Cultureˈkʌltʃə/nounThe ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.1. “Afro-Caribbean culture”synonyms: way of life, lifestyle;
Very often, football feels like a world of its own. There’s a language, an education, a set of customs and a behavior specific to the beautiful game and its followers. Despite the differences between Mancunians and Liverpudlians, Englishmen and Germans, Europeans and South Americans, hipsters and traditionalists and all the other small worlds in football, we all rotate around the beautiful game and its culture. So what is football culture?
If you ask Wikipedia, it’s a series of sub-categories about fair play, food, globalization, players, religion and a whole lot more. I think that Bill Shankly put it best:
Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.
Football is the people’s sport, and despite the modern financial implications of the game, the largest part of football history and culture will remain engraved in the notion that football belongs to the people. We are often oblivious to the political and social roots of the sport, but I was made aware of this when I was confronted for my conflicting political and football views (as a conservative Liverpool supporter). While keeping politics directly out of football is universal and accepted, it’s impossible to reject that football is a socialist game, and football culture is deeply rooted in poor, working class and often socialist environments.
From Liverpool to Rome and from Sao Paolo to Madrid, despite football becoming more financial (and the occasional state-sponsored takeover of a club), football clubs were founded by the poor, played by the poor and watched by the poor. The first TV deal came in the late 1930s, more than half a decade after most of England’s big clubs were founded. Football was a sport for the masses, often rejected by popular culture – it forced its way into popular culture.
This is where the United States steps in. The way MLS is currently expanding is doing way more good than bad, especially in places like Atlanta. People have flocked to football and don’t seem to want to give it up any time soon. This is a stark contrast to MLS football in the 90s, when it was the most fringe of fringe sports. Fan culture has exploded, both within native and immigrant communities, as grassroots players start to draw attention away from the likes of Kaka, David Villa and Andrea Pirlo. MLS is going down the right track, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t take a wrong turn a few years ago.
It’s hard to explain, but I think it’s too late for football culture in America. The first example for this, perhaps obvious, is ticket prices and awareness. As my EiF Colleague Christian Candler pointed out, tickets for clubs like Atlanta, who sell out big and fast, are around $50. For a regular PSG match-goer like myself, this was a reasonable price. But experience aside, I know for a fact that this is bad news early on. Football culture as we know it can’t be built by the $50 market, it’s built by the $10 market. All over europe, at the hayday of loud atmospheres and truly local fans, prices were cheap and tickets were accessible. “But Louis, what does the accessibility of matchday tickets have to do with the quality of football and football culture as a whole?” Not much, if I’m honest, but it’s definitely a piece of the puzzle.
Another example, perhaps less obvious, is that of academies. Having spoken with Americans and having watched videos from football training sessions in the USA, something major is missing: street football. Culturally, it’s understandable that this is the case in america: nobody really plays street football. Everyone in Europe, from Chris Brunt to Johan Cruijff, played the largest portion of their trade in the streets growing up, and that is what football culture is about. As I argued in my piece about golden generations, the area you grow up in and the football you grow up playing not only defines you as a player, it defines your country as a footballing nation.
All the elevation ladders, mini goals, core wheels and rebounders in the world mean nothing for football culture in the long run. This is where you can see the wrong turn US football took. MLS was shaped to fit the high standards of the NFL. The league setup, the stadiums, the fans, the training equipment, the institutions and thus the culture were all made the same way – something that works for the NFL, but won’t work for MLS.
So no matter how high average attendance for MLS games goes, how many MLS players move overseas and how many USL clubs reach out into the community, MLS is not a people’s sport, and that may just be down to the way America is.