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The Sporting Desk

We Are the Resurrection

A reporter spends a season trailing one of London’s most infamous soccer clubs while its soul is rebuilt from scratch. From July, a cautionary tale—for New Yorkers, especially—of super fans, gonzo money, and the doctrine that is “organic football.”

Sara Lautman for The Morning News

New York City Football Club will kick-off their inaugural Major League Soccer (MLS) game soon after 4 p.m., March 7, 2015, in front of tens of thousands of spectators and millions of television viewers.

Announced in May, the club will be the 20th MLS team as a joint-venture between the New York Yankees and Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the billionaire owner of Manchester City FC from Abu Dhabi. But for now there’s no stadium, no aging European or South American star players signed up, no uniforms, no crest, no manager or staff, just hopes that a flood of investment can help football continue to grow in the U.S. This isn’t soccer, but association football, the world’s most popular sport with 250 million players and 1.3 billion fans.

Football has never been richer, but it has come at the cost of alienating fans from clubs that used to revolve around the community from which the clubs emerged. Now everything is up for sale. Nothing is sacred.

This past season, London’s AFC Wimbledon kicked off their inaugural game at 3 p.m., Aug. 18, 2012, against Chesterfield, in front of just 3,780 fans. Once England’s most feared football team when the club played in the Premier League, AFC Wimbledon now sits in the lowest tier in the pyramid of England’s fully professional football leagues, three divisions below the Premier League. AFC Wimbledon achieved an impressive victory against Chesterfield on that day, through a goal by star player Jack Midson. The season that followed was miserable when it wasn’t painful. But big-game heroes and moments of glory made Britain’s longest winter in memory, in a country where a couple of inches of snow brings everything to a standstill, a little more bearable.

AFC Wimbledon is a new club. But like NYC FC, their origin story is one of the most unusual in football. The club’s original incarnation, Wimbledon FC, founded in 1889, was sold off in 2002 and shipped off westward to a brand new city, like so many American football teams, but a first in the English game. The club eventually became Milton Keynes Dons FC (MK Dons), playing 50 miles away from Wimbledon, a serious distance in little Britain; London has 14 full-professional teams alone.

At the time, Wimbledon FC’s fans were incensed that football, and their club, had been sold to the highest bidder. Not wanting to follow MK Dons, the fans, the soul of the club, started a new club, AFC Wimbledon, from scratch in 2002. “AFC” generally means “Association Football Club” but the club’s supporters consider that in Wimbledon’s case it stands for “A Fans’ Club.” AFC Wimbledon is a so-called “phoenix club” that rose from deep in the amateur and semi-pro leagues. The club made it back into the big time of full professional football as a wholly supporter-owned club in 2011. And this past season Wimbledon played MK Dons for the very first time.

When I moved to London last fall it wasn’t to the Premier League I wanted to go, but to AFC Wimbledon and lower-league football. Bobby Gould, the manager who led Wimbledon FC to an improbable and famous FA Cup win in 1988, their most glorious victory, is a family friend. As a teenager I’d logged hundreds of hours imitating him on the in-depth football management sim Championship Manager, taking Wimbledon FC to the peak of the footballing world. The computer game is now Wimbledon FC’s main commercial sponsor, with their name in the center of the club’s shirts. In the same way that I was fired in the game for making a terrible start to one season, Wimbledon parted company with their manager/coach and hire former player Neil Ardley. Ardley struggles to turn things around. But after winning a dramatic two-leg game against York in the knock-out FA Cup tournament, held separately to the regular league season, AFC Wimbledon set up a match against MK Dons. Battle lines were being drawn for the first game of an unusual rivalry that pitted fans against money.

 

The rules of football were agreed upon in 1848 and adopted by the Football Association in 1863 to help foster competition between clubs. A league was launched o play more matches. With the extra income from ticket sales, better wages could be paid in order to attract the best players from lands as foreign as Scotland, where many of the best players were based. A century on, the same thing is happening. Clubs want to win more to earn more to pay better wages and afford foreign players. 

