A conversation with James Parkinson of By Association

Exploring the human connection behind the beautiful game

This is the third edition of a series of conversations with football creators by Tap In, a dashboard guide to world football’s essential matches.

James Parkinson is the creator of By Association, a narrative podcast about football and the human connection behind the beautiful game.

Soccer is this gateway to experiencing other cultures, other types of people. Do you think it was that fascination really fueled the concept of By Association?

Yeah, that idea of learning about the world through football is really what interests me about the game. That’s what makes it more interesting than other sports. A lot of people here will tell you that Australian Rules is the greatest game, but it’s only played in this country. What grabs me about football is that it’s global and a universal experience.

The CONIFA episode, Le Ballon, Iraq 2007, La Fabrica — a lot of it is taking stories where there’s a similar sense of people who are trying to connect with distant cultures or are using football as a vehicle to explore other cultures. I think that’s the fascinating part of By Association.

Plus, when it’s not covering weekly news you can pull up any episode a year from now and it will still have relevance. I wanted to create something that was going to last, rather than something that people can’t listen to a week later or even a couple days later. It was a very conscious decision to make it timeless.

Football is the one constant across By Association episodes, but you’ve covered such a diverse set of experiences, from homophobia, to film, to video games, to mental health.

I love that it can be so diverse, that it can cover so many areas of life that are reflected within in the game and vice versa.

The game itself is simple, really. It is so simple that it’s managed to spread throughout the globe and everyone is captivated by it. It’s a shared experience. I think that’s what lends itself to the diversity of stories. They’re human stories and they all have this common interest that people connect with.

The British took the game around the world and left people to their own devices. And those countries have been able to reflect their own culture in the game. Their style, tactics, and fan culture ends up being completely different.

James Parkinson, creator of By Association

What types of stories are you looking to tell or not looking to tell?

The whole idea of the show is the human connection to the sport.

I look for stories that are unexpected or surprising, and things that just interest me as a football fan. Some topics have been suggested by people, but others are just, “I love video games, I want to explore that.” A lot of the stories combine my own passions and my own curiosities and how those clash with football, so to speak.

I like stories that are unknown, that don’t get a lot of coverage. For example, La Fabrica — not a lot of people talk about what happens inside football academies. It’s always the success stories that you hear about, people becoming superstars. But what happens to the rest of them? It’s a perspective that you don’t hear too often.

What I’m trying to get into moreso is looking at issues around the game. How those issues are reflected through football and how they impact people’s lives. Episode 18, for example, looks at the impact of all these summer friendly tournaments. That was something that was beginning to bother me and I wanted to explore it further.

Episode 21: Football v Homophobia

It’s an interesting position to be in, where you follow a team abroad, while also supporting a local club.

Yeah, I think as long as you’re supporting your local team while following an overseas club, you’re doing your part. That kind of absolves you of any guilt. But that’s what’s great about the game, we can watch teams from all over the world.

What gets me are people that, particularly here in Australia, slag off the local league but haven’t been to any matches recently, if at all. When you actually pay a bit more attention, you realise the quality is rather good. It’s not the best, of course. It’s not going to be better than the Premier League, you’ve got to be realistic. But, it’s our league. It’s a local connection. It’s a club that represents you and where you’re from.

But of course, not everyone is fortunate to have a club that’s local to them, particularly in the US.

Exactly. It was easier for me to watch Manchester United than a local team playing at a high level. Now that we have stability in Minnesota United, I feel like I finally have a genuine connection to a club. Despite watching Man United for years, there is always a certain barrier to my fandom that they’re not really mine.

Nothing can be stronger than the kind of bond you get with a local connection.

And for me, I didn’t pick Arsenal until after high school. I started following Liverpool for a bit because Harry Kewell went there, but I didn’t have a particular reason to support the team. Then two best friends were both hardcore Arsenal fans, so Arsenal was always on when we watched together. So if that was going to happen, I thought I may as well support the team.

And once I was watching Arsenal all the time, hearing my friends talk about the club, and doing my own reading about their history and how it was founded, I found they had a really cool origin story. But, my connection to Melbourne Victory is a lot deeper than Arsenal, being my hometown team.

Subscribe to By Association on Apple Podcasts / RadioPublic — or wherever you listen to podcasts. You can also follow the show on Twitter and learn more at byassociation.audio.