Merchandising Football

It’s not uncommon these days, walking down a street in Bombay, to see football shirts everywhere. The dirt-cheap knockoffs are made of the sort of polyester that dries quickly in the monsoons and keeps you very warm in winters, which has formed the basis for my pet theory about why so many kids who hawk magazines at traffic signals and play cricket alongside sewage drains are seen wearing them.

A rarer, but by no means surprising sight, is that of well-heeled teenage boys wearing the real stuff: soft, expensive-looking, logos embroidered in all the right places, and, sometimes, their own names on the back. I pass these ‘ANKUR 8 MANCHESTER UNITED’ jerseys, these ‘SHARMA 7 CHELSEA’ ones now and again, and am always startled into a double-take, which I suppose is part of their purpose.

Football shirts display

These jerseys are intriguing symbols of globalisation. Premiership football is making deep inroads into the parts of India with the financial purchasing power to identify as a slice of of the target “Asian market” that has motivated so many of English football’s actions in recent seasons. (The situation is as bad as you fear, English fans: we really do believe that Rio Ferdinand is the world’s foremost defensive talent.) Like most converts of the EPL and Champions’ League era, we face the same dilemmas of identity and inclusiveness that fans face globally. What way is there to support a team that you don’t go to watch in person, whose stars look and speak nothing like you, a game in which your passionate involvement occurs from the very periphery of fandom?

The strong folk-roots and tribalist identities of local football support cannot export themselves intact. It was interesting to see Japanese fans recreate banners and chants straight out of the San Siro’s Curva Sud (as they did last December, for a Milan short on travelling support in Tokyo during the Club World Cup) –- but it’s rare for us to have that chance, or to impact team fandom in any personal way. Those of us who make up the Asian market, the prawn sandwich brigade, the leftie American soccerball addict circle, and other, lesser-known types — evoke, sometimes unreasonably, a certain amount of suspicion from within the tightly-knit circles of established local football fandoms. It’s true that these newish categories of fans have been formed or influenced heavily by the globalisation of the game, which has changed football so much in the last fifteen years. Money and power have never been as interchangeable as they are in the Premiership.

Does that mean, then, that the boys with the personalised shirts are trying to buy their place in fandom? It does indicate a certain egoism, some over-identification with a team or with a celebrity player. But more straightforwardly evident is the business acumen of companies like Nike, as well as the clubs, of course, who have anticipated this need, and anticipated it in the right markets — the young, the moneyed, those alienated from the geography and culture of the traditional fanbase. The void left by a lack of individual contact is filled in neatly by related things, in a way that will trouble both the liberal and the conservative ends of the football support spectrum.

Football caps

This is in even starker evidence in an article written for The Times by Alyson Rudd (The Pink Cap Does Not Fit) about a month ago (found via Dipped in Tea), in which she takes on, with no small amount of disdain, football merchandise created for and marketed to women. Rudd’s anger is directed equally at the existence of accessories created for women, and at the women who actually buy them.

I support Liverpool and Liverpool are red. I do not support them because they are red. Are there women out there who have been pouting all these years, desperate to go to a game but refusing to do so on the ground that the club colours are all wrong? “Come on love, I’ve got a spare ticket, come to the match with me.” “What? And wear blue? I’m a lady. If they change their strip to pink, I’ll think about it.”

The undertones are conflicted. Rudd writes as a woman, which her article acknowledges is not status quo. Men, by default, do not require colour-coded affirmations of their gender or their choice of club when it comes to scarves, or beer mugs, or replicas of the ‘Liver Bird.’ She’s not one of those women, however, the ones who, in spite of having had the good taste to get with the programme and actually attend to football, fudge their chances at achieving real fan status by going with the wrong kinds of accessories for it.

The knee-jerk defensiveness, the need to distance oneself from a certain kind of fan, is a common enough response from minorities who fear being judged on the whole by the actions of a few. (It’s often in evidence when I meet beleaguered young Manchester United fans who are women, and feel pressed to insist that “it isn’t because of Cristiano Ronaldo” as soon as they declare their colours.) It’s harder to understand the self-righteousness, though.

So all I got for Christmas in an LFC sort of way was a club calendar, a beer glass and beer mats with lovely red insignias. Presumably there is a range of LFC champagne flutes with pink insignias out there somewhere.

England supporters kit

Pink may have no place in the identity of a ‘red’ club, but do beer glasses and club calendars bespeak fan authenticity at all? Do replica jerseys, for that matter? Rudd is right to be alarmed at the gendering of football merchandise, and perhaps more so at the fact that there seems to be little self-awareness among the female fanbase that does pay money to buy these accessories. Since her piece is based entirely on casual observation, I’d like to counter it with more of the same, and propose that most women wearing feminized football accessories have been gifted them, either by men with ideas similar to Rudd’s about sex and colour preference, or people with no interest in football. But she fails to highlight the impersonality of the merchandise market, pink or red, on the whole.

Fan identities, as discussions over the past few weeks in various sections of the blogosphere have highlighted, are in an unprecedented state of flux. The presence of the pink and the personalised among the array of saleable football souvenirs may be damning evidence of the inadequacy of non-traditional fan bases when it comes to conventional football support. But prescriptive solutions that require them to conform to a certain set of rules to be counted as “real” fans are not really productive, either. I don’t understand Rudd’s exclusionary viewpoint because, pink or no, I would always be glad to see other people — other women in particular, given my gender — support the same club as I do, and it would be discomfiting for me to presume to tell them how it should be loved.

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