England league system gradually evolved into a survival-of-the-fittest pyramid system. Today, there are four leagues, or divisions, of between 20-24 teams: The Premier League, The Championship, League One, and League Two. The best teams play in the Premier League, against one another, and the worst teams are in League Two. At the end of each season, the worst three (sometimes four) performing sides are “relegated,” or demoted to league below, and the three (sometimes four) best performing sides are promoted to the league above.

Clubs became companies rather than non-profit entities to help raise money and even solidify their position in a league, or to help them move up. In 1983 London’s Tottenham Hotspur even floated on the stock market, and the rest of the top clubs followed. Generally, football clubs don’t pause from exploiting any money-making opportunity that appears. Jerseys are sponsored. Teams charge as much as $1.3 million for a pre-season friendly match. Sponsors are found for the players’ socks.

Stewart made his walk through the crowd toward the microphone. “I’m tired of fighting,” he said before issuing a rallying cry that has become legendary among fans of AFC Wimbledon. “I just want to watch football.”

It was in the ’80s, just before the rampant commercialization, when Niall Couper, AFC Wimbledon historian and diehard fan, started going to matches. The top teams in English football broke away and set up their own league , the Premier League, which helped them earn huge broadcast rights. “I remember the Premiership times, at that point you were treated very much like a customer. I think that the magic has been lost in football,” said Couper, who remains sorely angry about Wimbledon FC’s sale and move to Milton Keynes, where it became MK Dons.

Milton Keynes is a town that emerged from almost nothing, located northwest of London. Constructed as a brand-new urban area to combine three existing towns on a grid system to replicate American cities, no wonder the American method of buying a franchise was used. “I feel really sorry for the supporters of Milton Keynes City, who were a pretty legit club,” said Couper. Milton Keynes City was the amateur team situated in the town since 1974. The club was forced to close due to a lack of support and due to the confusion of Wimbledon FC being relocated to Milton Keynes. “If [MK Dons] actually honored and respected football, the way football is in the pyramid, what football is, the ability to have a club that develops itself up through the community, they should have started out at the same level as AFC Wimbledon. They should have started out and built up their own club.” The bitterness remains potent in Couper’s voice. “They talked about ‘a town that deserved a club.’ Well, they had a club. They didn’t put the investment into that club.” Couper’s anger has become a coherent and precise argument, moulded and carved from a decade of back-and-forths in London boozers about how the hell a football club was sold and shipped away from the fans that give it life. He says it’s different from any rivalry football has ever known before.

“It’s not like [Glasgow] Rangers and [Glasgow] Celtic. It’s not Barcelona and Real Madrid. We’re talking about something that is far more deep-seated than that. [They] tried to destroy the spirit of the club and tried to destroy the whole fan base,” said Couper, describing what happened between MK Dons and AFC Wimbledon as “like a bitter divorce.” Couper is the child whose father ran off with the young gold-digger, leaving him bitter after his mother was left to start again. Luckily, the family was there to pick up the pieces.

When the announcement had been made that Wimbledon FC would be moved to Milton Keynes, to later be rebranded MK Dons, a meeting was called by Wimbledon fans. Toward the end of a charged meeting in the Wimbledon Community Centre, Kris Stewart, then chair of the Wimbledon Independent Supporters Club, realized that the fans had no chance of hanging on to their club and that no amount of protests would stop the franchise moving to Milton Keynes. In that moment Stewart made his walk through the crowd toward the microphone. “I’m tired of fighting,” he said before issuing a spontaneous rallying cry that has become legendary among fans of AFC Wimbledon. “I just want to watch football.”

When AFC Wimbledon got going, this spirit led to massive emotional and financial support from fans, which helped Wimbledon to quickly flourish. The club held open-trials on June 29, 2002 among fans and friends of Wimbledon to start a new club. The club ended up with a strange mix of players over the ensuing years while the club fought to move up through the pyramid of football, from the amateur up to the professional leagues. Rapper MC Harvey from British hip-hop group So Solid Crew played for the team briefly. The club’s first-ever goal was scored by Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator later found guilty of illegally intercepting voicemail messages in what became the phone-hacking scandal—which triggered a dramatic crisis in Britain over press regulation and ethics, and saw the News of the World, one of Britain’s most popular newspapers, close after 168 years of operation. 

