So much has happened since the Champions League Final held in Cardiff on June 3rd: the London Bridge attacks (that same night); the general election; the Grenfell Tower fire and the Finsbury Park attack. A football game is a mere trifle. But the issues that struck me on the evening of the European Champions Final in Cardiff are perhaps not entirely irrelevant, and the corporate, globalised nature of top-level football – along with its often incorrigibly corrupt officials (stand up Michel Platini) – raised some questions of identity and alienation, even in this anecdotal form.
What is in a name? Walking through my home city towards the Principality Stadium, once the Millennium Stadium, and renamed the National Stadium of Wales at the insistence of UEFA for tonight’s event, I could feel myself, just like the stadium itself, undergoing an identity crisis.
I have been overtaken by a sort of acute cognitive dissonance, in which the knowledge that, while I am in my own city, in a street I walk down every day on my way home from work, I am at the same time elsewhere, in a city of strangers, all of them football fans – which I am not – in a parade (typically, if not stereotypically) of shouting and gesticulating Italians, all adorned with shirts and scarves of the Juventus tribe, followers of the fortunes of the football club that will shortly be pitched against the might of Real Madrid, their ‘Spanish’ opponents. They are passionate in their support, and many of them would do almost anything – and have already done a great deal and paid a lot of money – to travel to this game.
My overall neutrality is a serious marker of difference, here amongst fanatics. I am both a native and a neutral, and it feels as though I have entered a parallel world, in which my familiar surroundings have been ripped away and replaced by a replica city, in which I am the alien. And I am walking down Wood Street the wrong way.
Normally, in order to enter this end of the stadium, I would leave my home in upper Grangetown, cross the bridge at the end of Tudor Road and, turn left. This evening, though, Wood Street has become a one-way system for pedestrians, and we are channelled up towards the railway station, underneath the vast and towering construction that will soon be the new home of the BBC, doubling back down towards Wood Street from the Mary Street end. It is a small matter, but one which adds to the general sense of being cast adrift within familiar surroundings. And the fact of being herded the wrong way down this road, surrounded by strangers, seems laden with metaphoric possibility. I am a little disoriented, to say the least.
But as I have started thinking about my own identity in this huge crowd of fanatics, and felt the painful onset of anomie, and an almost total disconnect from my surroundings, I begin to think, in turn, what it means to support a football club. We all know, nowadays, that support of a particular club has nothing at all to do with geographical or even cultural affinity. The reasons for supporting a club can be as fleeting as the colour of their strip or the design of their logo, or a schoolboy crush on a particular player. It isn’t like in my grandfather’s day – that’s how far you have to go back – when the players in a side were actually from the place they played for. Nowadays these specimens are rare – Stephen Gerrard of Liverpool was a notable recent case, along with Rooney when he played (briefly) for Everton, and I’m sure there are a few more, but they are not plentiful, and certainly not in the Premier League. Such characters are invariably local heroes, until they move to a bigger, richer club.
So, the notion that supporting a club may have anything to do with affiliation by country or culture or geography applies equally to playing for such a club. How many of the Juventus players starting tonight come from Turin? And how many of the Madrid players are from . . . As I write this, I realise it is not a remotely original question, but let’s check, starting with Juventus.
There is not a single player from Turin or even thereabouts in the Juventus team; of the four Italians starting for Juventus, three are from Tuscany and one from the Lazio region. I find it interesting that the actual Italians are, true to form, all defenders, as though the back line must, at least, live up to the Italian reputation for ruthless, murderous defence, and therefore be comprised of those most loyal, even at a distance, to the Italian (though strictly speaking, it should be Lombard) cause. There are even fewer Spaniards in the Real Madrid side: of the three starting, two are Andalusians, and there is one, yes one from the autonomous community of Madrid, Dani Carvajal (also a defender). I like the way the nationals (Ramos, too, is a defender) make up the defence, as if to say “we at least are loyal Spaniards/Italians and will defend the goal-line to the last”. A nice touch. There were, in total, 4 Brazilians (two apiece), 4 Italians, 3 Spaniards, 2 Germans, 2 French, 2 Croatians, 2 Argentinians, and a single representative of Bosnia, Portugal and Costa Rica out on the pitch at the start of the game.
Clearly, then, in this globalised era of sport, what these fans are following are brands, not to be confused by loyalties of birth or geographical affiliation. And the notion of 76,000 fans baying on behalf of a brand that in reality has nothing in common with themselves as a defined cultural group from a defined place (Madrid, Turin) is a distinctly postmodern notion.
As if to prove a point, I am in the company of a Mexican and an Argentinian (invited to Cardiff to take part in Fiction Fiesta events on football and literature) and both have declared their allegiance to the cause of Juventus, while I myself am strictly neutral. A., the Argentinian – who lives in Granada – is an Atlético Madrid supporter, and therefore despises Real on principle. J.’s family on his father’s side is originally from Barcelona, and he has lived in the Catalan capital for extended periods, so he is even more contra Madrid than A. And me? Despite my protestations of neutrality, I lived in Barcelona myself for a while in the 1980s, and I am loath to see Real Madrid win anything, but there is the Gareth Bale factor, and even though Bale is not in the starting line-up, he is, after all, a Cardiff boy, and may come on as a sub (which he does, late in the game, but to no great effect). So, you see, one can get caught up in this nonsense even if one doesn’t really care. But the brand thing? The gazillions spent on players’ salaries, the products, the strips; the millions of little girls and boys who dream of getting a Messi 10 shirt in their Christmas stocking, or whatever . . . what the fuck is this all about?
