April 4, 2011 § 11 Comments
What is a football club?
Let’s first adopt a strictly material attitude and suggest that a football club is the sum of all its parts: players, staff, stadia, training facilities, badge, whatever. So Manchester United is Sir Alex Ferguson plus Wayne Rooney plus Ryan Giggs plus Paul Scholes … plus red shirts, white knickerbockers, and an eye-watering soul-sapping maelstrom of debt. Or, in abstract terms, any football club F consists of p1, p2, p3 … pn, where p is a component part of F and n is the total number of distinct component parts. Such a solution is satisfying in one regard, in that it makes a certain intuitive sense to suggest that a thing is made up of its make-up. It has a coldly ontological appeal. And it can apply just as simply to the more abstract concepts we often ascribe to a football club as well; the character of a club is just the interplay of the characters of all those component parts.
One problem with this approach is the question of identity over time. The Manchester United of 2011 is identifiable as the same club as the Manchester United of 1901 despite having different component parts. There is a parallel with the philosophical problem of the Ship of Theseus (for any Americans, George Washington’s axe; for any Only Fools and Horses fans, Trigger’s broom). Says Plutarch:
[the Athenians] took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.
From the point of view of a football club, we might appeal to persistent continuity in some aspect or another, asserting that it never happens that everything is changed at once. Managers outlast players, or players outlast managers; a kit is changed one year, but a badge the next; there is always some connection with previous versions of a club, on back through history. But we could conceive of a hypothetical club that dismisses, say, the entire of the playing, managerial and coaching staff, moves ground, changes badge, name and kit, and yet would still remain the same, suggesting that a continuity derived from overlapping changeable elements is unsatisfactory.
In that hypothetical, however, one thing remains the same: the club as corporate entity. There is a thing that is owned, and there is an owner, and that remains constant throughout the dismissals noted above. Corporate ownership and identity is the fundamental and unchanging kernel of a football club that enables it to maintain its identity through time. From consideration of the material we arrive at the fundamental primacy of the corporate. A club is a club because of its corporate identity; and it dies when it dies.
This, of course, is an intensely depressing conclusion, or it would be if it wasn’t ridiculous. A club — its footballing identity — is not just its corporate entity, nor is it just the component parts delegated to and controlled by that corporate entity. Indeed, we can perhaps conclude that footballing identity is a thing entirely distinct from corporate identity (albeit that a club will usually require a corporate identity to have any purpose). Two examples are relevant here, which demonstrate jointly that a corporate identity is neither necessary nor sufficient to constitute footballing identity, as long as we are happy to accept that our intuition on such matters is correct.
Example the first
In June 2002, Fiorentina, bankrupt and diminished, ceased to exist. In August 2002, another Fiorentina was founded — Fiorentina Viola — who promptly started all over again at the bottom and (with a little help from the Italian Football Federation) are now back in Serie A. To assert that these two clubs are distinct is accurate in a legal sense but intuitively wrong in a football sense; they feel like the same club, so they are the same club. We can therefore conclude that footballing identity can be transferred from one legal entity to another, and so conclude that any specific legal entity in itself is not necessary for the continued existence of a football club, much as most football clubs will require one.*
Example the second
In 2003, Wimbledon moved from London to Milton Keynes. The legal entity, although it went into and out of administration, remained constant and unbroken, but it is entirely counter-intuitive and not a little offensive to suggest that the footballing identity followed it. Indeed, this was acknowledged by the MK Dons, who shortly after moving relinquished any claim to the trophies and history that had belonged their antecedent. We can therefore conclude that a given legal entity is not sufficient for the continued existence of the football club that it has been associated with.
Obviously, in both the examples above “football club” has been taken, a touch fuzzily, to mean “a thing recognised by the footballing community at large as a football club”. Under this fuzzy definition, the identity of a football club exists as long at the footballing community at large recognises it as such, irrespective of the legal and corporate intricacies. In every sense that matters the MK Dons are not Wimbledon, despite being legally so; meanwhile Fiorentina are Fiorentina, despite not being.
Footballing identity can survive the destruction of the associated corporate entity, and a corporate entity can lose its associated footballing identity. As such, it makes perhaps more sense to conceive of a football club as inhering not in any physical thing but existing as a kind of social construct, given continuity and continued identity by those external to the corporation: both the participatory community of specific fans, and the wider footballing world who relate to clubs in a primarily narrative sense. We, the footballing world, construct our own football clubs. We determine when they cease to exist and when they continue.
And this fuzzy-yet-satisfying approach perhaps allows us to reconsider the Ship of Theseus; irrespective of the planks and sails, it remained the same ship as long as the people of Athens came to gape in awe at the vessel of their founder and their god-king. It’s in the loving and the loathing, in the telling and re-telling. It’s in the story.
This is the ideological and philosophical disjunction of the struggle for the soul of modern football, between those who regard the institutions of the game as chattels and gewgaws to be bought and sold and manipulated as best pleases and profits them, and those who understand that a football club has a life and a valence outside all of that. Nothing is bigger than a club. Not even the company.
* I am not a lawyer, and I freely admit that my understanding of the nature of bankruptcy, dissolution and the technical side of companies passing away (retention of naming rights, and so on) is that of an easily-distracted layman. If there are nuances to the Fiorentina situation that my ignorance has led me to omit, then apologies, and please comment below. However, I assert that the wider point stands, and point further to the mooted resurrection of the New York Cosmos as illustrative of the capacity for footballing identity to outlive corporate identity.