AFC Wimbledon eventually made it back into the pyramid of professional leagues, the peak of which is the Premier League. Despite the Premier League’s worldwide popularity and commercial success, so-called “solidarity” payments, made to support the leagues below, are increasingly only modestly compared to payments made to top clubs, with less money given each year to support the professional clubs below Premier League level. College and high school sports are nothing here in the U.K. so there’s no draft, there’s none of the socialistic profit-sharing of the NFL (or MLS). Instead, English football is a Reaganesque free market with the money expected to trickle down to lower leagues, with no salary cap on wages. Perform badly and you drop down into the division below. Drop down and get much less money. Perform well and you are promoted to the league above and the club earns much more money.

While Premier League teams earned $3.5 billion in 2011/12, teams in Wimbledon’s league earned 3 percent of that. Just $120 million in total. This accounts for half of the wage bill of each of the Premier League’s top clubs; it’s the same amount as the transfer fee paid to Manchester United when Cristiano Ronaldo moved to Real Madrid. The cost of Ronaldo alone equals the total revenue of the 24 professional teams in Wimbledon’s league. Now there’s strong rumour that Ronaldo will move to Monaco FC this summer for a similar amount and earn even more than his $18 million salary. It’s as if it’s money that he cares most about.

 

Monaco couldn’t be further away on a cold but bright and beautiful December day in England as AFC Wimbledon walk out to face MK Dons in the second round of the FA Cup, a season-long knock-out competition that runs alongside the 38-match regular league season. “The Cup” is the oldest football competition in the world, contested since 1871 by every half-decent side in England and Wales. This past season 758 professional, semi-pro, and amateur teams are taking part.

Look to the directors’ box at the MK Dons stadium, and you don’t see any Wimbledon executives. They don’t want to be seen giving any legitimacy to a club they feel should not exist. Other fans are boycotting the match altogether, holding a fundraising family fun day at their home ground in London instead of watching the club that was once theirs. A national organization of fans in England and Wales initially held a total boycott of MK Dons until the club gave up all trophies and claims of historical continuity with Wimbledon FC back to AFC Wimbledon. Now fans and reporters consider AFC and Wimbledon FC to be one and the same.

The first half of the game seems destined to end goalless—the only victories being Wimbledon’s chants of “You know what you are, you franchise bastards.”

It’s a nervous and defensive game from the kick-off. The stadium seems half built, with vast blocks of the seats left empty to separate visiting Wimbledon fans from MK Dons fans.

MK Dons are only one league above Wimbledon—playing in the third and forth divisions, respectively, branded as League One and League Two, confusingly. At this skill level, every ball is fought for. There is little of the flow, patience, and bursts of speed that you see at higher levels of the game, but more physicality and strength required. Fans sit much closer to the pitch and to the players than in most American sports, and the stadiums are designed with the sound and atmosphere for the crowd in mind. The first half of the game seems destined to end goalless—the only victories being Wimbledon’s chants of “You know what you are, you franchise bastards”. But then, moments before half-time, MK Dons’ captain Stephen Gleeson scores a wonder goal from 25 yards out that swerves into the top right corner. MK Dons’ manager punches his fists in the air with such vigour and lack of spatial awareness that he strikes his assistant square in the jaw. Milton Keynes has the better squad, they are favorites, and they are ahead. Aging Wimbledon goalkeeper Neil Sullivan is forced to punch away the ball from free kicks and crosses. Wimbledon are forced to chase and defend against a team with superior skill and the team is struggling to hold onto the ball.

After a period of domination early in the second half, Wimbledon is able to counterattack. Tony Ajala, on loan from Bristol City, runs down the wing. He whips a ball deep into the MK Dons penalty box from out wide. Star striker Jack Midson dives headfirst to knock the ball past the goalkeeper into the goal. He jumps over the advertising hoardings to be closer to the fans. A minor pitch invasion ensues. Fans mob the players as if they’ve just won the FA Cup. Should Wimbledon score again, justice will have been done. Lose the match and they’ll have to face the fact that they remain at the very bottom of the football league, with the prospect of relegation looming, suffering from mounting financial difficulties. The club will be even more firmly stuck in an inadequate stadium that can’t generate the money the club needs to compete with privately owned clubs.

