I recall once seeing a fascinating television documentary which cast doubt on the American moon landings. The programme assembled a great deal of evidence which, if correct, suggested that man could never have landed on the moon. If this was correct it seems that all those grainy old films were nothing more than an elaborate hoax, a giant exercise in propaganda in which the western media were either complicit or themselves duped. Was Uncle Sam having us on all the time?
Thirty-odd years later we see another Uncle Sam apparently aiming for the stars, whilst a complicit Welsh media help project his vision. History will judge whether this particular western media were dupes, but one does wonder which planet the former Wimbledon owner lives on and whether some of his statements deserve a little more serious press scrutiny. Sam’s endless assertions of how much money he intends to spend are reminiscent of a tasteless rich relative who talks endlessly of his wealth and influence to anyone who’ll listen, but whose boastfulness will ultimately be transparent. However, his attempts to hijack the Welsh nation in his schemes have once again been given uncritical airing by a press which holds itself out as being pan-Welsh. Are Sam’s pan-cymric ambitions and attempts to manipulate nationalistic feeling based on legitimate grounds or are they mere illusions, designed to maximise commercial potential?
Voice of a Nation?
Once again, in the build up to the Wales v Bosnia match we heard Sam telling the nation’s media that Cardiff City can represent the whole of Wales, and can be to Wales what Barcelona are to Catalunya. Both of these statements are based on a questionable view of both history and contemporary events. Wales, as with any country is made up several distinct areas, each with their own characteristics. These differences can be set to one side in the context of the national football side, who represent the nation as a whole, and is essentially made up of players who have connections to Wales by birth or family. Indeed, it’s a strong argument that football is more of a uniting factor than rugby, a game whose heartlands are limited to the former industrial south. Whether such claims could ever be made of a team which carry the name of one particular place in Wales, and which is likely to be a commercial enterprise represented on the field by soldiers of fortune is an altogether different question.
Wales is a country or nation which is divided by a number of factors, many of which are historical and are likely to be with us for the foreseeable future. Geographically, we are divided by mountains, which combined with the economic imperatives of the industrial revolution mean that lines of communication run east to west, whilst north to south links are spartan. Traditionally, the north has always had better connections with the major cities of northern England than with the south. To expect football fans in the North to abandon convenient trips to Anfield or Old Trafford in favour of regular cross country treks to Cardiff is fanciful. Again, language divides the country, roughly on an east-west basis. Cardiff has never historically been a centre for the Welsh language and cannot currently credibly represent this distinctive aspect of Welshness. One cannot imagine the poetry of Saunders Lewis being the basis for too many chants at Ninian Park. There are also growing political and economic divides between the relatively affluent areas close to the English border and the rest. The irony of a city that never voted for the Welsh Assembly benefiting economically from it’s establishment is not lost on many outside the south east.
If these factors lead one to doubt how much knowledge Sam really has of his adopted homeland, comparison of Cardiff City to FC Barcelona shows a complete lack of awareness of Twentieth Century history. Barca, and it’s home city, hold a particular place in the identity of the Catalan people. Even the most rudimentary knowledge of the Spanish Civil War reveals the role of the Catalans in opposing Franco. Thousands of Catalans died in that particular struggle, whilst many more died or were imprisoned in the aftermath of Franco’s dictatorship. Both the Catalan flag and language were officially banned. As Jimmy Burns relates in his book “Barca”, the football ground came to represent an oasis where Catalan could be spoken. The colours of Barca became an unofficial Catalan flag. Needless to say, there was no separate Catalan national team. These were events that took place well within living memory and led to Barca being regarded as “more than a club”. Add in the factor that Barca remains a club owned by it’s members, who vote in a president, and the attempts of Sam Hammam to compare his club look weak and shallow.
The Global Club – City to Village
The whole question of football clubs and their relation to national teams and national identity is a vexed question in the modern world. Globalisation of the world economy has thrown up various issues as to national identity. Football is hardly immune to these influences, and indeed with the modern perception of football as a business, it has been at the forefront of cross-national “trade” through the expansion of European club competitions and expanded international tournaments. How do we as fans react to these developments, and how do they affect our perception of our country and our clubs? Has our nationality just become another potential “market” in the same way as our club allegiance?