Earlier in the day I had picked up our Argentinian friend, A., from his hotel. J. and I had waited in the foyer. A group of men were on their way into reception from their rooms, also on their way to the game. There was about them a brashness, and a brittle sense of propriety that seemed presumptuous, here in a foreign city. They exuded insider knowledge and, I suspected, the potential for extreme violence. They wore sharp suits to match their hatchet faces. ‘Romanian Mafia,’ J. muttered to me; ‘they turn up at every big match.’ J. would know; he is one of the world’s great football writers. The renowned Mexican author, Carlos Fuentes, once said: ‘If you want to know about soccer, go speak to J.’ So if J. says these guys are mafia, I’m pretty sure they are. And it seems to be almost as if these guys are at the bloody heart of globalised football: the obvious crooks, milking the UEFA machine (on this occasion) – though it might as well be FIFA or any other of its world tributaries – for personal profit in whatever deals come in this event’s trashy wake. And they are only one step away from the ones we might consider the ‘insider’ crooks – the repulsive Sepp Blatter and his cronies.
As we approach the turnstiles, the tension mounts. We have to pass through three separate rungs of security and ticket checks. At the third turnstile, a young man attempts to flash a pass, or a ticket, at security, and this is found wanting. He has no ticket. The guard immediately calls for help and the guy is ushered away by two uniformed colleagues. I wonder how on earth he got through the first two levels of security. Two weeks prior to the match, we had to provide details of our passports and – in my case – national insurance number. The form from the Welsh FA stated that this information would be shared by the South Wales and Greater Manchester Police forces. We received this request four days before the Manchester Arena bombing of 22nd May. This was odd. Why did Greater Manchester Police need our data? Did they have intelligence on a likely attack? It would seem so, and I haven’t been offered any other explanation.
The game itself, even for a non-fan, offered a great spectacle. I am used to attending rugby internationals at the Millennium stadium, so the atmosphere was not a shock, but I did admire the extraordinary skills of the players, their control of a ball moving at speed, their balance and precision of movement. The Juventus goal, an overhead strike by the Croatian, Mandzukić, was a staggering piece of athleticism. I was particularly entranced by Ronaldo, a man with possibly the strangest skin colour on earth, after Donald Trump. And he was certainly the most reviled player on the pitch, which was fun. We were seated pitchside – our complimentary tickets were excellent (thank you, Nick) – near the Juventus fans at the south end of the stadium, and every time Ronaldo had the ball, a terrible hissing began. On a couple of occasions he was near enough to be spat upon. This radiantly dark orange gladiator ignored the taunts in magisterial fashion, peacocking his way across the pitch and, after his opening goal, embarked on a trademark piece of preening, flexing his muscles in a comically macho pose after first dashing to the corner to answer the taunts of the Juve fans with shaking fist. Great theatre, I guess, but such an odious fellow. I remembered reading somewhere that Ronaldo never celebrates the goals of his team-mates with them, but demands their adoration when he scores himself. If true, which I suspect it is, it struck me as the most incredibly narcissistic gesture, in what is, after all, a ‘team game’. But, then again: perhaps Ronaldo is simply being true to himself. Why would narcissism, a trait which defines contemporary celebrity culture, be out of place here, in a game that obediently tows the global capitalist line of cynical identity manipulation and idiotic self-love? It kind of follows that in such a relentlessly competitive and cash-driven arena, you wouldn’t really give a shit about anyone else in your team – even to the point of resenting them the smallest taste of glory. Team spirit? What have you got in common with these guys other than your obscenely inflated pay packet?
But despite Ronaldo’s prima donna antics, he wouldn’t be a great player without the rest of the team, and most people – in football as in life – seem compelled to form teams, to take sides, however tenuous the commonalities they share. In many ways, football at this level is the embodiment of postmodern identity politics. It is compellingly entertaining, even if the structure that supports it is rotten.
The players, by origin:
Keylor Navas (Costa Rica)
Dani Carvajal (Madrid, Spain)
Rafael Varane (France)
Sergio Ramos (Seville, Spain)
Toni Kroos (Germany)
Luka Modric (Croatia)
Isco (Malaga, Spain)
Karim Benzema (France)
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Gianluigi Buffon (Tuscany, Italy)
Giorgio Chiellini (Tuscany, Italy)
Leonardo Bonucci (Lazio, Italy)
Andrea Barzagli (Tuscany, Italy)
Alex Sandro (Brazil)
Miralem Pjanic (Bosnia)
Sami Khedira (Germany)
Dani Alves (Brazil)
Paulo Dybala (Argentina)
Mario Mandzukić (Croatia)
Gonzalo Higuain (Argentina)