Emigration brings a particular and very rare opportunity for the émigré, the chance to pick a team. When you’re young, you tend to be handed your team by your birthplace, or the team your parents supported. If you’re unlucky, you have to choose a side hurriedly when asked by another kid at school.
Being a football supporter has a few rather interesting cultural ties with it. In modern day top flight football, it means you’re relatively well off. Affording season tickets at most Premier League clubs puts the game well out of reach of most. Elsewhere, there’s always the looming spectre of the football casual and hooligan, particularly if you’re a noisy, visible group. Passionate support of a team doesn’t, and shouldn’t, automatically equate to violence or trouble.
Trying to pin down exactly why I like going to watch football, cheer on my team, wave flags and banners, sing songs about the players and express some mild displeasure over the officiating is like trying to bottle mist. Defining exactly what it is that keeps me coming back week after week, regardless of the result, is equally difficult to explain. The obvious lead-in is that I enjoy football as a spectacle, the uncertainty and the narratives behind it, the melding of individual ingenuity and solid teamwork. But I could get that by buying a Premier League Pass and watching the games, couldn’t I? No, as it turns out. That’s not enough.
The difference between being a spectator and being a supporter is the difference between watching a film and going to the theatre. Except it’s not because, apart from at some of the more experimental theatres, the viewing experience is similar at both. Sit down, be quiet, applaud at the right points. Sounds a lot like most Premier League grounds, come to think of it.
“They can’t hear you, you know” is a familiar comment made to any armchair fan, which I become during World Cups. And they can’t, but it doesn’t stop anyone shouting at the TV when your team’s star midfielder misplaces a pass, or their defender commits an OBVIOUS red card offence. I myself went ballistic, in a small bedroom in Streatham, while on a videochat to my Auckland-based wife as James Rodriguez scored his wonder-volley in the 2014 World Cup. That absolute disbelief, that intense pleasure at having witnessed it at the moment of occurrence, all give some idea of why, with football, it really is better to be there.
In London, some sixteen months ago now, I followed Dulwich Hamlet, a South London club operating six leagues below the Premier League. A semi-professional outfit, it has attracted plenty of articles both accurate and laughable concerning their supporters and the various causes they have applied themselves to. These pieces occasionally touch on why the crowds have grown from an average in the hundreds to that of the thousands, but it’s usually lost in the hipster prism through which it’s viewed.
I went because my mates had been going for a while and said it was good. So I went along too. I could stand behind the goal and swig from cans with my mates. The songs were pretty simple to pick up, the people were friendly and the football was, well, bloody good. I kept going. I bought a scarf. I went to away games. I was hooked. There were flags and banners, the number of which have grown hugely in the last few years. People flyposted about the game in the local area, with some brilliant posters. And the football stayed bloody good, and even when it wasn’t, it wasn’t that it didn’t matter but you were still with your mates, still singing loudly and whirling your scarf regardless. Pure escapism.
While I still follow Dulwich Hamlet on the field through the excellent Football Exclusives website, and the off field fun through my friends facebook and twitter feeds, it’s like being an armchair supporter. I can’t get involved, I can spectate but I can’t participate. Which brings me back to the choice I had to make when I arrived in New Zealand.
I knew about the Phoenix, but living in South Auckland means that’s a pilgrimage too far for this supplicant. But New Zealand, it’s all rugby isn’t it? Rugby for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Rugby everywhere, forever. In your eyes, in your hair. Except, again that’s just not true either, as this blog attests.
I ended up, through a mix of searches and tweets, opting for Central United and their summer franchise iteration Auckland City FC. That in itself is weird, the idea that for five months I support one side and then for another four I support another, which is mainly comprised of the same players. I can see why some winter club supporters blanche at the thought of going with a franchise in the winter, especially given the attachments to a club which develop over time. But with no historical or material link to the club, I chose.
In the time since I’ve taken some good natured flak about that choice from Kiwis and immigrant fellow travellers, but that in itself is just a part of being a supporter. The late season of Auckland returning from the Club World Cup and taking the league was Sundays spent with the similarly minded stand and sing 248 crew of Kiwitea Street. Central brought me some sheer delight in the past season, Vince Pineau’s 96th minute header being one of those confirmation-like experiences you only get at football, refreshing my connection with the jouissance the game brings.
It’s said that New Zealand doesn’t do supporting in the way other anglophone countries do. There’s less noise, except during the exciting bits, at rugby games. Although, to be fair, I did spend the last season watching the Blues. But given the vocal support that followed Napier City Rovers through to the final of this year’s Chatham Cup, the drum and trumpets in the stands at WaiBOPs game in Cambridge earlier this year and, of course, the irrepressible Yellow Fever, there’s more than flashes of a developing, vocal, supporter culture in New Zealand.
Summers coming, the Auckland City pre-season has started and, good grief, it’s all going to be on the television. Now, where can I get my hands on some flag making material…