In the last few days we have seen much hand wringing in England where a defeat to “unfancied” opponents has left the press bemoaning the behaviour of leading clubs and their managers in putting club interests first. One can understand professional club management looking after their own interests, and for smaller nations such as Wales this is not a new problem. However, one wonders whether the balance has shifted even further when one sees a major footballing nation such as England having to kowtow to the interests of it’s major clubs. If one factors in that these clubs are now invariably market quoted corporations whose withdrawal of players from national squads is presumably to ”protect their shareholders investment” then the question of how much influence commercial interests are having over national teams becomes even larger. Many people have long suspected that many multi-national organisations now wield more power than national governments. Perhaps the recent goings on at Upton Park have made clear what most of us have realised for some time, that even a major association such as England is now effectively powerless against the influence of corporations masquerading as football clubs.
A few years ago Italian politician / media magnate / club owner ( that’s most options covered ) Silvio Berlusconi cast doubt on the future of international football, stating that the future of the game lay with trans-national club competitions. Whilst one had the unusual sight of a right wing politician dressing up his utterances in politically correct language, his true commercial ambitions were obvious. In essence his view was of a Europe of regions, each effectively represented by a club side. Whatever one’s views on Berlusconi there can be little doubt that his visions are shared by many in control of Europe’s major clubs. If this is correct, then are we to be faced in coming years with commercial pressures to forget about our national teams and instead get behind our regional club in international competitions. Interestingly, professional rugby already seems to be going down that road. The traditional international tournament is in danger of becoming a predictable bore, and for many has lost ground to the far more openly competitive European club competition. In Wales the entrants will in the future be determined by a series of regional franchises. Where will this end, and is football to follow a similar route?
Nations For Sale?
International football would appear to be something of an anomaly as far as the money men of football are concerned. Tournaments such as the World Cup generate vast amounts of income, yet possess fatal flaws from the point of view of the global entrepreneur. Club football is comparatively straightforward. You gain control of a club and with it gain the “market” of its fanbase. If performances on the field are substandard it is simple enough to bring in new players who will hopefully turn matters around and secure your investment. A new signing in itself can serve as a commercial boost through ticket sales, replica shirts etc. In Western Europe control of a national side can generally only be gained through election to various committees, who in themselves are rightly or wrongly an anathema to “executive” decision making. Outside of Latin America and various Third World countries it is almost impossible to “own” an international team and directly make money from it. If the team are under-performing then by and large the appeal of the side can’t suddenly be boosted by a star signing, give or take the odd passport or qualification rules scam. Any investment in the playing side can only be long term through youth academies etc, and even then these cannot guarantee a flow of stars. The scope for the short term fix is extremely limited in international football. Yet the money men look on in frustration at the financial opportunities generated by international football and it’s huge commercial potential.
It seems the answer to such a quandary is simple in the minds of some. Diminish the importance of the national team, emphasise the significance of “regional capital” clubs, and attempt to manipulate large sections of the population to identify these clubs with their countries or regions. In other words, if clubs replace the national team as symbols of national and regional identity, a vast commercial market is opened up, whilst control and profits are acquired by the “owner”.
More Than Nationality
Wherefore Swansea City in all this? Well if the Berlusconi and Hammam views of the world are combined, presumably as a local side show whilst Cardiff City battle it out in a European super league as effectively the “Welsh” team. Children throughout the nation will be adorned in the latest Cardiff merchandise as the marketing opportunity known as “Wales” comes to full commercial fruition. In the meantime, the likes of Swansea, Wrexham, and others become little more than feeder teams, playing a sideshow to the main financial – sorry – sporting event. After all, doesn’t this all make commercial sense?
Just before too many Jacks reach for the revolver and whisky bottle at the thought of this Orwell-like prophecy, lets just remember that 1984 didn’t turn out as envisaged. For all the manipulative power of the modern media, people are essentially human and illogical. Failure to understand the quirks and rationale of the football supporter can be as fateful to the schemes of the money men as the hand of fate on the pitch. Whether the money men of football truly understand the mentality of the football supporter is highly questionable. Football’s appeal to the finance world is the “captive” market of it’s support, yet it is the thinking of the fan which appears incomprehensible to the game’s entrepreneurs.
