For some time, I’ve meant to beam the massive XIDevils media spotlight (we got it on loan from Juggs Magazine) at one of the coolest and most encouraging phenomena in the global game: the rise of feisty, non-profit, no-surrender, supporter-controlled, grassroots clubs. Born of understandable frustration with commercialism in general and a few nasty situations in particular, it’s a movement (winningly dubbed “punk football” by some) most prominent in England, but well worth a look from ever-embattled stateside fans.
The two most famous rebel clubs—as most citizens of the American Football Nation, a solidly Anglophilic lot collectively more enamo(u)red of the English game’s lore than the English themselves, know—are London’s AFC Wimbledon and the ultra-scrappy Football Club United of Manchester. Both began as uprisings against ownership skullduggery. AFC launched when the English FA approved the lock-stock-and-barrel theft of beloved perennial underdog Wimbledon FC by Milton Keynes, England’s version of a soulless exurb. FC United began as a two-fingered salute to Malcolm Glazer, the American billionaire who now owns Manchester United—and surely the club’s evocative acronym, FCUM, is merely coincidental.
Both clubs organized as democratically controlled non-profits; at FCUM, for example, it’s one member/one vote, whether you’ve invested one pound or a million. Both play their first teams in regional minor leagues, but look set for rapid rises up the English football pyramid. AFC has already been promoted twice and nearly nabbed a place in the Football Conference, from which fully professional ball is at least visible on the distant horizon, last season. FC United pulverized its 10th-division opposition last year to win its maiden championship and move up. Both attract huge crowds considering their modest station in the game, packing thousands into small stadia and Pied Piper’ing armies of away fans to rivals more accustomed to playing in front of friends and family.
But from an armchair perspective thousands of klicks away, these two populist jacqueries’ finest accomplishment is the questions they both raise and (as far as they themselves are concerned) answer: What’s football for? What’s sport for? The people who run both AFC and FC United clearly believe the clubs should provide entertainment, certainly, but also serve as social focal points and assets for real communities. (In other words, they should be *clubs* in the true sense of the word.) Both offer large youth programs, field women’s teams and are involved with various worthy causes. FCUM’s main sponsor is even the Bhopal Medical Appeal.
The whole thing is so old-fashioned as to be entirely newfangled. What happens when success collides with utopia? When AFC Wimbledon makes the Premier League and signs its first five-million-pound Cameroonian defender? I reckon the rebel clubs will burn that bridge when they come to it.
Why should American fans take note? Well, there’s already been some muted talk of an “AFC Metro” in the wake of Red Bull’s New York buy-out. Here in Portland, a recent flare-up of the annual worries about the Timbers’ future reminds fans that, as wonderfully successful as our beloved First Division side is as a subcultural magnet, the club has always sucked wind on the business side. If the franchise dies, does the Timbers Army die too? As fans in of the game in general—and as an emerging target for global business—must we always take what the Great Marketing Department in the Sky dishes out?
Or is there…another way? Punk football says, why yes.