“And then dance and drink and screw
Because there’s nothing else to do.”
– Pulp, Common People
The nineties gave birth to both the Britpop scene with bands such as Blur, Oasis and Pulp as well as Premier League Football – a sublime mixture of partying and playing. Before the nineties, things were completely different; it was another world. To illustrate how and why things changed so drastically, I will recall to mind, football memories where the stadium plays a crucial role in both tying a strong ritualistic community together and hosting a collective tragedy.
At the beginning of the eighties, as a little boy, I moved from Copenhagen in Denmark to a small provincial town called Næstved. The same year, I was supposed to begin playing football in KB (now named F.C. Copenhagen), but instead I ended up in the smaller club of Næstved. A few months later, 16 November 1980 to be exact, fate had it that those two cities were playing against each other in the last game of the season. The game was called “the gold match” because it would decide who would win the league. Næstved and KB were equal in the standings on points, but KB were ahead due to a better aggregate goal score. I went to see the match in the stadium, together with 20,315 other people – almost half of Næstved’s population. The home side scored at the beginning of the second half and with fifteen minutes left, one of KB’s players received a red card. I remember the intensity of so many people holding their breath as they tasted the approaching victory, and then with only two minutes left, KB equalised to result in 1-1 – enough to make them win the league. It was my first time witnessing how silence could tie people together.
Some years later, June 5th, 1985, that I was introduced to the Danish national team – the great years with Preben Elkjær, Morten Olsen, Frank Arnesen and a young Michael Laudrup. Denmark played against USSR; it was David against Goliath. With more than 45,700 people, I was both scared and excited to be a part of this huge crowd, to be part of something that seemed larger than life. I was touched by the tunes of the national song; not for nationalistic reasons but because, I guess 45,700 – mostly drunk men sang. Loud and powerful. Denmark won 4-2 and qualified for the World Cup in Mexico. When I left the stadium, I noticed how witnessing something extraordinary can make you taller by a centimetre or two. The Danes who were leaving were taller than when they had entered the stadium a few hours earlier.
In the eighties, football was watched in the stadiums. Back then, going to the stadium back home and sometimes even away, was as certain as Maradona being left-footed. However, what changed football in the nineties, to make it something to watch on television is related to the stadiums.
Two tragic events in the eighties changed football forever. The first took place on May 25 1985 at Heysel stadium in Belgium, where the Europe Cup Final between Juventus and Liverpool took place. The year before, the two teams had played each other in the Italian capital, Rome. Liverpool won after a penalty shootout. After the game, a disturbance evolved in the historical capital between the two clubs’ fans. The result was that at least one Liverpool-fan was stabbed while many others sought shelter at the British embassy in Rome.
Based on the experience in Rome, the Belgian police were ready for the rivalry between the two teams, or so they thought. Before the game started, a group of Liverpool fans stormed the stadium section full of Juventus fans, who desperately tried to run away but got caught between a wall and the fence that separated the spectators from the pitch. 39 people lost their lives, while more than 500 were injured that day. Still, things would get worse.
Four years later, on April 15 1989, this time during the FA Cup semi-finals between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, an even more devastating tragedy took place. At Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, 96 Liverpool fans were squeezed to death and close to 800 people injured. The Taylor Report that investigated the disaster stated that the main cause for this disaster was not the fans, but a failure of police control. Among its many recommendations, the Taylor Report suggested that all major stadiums should convert into an all-seater model (one person: one seat), that the fences separating the spectator from the pitches should be removed, that tickets sale should be better organised and controlled and that alcohol should no longer be sold at stadiums.
Thus, while the stadiums modernised and became more secure, they also attracted a more diverse audience. Instead of appealing to mostly young boys and middle-aged men, football became a family affair. Due to a surge in ticket prices, the audience also shifted from working class to middle, and even, a high-class audience. At the same time, as Premiere League was being baptised in 1992, television rights became a battlefield of negotiations. Football became a business, selling a product that required the best players.
Today, kids rarely go to the stadium, unless their nostalgic parents take them there. They still watch the games on television, although they prefer to watch summaries on YouTube. This is a shift, I believe, away from a weekly physical anchored ritual – the stadium – where a community were tied together without really having to talk, just clapping, cheering and singing along according to unwritten rules. Football was then an event; an eventuality. Now, on the other hand, football is more a mass phenomenon that constantly needs communication, not just while the game takes place, but also before and after from YouTube summaries to podcasts, analyses and predictions. Football has become the selling and reselling of a product.
Still, and I might be a romantic, this doesn’t affect the core of the game, which is the joy of playing football. When the pressure to perform and achieve success becomes too much, not only for the players and managers, but also for the fans and sportswriters, the only way to overcome this stressful problem is to reconnect with the basic question: Why do we love playing, watching, or writing about football? The answer is joy. My experience is that stadiums, with its gaily coloured history, is a place of ritualistic community. The stadium literally marks a beginning and end, as you enter and exit. In contrast, perhaps best exemplified by the coming finish of the Champions League, where football becomes something serial to binge-watch, like a series on Netflix.
Now, it’s time to relate football with the Britpop scene – not so much on an aesthetical level, referring to the cool looks of Damon Albarn or Liam Gallagher and many football fans. Rather, I think that the class struggle and social critique that is present in many of the Britpop lyrics resemble, or can easily be associated with, the football culture. Take a song like “Common People” by Pulp. It’s about a rich girl who wants to live and do whatever common people do. Common people, like you and me, watch football. But what about all those wealthy people who, from the nineties onwards, began to show an interest in football; are they like the rich girl in the song? What the girl doesn’t get, and what some might claim that rich investors or owners don’t get is that football, for many, it not always a choice but the only option to while away the time on a Sunday evening. When I lived in a small provincial town, it was either football or nothing. In other words, most common people can’t go anywhere else. The difference between the poor and the rich – especially visible in the eighties – as exemplary put in Pulp’s song where the rich girl will never get it right because: “When you’re laid in bed at night/ Watching roaches climb the wall/ If you called your Dad he could stop it all, yeah…” Or, as Blur sings in “Boys and Girls”: “Avoiding all work/ Because there’s none available.”
There is nothing cool about being poor, only rich people can assume there is. Regardless of how much football today has turned into a huge business, the history of football still acknowledges that for many football participators – players, managers, fans and sportswriters – packing up the suitcase and going elsewhere was never an option. There is a destiny in football; even when it is broadcast through television or social media. I am still loyal to Liverpool because it was my first British football love, just as I am loyal to Blur and Pulp. Football is loyal because of the team, in a way that individual sports can never be.