In the last minute of game MK Dons score the winner. Wimbledon lose, their season in tatters. The new manager is struggling to get a grip.

Winter sets in and doesn’t let up for almost five months.

Except, after a great start to the New Year, Wimbledon go unbeaten into February when I attend a match against Burton Albion FC. AFC Wimbledon’s press secretary Chris Slavin greets me in the press box and tells me about how important the community is to the club through a thick accent. Slavin introduces me to AFC Wimbledon’s chief executive Erik Samuelson before the match. Samuelson, an accountant with a demeanor that says I’m retired, is wandering around the stands, as he does before most home matches, having his customary bacon sandwich and talking to fans.

Samuelson tells me he wasn’t in on the fans’ initial plan to launch AFC Wimbledon but did write an initial business plan. He became chief executive at Wimbledon having worked as their “glorified accountant” until he retired from his day-job and helped guide the club back to the professional leagues on an annual salary of just $1.59. Born in northern England, he started coming to Wimbledon games with his eight-year-old son. “The year Wimbledon FC won the FA Cup, was my son’s first season. His first game was in September 1987 and we won the FA Cup the following May. He was eight by then, and he thought that was just how life works. We haven’t won it since and now he’s 32. Today is my granddaughter’s second game ever. She first came to a game when she was six weeks old.”

I ask him how important it will be to not be relegated—one of the worst is demoted into the league below—in order to get a new stadium in Wimbledon, rather than their current ground four miles away. “Being relegated from the football league would make it much harder,” he said with a resigned air. It seemed as though staying in their league, among the professional and the money that goes with it from TV deals and ticket sales, is essential to Wimbledon’s plans but that he wasn’t quite admitting it. “But planning the future’s easy. We’ve identified the site [for a new stadium], we’re talking to developers.”

Wimbledon draw the match against Burton Albion 1-1. The team will need to do better if they are to avoid being demoted to the league below.

Couper echoes Samuelson’s words when we speak later in the season. “We obviously need to be in a bigger stadium … I think we could be looking at a ground that would be 10-15,000 all-seater, that would be close to selling out most weeks … Wimbledon is a sustainable club that works within its means. It does mean that we’ll be limited as to what we can ultimately achieve but we’re not going to be a club that is befalled the likes of Portsmouth or Rangers or Leeds…” Each of those clubs got into huge financial trouble, became insolvent, were deducted points and ending up being demoted to find themselves in the lower leagues. “These clubs that had a sugar daddy that came in, spent all their money, takes all their dreams”. Couper’s voice cracks from the briefest moment. “And then the club fell apart.”

 

London’s Chelsea FC is backed by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich. Manchester City is owned by Sheikh Mansour from the United Arab Emirates, one of football’s wealthiest owners. Aston Villa is owned by Randy Lerner, who majority owned the Cleveland Browns until 2012. Manchester United is owned by Malcolm Glazer, who also owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Arsenal’s largest shareholder is Stan Kroenke whose company owns the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, hockey’s Colorado Avalanche, and the NFL’s St. Louis Rams. Monaco was bought in 2011 by an investment group lead by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev.

“In football there is obviously a connection between spending and results,” said Tor-Kristian Karlsen. And he should know, having been sporting director and subsequently chief executive of Monaco football club until March. The club were this past season promoted back into France’s top division.

We spoke in a North London pub, near Tottenham and Arsenal’s stadia, for a whole evening in which Karlsen spelled out that the nature of money in football is not inherently evil. But Karlsen is more interested in results than money. “As much as you want to create viable businesses and want to improve the marketing and want to go global, at the end of the day that’s not possible unless you perform well,” he said with a Norwegian-inflected English in between sips of a craft beer. It doesn’t take long, listening to Karlsen, for me to be persuaded it’s naïve to think money isn’t the pivot on which a club’s fortunes can be altered, and that results are all that matters to most fans.

