mostly reads like highly filtered propaganda. Yesterday made things very clear to me.

I watch every single game of the Annerley Under 14s, Division 3 team, and follow very closely the fortunes of the Brisbane South Under 14s Division 3 competition. I know every player on the team. Some of them I've known since they were toddlers at child care. I've coached and managed quite a few of them and before that used to watch many of them play handball and basketball after Primary School every day. I know their strengths and weaknesses, their parents and even some of their personal issues and problems.

Not as good as the Roar? It depends what you mean. The kids never play a cynical game. They go out to score goals. Some of them are genuinely skilled and are not afraid to take crazy risks which occasionally come off. The left winger can chase a through ball past any defender, do a one-two if necessary, and score or direct a pinpoint cross. Is it actually less entertaining than watching Zullo? Frankly, no. The right back is a natural and brilliant defender but also has the unique ability to throw-in a very long way, so that a throw-in near the touch line is as good as a corner kick. Brilliant to watch. About a month ago I watched one of the attacking midfielders, a kid I've known since he was born, deflect a corner kick, leg high in the air, off the outside of his foot, into the top right hand corner of the net. If that goal was in the Champions League it would have been replayed to death and posted on U-Tube. Jacob's own signature move (he usually plays up front this season), which he pulled off twice yesterday, is kicking the ball back over his own head along with a defender, and then recollecting it past the defender. His one goal yesterday was an individual effort, beating two defenders and the goalie.

Sure they stuff up a lot. So do A-League teams. But they get some brilliant passing going too, and not because it has been drilled into them by a coach who has mega-qualifications and experience, but because it's fun to do so.

So far I have the A-League as having the problem of bad value by which I refer to quality for dollar. There's much better games for free and only slightly worse games that are live and pretty much free. (Incidentally, I can't wait for the W-League, which is not much poorer, much cheaper and is on free-to-air TV - I had m0ments last season of wanting to abandon the men and just follow the girls.)

There's a constructive criticism I need to add. If the A-League could connect with the rest of the enormous soccer community in Australia, as it is fully connected in England and Spain, I think it would inspire many more people, especially participants, who are many and remain the great-untapped. What I mean is that my son's team can aspire to get into the first division next year or the year after, and one day to play at the highest level of seniors in Brisbane, but not to ever be promoted into the A-League. This might even sound absurd, but it is precisely this joyful absurdity, a source of millions of childhood dreams, that exists in the traditional football countries. A-League teams are constructed exclusively from the top by dealings between rich men. There is no question at all in my mind that there are senior men's teams in Australia who would out-compete some A-League teams some of the time, but they have no way to aspire to compete in that competition. A system of relegation and promotion, fully connected to the entire football league system throughout the country, is essential in the not-too long term, for this sense of connectedness. You can not develop connectivity culturally before it is the case institutionally.

Honestly, of the two games yesterday, of the two teams I went to follow, of the two leagues of which they were a part, there is absolutely no question about which one I enjoyed more, which one I felt more a part of, which one I am more loyal to.

Incidentally, Annerley Under 14s Division 3 won their game 8:2 (goals, people!). It was the last of the home and away fixtures and next week is their semi-finals. Good luck to them, and with slightly less enthusiasm and commitment, good luck to the Brisbane Roar.


Anonymous Ed said...

Hamish - I have some very similar thoughts about all this. Perhaps I disagree a little about the value/quality side of things - I agree the Roar are too expensive, but I dont think it is by much. I am more than happy to pay $27 for what we get, but I think it gets too expensive for families, particulalry by the time you buy some ridiculously priced snacks.

I discovered football in spain in 2002 watching the super classico.Since then football and particlulrly real madrid have been a major part of my life. I was very exited about the A-League but I ahve been suprised at how much I have come to care for the side we can see live than all the other "Top quality football" on TV. The Roar have entered my heart to such en extent that I would swap a win over gold coast for one over Barcelona any day :)

I also think the A-League quality gets better every season - just finnished watching Jets beat Gold Coast (Yay!!), the quality of the play form both sides was very high. In season one A-League clibs could only dream of player of the calibre of Lubo Milosevic, Jason Culina, Porter, Thwaite and Traore.

