Buckyball Writes Again

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Nou Camp Visit

After spending a week in Barcelona, you have to feel that this, if anything, must be the home of Samba football in Europe. A city that parties till 3 AM every night, where the music plays on the beach till the wee hours of the morning, and revellers straggle back till dawn on a daily basis. A city with refulgent architecture, inspirational art and a history that is as resplendent and embellished as any other city must surely be the best place for Ronaldhinho to ply his art. The Nou camp, therefore, is a must see on most tourist itineraries, if there are any males involved in the travel planning.

Sadly, on this trip we've made two trips and not been able to see much. The first was a whoosh through on the city's Bus Turistic - the hop on - hop off all day affair, which we were using to just get a shortlist going and get a view of the city itself. On the second, a concerted trip to just see Nou Camp, we got there with an hour to go for closing time, only to be told at the ticket window that their Credit Card machine wasn't working. The only way out was to walk AROUND the stadium to the cash machine 15 minutes away, and back. Clearly not a viable option for us given the time. So we satisfied ourselves by wandering into the ubiquitious megastore and contributing to Barcelona transfer kitty by buying a t-shirt.

I was left feeling, though, that these are the areas where the biggest changes need to come into football. We've all read about the darker side of the corporatization that the sport has endured. The greedy agents, the selling out of clubs and stadiums, the ticket prices blah blah. But how about the things which businesses in general are very good at? Taking care of customers? Football clubs in the corporate era have customers as much as they have fans. Fans are a smaller bunch of emotionally bound followers who will endure a lot more nonsense and in return claim a moral ownership of the club and protest against unpopular decisions. But customers are a loosely bound and hugely larger set who will simply transact - to watch a game, or buy a shirt or pay for TV games and not expect much more than the value of that transaction in return. You can ill-treat fans - the way you can ill treat your family members, knowing that they can't really get rid of you or stop being a brother or sister or parent. You can't mistreat customers simply because they are not there for reasons of loyalty and they are just as happy to spend their money anywhere else. If I'm in Manchester or Madrid tomorrow, I'll go to their museums and who knows, when I come back to Barcelona, I may not want to do a tour of yet another stadium.

What could they have done? Well they could have sold the same tickets at the megastore, which was 100 meters away, and did have a working credit card machine. They could have done a special discount for people who did buy stuff from the store to get a ticket alongside... the opportunities are limitless, really.

The business of football needs its customers, as much as it needs its fans, to pay off these massive debts and the mega salaries. And the sooner it can make this a philosophy at the grass roots, at every "moment of truth" the better it will be for the clubs.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch - Holiday Reading

Fever Pitch – Nick Hornby

My holiday reading for the moment is Nick Hornby’s fever pitch. It’s such a stark counterpoint to the form of cosmopolitan football support we’ve grown used to – having come into London from all corners of the world. My support for Manchester United can be traced back to the simple coincidence that I started following English football closely in the 1999 season. Many of my friends in Mumbai and Delhi who have taken to the game before or after support Liverpool or Arsenal and I’m sure there are now legions of supporters of the new improved Chelsea. I have to admit, no matter how deep our joy or sorrow at outcomes of games – it all seems synthetic – and I often cringe when somebody says “you guys are playing at the weekend” – it seems like somehow I’ve connived myself into an elite set that I don’t really belong to – and it’s my own little dark secret. Reading Fever Pitch reaffirms what I’ve realized and believed all along. Football support for most people isn’t just about the game. It’s about identity, growing up, self discovery and a lifelong social context.

The other fascinating analogy I’ve found so far, is, somewhere along the way Hornby makes a rant against the higher prices. His argument basically suggests that rising ticket prices changes the composition of the crowd – the working class and lower middle class punters get supplanted by families and middle classes and executive boxes. He also makes the curious point that the stadiums owe their atmosphere and the wall of noise to the aforementioned working class fans and that those in the executive box are getting this “atmosphere” free of cost. And that shorn of this segment of spectators, the whole proposition of the game may change for the rest of the viewers who may stay away. This of course, we know today is not true of Arsenal – they’re still as noisy and as crowded at Highbury, and no doubt, will be so at Ashberton Grove. But over at Old Trafford, the anti-Glazer demonstrations, I believe are simply alternative expressions of this same class struggle.

Recent demonstrations during the Glazer visits have driven a wedge between the larger body of reasonable United supporters and the rabid set of game-goers who’s actions have been soundly criticized as yobbish by supporters of the game from across the world. The real change that the Glazers pose to the Old Trafford faithful is actually the same as the one described by Hornby – a potential substitution of the working class faithful by a more “elite” and financially more secure set. The instrument of this of course is the ticket price. Manchester United, surprisingly has one of the lowest (if not the lowest) ticket prices among the major premiership clubs, and clearly the Glazers will want to rectify that to a more appropriate market clearing price – which clearly is much higher than the current one as evidenced by the thousands of people who want but can’t get tickets for the Old Trafford games. The rest of the arguments, like the debt etc. are clearly specious as nobody among the so called supporter groups really understands business well enough to make those claims and it was also reported that Arsenal took on a larger debt to build Ashberton Grove.

That apart, I recommend Fever Pitch strongly to anybody with a serious or passing interest in football. It is a fantastic window into the lives behind the 50 thousand people who fill the stands and contribute to making the game the fantastic experience it is.

Of course, its worth mentioning that the book recounts in lurid detail the dry years of Arsenal football club - all those years of "Boring boring Arsenal" and in Hornby's own words "Every Arsenal fan, from the youngest to the oldest, is aware of the fact that no one likes us, and every day we hear that dislike reiterated." What a difference a Frenchman (or two) makes!

Not to mention the scary sense of identification any football fan will feel with what is lucidly and often deprecatingly described by Hornby himself as clearly less than social behaviour. But there are some real gems - for example football fans never describe describe years in calendar years... I quote "...Our years... run from August to May, June and July don't really happen (especially in years which end with an odd number and which therefore contain no world cup or European Championship). Ask us for the best or worst period in our lives, and we will often answer with 4 figures - 66/67 for Manchester United fans, 67-68 for Manchester City fans... a silent slash in the middle the only concession to the calendar used elsewhere in the western world"... or where he in great detail points out his ethical and moral dilemma should his spouse or partner take ill or have a baby during the course of an FA cup final involving Arsenal! Enough said... if you haven't read it do so NOW and note the number of times it makes you smile, chuckle or feel embarrassed.