Few modern football supporters actually see club sides as representing a country. Years ago supporters across Britain urged on the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool in European competition. Times have changed. These days the European demise of such clubs is met with glee by those who support other British clubs. Further, fans don’t even necessarily support clubs who are supposed to represent areas within countries. For example, many Bavarians support 1860 Munich rather than the more successful Bayern, and would have cheered louder than many in Manchester when Solskaer’s winner flew past Ollie Kahn a couple of years back. Most Man.City fans will have suffered the reverse emotion, but known exactly how the blue and white part of the Bavarian capital felt.
Other issues of nationality and identity with club sides are also complex in today’s free labour market. Can Arsenal, for example, with their highly cosmopolitan team be taken as representing “England” in the way that television commentators love to make out? One doubts whether their fans even give the matter much thought as long as Arsene Wenger’s world stars continue winning and playing good football. Sam Hammam talks of bringing various Welsh internationals to play for Cardiff but ultimately in the modern game would not most Cardiff fans prefer to see their team succeed with a team of non-Welsh players than be mediocre with an all Welsh team? Okay, so much the better if, as was the case with the Swans in the early 1980s if a successful team has a local core, but ultimately club fans want results, not an exercise in local identity. With the current Swans team, would we swop the Martinez – Johnrose – Britton midfield for the more local combination which was featured earlier in the season? At club level, a player’s local identity is a bonus not a qualification.
Market Wales – Or A Failure Of Understanding?
Do the likes of Sam Hammam try to confuse the boundaries between club and country for their own commercial ends? Cardiff is currently a dynamic city with a large population and a hinterland in south-east Wales which ought to provide ample support to a successful team. If Sam succeeds in drawing on that support, and converting a few armchair fans to the merits of live football, good luck to him. Where he starts to make ill-thought statements about national identity with, one suspects, one eye on the potential for profit, questions need to be asked.
If Sam Hammam is attempting to manipulate the issue of nationality for commercial ends then hopefully such attempts will fall on as stony ground as his attempts to woo the populace of South West London with the “hilarious” antics of the crazy gang. There he attempted to win over the largely middle class local population with a style of play that resembled a bar-room brawl with a football incidentally present. A series of jolly schoolboy pranks and practical jokes were supposed to have the suburbs roaring with laughter at these cheeky upstarts and set the turnstiles clicking. In the end, June Whitfield turned up, but Terry, along with countless others, couldn’t be bothered. Sam’s complaints about his local council could not ultimately cover up the fact that the funniest jokes to come out of Wimbledon FC were the size of the crowds. His “success” at that club should be seen in the context of a time of great boom for football when pretty much every other London club was playing to sell out crowds. A heroic failure due to local authority intransigence or simple misjudgement of how to sell to his potential “customers”?
Similarly, one suspects that he has misjudged his constituency in making appeals to the nationalistic impulses of the Welsh people. Cardiff is an important place in Wales but it is not Wales. Welsh people have a team to support as a nation – surprisingly enough it plays in red and is called “Wales”. However frustrating it may be for Sam, club loyalties are a different matter, and recent gates suggest that whilst he may have motivated many traditional Cardiff fans to return to Ninian Park he is some way from truly broadening the support base. Meanwhile, encouraging gates at the Vetch in recent weeks illustrate that club loyalty rests on more than league position. Those of us who believe that a nation’s history and culture, both general and sporting, should not be up for sale can take some hope from this.
Wales is a disparate nation within a small area, and those differences are part of it’s inherent character, however inconvenient to the ambitions of the modern globalised businessman. The nationalist card has a very questionable applicability in relation to the club scene in both football and rugby. In the wrong hands nationalism can be a dangerous and negative force, and needs to be treated with care and respect and not as a commercial tool. Cardiff as a City has grasped the zeitgeist of the new Millenium rather better than Swansea, and gives the impression of a city on the move. However, it should not be blind to the darker side of the global market and it’s ability to view every human activity into an economic transaction. Economic development should be balanced by a respect for indigenous culture. Some things mean more than money. Neither Cardiff nor Wales should be reduced to a franchise.
Economic regeneration is clearly important to south Wales, but not at the cost of throwing our culture out of the window. That the Welsh press allow Sam Hammam to make ill informed statements without challenge says much about it’s lack of critical facility, and tame, deferential nature. Too often in recent years the sports pages of the Welsh press have become little more than the mouthpiece of rich club owners in both football and rugby. Little awareness is displayed of the broader issues facing both codes. There again, those who portray Cardiff City as Barcelona would probably also believe Uncle Sam if he told them that there’s a man in the moon.