Football’s culture and corporation
Once the beating heart of an urban working-class population, football teams like Liverpool are now global things and have much more than just football to worry about
The line was short—no more than seven or eight groups deep—but it moved slowly. And yet not a single person complained. Especially not my brother. He had already spent the better part of that afternoon touring Liverpool Football Club’s Anfield stadium complex in an attitude that is best described as devotional. Eyes wide. Phone in hands, photographs accumulating at the rate of a dozen per minute. Voice in hushed whisper. Lump in his throat. Liverpool FC cap perched firmly on his head.
And by no means was this a unique attitude. Almost everyone else in our tour group appeared similarly devoted. No more than three or four in the group of around two dozen, including this writer, was more circumspect in our appreciation. We were here to accompany relatives, and some of us possibly supported other teams. But, deep inside, even we were moved by it. The modern football team is far more than a corporation that runs a football team. It is also in parts historical artefact, religious experience, sub-culture and global fellowship. And Liverpool FC pulls it off better than many.
My Liverpool-supporting brother, his family, and I, had set off on this pilgrimage—nothing less—early that morning on the train from London. The trip had been planned weeks in advance. I had booked all the tickets, made the phone call, and scouted out transport from Liverpool Lime Street station to Anfield. Things went exactly according to plan. Except for that fact that we hadn’t anticipated a long wait at The Boot Room, the main restaurant in the Anfield complex. We had planned a quick lunch there before our self-guided tour around the complex, the stadium, dressing rooms, museum, pitch, stands and Champions League replica trophy. Instead, we booked a table for afterwards, and bundled outside to eat at the only café open nearby on a Thursday afternoon during the Christmas holidays.
Georgie Porgy Cafe, a stone’s throw from the stadium, is no more than two small rooms, with a counter, grill and a couple of refrigerators. The pies were wonderful, the peas satisfyingly mushy, the mug of British tea authentically weak, and the Liverpool FC memorabilia on the walls copious. I do not kid. Wall-to-wall photographs, pictures, posters, and several depictions of Liverpool’s Champions League triumph in Istanbul in 2005. My brother loved it. I tried to focus on the pies and not think of that time Arsenal came so, so close.
Football teams all over Europe, but especially ones like Liverpool, have undergone a remarkable transformation over the last three decades or so. Once the beating heart of an urban working-class population, with deep roots in the local community, football teams such as Liverpool are now international...things.
This is a wonderful thing for the balance sheet, of course. But how do you satisfy this global audience? How does the team that once catered to the working men and women of Liverpool also satisfy the crazy fan in Malaysia, the devoted Scouser in Dubai and the lifelong supporter in Kochi?
Part of this outreach is in the form of greater access. Both in terms of broadcasting, digital outreach, websites, social media, streaming video, podcasts and also in the form of tours, exhibition matches and regional fan clubs.
But a much more significant response to this demand, it seems, is to create a global version of the football club and a “footballing experience” that is not limited to the actual football itself. Because there is only so much live football to go around. And only so many tickets to sell. Television is great. But fans need experiences that are unique.
And in creating this version, clubs appear to be re-creating and re-forming themselves. This means grounding the club in values that are universal, building it around personalities that can be understood everywhere in the world, creating experiences that reinforce the brand and the experience in ways that visitors from Alaska to Akihabara can identify with. This is a tough ask, especially at clubs such as Liverpool that are built on tight cultural identity and very specific historical experiences.
But clubs such as Liverpool, and also many others, are rising to the challenge by creating some of the most cutting-edge cultural experiences you will see in any museum or gallery anywhere in the world: state-of-the-art audio guides, interactive displays and sparkling merchandise.
At one point during the tour, a screen descended from the ceiling, displaying a perfect facsimile of the stands behind. Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool’s dashing manager, walked around the corner, as if emerging from the stands. The roar of thousands of matchday fans, pre-recorded, boomed through speakers. “I have goosebumps,” said a lady standing next to me with her family. Don’t tell anybody, but so did I.
After 20 minutes of waiting in line, my brother and his family posed next to a replica Champions League trophy, in front of a green screen. We then completed the tour, dined at the Boot Room, and then spent an hour shopping at the superstore. Then just before we left we picked up printouts of the photo. This time the green screen had been replaced by a stadium background, and standing next to my brother was Steven Gerrard, a Liverpool legend.
It was all great fun, and worth every minute and every pound (ticket prices start from £10, or around Rs850). My brother beamed, bulging bag of shopping in hand.
The global football club today has much more than just the action on the pitch to worry about. Fans need more. And they’re getting it.