The global game and football clubs with a thing

Like it or loathe it, modern football is a global game. I say modern — it’s been global for most of its existence, even if we ignore the alternative versions of the game created overseas long before the one we recognise today.

The spread of the sport was enabled by British exporters, pioneering football men who introduced it to the rest of the world.

But that wasn’t an international marketplace. When the French national team spent two weeks on an ocean liner to get to the first, Brit-free, FIFA World Cup — the trophy for which was on board with them, along with the Romanian team and the tournament’s European referees — they were voyaging to football’s only global battleground outside the Olympic Games.

The world-spanning reach of football is the very essence of its romance. Its universality has been its greatest attraction since those travelling mavens asked the locals to make up the numbers.

But modern football is also global in a very different way. Gone is the loose network of hubs and outposts. In the professional game today our clubs compete across oceans for trophies, for sponsors and for players. And they compete across oceans for supporters.

Football clubs, anchored for so long in their local communities and cities, now often need or want to own a piece of the action nationally and, increasingly, for the genuine elite superpowers at least, internationally.

There are two ways to attract supporters from all over the world. The first is obvious: be brilliant and be massive.

Be Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Juventus. Or be one of the minted upstarts who’ve parked their gold-plated tanks on the lawns of the established giants.

The other? Have a ‘thing’.

Whether tangible or otherwise, being possessed of some noteworthy characteristic can give a club a shortcut to a pack of international supporters.

Rangers and Celtic enjoy affection around the world because they each represent something to a bigger and more widely dispersed group than their natural Glaswegian support.

That’s the clue to why we gravitate towards these far-flung clubs with a thing. We aren’t linked to them by geography or experience or blood, but by identity. We assimilate them in order to say something about ourselves.

Perhaps the most easily recognisable example is FC St. Pauli. On the surface St. Pauli is a second-tier club near Hamburg’s Reeperbahn. But dive beneath the surface and it’s a powerful and desirable badge of honour, a political statement delivered through football.

St. Pauli’s distinctive merchandise pops up everywhere in English football. It’s far from uncommon to see the skull and crossbones at Premier League and Championship games, and their t-shirts make regular appearances at non-league matches too.

Another German side, Borussia Dortmund, also enjoy worldwide support. Their attraction is more about a style and a philosophy, and seemed to spike from an already healthy international base through the feted Jürgen Klopp years.

Serie A hopefuls Napoli have been through a similar process. Like Dortmund, they have achieved success on the pitch over the years and built global support on that basis, but have also been boosted outside Italy by having irresistible swagger.

In both cases, being big enough to challenge the established titans but not big enough to become them is surely a large part of the appeal. Juventus and FC Bayern are huge, powerful, prolifically successful clubs. But they’re not cool.

Perhaps the most interesting birthing pool for new clubs able to attract foreign supporters is Major League Soccer. Through shared language and its familiar yet exotic NASL period, the game in North America has developed an ability to draw support from the United Kingdom.

MLS has been going through a long spell of expansion in the last decade and one of the most exciting markets arrived in 2011, when Portland Timbers debuted in the league.

Like their great rivals, Seattle Sounders, the Timbers represented a change in outlook in MLS. The league had tended to distance itself from professional football’s pockmarked history of collapse and limited popularity, but the MLS Timbers were a cultural revival of the NASL side of the same name. They were also a literal continuation of the second division Portland Timbers that played until 2010.

The Timbers joined MLS to global fanfare — niche fanfare, maybe, but global all the same — simply because they have a thing.

Timber Jim and Timber Joey, slicing a log every time the team scores a goal, were and are the faces of a longstanding and unique tradition. Timbers Army, the club’s supporter group, arrived in the league with an already legendary reputation for creating an atmosphere.

Regardless of the virtues or otherwise of their league, the Timbers are at the very least a club with character. It’s easy to understand why overseas supporters are attracted to clubs like that.

Yes, the likes of the Timbers and St. Pauli are potent hipsternip. But for a great many of us who follow teams from afar, including those burdened and benefited by the ‘hipster’ label, it’s really not about that.

It’s a small world these days and meaningful connections can crop up from anywhere. Support for life can begin from serendipity, from a match taken in on holiday or an admired player tracked from one club to another after a transfer.

But when it’s a club’s character or philosophy that catches on and takes hold it becomes possible to tap into worldwide support on the basis of shared values. Those are bonds that don’t break.

Chris Nee is the Founder and Managing Editor of Sphinx Football, a platform for football podcasts. He hosts The Stiles Council podcast about the England national team.