Monaco is one of France’s most winningest clubs, with an owner eager to give something back to a place he treasures, Karlsen tells me. Low attendances don’t matter too much—Monaco’s stadium has a capacity of only 18,523, sometimes filling only 4,500 seats, fewer than Wimbledon record-attendance this past season. “The advantage that you have in Monaco is you have a very lucrative VIP market and there’s a lot of big sponsors who would like to associate themselves with the name Monaco. And when you have world-class players that makes it even more interesting … Ultimately in football now, the way it has become, how you make money is to be successful because the TV and the Champions League money are paramount,” said Karlsen. The more successful you are each season, the more broadcast money you earn. In Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid have almost cornered the market on this revenue stream, which has massively widened the inequality gap with the rest of the teams in Spain’s top division, La Liga. This threatens to happen across the rest of football.

When I later spoke with Wimbledon fan and historian Niall Couper, he expressed his fears for the fans. “The financial bubble at other clubs will burst. They had their sugar daddies come in and the pain of seeing your club then fall through because you haven’t got control of is something horrendous that I wouldn’t want anyone to experience … Abramovich will leave Chelsea, at one point the United Arab Emirates owners will leave Man City. What will be left?” he asks.

“To get into the top four now, top five, it will take you 15 years, if you have to build organically. You have to be an absolute genius.”

Karlsen disagrees with what he calls the “crusade” against big spending clubs with a shrug as we look at the pizza menu—his treat, he insists. “There is no other industry where there are people trying to stop you from actually putting money into the market … As in the case of Manchester United, they have won everything there is to win under the Glazers, so it’s hard to build a case that their model has been unsuccessful.”

The Green Bay Packers have shown that a community- or supporter-owned club can compete with the big boys. And supporter-owned clubs in football are not limited to those in the lower leagues. In the past season’s Champion’s League, the world’s most prestigious club competition that features the best-performing European clubs, the final four teams were all supporter-owned clubs: Barcelona and Real Madrid from Spain and Germany’s Borussia Dortmund and FC Bayern Munich. The rules of football in Germany require supporters to own the majority of every club. It’s a rule that strikes a fine balance between the need for genuine long-term ownership and the importance of the fans. It makes sure that clubs are run for the fans, not money.

“The Germans have the advantage that they are 85 million people. We sometimes forget that it’s a very heavily populated country. So you have a huge fan base,” says Karlsen, “and so [Bayern Munich] can afford to keep the prices down and you also have the corporate market in Munich.”

Sportswriter Jack Pitt-Brooke joins us for beers. Karlsen and Pitt-Brooke quickly get to talking transfer rumors and all manner of utterly unpublishable rumors about the sport gush onto the table. I hear about the seedier side of the game from those who know it best—and still love it more than anything.

“It is possible to get into the Premier League without going mad, but hard to close the gap between the top. Even Tottenham Hotspur, who have built organically, struggle to beat Arsenal and Chelsea for the last Champions League spot. To get into the top four now, top five, it will take you 15 years, if you have to build organically. You have to be an absolute genius,” said Karlsen.

I’m most eager to know if a supporter-owned club like can Wimbledon rise up and mount a challenge. I want Wimbledon to be reborn as a Premier League club where players believe in the club, where money isn’t the be-all and end-all. Karlsen says it won’t happen. “It’s a noble organic initiative and I do have a lot of time for it and I do think that there’s a place for it … I think in this reality the problem will come when, let’s say Wimbledon get promoted to the Championship [the division below the Premiership], and you find yourself saying, ‘What do we do, do we push for promotion or do you want to stay here? Push for promotion?’ We need a proper transfer budget: five, eight, or 10 million. Unless you are a Bill Gates or a philanthropist I find it very hard that some person that does come in with 10 million will accept no influence. So, that is when you start selling your soul.” Even the ex-chief executive of Monaco FC understands that money corrupts the soul of a football club.

