Rooney’s broom

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.

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§ 11 Responses to Rooney’s broom

  • deiseach says:

    You’re right – you are being very fuzzy. For me, a football club is a group of people. The original clubs were groups of people, by necessity linked by geographical proximity, who got together to play football. I make the reference to the necessity of geography because it helps explain how people from around the globe can form attachments to places where they have never been, let alone are not from. People come and people go, but the core group remains the same. That is why the Fiorentina now are the same as the Fiorentina then, while the MK Dons are not the same as Wimbledon FC.

    It’s fashionable at this point to refer to American sports by way of contrast, but I’d rather look at the much less well known example of Gaelic games. There you had sports organised from the top down rather than the bottom up, from a desire by an elite to create a distinct Irish identity rather than just to play the games. They decided that clubs would be formed by using Church of Ireland parish boundaries and counties by using the English administrative counties. Despite these seemingly uncomfortable bedfellows – the GAA was very Catholic and anti-English – very strong bonds of loyalty were created, to the extent that no one would think of crossing boundaries to support a better county unless they had some family loyalty to that county.

    (I should say for the purposes of full disclosure that all of this is very self-serving. It’s easy to support a top English football team – Liverpool are still a top team, they are! – when you can rationalise it away like this :-))

    • twistedblood says:

      Agreed on the fuzziness.

      In general, I think you’re right to point to a football club as being a group of people with a a geographical connection. However, I found it very interesting that almost all English football fans – the vast majority of whom have no communal, geographical or any other -al connection with Wimbledon – rejected the idea that the MK Dons represent a continuity of the club.

      For me that implies that there is a certain idea of a football club in general that exists apart from the specific idea of a football club to which one is connected. I am hoping to write more on this soon, though.

      The Gaelic Games example is fascinating. Don’t suppose you could suggest a decent book on the organisation of them? Would love to find out more.

  • Utterly true. Whenever someone like Milan Mandaric or Randy Lerner stumps up money to “buy” a football club, I have always regarded this as a purchasing of what one might term the “temporary right to organise” that club and not to “own” that club at all. Your suggestion that a football club is a social construct is spot on and the entity far outlasts any corporation.

  • Hannah says:

    (Let me just say, that I never ever thought I would be commenting on a blog about football.)

    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

    As someone who knows incredibly little about the actual business of football, but somewhat more about Northern/Yorkshire feelings for football clubs, I think this probably hits a lot of the nails on their heads. Our local news delightedly reports on tiny matches between old colliery towns and who won, and what the players do for a job. The football club becomes a social focus to fill the lacuna left by the closing of other forms of community focus.

    • twistedblood says:

      This is a interesting point. Being a football blogger, I tend to think of football as both isolated and pre-eminent within a community, but of course it isn’t; it’s one of many social foci.

      Plus, “lacuna”. Mmmm …

  • Giles Barrett says:

    Whilst I agree with absolutely everything written above, I must protest the manner in which you have clearly snubbed the American rock group Liars by refusing to reference their 2004 work “There’s always room on the broom” (from the album “They were wrong, so we drowned”) in your title. The technician who services their bongos is a close personal friend and if the situation is not rectified imminently I will be forced to inform him, and he will probably tell them.

  • JiggaG says:

    Great piece. I believe that Fiorentina lost their name when they were demoted and then the owners bought it back. There is a piece on the swissramble blog about them if you want to brush up.

    I think this adds to your point though.

  • William says:

    Superb stuff. Reconciling the social circumstances that gave rise to most of our clubs in the nineteenth century with the modern day world that these entities now inhabit is an almost impossible task. The idea of what a community is has changed so much. Whereas many clubs might have been formed by a group of guys who worked together or went to the same church or simply just lived near one another, a number of those same clubs are now supported by millions of people who will never visit their chosen side’s home ground. The internet is one big reason for the opening up of fanbases; the planet is, electronically speaking, one big community. A club like United or Barcelona now touches far more fans beyond the area it takes its name from than those who actually live or were born there. There’s something immensely powerful about that: “We, the footballing world, construct our own football clubs.” World is the operative word.

  • […] Rooney’s Broom Fans, wealthy owners, Wimbledon, Theseus and his ship. A superb look at the identity of football clubs. […]

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