Groveling over an exhilarating final 10 minutes during the Arsenal-Chelsea fixture on Jan. 21 in London pub The Fountain Abbey, I suddenly found myself in the middle of Serbia.
Not literally, unfortunately, but I had indeed spiritually landed there from a tale spun by a drunken web. The spider responsible? A cheery bloke from the north donning the same newspaper flat cap that Eric Cantona wore during his eccentric Shakespearean rant during the Champions League draw. Tony, as he went by, who resides naturally in Bolton, a small mill town just north of Manchester. He got riper with tales the riper his ripe lager got, and not unlike Roy Keane after yet another dismal Manchester United performance, was as animated as ever.
So as Tony spun his tale of compliantly following Serbian police guards to avoid rash and brash ultras from Red Star Belgrade for a UEFA Cup (now known as the Europa League) fixture, I slowly began to drift into the mindset of lesser-club British footballing fans. In that 2008 season, the little Wanderers from Bolton made it out of a group featuring Bayern Munich, Red Star and Braga before defeating heavyweights Atletico Madrid in the round of 32 (they would fall to Sporting Lisbon in the next round). This was his Champions Final, and thanks to Bolton’s recent financial struggles and relegation to League One domestically (England’s third tier), will likely serve as the pinnacle of his fandom.
American “soccer” fans are spoon-fed the most successful teams in England on television every morning, which, of course, goes hand-in-hand with the Premier League’s capitalistic business plan to increase the stature of England’s cemented “Big 6” internationally. (At least the Premier League equally distributes the league’s television coup across the division, which American sports leagues cannot say.) After gaining a massive interest in the sport following the 2014 World Cup, I fell victim to the same model and gained quite an interest in Liverpool. It was all quite simple: after instilling new manager Jurgen Klopp a year later, Liverpool has been resurrected and can put in a shout to reclaim its podium as the most storied club in the land.
But it wasn’t that simple to Tony, born into Bolton fandom by his region and his father’s love of the game. An Englishman I met abroad named Dunstan, who was a season ticket holder of Queens Park Rangers (QPR) for over 20 years, surely felt the same way when he told me that he “supports not for the trophies, but for the moments.”
Meanwhile, I was unable to even purchase tickets to QPR’s match against Leeds United on Jan. 18 because I could not prove to the club’s website that I was a supporter of the club (there was also a security threat because Leeds fans were buying tickets in QPR’s home end, but that’s a story for another time).
Perhaps my fandom of the game originates from hollow beginnings, but over the course of my semester studying here, I will try and right my wrongs and embrace not the Liverpools of the game, but the Boltons and QPRs (who play in England’s second-tier) of the world. Thus, I will try to break the capitalistic model.