Everyone who has a vague interest in soccer knows the big global brands and superstars; the Manchester Uniteds and the Real Madrids, the Kakas and Messis of the global game. We see them plastered across the back pages of newspapers and adorning front covers of glossy magazines. Television coverage of major soccer matches is all-pervasive. You can watch a Liverpool game in Liechtenstein, a Barcelona match in Bangladesh and an Arsenal fixture in Afghanistan (probably). Hiking in the mountains of Lesotho, far away from home, I ended up having an in-depth discussion on the relative merits of Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov with my Basotho guide. The global brands are consumed on an enormous scale.
Yet who has heard of Tiverton Town, Evesham United or Truro City? I’m guessing not many of you, if any of you (for your information, all three teams play in the Southern Premier League in England, the seventh rung of English football). While record amounts of money is being pumped into the English Premier League, from billionaire club owners to major sponsorship deals, looking further down the ladder reveals a very different picture.
Having been introduced to Tiverton Town in the late 1990s by a friend of mine, I soon became an ardent supporter, always there, always belting out the songs on the terraces. During this time, the club experienced great fortune. Two trips to Wembley in two years resulting in two FA Vase wins (the equivalent of the FA Cup for non-league teams) in the late 1990s swelled the club’s coffers, allowing them to improve the ground and thus being eligible for promotion further up the football pyramid. Ten years later, after having lived around the world, coming back to watch a Tiverton game is a very different proposition. Success has dried up and the fans have stopped coming. Tiverton used to get between 800 and 1,000 fans to the opening game of the season. Now they’re lucky to reach the 400 mark. The slump in gate receipts means that money is tight. The club shop has stopped stocking replica shirts as they can’t afford that outlay of capital in the hope that enough fans will buy them and the satellite TV subscription has been cancelled. The raucous atmosphere has been replaced with a few people clapping. The future looks bleak.
This isn’t just a single story but indicative of a wider malaise in English football. The success of the Premier League and the increased access to the games has bled the smaller teams of their fan base. Especially in such times of economic hardship, why spend £8 a time to watch a bunch of postmen, school teachers and plumbers play when you can watch arguably the best football league in the world in the comfort of your own home or in the pub? Come winter time, who is going to brave the cold, the rain, the wind and the snow to stand on the terraces to watch a low grade game? The answer, I fear, is not many. Many of those who do will be talking about how their Premier League side is doing rather than concentrating on the game they are supposedly watching, checking the latest scores on their cellphones and discussing their fantasy football teams.
The global brands are just the visible part of the football iceberg; there is much more that gets forgotten. If we are to talk about soccer in a globalized society, let us not forget the many local aspects of the game.