Football’s Consumable Past and the Soft Power of Nostalgia

22 octobre 2021
By Professor Simon Chadwick, Professor and Director of Eurasian Sport at EMlyon and Dr Paul Widdop, Senior Lecturer in Sport Business at Leeds Beckett University (UK).

In a track by legendary British indie band The Smiths, lead singer Morrisey laments, ‘Manchester, so much to answer for’. The track addresses the horrific killings of children by two people from the city during the 1960s.

This abominable episode partly came to symbolise a city that was heading towards a dark, post-industrial period and years of malaise. During the period from 1972 to 1984, Manchester lost more than 200,000 manufacturing jobs and the city’s unemployment rate soared to 20%.

The city also haemorrhaged people, its population falling from around 700,000 in the 1940s to just over 400,000 by the end of the 1980s. Manchester lost its human capital as talented individuals and those with skills migrated to more economically prosperous cities in the South East of England, predominantly London.

By the 1990s, crime in Manchester had become such an issue that the city was often dubbed « Gunchester » and « Britain’s Bronx ». Drug dealing was rife, a local newspaper reporting that the city ‘had all the necessary ingredients on which violence could easily take root and flourish: not least, high unemployment, and urban riots.’ Such was the level of crime that it took on folk law status and was dramatised in popular culture, through films and literature.

As a consequence of such problems, as in Detroit, sixties Liverpool, and early eighties New York, Manchester’s music scene (of which The Smiths were part) became one way in people sought to deal with the harsh realities of urban life. For instance, in the early 1980s Factory Records, home of Joy Division and later New Order, became renowned for its gritty releases and stripped-back design aesthetic.

The record label’s owner and local celebrity, Tony Wilson, then opened a club – The Hacienda, which had ascended to iconic status by the decade’s end. By then, acid house and other dance music was incredibly popular and synonymous with the city, a scene fuelled by new consumer drugs of choice, specifically ecstasy, as well as beanie hats and ‘has to be a loose fit’ fashion.

At the time, the drugged-up reputation of such clubs was identified as being partly responsible for a decline in English football hooliganism. Acid house and football didn’t really have a relationship. Instead of goals per game, young people were more pre-occupied by beats-per-minute.

In Manchester at that time, football reflected the declining status of the city; Alex Ferguson was struggling to make his mark at United, whilst City for the most part languished in lower divisions.

Fast forward to 2021 and Manchester has risen again to become an economic powerhouse, prompted by forward thinking local politicians and considerable inward investment, which continues to manifest itself most obviously in the city’s football clubs. Dollars from the United States have flowed into United, though it is the money from Abu Dhabi which is now helping to sustain City and is more striking.

Once a working-class staple of East Manchester (and for a time South Manchester), the Pep Guardiola coached Premier League club is now an oil and gas fuelled global franchise network that increasingly looks more like an entertainment business and geopolitical vehicle than it does St. Mark’s (West Gorton), as it was called when founded in 1880.

As an illustration of this, one need only take the tram up to City’s Etihad Stadium. Upon arrival, one is immediately confronted with a ‘Blues’ megastore selling all manner of product lines from replica shirt and scarves to soft toys and pens. The need to turn over business is imperative not least because Abu Dhabi is a rentier state, seeking to subsidise its domestic tax system and diversify revenue streams away from its oil and gas dependence.

It is in this vein that Manchester City’s new shirt releases have been positioned as iconic moments in design and high-profile social media splashes. In 2019, the club’s black and yellow striped away shirt was based on The Hacienda’s design. More recently, a City ‘MDCR’ shirt was released, a reference to late twentieth century ‘Madchester’ and its culture of music, drugs and lariness.

Some people are not impressed by City’s activities, The Hacienda’s designer condemning the club’s appropriation of his work. Others have called-out its revisionist history of 1980s Manchester as being a misrepresentation of what was actually happening in the city at the time.

Many people simply could not afford fashionable clothes; the music scene was inextricably linked with drugs and violence; and not everyone who went to The Hacienda was a Manchester City fan.

As such, some commentators have noted how such marketing activities essentially involve the creation of consumable pasts. That is, using collective memories and popular myths as the means through which to establish consensual acquiescence to an idealised view of the past. Even if, for some, this view is not a version of the past they remember or are familiar with.

For the business school educated senior managers of Manchester City, several of whom were born and brought-up in other countries, the consumable past they have created for the club serves a commercial purpose. However, it rather challenges the notion of brand authenticity locally in Manchester, whilst raising questions about how it serves overseas the club’s fan engagement strategies. For instance, how many fans in Mumbai and Chengdu can nostalgically recall ‘A Guy Called Gerald’? And if you have to ask who or what Gerald is, then our point is already proved.

It is also worth asking what City’s Abu Dhabi owners get from the club’s consumable past, apart from a boost to its treasury coffers. After all drugs, street violence and urban deprivation are not the foundations upon which this small, ambitious emirate has sought to position itself. Indeed, the Gulf home of the Louvre and Ferrari World wants to be associated with status and luxury, not drug deals, drive-by shootings, and Quality Street gangs (notorious Manchester criminals).

City’s consumable past in this case helps Abu Dhabi’s quest for acceptance, legitimacy and soft power. If ‘cool’ is currency, then City’s referencing of sweaty nights in a 1980s Manchester nightclub attempts to confer an attractiveness upon the Gulf nation which it doesn’t otherwise enjoy. Soft power is attractive power, a way of convincing others that you share the same values as they do and want the same things. That said, power remains the key word in such cases.

This leads us to question what is soft power, and more importantly who is it for? Whilst critiques of Rentier States spending on cultural institutions lambasts soft power, they fail to understand that soft power as we understand it is not a macro level factor, which is an abstract concept, although an important one, rather it exits as the micro level between individuals, who through their interactions create the mechanisms for soft power. To that end adopting a culturally significant concept such as ‘MDCR’ impacts on interactions of people, which in turn generates soft power.

Saudi Arabia’s recent acquisition of the Premier League’s Newcastle United is already following the same game plan. For instance, its English language daily newspaper the Arab News (owned by Prince Turki bin Salman Al Saud, the brother of Crown Prince Muhammed Salman) recently published a nostalgic feature on United’s greatest goals of all time, even though few Saudis are likely to have ever seen these goals before or heard of their scorers.

Whatever Manchester may have to answer for, perhaps it can be more readily explained when the past is conceived of in a consumable way. City’s commercially savvy managers know this, but so too do its politically astute owners. Now it seems, Saudi Arabia does as well. The Smiths’ words are proving to be prophetic.

This article belongs to the GeoSport platform, developed by IRIS and EM Lyon.
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