Wimbledon is getting toward the end of the season, and I see them toward the end of February come from behind to dramatically win against Bradford. I attend the match, sitting in the cheap seats behind the goal sitting across the aisle from the visiting fans. I’ve got a terrible view and a worse hangover. But it’s worth sitting in the freezing cold with the sun in my eyes to see Wimbledon score two goals in the last 10 minutes, and to see the old man sat next to me smiling back and sharing the moment as we jump up and down, bang the seats, and direct our song of victory in the direction of the Bradford fans. They don’t stay to hear the final whistle. Fans sing on the train on the way back to central London. And for a moment, while the club hasn’t yet been able to move their stadium back to Wimbledon, back to the heartland, for a moment we stop at the train station at Wimbledon, and the club and its fans are a community again. A few more good results and Wimbledon seem out of danger of being relegated to the league below. The Ardley revolution, “Neal Ardley’s Yellow-Blue Army,” as the crowd sings incessantly in one breath, is full-speed ahead. That is, until results turn against them at the end of March and into April and Ardley is struggling to work with a team he didn’t put together himself. Plans for the stadium are updated—it’s good news. The club are a step closer to moving back to their spiritual home. But it’s essential for the club to finish in a high-enough league position to not drop into the league below—to remain in the full-professional leagues where the money is good, and to give Ardley an opportunity to perform even better next season with a brand-new team.

 

“I don’t think we can now reverse it or be nostalgic about the 80s,” I recalled Karlsen had said when I asked him about the good old-days, when he started going to matches and began to work as a scout. “Football has come to this point, it’s gone global, at the very top level footballers are now rock stars, managers are rock stars. The majority will always go and watch Man United, Barcelona, Chelsea, and Man City. Why? Because they have the stars,” said Karlsen. “It’s just like the majority will always go to watch the blockbuster film, but there will still be people who go to the arthouse cinema and enjoy their stuff so there is something for everyone.”

Couper tells me this isn’t a promising development. “I’ve been a couple of times to watch England play at Wembley and I felt a bit like a customer. You’ve got a load of street entertainers performing on the pitch and you felt like there was a disconnect between the players and the fans… There were big egos that didn’t really feel any connection with the fans because what they earn in a week is more than what anyone, you know, five friends earn between us in a year.” He is massively understating. More like what 50 friends would earn in a year.

If the experience of an England international is like Karlsen’s blockbuster movie at the cinema, then is Wimbledon arthouse? Couper disagrees: “Wimbledon’s like your nice community pub.”

As the stakes have increased for players, being offered so much more money and as the amount at stake in big games increasing, the diving, the simulation, the overplaying of injuries has come to plague the game. It’s one of the most common annoyances voiced by Americans. Player deceitfulness has even affected AFC Wimbledon. A player called Bobby Shillinde got picked up to play for the national team of Botswana. Local journalists in capital Gaborone wanted to know more about this AFC Wimbledon player they’d never heard of. After they called Wimbledon they found out that despite Shillinde having been flown over to Botswana, getting a Batswana agent, and having a series of web profiles discussing his life as a Wimbledon player, Bobby was a fraudster who had never played for AFC Wimbledon. He owns the AFCWimbledon.biz domain, but never played for the club. The club hadn’t heard of him until the press wrote about his deception. When Wimbledon fans found out, they started writing fake praise on Twitter and fans took Botswana flags to games. Shillinde would then would use fake praise from fans as evidence that he’s a player and post the pictures of the flags to Facebook in the hope that the Botswana national team’s staff would be convinced by the fans’ satirical support. It didn’t work. He was exposed. AFC Wimbledon striker Jack Midson told me later in the season that the dressing room hadn’t even been aware of the fraudster, but said that “If he had put that much effort into something else then he could do very well in that field. Shame!”

A penalty is awarded. With only 18 minutes left to play, the whole season rests on this. Part-time tennis coach and supplement-affiliate salesman Jack Midson steps up to take it.

Annoyed by Wimbledon’s poor results, and looking for a scapegoat, I track down Shillinde. I find him on Facebook and ask him why he wanted to play for Botswana. Soon after, Facebook informs me that my message was read by him immediately, but he doesn’t respond. Turns out he lives 17 miles from the MK Dons stadium. And he was a director, very briefly, at a company where his occupation was listed as “footballer.” Perhaps he’s not prepared to let his dream of becoming a footballer die.

