This post might be a bit long and rambling, so bear with me.
I was reminded of this thread when I went to watch some very un-modern football on Saturday, and got to thinking about WHY we go to watch football in the first place. The location was La Cruz (The Cross), home of Union Club Ceares, a Spanish side based in Gijón that plays in the Tercera Division.
For those who aren’t familiar with the Spanish system, there’s La Liga, La Segunda, La Segunda ‘B’ (with four national leagues or groups) and the Tercera (with 18 regional leagues or groups). So the Spaniards share our post-Premier League love for confusing logic when it comes to naming their leagues. UC Ceares are in the Tercera (3rd) Division which, despite the name, is the 4th tier of the Spanish League system. But as the pyramid spreads out a lot quicker and wider than in England, Ceares are only three promotions away from playing Real Madrid and Barcelona, despite being roughly the Spanish equivalent of Prescot Cables.
So why was I there? And what was it like?
A few years ago we moved to Gijón, a large port city in Asturias on the north coast of Spain, and a place I’ve come to love. It’s a place of strong traditions and stark contrasts. Surrounded by rolling green hills that wouldn’t look out of place in Wales, it also has some pockets of heavy industry that are like Teesside...on steroids. Working class and socialist to the core, it’s where the Asturian coal that is mined in the mountains is brought down and loaded onto cargo ships.
The city was one of the last to fall during the Civil War and the powerful Trade Unions defied Franco until a final savage bombardment from warships parked in the bay killed around 2,000 people and brought the city under the control of the new regime. Events like that inevitably leave their mark on a place; the Trade Unions are as strong as ever and the numerous fiestas and carnivals (that symbolise the opposition to those years of dictatorship, during which they were banned) are celebrated with boundless enthusiasm. These intensely proud people are Gijonese or Asturian first and Spanish a distant second.
If some aspects of this remind you of another port city in the north-west of England, it won’t come as a surprise to learn that there are many followers of Liverpool FC in Gijón; although I’m not naive enough to believe that much of this isn’t down to Rafa and our mini-Spanish Revolution of a few years ago as opposed to some shared ideology. Whatever the reason, I found myself watching a lot of football (Liverpool on the TV and Sporting Gijón at their ground ‘El Molinon’) with a new group of Spanish mates.
Last year, this group of mates decided that modern football was becoming too sterile and too expensive and that the players were overpaid and...well...just a bunch of “hijos de puta” basically. You still get a great atmosphere generated at El Molinon, but seeing the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo rolling around on the floor turned their collective stomachs. They stopped going to the big games and sold their season tickets for these matches to help fund the rest of the games and some away days. They wanted something different that went back to the grassroots of the game. So when an opportunity arose out of the blue to actually run a football club, they jumped at the chance and one of them, Alberto, was duly sworn in as ‘El Presidente’ of Union Club Ceares, the team that plays in his local barrio.
Fast forward a year and they are having the time of their lives. As President of the club, Alberto was able to appoint whoever he liked into the main positions within the club, but it really works as a kind of collective where everyone chips in, be it selling tickets in the ticket office, pouring beers in the bar, playing the half time music, or sweeping up after the match and washing the kit. The half time and pre/post-match music incidentally is brilliant – The Buzzcocks, The Undertones, The Clash etc, really doesn’t feel like Spain at all, but this is the music they like and it’s their club now, so they play it (to the confusion of a few of the old timers). The President doesn’t get away with avoiding the work either. Whilst having a pre-match beer with him recently, he suddenly jumped up and said he had to go – he’d remembered the white lines on the pitch needed painting!
It’s all a bit chaotic and amateurish then, but all the better for it in my mind. A season ticket costs 40 Euros which is ridiculously cheap given that the standard of football isn’t too bad. It’s one Euro for a beer, with no restrictions on drinking it in the ground, so a season of football doesn’t dent the pocket too much, although the liver takes a good beating.
On Saturday then, I was feeling good as I strolled up to La Cruz to watch UC Ceares take on CD Cudillero. I passed the recently installed sign over the entrance to the ground “Esto Ye La Cruz” - “This Is The Cross”, a little tongue-in-cheek joke based on the famous sign over our tunnel and designed to frighten the opposition (although like at Anfield these days, it doesn’t seem to work!) I knew that the match would be almost (but not quite) of secondary importance to the business of drinking beer and sharing a few laughs and I couldn’t help but think this is how football should always be.
I realise for many Liverpool fans, that’s the way things still are. I read an innocuous but (for me) great little post on this website recently, by john_mac I think it was, that went something like (paraphrasing) “a great day out, brekkie, a few pints, a few laughs, great win for the reds, a few more cans, then home” that made me feel a bit homesick and long to be actively following the Reds again. That’s what football's all about and it still exists (as long as your pockets are deep enough).
In the event, the Ceares match on Saturday was great and a late winner for the struggling home side was celebrated wildly by the 500 supporters packed into this tiny ground (they used to get about 150 last season, but an advertising campaign in the city’s bars coupled with the attractive ST prices has more than tripled that). I’ll still be missing some Ceares games when they clash with Liverpool on the telly, but my live football watching is sorted for the coming season. I'll never be a 'fan' in the same way I support Liverpool, but with each game the emotional involvement in the result increases; and when that is added to the all round experience, I'm happy.
Maybe the likes of Marine and Prescot will reap the rewards of an over-priced Prem; they might be already for all i know. But if they're anything like Ceares, they'll understand the value of community and realise that top flight football is gradually losing that link; a message that is underlined by the huge piece of professionally done graffiti that’s been painted, in English, on the outside wall of the stadium in letters five feet tall – “AGAINST MODERN FOOTBALL”