Living in the USA I have had to get used to the possibility of sports teams, sorry, franchises, moving from one city to another one, possibly on the other side of the country entirely. This years’ World’s Series Champions, the San Francisco Giants, were once the Giants of New York. Their rivals in Los Angeles began life as the Brooklyn Dodgers. When I asked my friend, a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, which teams they have the closest rivalry with, she told me, ‘Cleveland and Baltimore’. Cleveland because of the geographical proximity to Pittsburgh, and Baltimore because Baltimore used to be Cleveland before it was Baltimore, and now Cleveland is Cleveland in a totally new incarnation.
Of course I am still labouring under the misapprehension that the city is the sports team, or vice versa. If you replace the words ‘Cleveland’ and ‘Baltimore’ with ‘Browns’ and ‘Ravens’ the above paragraph makes a little more sense.
When Wimbledon FC was sold and moved to that conglomeration of roundabouts north of London, it was difficult for me to understand. I was still marooned on the British Isles then and was as yet unprepared for the vicissitudes common to modern sport(s) capitalism. Growing up in England I understood that a sports team was a product and a part of its community. The only way that Liverpool FC could move to Manchester would be if climate change caused the seas to rise so much that the entire city of Liverpool no longer existed. The football team exists for the community, formerly the local one, now global. The community in turn endows the football team with values that the community imagines for itself. Hence worn-out phrases such as ‘fighting for the shirt’, ‘wearing the badge with pride’ and ‘doing it for the fans’.
The richest teams are usually the best teams but the idea of what ‘winning’ means is changing. Now success is increasingly determined by what happens in boardrooms and financial markets across the world. The richest teams win trophies. Celebrating Manchester City’s league championship victory last season meant celebrating the oil billions of Abu Dhabi, similar with Chelsea’s Champions League triumph. In truth my own team, Liverpool, were left behind by the business brains of Manchester United at the end of the 1980s. A gap that we have yet to make up.
The upcoming FA Cup game between AFC Wimbledon and the MK Dons holds particular interest for many. It is possible to see this as a clash of the neoliberal capitalists who heartlessly ripped a team from its community foundations purely for financial reasons and transplanted it into Milton Keynes (of all places, a heartless, modern, ‘New Town’), versus the people left in the wake of that uprooting, who instead of following their team to MK or switching allegiance to another London-based club, founded their own team. The Man against the People. The automated looms against Ned Ludd. Money against Soul.
It has become a cliché but football is a business now (not quite primarily a business but not far off). Like many other aspects of modern life, it has been neoliberalised to within an inch of its life. The government of a neoliberal state should do very little, but one of its main tasks is to provide the conditions for markets to function, and to create markets where there were none previously, and then not to interfere in these markets. It is precisely this system that has allowed debacles like the MK Dons to happen, and it could happen again.
You will also find people suggesting that AFC Wimbledon haven’t been so pure either, that they have made life difficult for other smaller teams in their community. Nobody is perfect. The insidious nature of neoliberalism means that it affects everyone, competition is key so everyone must fight against everyone else. We have so much to gain from co-operation, yet like the prisoners in the dilemma game we can only see our own self-interest.
My natural inclinations are to hope that AFC Wimbledon beat MK Dons in the name of all that is good in the world. But really it is just two teams playing against each other. The players have no less value just because their team used to be somewhere else. And expecting this game to be like some kind of battle for the soul of football is investing too much into this fixture. For one thing it is because the real enemy is not the MK Dons, the real enemy is the system that allows the continued exploitation of supporters and players, and allows the MK Dons to do what they did. Also investing hopes and dreams into a PLC, like many of us do with our sports teams, is doomed to failure. It is the same as endowing a corporation with human values that we expect them to represent. They won’t. Corporations exist to provide for the enrichment of their owners and CEOs. If Wimbledon could have made more money by staying where they were they would never have moved. The only meaning that football teams hold is what their fans invest them with, because they are a symbol of a community. But when the owners of this symbol decide it is far more useful as a product, this symbol loses any real meaning. And then when the system rewards financial power more than any other the erstwhile community symbol becomes something else altogether.
The FA Cup game at the weekend is just a game, and no blow to system will be struck by an AFC Wimbledon victory. Likewise if the MK Dons win it won’t mean that football is lost forever. Though as a symbol for what is happening to our game, and our societies in general, it is important. Football teams exist for their supporters and for the community of which they are a part. AFC Wimbledon fit that description far better than their opponents on Sunday.