One of AFC Wimbledon’s real rising stars, Reece Williams-Bowers,this season showed an even greater commitment to the club. He was offered the opportunity to join the Premier League club Fulham, but Wimbledon were able to proudly announced at a half-time presentation that the young player had decided to stay at AFC Wimbledon to improve his game. Couper told me this is down to the club’s unique philosophy. “Every player that comes through AFC Wimbledon has to go through an induction process where they are taught the history of the club, where the club has come from … It’s basically about making people understand that this is not your ordinary club … it’s trying to act a template for what other clubs could act like, by actually respecting its own fan base and that’s where we’re coming from.”

But young and up-and-coming players don’t win matches when they’re not yet in the senior squad. By April, Wimbledon haven’t yet won enough to ensure that they will stay in the same league in the following season. Other team’s results conspire to mean that it all comes down to the last game of the season. The club must win their final game against Fleetwood Town in order to stand a chance of staying in their division.

The club stands to lose all hope of a new stadium on Plough Lane, Wimbledon, the club’s spiritual home. And they stand to lose their hopes of becoming a better team than MK Dons. They’ll also lose $575,000 in broadcast deals and payments, plus all the other cuts in revenue that come from being in a lower league playing worse teams with smaller stadia. That’s all going to happen until 18 minutes before the final whistle. In the 72nd minute, a glimmer of hope as ball is floated in to near the Fleetwood goal. Fleetwood can’t clear. It’s headed to Wimbledon’s Curtis Osano, who is just two meters from goal. He runs and is fouled in the penalty area. Every Wimbledon fan in the ground jumps up to demand a penalty before Osano has hit the ground. A penalty is awarded. With only 18 minutes left to play, the whole season rests on this. Part-time tennis coach and supplement-affiliate salesman Jack Midson steps up to take it. He places the ball in the right place, on turf that has suffered through 23 home games in this season.

Only half a million dollars on the line, Jack.

 

Karlsen wants UEFA’s impending rule changes, aimed at ensuring financial stability, to be fairer to smaller clubs. He wants to make it impossible for owners to mortgage a club’s stadium, and to force owners into making long-term and transparent plans. And Couper wants the money talk to stop, especially talk of which clubs are top of the financial league tables. “Is that really the soul of the football club? Is that what community and soul is about?” said Couper. “I think soul is about respecting the community that you come from, building up the community.” 

David Conn is a reporter with the Guardian newspaper who investigates football finance. He’s the author of Richer Than God: Manchester City, Modern Football and Growing Up and The Beautiful Game? Searching the Soul of Football. He’s a passionate and devoted fan of the game but an increasingly alienated fan of Manchester City. Fearing for football’s soul, I called him to hear exactly what the threat is. He is firm with a tinge of sadness in his voice about the game, despite his team being better than it ever has been. Our phonecall is interrupted a dozen times by train tunnels, but he continues the thread of every sentence—such is his abiding passion for what’s gone wrong with the game and his knowledge of where its beauty lies.

“I think we all know what soul is, but it’s hard to put into words,” he said. “I think it’s a lot more than consumption, a lot more than spectating. We talk about supporting, about a sense of belonging, heritage, family life, and upbringing, childhood; the colors that the clubs play in; the ground where they play; the players who played: They all represent that emotion. The whole commercialization process, not business practices, not having stores that sells merchandise; you can have that, but the whole treatment of what we still call “club,” the treatment of them as businesses whose prime motivation is to realize value, that is a process of alienation, of exploitation.”

 

So excited by the prospect of NYC FC injecting cash into MLS and improving the game in the States, I ignored the glaring similarity: NYC FC are Milton Keynes Dons. Mansour wants to buy a club, to create a fan base from nothing and hope that the soul arrives somewhere down the line to make it real and give it some lifeblood. All clubs start somewhere. But the initiative should come from the fans, not an Emirati Sheikh with a suitcase full of cash.

