What’s with Livorno?

Luca Aless [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

In June 2018 before the current English Premier League season kicked off, as a fan of Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club, I was asked about an article that I’d written for another website that referenced and linked to other clubs. As I think the article might have some interest for football fans everywhere, it’s re-published here. The article reflects my discomfort as a working-class football fan who has seen the club he has supported for more than 35 years taken over by an international investment company and propelled into what many consider to be the best league in the world. After years and years of waiting to see a team at Wolves as good as the current one, investment has also brought the requisite corporate demands, slick marketing and firework displays (literally). In an area as socially and economically depressed as Wolverhampton in the Black Country, it should leave some pause for thought:

I was recently asked, “What’s with A.S. Livorno on the Japan Wolves site?” This was followed by something akin to “and there are links to some team called C.S. Lebowski, FC St Pauli and Rayo Vallecano. What have they got to do with Wolves?” The tone was more one of genuine puzzlement than disapproval or outright hostility and so there followed a good chat about football, who it’s for and what role fans have to play at the clubs they support.

While many football fans will know something about A.S Livorno (the location, Cristiano Lucarelli or the left-wing ultras), FC St. Pauli (Bundesliga, Hamburg, anarchist fans) and Rayo Vallecano (La Liga, Madrid’s working-class team), Centro Storico Lebowski (CSL) are still off the radar for most. CSL is a DIY club from Florence in Italy with an autogestione (self-management) ethos. Fed up of corporate shenanigans at Fiorentina, a group of fans decided to set up their own club and since 2010 have made a lot of headway in their local community in the Campi Bisenzio district. The team has climbed a couple of divisions and the club has won international plaudits from like-minded fans around the globe (think FC United as one example). So, what has this got to do with Wolves?

My inquisitor pointed out that Wolves are a famous, well-established and storied club in England which just happens to have been acquired by a successful Chinese investment company (with interests in leisure and entertainment businesses around the world). With the recent acquisition of up and coming Portuguese players and the signings of a well-established player like Raul Jimenez and world super-star Rui Patricio, the intentions of the owners are clear enough and fans should be happy. Shouldn’t they? ‘To some extent,’ was my reply. I explained that the links to AS Livorno, CSL, FC St Pauli and Rayo Vallecano were on the site out of solidarity with their supporter bases, their fans. Sure, I could have linked to any number of clubs but these happened to be the ones I had an affinity with. Although the links were to the official club sites, if Wolves fans saw those links and clicked them, they might find their way to reading about the clubs, develop an interest and think about things at Wolves. How so? I was asked.

I replied that for me, it is important that Wolves fans remain grounded and continue to understand the social basis of football. We should always keep in mind the games we played on the park as kids, the friends we made and the fraternal bonds that last a life time. Football is a sport which brings people together more than it divides them, despite club rivalries. It’s a sport played by people around the world who don’t have much in the way of material possessions. If you travel anywhere in the world and produce a football from a bag, you will have a kick-about going in no time. Football is often one of the first topics of conversation when you land in parts unknown. For the most talented and luckiest youngsters, it can offer a way out of the daily grind which most of us are condemned to and that is where questioning the corporate ownership of football clubs should start. That’s all well and good, but aren’t most Wolves fans ‘grounded’ and why should we question corporate ownership? It’s the way the world is these days.

Well, yes, I think a lot of Wolves fans are in touch with the roots of the game and not everyone accepts everything that happens in football. The recent uproar over The Money Shop sponsoring the team shirts highlights this but the corporate takeover of football runs much deeper than many people care to think about. Modern professional football clubs play an important ideological role in reflecting and actively promoting the values of capitalism, they can do little else. When young players step into the milieu of professional football and make it, they are transformed into latter day gladiators. They fight for their owners and for the entertainment of the public in arenas owned by corporate magnates, shareholders and sheiks. If they endorse and play the roles ascribed to them by their employers, fame and fortune await the very best among them, while the average to good secure a lucrative living for fifteen years. Corporate endorsements, sponsorship, charity events, codes of conduct and carefully crafted and cautious PR comments are part of the sacrifice. It is all part of ‘the game’ and a million miles from the park. It is also a few million dollars/euros/pounds away from the average income of the average fan who can still afford to go to matches. The end result is that the top professional players are alienated from the game (in the sense that they don’t have a say in how it is run (despite the PFA) and they effectively have to consent to circumscribing their own freedom of speech because political expression is forbidden). Ergo the fans are alienated from the players and are reduced to the status of ‘customers’ and passive consumers who can get excited all they like, as long as they do not try to get involved too deeply. You’re going a bit far aren’t you?

