TTU Season Preview 2012-13: Cardiff City and the Perils of Modern Football
Day Three of our season preview sees Joe Harrison take a bird’s eye view of the Cardiff Issue.
“Are Spain boring?” the media demanded, looking – as ever – for a definitive answer. “Yes!” asserted some, dismissing those who disagreed as pretentious. “No!” responded the Zonal Markers, accusing their opponents of tactical luddism. Seldom, if at all, was the most pertinent point in this debate made: that this disagreement was one based on an entirely subjective topic. What is or isn’t deemed boring will vary from person to person, in football as indeed in wider life. If this summer’s debate over tiki-taka proved anything, it’s that football’s search for a homogenised consensus continues to persist, but is one which is ultimately doomed to failure.
On a similar theme, a personal bugbear of mine is the proliferation – either on twitter or through other written forms – of football supporters responding to the actions of their peers to which they disapprove by referring to (and note the punctuation) “fans” or “so-called-fans”. Whether it be in response to a perceived lack of support for the team or individuals, or more serious matters such as racist abuse directed at players, this referencing creates the impression that those being discussed are not ‘real’ fans. The truth is though, however repulsive or abhorrent you may find the actions of some supporters (and this is in absolutely in no way condoning the behaviour of some – or many? – football followers), they are as genuine a fan as anyone else. There are no rules and regulations to being a football supporter, no code of conduct signed or moral agreement made before being officially conferred the title of ‘fan’.
Essentially, declaring yourself a fan is enough to become one, meaning that teams can count amongst their support base committed match-goers alongside that favourite of Football League following witch-hunters: the “plastic” (the arm-chair or pub viewing supporter). This flexibility of definition means that football increasingly attracts a comprehensive cross-section of society; be it on the basis of class, gender, race, religion, etc. With such vast numbers of fans, modern football is clearly a heterogeneous environment. In simpler terms: different people want different things from football and therefore from the team they choose to support.
Red or Dead?
This brings us, in a convoluted and somewhat tenuous fashion, to Cardiff City and the ‘rebranding’ of their home shirt (changing from blue to red) and their badge (moving from the traditional image to one dominated by a dragon). Rarely are supporters faced with so stark a choice of how to prioritise and evaluate their duties as fans and – perhaps more importantly – their club’s duty to them.
Unsurprisingly, the changes have produced a myriad of different responses; ranging from those utterly opposed to the rebranding to fans who are accepting and even, to a point, vocally supportive of them, while of course the vast majority of fans find themselves somewhere in the middle.
The basic arguments for those accepting the changes are that the club cannot survive without the money that Malaysian billionaire and benefactor Vincent Tan is providing: supposedly £100m (a figure that is hotly disputed) but investment that apparently would not be forthcoming were the kit and badge not changed. Many fans argue that, as well as keeping the club going off the field, the money made available to manager Malky Mackay should lead to improved results on the pitch (and by that, most mean finally achieving promotion to the Premier League), which in their view is always the most important thing. It is also asserted that for many, though the colours may change, the club is still Cardiff City and while it remains so it will continue to receive their ‘unconditional’ support.
Those against the rebrand are equally adamant however, feeling that changing what has been the club’s primary home shirt colour since 1908 is nothing short of desecration of the club’s identity and history. Many feel betrayed by the club to the extent that they are boycotting Cardiff City – asking for refunds of their season tickets or not renewing their current ones. Many of these fans have also raised serious questions over the investment package promised: namely that the reasoning provided for the kit change is to aid Cardiff City’s growth in the Asian market, though the club admit there is no business plan for how this idea will work in practice. It has also been noted that thus far, Tan’s investment into the club has come in the form of loans, upon which Cardiff City will have to pay 7% interest, if Tan ever decides to claim it.
Public suggestions that these debts would be converted into equity have gone quiet over recent months and the transaction is still yet to occur. Tan’s defenders make much of the fact that he “hasn’t taken a penny out of the club”, though it could be argued that since beginning to invest, he has taken a controlling interest in the club, i.e. bought it (it would be unusual for someone to say of their house “I’ve been paying a mortgage on this for 9 years and I haven’t taken a penny out” after all, but I digress).