Lucky for him, though, a club that has no fans can just be parachuted in—that’s how things are in the States. But it won’t be easy. The Empire Supporters Club, the longest-running fan club of the New York Red Bulls, aka Metrostars—New York’s existing franchise—fired the first warning shot across the bow of the new club in reaction to the NYC FC announcement, with the board issuing a statement that they are “surprised and frankly disappointed that Major League Soccer would choose to do business with Sheikh Mansour, the deputy prime minister and member of the ruling family of the United Arab Emirates, a nation where homosexuality is viewed as a crime punishable by death.”

Earlier in the current MLS season, which runs March to October, Robbie Rogers became the first openly gay player to play in a top American sports league. And MLS have made much of their Don’t Cross The Line initiative to tackle bigotry, including any regarding sexuality. And MLS recently extended their partnership with the You Can Play Project to make it less gruelling for players to come out.

“NYC FC doesn’t look like “soul,” said Conn, who admitted to knowing little about the mechanics of MLS. “[Shiekh Mansour] took over Man City, the club I grew up supporting. I wrote a book about the transformation of City, and my own journey from six-year-old boy falling in love with the love with the club to essentially quite alienated from the club … realizing that the owners were trying to exploit the club and make money.”

I surveyed U.S.-based Wimbedon fans to get the local perspective. Patrick Trotter, a fan of Wimbledon who lives in Fort Worth, Texas, said, “The MLS doesn’t even need Man City’s money to grow. It’s doing fine on its own. The English sport media and fans regularly play down the MLS as a ‘pub league,’ which is nothing like the truth … Even with the amount of money turned over by the NFL, they still have one thing that football doesn’t: a salary cap. It’s still possible for clubs in the smallest cities to compete in the NFL.”

Dons fan Steve Smith from Fairfield, Calif., said: “NYC FC, with the help of Manchester City, will believe they can buy a team and buy success. When will organizations realize that money and a group of high (and over-paid) individuals does not make a team? I think Wimbledon will be back in the Premier League before NYC FC wins the MLS.” That’s a true fan talking. David Garlinge, a Wimbledon fan since the 1950s, also from Texas, said that true fans can’t afford season tickets, and that the rich owners are just there to be seen. “The owners of teams in the U.S., regardless of the sport, are mostly only in it for the money and to become heroes in the related city,” he said.

Football, across the globe, will almost certainly continue to get richer. Viewership will increase. As Middle Eastern oil and money inevitably dries up, perhaps Chinese, South African, Indian, and Mongolian money will take its place. Other national leagues will have upsurges that encourage more foreign owners to put in more money. More teams will go bust. And yet the phoenix will rise from the ashes of every club burnt by its owners because no club is bigger than its fans and the community from which it originally drew its lifeblood and drew its soul.

The football gods smiled as Jack Midson stepped up and converted the penalty that saved Wimbledon from relegation. The final whistle of the season was eventually blown following eight excruciating minutes of injurytime added on to the end of the match. The fans invaded the pitch, drawn toward the nearest players they could get close to, to share this beautiful moment after a gruelling season. Manager Neil Ardley immediately set to work reshaping his squad to play the sort of flowing football he favors. After asking him about his stellar season, Jack Midson jokes that maybe I can sort him out a move to the USA. But he seems to love the club. Fans, relied on to raise extra money through membership, regular payments, fundraising days, lotteries, etc., have helped the club earn over $1.5 million for the next season’s playing budget. It’s a record amount that remains one of the lowest amounts of all the clubs in their league, but it represents progress.

AFC Wimbledon’s first home game of the season is on Aug. 10 against Wycombe Wanderers. I will know I’ve truly arrived at the stadium, at the club, for the new season, when I see a fan’s banner that hangs above the most steadfast, noisy, loyal Wimbledon fans who sit in the Tempest Stand. The banner represents Wimbledon’s rebirth, the hope and promise the club offers to the entire footballing world.

WE ARE THE RESURRECTION
AND WE ARE THE LIGHT

biopic

TMN Editor Mike Deri Smith is no gourmet, he just has an abnormally large stomach. He lives in London. More by Mike Deri Smith