The Roar do seam to be doing everything they can to turn people off. I talked to some hard coare supporters and they feel that the club is only interested in attracting families (every time they got a chant going on the weekend the stadium PA drowned them out with M&M or spiderbait at full volume). Family men I ahve talked to say the club is only interested in young singles and that the ticket prices reflect this.

On the weekend they had given a whole bunch of soccer mums and their families seats at the bottom of bay 332 - as you would imagine the mums were not so keen on the array of lurid lyrics comming from the beer soaked supporters group in the rows behind. The mums complained to the police who moved in to remove the problem... at the end of the day no doubt both sets of fans probably went home feeling unwelcome and may not come back.

Problem is that unless the Roar work out how to solve your conundrum, they wont be around next season. And that would break my heart :(

August 30, 2009 5:39 pm  
Anonymous Guido said...


This is truly a very interesting comment for me, as it gives me an insight about how someone who hasn't had a tradition in football approaches the game in Australia.

But I think what attracts a football fans can be as diverse for every fan in a stadium or watching it on TV.

In my case I do have a football tradition being from Italy. But I couldn't stand football while I was growing up there because it was overbearing.

But here I follow Melbourne Victory because when I am at the ground I feel a connection to my childhood and my past that I lost coming here. It doesn't matter for me whether Victory plays better or worse than an EPL or Serie A team. The fact that the pitch is the same size and the rules are the same everywhere else in the world is enough.

I also love Australian Rules Football. But I find following that sport isolating, knowing that it is only played here.

So as you can see it is a very personal reason. But I would add that being a global code, and the fact that football is not the major code here, it is inevitable that it does not compares favourably with major comps such as the EPL or Serie A. But I would also say that that would be true for most of the leagues in the world. And also I know that in Italy many fans are more involved in following their local Serie C team than one in Serie A because it represent them more, even if the football is not as good. This is my attitude towards Melbourne Victory.

I also wish we could have a seamless structure of leagues connected to each other with promotion and relegation. However I do wonder whether it may work here. In countries where football is the major sport, where they have bigger populations and smaller countries geographically it can work.

But I wonder whether any A-League team dropped to a lower league it would survive. There are some poor preforming teams that are struggling to attract a crowd now, imagine if was dropped.

August 31, 2009 4:11 pm  
Blogger Brendan said...

From attending the firs two sydney fc games this season compared to last season, it is interesting to see an a-league club start to improve things bit by bit under new owners - given sydney have of course struggled past few years to connect to the community.

the game atmosphere seems to be working well for both home end Cove 'loud' support and families seated a couple of bays away who sometimes join cove chants they know (saints, or sydney, go march ending in etc)

It helps that the home team won on both occasions this season of course in terms of upbeat atmosphere, but there seems to be better things happening off the pitch too - even simple things like pre game free bbq outside ground.

certainly so far, fans seem to be going home happy this season and looking forward to next game.

September 02, 2009 5:59 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

great read hamish,

the big thing i took from this post was the gap between the new a-league clubs and the wider soccer community.

not just the euro fans but people who love playing it, love watching their kids play, play the indoor version.

and right now the a-league clubs are missing out on the support of this wider soccer community.

i think the organic connection can happen in various ways. one would be a super cup - where the state league champs would enter a knockout comp with the a-league clubs. another would be for the a-league clubs to get more connected with the clubs in their city ...

i was watching 12 year olds playing in a knockout comp final here in japan and one of the teams was connected to a j-league club. kids got to wear the same jerseys as their heroes, and belong to the same club.

but on the bright side. a lot of people get a lot of joy out of soccer. supporting it and playing it.


September 08, 2009 10:23 pm  

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