The nature of the investment is, of course, what complicates the subject. Were it not an issue, I doubt there would be many, if any, Cardiff fans actively calling for a change to red shirts. For those who have framed the debate as “red or dead”, the simple answer to this dilemma is that the club’s continued existence must take precedence over all else. Others argue that the raison d’être of a fan is to support the team come-what-may and that success on the pitch is more important than any other consideration. Those on the opposite side of the fence argue that a club’s soul and integrity are worth more than playing in the Premier League and should not be thrown away in the search for short-term success.
As hinted at above, objections to the idea of “red or dead” are also common and rooted in the details surrounding the investment, namely the belief that the colour change should not be the determining factor in an outlay of such apparent magnitude and that it will not be decisive in any future progress the club makes on or off the field. Furthermore, it is argued that following years of financial struggle under the ownership of Peter Ridsdale and Sam Hammam (who, incredibly, has been offered a life Presidency role at the club in exchange for settling the debts owed to him by the club; believed to be around £16m) Cardiff fans should know better than to be so wholly trusting of any owners.
Of course, the counter to this is that those critical of Tan should be more grateful for his investment, which saved the club from its previous financial perils. Passions have been aroused on both sides of the debate, but perhaps the only objective comment that can be made is that there are some logical points made in either camp; the subjective element comes when each individual weighs these points up and decides which matter most to them.
Suspending One’s Reality
As has been previously mentioned, this case is unusual in offering such a dramatic choice to supporters, but it nevertheless serves as a striking example of choices and dilemmas facing football followers throughout the leagues. Football, particularly today when financial sums involved fly so far above the realistic comprehension of most people, inevitably requires something of a suspension of an individual’s reality in order to make our frequent moral hypocrisy possible. How else can you explain criticisms of, say, Arsene Wenger’s refusal to spend £20m and £150,000 per week on someone simply for playing football when that information is considered abstractly? The figures we see listed in the newspapers and online articles that we devour are insane, no-one would objectively argue otherwise, but we accept them all the same.
Unsurprisingly, given its common near-deification of wealth and those who posses it, it could be argued that football is the archetypal example of free-market capitalism: entirely free, almost unregulated competition can lead to a huge increase in the production of wealth, yet inevitably leads to this wealth’s concentration in a few gargantuan bodies. What does this mean in football terms? Well, theoretically, Accrington Stanley are provided with, at the most basic level, the same resources and opportunities by which to compete as Manchester United are (i.e. a league pyramid with no restrictions on who can claim promotion or relegation). In practice, the reality that emerges is very different and rather less egalitarian.
Whatever definitions you apply to football as a sport – or as a business – it is hard to deny its success: it has reached all four corners of the globe, making vast amounts of money in the process, becoming indisputably the world’s most popular sport. Yet for some, a tiny minority in the grander perspective, but a growing group nevertheless, this is not enough. Or rather, it is not the image they wish their sport to portray. In Britain – particularly perhaps, but not exclusively – more and more are disillusioned with ‘modern football’ and its monolithic embodiment, the Premier League. Cardiff City’s change to red is merely another battle in the moral war that has thus far seen the founding of the likes of AFC Wimbledon, FC United of Manchester, Austria Salzburg and many more, all for differing reasons, but all sharing a common cause – fans brought together and stung into action by the feeling of disenfranchisement following their professional football club has brought them. These people clearly do not constitute the majority though: Manchester United are not running short of fans to fill Old Trafford, Red Bull Salzburg won last season’s Austrian Bundesliga title, while Cardiff City will not be deserted by anywhere near all of their supporters.
On a Path to Enlightenment
In Cardiff’s case, similarly to many others, the group whose tacit support (or at least failure to meaningfully oppose) may well ultimately prove decisive are not those whose calls are the most vociferous, whose positioning and principles the most fiercely held, but those who could be termed (descriptively, rather than critically) the apathetic majority: the fans who simply watch their local team because they want to watch football, and don’t wish to be drawn in to some form of ideological debate – a wholly understandable viewpoint. There are no easy answers to many of these debates; you simply cannot order someone to prioritise or value one abstract notion higher than any other.
Unfortunately for those seeking a degree of detachment, the fact that there is no definitively right way to be a football fan means that everyone believes, at least to a certain extent, that their way is best. Football’s relentless pursuit of financial gain shows no signs of abating, and it may well continue to erect passionately defended barricades between those with conflicting ideas of what a fan should think or do in its wake. In years to come, more and more supporters may be forced to choose their side, and their conscience may well just lead them away from the clubs in whom they have invested so much emotion.