Confessions of an accidental travel agent

The Barclays Premier League. Listen to any obedient top-flight manager being interviewed these days and you’ll hear those four words repeated far more often than “sick as a parrot”, “game of two halves”, “set our stall out”, or “over the moon, Brian”. Not even a minor speech impediment could prevent Roy Hodgson from using the phrase at least 8 times in every interview given as manager of West Brom. Indeed his loyalty to the league’s sponsors presumably made him a shoe-in for his current role at the FA. Harry didn’t stand a chance. Since Barclays are yet to allow pets to set up current accounts, their name was never at the forefront of simple honest Mr Redknapp’s thoughts.

The Barclays Premier League. How just and true that the first division of my childhood is now sponsored by an institution that seeks to rob from the poor to reward the rich. Any bank’s directors will happily spunk our money away on meaningless luxuries and expect us to bail out when it’s all gone. How fitting they should choose the Premier League as a product worthy of their sponsorship.

The Barclays Premier League (hereafter the BPL, you get what I’m trying to do stylistically, right?). This bank-sponsored product, this brand, is now as global as Nike and Starbucks and Apple and poverty and warming and any other globals you might care to mention. In Cambodia a couple of years ago I stayed in areas without roads or sanitation, but I was still able to watch the BPL’s West Brom get beaten by the BPL’s Fulham (no surprise about the result, obviously), surrounded by bewitched locals. The developing world salivates at the BPL’s riches in the way that gullible Cubans once ogledDynasty.

So the world is watching. It’s been watching for some time. Now, though, the world is coming to watch. An Asian fan wearing a half-and-half scarf rises from his seat among City fans to photograph a celebrating Wayne Rooney, and this is no longer a surprising sight. We may all long for stadia that provide a safe haven for anyone who wants to watch a game, do we want to extend a welcome to the tourists who believe the hype about our top-flight and our top top players, but who quite frankly don’t give a long-haul flying fuck about our clubs? The football tourist is here. They want a half-and-half scarf, they want to take photos, and they want to spend at least an hour in the club shop.

I have a confession to make. As a teacher of English as a Foreign Language, I’ve helped dozens of football tourists attend games which I felt they had no right to attend. I help them understand Man United’s fixture list, get membership at Arsenal, buy tickets at Chelsea, book coaches to Liverpool; whatever they need help with, I do it. I gave up trying to encourage them to go elsewhere long ago. When I worked in language schools in Lonodn, I’d regularly get approached — typically on a Friday — by students keen to experience a football match in England. I’d always start with lower league teams in London and always got looks of impatient dissatisfaction. “No. Premier League”. So I’d look to see if Charlton or Fulham were at home that weekend. “No, Premier League. Manchester United. Chelsea”. Some student had specific fixtures in mind (“Manchester United v Liverpool”) and eyed me with suspicion when I told them that a) these two weren’t playing each other this weekend, b) Neither of those teams play in London, and c) You won’t get tickets for a game like that anyway. “This guy clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about” there were no doubt thinking. “He doesn’t even have a Premier League Team”. (I’ve long been accustomed to conversations in which my half goes: “Well, “favourite” isn’t really the right word, but I SUPPORT West Bromwich Albion. Have you heard of them? No? Well, we were actually the first club to visit China…no Elton John wasn’t involved…no, we don’t really have any star players…WBA? No? No, not West HAM. No I don’t have a Premier League team I support. It doesn’t really work like that…why not? Well, have you ever considered selling your own mother? Hmmm, never mind…” Incidentally, this sentiment has survived even now my team are well-established in the Premier League).

So many times I’ve just wanted to shout at them “you just don’t understand!” (an urge that arises quite often in EFL classrooms). I’ve sat biting my lips through an awful presentation on football in which the “expert” Chinese postgraduate student told his audience that the Jules Rimet trophy was replaced because it got stolen in Brazil (he also told me “I don’t think WBA is good” but I didn’t take it personally). You don’t understand! Middle-age men wandering round Yokohama shopping centres in Chelsea shirts: you don’t understand. A fellow-passenger on a Japanese train, heading home from the world club championship final with his immaculate Manchester United scarf sitting uncomfortably on his shoulders : you don’t understand.

It gets worse. The European student I played football against, wearing a Chelsea shirt with Shevchenko on the back. An ageing mercenary is signing for a football club bankrolled by human rights abuses in Russia? Well I’ll need something to commemorate that momentous even in the history of football. Of course this was before the golden era of Qatari Foundations and Etihadstadiums. Yes I would like to celebrate developing countries pissing their oil money away into the gaping mouths of talented individuals who’ve never heard of the FA cup. It’s worse when you’ve seen what I’ve seen. In world cup years I’ve had conversations with Saudi students who refer to Brazil as “we”. We? I had the pleasure of entering a London schools 6-a-side tournament with a group of students. I took great delight in handing out a motley assortment of bygone Baggies shirts. While MY Brazilians (only one of them a ringer, honest) lovingly pulled on MY stripes, a rival team of mixed international students entered the changing room, each already wearing their own Brazil shirts, though not a Portuguese-inflected brogue could be hear among the lot of them. (Incidentally lads, loved your fancy ball-juggling skills in the changing rooms, but I noticed you’d already left by the time we kicked off our semi-final…in which we were robbed, of course).

