When the English FA call Wembley “The Home of Football”, the hairs on the back of my neck jump to attention. It is a phrase repeated so many times that it loses all its meaning. Used by them, it is an empty metaphor, a gingerbread house if you will. Good for luring in the suckers for sure, but if a game beloved by millions the world over was really to have a spiritual home it would be a shame for it to be a shoddily accessible, vastly overpriced behemoth on the road out of Brent.
Or when the likes of Sepp Blatter talk about FIFA being merely the custodians of the game, tapping into a Rooseveltian fireside gooiness, implying that they are just keeping “the soul of football” warm and safe for us, all the while hoping that we don’t get wise and realise that a game can no more have a soul than a walnut or a Citroen 2cv without those very people that have the most emotional investment in it. It becomes an abstract concept, albeit one that is useful for overpaid shit-for-brains’ in expensive offices the world over controlling how and where we spend our money and use our free time.
Clubs, of course, do have homes (and Wembley may well have an argument to say that it is “The Home of English Football”). The word is right there in the fixture list, in the terminology, in the fables of the game. “Home”, a place of strength and comfort, of security and infallibility. This is where the abstract concepts become more real, because the people themselves create them. These are not just soundbites, trotted out to sell thousands of small tins of brown fizzy drink. Emotions and memories can live on in stadia the world over. Eduardo Galeano says that the Maracanã is still crying over Brazil’s 1950 World Cup defeat. As ever, he put it beautifully.
“Home”, however, is becoming another concept on football’s endangered list. It’s not often they get praised at the Sportsdesk, but it was beautiful to see Chelsea’s fans voting away Roman Abramovich’s plans to move somewhere new, where the revenues would be so much greater. Stamford Bridge had almost been lost before, and they knew that it is the last remaining pillar of the old club. The final remnants of tradition and history collide in a piece of prime West London real estate.
Clubs are moving to custom built, out of town, flatpack stadia the world over. All the talk of hearts and souls goes out the window when it comes to the cold, hard facts of economics, but in Berlin we are privileged to be allowed to witness games in a real home. The Stadion an der Alten Försterei. Built by the fans and, as of the New Year, owned by the fans.
Dirk Zingler, chairman of 1. FC Union Berlin, announced in an interview with the Berliner Zeitung on Saturday that the club plan to sell their stadium, their home, to the very fans that built it and fill it week in, week out. It is (in Germany at least) a new idea, a clever means of covering the building costs and servicing the interest on loans necessary for the chic new stand which will be the finishing touch to the stadium, whilst at the same time preserving it from greedy prying eyes for generations.
The idea is that the Alte Försterei will be sold off in 10,000 shares, available to all members and current sponsors. A maximum of 10 per person will be allowed at €500 each (there are instalment plans also available for those who can’t pull together the lump sum). Then, all decisions about the stadium in the future will be decided by a majority vote (two thirds for the decision of changing the name). The fans of Union will tangibly and practically own their own home. It is a rare and touching gesture, but also a PR master-stroke. The country is talking, once again, about 1. FC Union.
Watching the documentary about the rebuilding of the old place, Eisern vereint, one realises why the club could never allow it to be called the “Targobank Stadium“, or have any other such hellish commercial nomenclature. They couldn’t countenance the situation that Hamburg are in whereby their old Volkspark Stadium has had four different names since 2007 – it is currently called the Imtech Arena, a moniker that somehow embodies the bitterness and fallibility of a grand old club, struggling under the weight of its debts and casting a jealous eye at the money being lavished around by others, without their prestige. As Gil Scott-Heron said, “Home is where the hatred is”.
The shares in the Alte Försterei will be on sale from the start of December, and will fly out. The custodians of the club will once again be its fans. The owners will be those who have the most invested in it, those who built it and those who fill it every other weekend.