By Ken Chigbo
Since the Premier League was formed in 1992 and pay-TV transformed it into a global spectacle, we have witnessed an exponential growth in the numbers in what was considered football’s backwaters – Africa, Asia and North America – representing themselves as fans of English clubs. Those clubs have strong working class roots and are deeply embedded in the communities they are located. Yet people from thousands of miles away, aided by satellite and cable TV, the internet, mobile phones, etc are so keen to be identified with English clubs that they refer to such clubs in the first person, as in: “we have bought a new player”.
But is this really genuine? I think a genuine supporter should have strong links and ties to the club they follow. The support should be organic. A fan should be part of the fabric of a club. This connection is what makes you feel a sense of communion with the club and means you support the club through the good times and the bad.
What do we make of a Kenyan who hanged himself when Arsenal were knocked out of the Champions League, or his countryman who was stabbed to death after a Manchester derby? Or a report from Nigeria’s Muslim-majority north which claimed that some children sent to quranic schools (“almajiri”) knew more about Manchester United than the quran?
It is instructive that the worldwide followers of English clubs tend to restrict their support to the more successful ones. An NOI poll in Nigeria showed that the two most supported clubs in the country were Chelsea and Manchester United, with 37% and 33% of the support, and Arsenal at 22%. Liverpool, arguably the most supported club in England, could only garner 4% of Nigerian support. Clubs like West Ham, Newcastle, Sunderland, etc do not figure among Nigerian fans, even though those clubs have a huge following in London and the northeast of England.
When Nigerian international striker Obafemi Martins left Inter Milan for Newcastle in 2006, a Nigerian in an online discussion forum suggested he should have gone to Arsenal. A Newcastle fan retorted: “Don’t you have Lagos Wanderers or something to worry about?”
There has been a long-running debate in football about “real fans” and “glory hunters”. The Urban Dictionary gives several tips on how to spot a “glory hunter”. These include: “will often choose a big club which is guaranteed of years at the top bracket of clubs; have no connection to the club; foreign to the country and city of the club; does not know the history, chants or culture of the club; have a club in their own country, don’t have the guts to support them; will never talk about the years before the club started to become successful.”
This is why there are so many Chelsea “supporters” in Nigeria, possibly more than in London. It is a safe bet that only a handful of those Nigerian Chelsea “fans” were interested in the club before Roman Abramovich bought the club and pumped in the millions of pounds that bought success. If the Russian billionaire ever got bored with his plaything and took his money elsewhere, Chelsea would, in all likelihood, struggle to stay afloat, and the trophies are bound to dry up. Cue search for another club by their millions of “fans” abroad, and the club would be left with those “real fans” who stuck around during the barren years, when the club yo-yoed between the top tier and the second division, when the freehold at Stamford Bridge was sold to property developers and Ken Bates bought the club for £1.
While it makes sense for the big English clubs to court the support of millions in far flung places – the clubs know that success attracts sponsors and sponsors are keen to market products worldwide, the soul of the game is still represented by those that part with hard-earned cash to attend matches. They are the “core customers” who generate the atmosphere at the grounds that makes the game marketable to a worldwide audience. These are the people who can genuinely claim that the club they support is theirs, not the fair-weather crew riding on the success train and ready to jump off when it comes off the rails.
In Germany fans have more than emotional ties to their clubs. They own a stake in it. Bundesliga clubs are sporting associations where the fans (members) own a 51% stake, with the exception of Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg, which are owned by corporations with strong ties to the cities the clubs are located. This is known as the 50+1 rule. Private business is only allowed to buy 49%. With the club board made up of shareholders’ representatives, the supporters’ associations “Mutterveiren” have a direct say in how the club is run.
This ownership model has contributed to making the Bundesliga the most profitable league in the world, and brought success on the pitch as well, with two German clubs at the Champions League final in May. Jan Molby, the Danish former Liverpool midfielder, now a columnist for Eurosport wrote: “For me, it starts with the German FA. It is a well organised association that has produced an appealing league that realises who their most important customers are – the fans. It is not about the TV companies or the people watching from thousands of miles away – it is about the fans that go to the games.”
Whenever I see people claiming they support clubs that have little to do with them, I remember rapper Large Professor’s lines from Main Source’s “Fakin’ the funk”: “You just don’t cut with the artificial flow”.