I once taught a Korean student who, when introducing himself to classmates, asked his new friends to call him “Mr Rooney”, which would be easier to pronounce than his real name. Mr Rooney’s favourite Premier League team? Liverpool of course. His best friend, another Korean Liverpool fan, took the piss further. I helped him book a ticket for a Champions League game at Anfield, along with a room in a nearby hostel. When we booked his coach, however, he wanted to go via Manchester so that he could visit that popular haunt for Liverpool fans, the megastore atOld Trafford. He later told me that during the match that night he’d been surprised at how many fellow-Liverpudlians told him to put his camera away and stop taking pictures. Little did they know that his SD card held photos of him posing outside Old Trafford with Christiano Ronaldo and Anderson, who just happened to be passing as he arrived ready to shop United.


And I didn’t like it when they later WANTED to come to see West Brom. A couple of away trips to Crystal Palace were fine, but when the Japanese students wanted to see Inamoto…wanting to sit on the front row (no!) expressing a dislike for Jonathon Greening for keeping Inamoto out of the side….that didn’t make me much happier either. What was driving this interest? Why did they care about an individual rather than a team. If I was living overseas I wouldn’t make any effort at all to go and watch a particular player just because he’s English. I did, however, form part of an 8-strong away end in an Italy v Wales U21 match in Italy because I wanted to see if then Albion reserve Danny Gabidon was any good. (I didn’t admit it at the time, but in case you’re wondering, he wasn’t).

For me there’s a far more acceptable type of football tourism — one that chases the game and not the product: visiting all the grounds in the country, say, and 1000-miles pilgramages to Charlton or Iceland. When teaching in Japan, I once watched Sunday league football against a backdrop of Mount Fuji because I went in search of a volcano and chanced upon an amazingly situated football pitch. I went to work in Italy expecting to attend Serie A games at every ground within a 3 hour journey of the school I worked at in Ferrara. But on my first weekend I went to see Spal, the third-tier club whose stadium sat handily in the same street as my digs. It was dire. Spal were awful: slow, cynical, and relying more long balls than I’d seen since Bobby Gould managed the Albion. But they wore blue and white stripes and I ended up going back as often as I could. I never did see Recoba and Nakata playing for Venezia, or Signori for Bologna; I never saw the pre-bankrupt Fiorentina, or the inside of the San Siro. Perhaps I’m just not that kind of tourist? But there I was singing along at Spal, tourist all the same.

Am I a hypocrite? No. What’s the difference? Our game and the world game. Our game is a pie at Wigan or a roast pork bap outside the ground. The world game is the preferred supermarket of the Confederations Cup and the German World Cup stadia in which only American beer could be consumed, and where renegade marketing of rival products will land you in a Sepp Blatter-governed jail. It’s the clarity of the words “Qatari foundation” as FIFA 2013 boots up. . The world games is the one driven by money. Money’s got nothing to do with 22 salarymen having a kickabout in the shadow of a massive volcano, and Spal was cheap and convenient, but that’s not why I went back.

Sadly there are kids who only know the world game. Who no doubt value a fake shirt with a millionaire’s name on more than the prospect of two hours with their dad watching a team from THEIR town get beaten 4-0 from some slick bastards from up the road.

Of course it’s not just about what’s going on overseas. Go and watch any big club in a League Cup game (i.e. when whatever they call their third tier members get a chance to buy tickets) and you’ll see wide-eyed Brits touristing it up, taking photos of themselves with a statue of someone they’ve never heard of, and desperately hoping the Mexican wave comes around soon. They’re there for the world game too. When we were kids and only had our game, they were the ones helping out the geography teacher set up his weather box. As smart adolescents they probably once said something clever about the ridiculousness of watching a group of men chase an inflated leather bladder around. They never got our game, but the world game suits them fine.

On a bookcase in my office I have a Liverpool mug, a gift from a grateful Chinese student who I’d helped get tickets to some meaningless European tie at Anfield. I’ve hated Liverpool since they won everything in my childhood, but I didn’t tell the student that, and I’ve kept the mug on display because looking at is the closest some of my Liverpool “supporting” colleagues will ever get to attending a match involving “their” team. In my heart of hearts I have less time for these far-flung fans than their counterparts from the Far East. But what to do when Philip from St Albansor Jeon-suk from Korean is sat in front of you with his camera at the ready the next time a big club comes to your town.

Don’t hate him. Don’t hurt him. Don’t threaten to strangle him with that half and half scarf. Don’t tell him to stick his camera up his arse. If you want to come here to our ground then that’s fine. But please…just sit and fucking suffer like the rest of us.

A shorter version of this piece can be found in Issue 6 of the beautiful Pickles Magazine.