Monday, 15 February 2010

Overseas Supporters - Asset or Burden?

One cold midweek evening in February 2007, United played Reading in an FA Cup 5th Round replay. I was then a first year Accounting student at the Jerusalem University, and had made my way from Mount Scopus to the city centre, where my usual football pub was situated. The Stardust pub is a small and cozy place just off Jaffa street. One of its owners back then was an Englishmen from Newcastle who argued with me on footballing matters whenever I would come. But the music there was good, the Brown Ale was great and the atmosphere was English; I was excited on that night, just as much as any, to go and watch United play.
I did not know that the way I supported United would forever change after that night.
I had been a supporter for nearly 11 years, since that FA Cup Semi Final triumph over Chelsea in March 1996, and had followed them through the frustration of losing out on the title in 98, the Treble, the total domination of 2000 and 2001, the pain of watching "fuckin'" Danny Murphy stun us at the 86th minute on January 22, 2002, after we had run them ragged all night long but failed to score, then the indescribable joy of beating them at Anfield 10 months later en route to bringing the trophy back. I was shocked when Becks left, wanted to break the TV when we were frustrated by violent Arsenal in September 03 at Old Trafford and wanted to bury myself when Rio got the ban… I watched us give Milan a fight and being robbed in the FA Cup Final of 2005, I was inconsolable when Roy Keane was gone from our club, and didn't know what to do with myself when Georgie Best passed away. I was shocked when we had lost to Benfica, but knew, when we'd played Fulham on February 4th 2006, that we were on our way back.
That night, as I was walking over to the pub wearing my United shirt, I heard someone shout to me, with a Mancunian accent- "Hey! Are you goin' to watch the game?" They were a group of kids, no older than 15, religious Jews, who'd come from Manchester to Israel for a visit and were looking for someplace to watch the game. Together we went to a pub, and all of the experience I had thought I had disintegrated, as I watched those Old Trafford regulars singing songs I was disappointed to have known no lyrics of. And I'm not talking of the rare songs, I'm talking about – "U-N-I-T-E-D"…
United had scored three goals in the opening six minutes of that game, and eventually won 3-2. Secretly, I had hoped the match would go into extra time so that this experience could last longer.
Not long after I had first met the blokes from Mancunia, they asked me the obvious question – having no connection to Manchester, what am I doing supporting this club? Unfortunately, I had no good answer. Frankly, I think anyone from outside of the greater Manchester area would not have a good answer. In fact, less the supporters who have the support of United run in their family, even those from Stockport, Bolton, Bury etc. would find that difficult to answer. But definitely, there is more justification for them supporting the club than people like me, or supporters from Russia or Indonesia, who may sing Scouser songs, but know nothing about what it's like to grow up in Manchester or Liverpool. I doubt if more than a few of them could say why, for instance, there is a ship on the club's badge.
So in that context, is it really that great that we can go to our English-style pub in downtown Tel-Aviv and sing how the ugly Scousers are only happy on Groundhog day (when most of us don't even know what that day is), and wave our One United membership cards and our formal branch status, or is it actually pathetic?
I think it's sad. Because the reason most of us do it is the lack of alternative as our local football is less than poor, so we have to look overseas to find the group of people and footballers that can make us feel like we belong. And it's also tragic, because we can never REALLY belong, we will always be considered as outsiders.
Do we make the club stronger or weaker? That is a valid question, at least in my eyes. Are we an asset or a burden or are we neither?
The earlier posts about the Glazer issue notwithstanding, and without considering me specifically, I would like to hear your thoughts.


  1. Just stumbled across your blog, and I think this is an interesting post, so I thought I'd share my thoughts as a lifelong football fan.

    Football clubs have been at the heart of working-class English and Scottish communities (with a few notable enclaves in Wales and Northern Ireland) for well over a century, with many clubs being formed around (and occasionally nicknamed after) the industries that were vital to the town or city in question. Consider how many local rivalries between supporters originated from labour disputes; the men of one town going out on strike, the men of the other crossing the picket lines. Even though these historical grudges are sometimes apocryphal, they demonstrate the sheer level of regional and cultural pride behind British football clubs. Even when the industries have been destroyed, the football clubs have lived on, and often been a unifying force in the face of massive social and economic problems for an afflicted region.

    Coupled with this is a love of football for football's sake. Whether it's played under floodlights in the Champions League, or in the park with car headlights for illumination, if you love the sport, you'll be involved with it at whatever level it's played.

    So, when it comes to the issue of foreign fans, I always consider these two points. A football club - in England, at least - is not just about the eleven men on the pitch, or the subs, or the manager, or the chairman; traditionally, it's about the local community, the town or city that the club represents. If people from another region of England, or another country entirely, want to become supporters of the club, I personally feel that they should also do everything possible to learn about and embrace the culture of that club's locality. For instance, if you're an MUFC fan, I wouldn't just demand knowledge of the club's history from you; I'd like to know how you feel about the city of Manchester and its people.

    I also strongly believe that anyone who truly loves football should involve themselves with it at a grass-roots level. Even if your level of local football is less than poor, it's up to you to give it your support, and try and improve it. There probably won't be any trophies involved, and it will never be glamorous. But the reward is in your better understanding of the basic nature of the game, and in the sense of community you can promote.

    See, I support (and have done so for nearly twenty-five years) a team well outside the "Big Four", currently labouring in the Championship. It was my local club growing up, and I've followed them through some absolutely dire times when the football was horrific to watch, and our league position was mediocre. I've also had some brilliant times with them. I moved away from the region ten years ago, and my team now serves as a connection to my place of birth, the people, culture and dialect I grew up with. As well as my main team, I do everything I can to help out for the most local club to where I live now (a League Two team promoted from the Conference not long ago).

    Through the medium of the internet, I've discovered that my main team - though pretty humble - do have a few supporters in other countries. I enjoy discussing the footy with those guys, but most of all, I enjoy telling them all about the town that gave birth to the club. I teach them some of our dialect, and our local history. And I also ask them about their local team and history. Because while the football itself may be exciting, it's not entirely about what happens on the pitch.

    Sorry for that being a bit long-winded, I hope it didn't sound like a lecture either. Best of luck mate, take care.