Well, not really. Many British fans are well aware of this although the analysis might not extend to thinking about the ideological function of football under corporate ownership. The fans at A.S. Livorno, CSL, FC St Pauli and Rayo Vallecano know and understand this better than most and have in their different ways resisted the masters of the game. In essence they reject the ‘Keep politics out of sport’ mantra, which is an essential refrain of the owners of sport. (People who repeat the non sequitur entirely miss the point – everything under any form of political economy is political, especially sport). A.S. Livorno is a club whose fans are predominantly from working-class backgrounds and the city is well-known as a stronghold of  Italian communism. The fans of the club have their own Steve Bull-like hero in Cristiano Lucarelli, who scored 92 goals in 146 appearances for his home town club between 2003-2007. Unlike Bull, Lucarelli was a journeyman striker, but he regularly stood on the terraces supporting Livorno and rejected several big money offers to play elsewhere while he was still required at A.S. He was blackballed by the Italian national side for revealing a Che Guevara t-shirt after scoring for the under 21s in 1997. He eventually made his senior debut in 2005 under Marcello Lippi. As we know very well at Wolves, players like Bull and Lucarelli are special, but ones like Lucarelli are unusual because they challenge the ‘Keep politics out of football’ mantra and nearly always pay a price.

FC St Pauli have their own unique story and can be researched easily online, but perhaps, Rayo Vallecano de Madrid SAD’s story is less well-known. As Madrid’s third most successful club, it is easy to overlook them. While people may know the name Rayo Vallecano, they do not always make the connection with Madrid because often, in English, the club’s name is abbreviated. Vallecano represent people from the Vallecas neighbourhood of southern Madrid and as such are the last neighborhood club in Spain. Many Vallecano fans are openly anti-fascist and the ultras, known as the Bukaneros sing a song called ‘The Pirate Life.’ There is a fan-based movement opposing the continued commercialisation of football and fans are engaged in combatting racism and homophobia. The club remains the heart and soul of the neighborhood, despite tensions between the fans and the owners. So what has this got to do with Wolves?

As Wolves appear to be on the verge of going global and possibly challenging the top six in England, the days of Tipton terriers leaving builders’ yards to become genuinely loved Wolves heroes are probably gone. Beyond this, it is going to be really important to keep an intelligent and critical eye on what happens at Wolves in the next few years. Already online fans forums are reflecting the changes that have taken place in so short a space of time. There are frequently subconscious and conscious racist and xenophobic views expressed concerning  the make-up of the club (from the ownership to the coach to the playing staff) and also expressions of resentment aimed at ‘new’ fans who have bought season tickets for the upcoming premier League season. This, coupled with vacuous title-tattle about commercial offerings from the club shop, in my opinion, is symptomatic of people who are alienated from the club and control over their daily lives.  On the one hand they want the club to be their own, they want to identify with it and they want to be able to say ‘this is my club’ but on the other they want to exclude others who they are threatened by, all the time conveniently ignoring the fact that the club is owned by an international investment group that runs entertainment and leisure businesses. If Wolves fans are to counter this mindset, it may well be useful for them to know about alternative approaches to supporting football teams. Fans of C.S.Lebowski, for instance, would be horrified by the Wolves PR exercises like the undemocratic, unelected and club-led ‘Fans Parliament’ and, ‘It’s your club’ platitudes. I see what you’re saying, but fans aren’t stupid and a lot of them have accepted the changes that have taken place.

That is right and a lot of people posting on internet forums call out the fans who are racist or resentful. In general, I am confident that decent thinking fans will win out – it will be a difficult thing for a racist to honestly continue to support Wolves in its current manifestation, right from the ownership through to the academy. On the other hand, encouraging fans to keep tabs on the commercial aspects of the club and to be critical and vocal where necessary may be more difficult. As you say many people have accepted the changes, and for a lot of them that also means the transformations contingent on finances.  The players out on the pitch, they are gladiators for sure, for the owners. Is it better to be a gladiator or a factory worker? Either way, you are exploited. Meanwhile, of course people should enjoy the football on offer at Molineux, they should revel in it, because good times have been a long time in returning. At the same time I would like people to remember the good things about the game which come from the grass roots, the base. i.e. the fans and the players.