With the 2010 World Cup underway, many football fans around the world will be avidly debating and agonising over the fate of their nations in the tournament. However it is often at the domestic club level that the game finds its most passionate support.
David Goldblatt, embarks on an assortment of adventures into the meaning and madness of the game. He travels to four very different football games in Italy, Egypt, Ghana and the UK, to experience the build-up and pitch action from the perspective of the fans.
A Night at the Opera - Inter Milan v AC Milan
By David Goldblatt
It's 24 January 2010, a bitingly cold Sunday and the city is enshrouded in freezing fog, trees are encrusted in frost like sparkling diamond telegraph poles.
The elite of Milanese society are swirling up the steps of La Scala for the afternoon performance of Rigoletto but that evening they will most likely be at a more significant performance that will grip the entire city as Inter - the Nerazurri - play their city counterparts Milan - the Rossoneri.
For the first time in years both clubs have a chance of winning the Scudetto - the Italian championship. The scandal of Calciopoli in 2006 still courses through this fixture and Serie A. Inter became champions that year, after decades of cursing and waiting - whilst Juventus were disgraced and relegated, and Milan were docked points for their part in the worst ever crisis to hit Italian football.
For decades Inter fans have considered themselves the unlucky ones, in the shadow of Milan’s domestic and European glory. Milan fans talk patronisingly of them as the idiot cousins, to be tolerated and allowed to share stadium space with. But not anymore.
Since 2006 Inter have gone on to win successive championships whilst Milan have begun to wane. An old team presided over by a figure who divides Italian society and whose own powers might be on the wane - Silvio Berlusconi. His political power built on the spectacle and glory of Milan in the 1990s. This night is perhaps their last chance to haul Inter back into a title fight.
Many derbies are characterised by hatred, fear and loathing. But here you can see friends, even families supporting both sides, and walking alongside each other to the match. Milan have, traditionally been the club of the city’s working class, Inter the club of artists, intellectuals and the elite.
Much has changed since Berlusconi used Milan to create a spectacle of football, full of bling and hyperbole to project his political ambitions on a national stage. That’s merely the backdrop for a fixture and a game that permeates every sector of Italian society.
In the company of Calcio historian John Foot, I speak to a leading architect and to a hooligan about what football and the Derby della Madonnina - named after the city’s great statue of the Virgin Mary at the top of the Duomo Cathedral - means to all.
Listen as I find out how faith, power, dreams and paranoia clash in the dark night of the San Siro.
First broadcast on 7 June 2010
The Secret Policeman’s Football - Al Ahly v Zamalek
By David Goldblatt
It's 12 December 2009, the day of the Cairo derby. Billed as a violent clash of the two oldest clubs in Egypt, I arrive to find the fixture overshadowed by the national hysteria of Egypt’s failure to qualify for the World Cup at the hands or feet of hated rivals Algeria.
It’s a clue to what football means to many millions across the nation. It's one of the few legitimate areas of expression and emotion - in a heavily policed society where frustrations are many and outlets few.
Traditionally Zamalek have been tied to the Egypt of the past, to royalty and the world before the coming of Gamal Abdul Nasser. Al Ahly are literally "the nation" - seemingly the expression of national will. Set up deliberately in opposition to British rule and as a place to gather like-minded individuals against foreign rule.
When Nasser came to power he chose Al Ahly as the club to be run by one of his close military allies, although Nasser himself seemingly had little enthusiasm for football. Both clubs are the elite of North African football, shrouded in domestic and African honours - whilst the Egyptian league remains financially stable and able to retain its best players.
Zamalek, the White Knights, have been on the slide recently - bad management, bad results and bad vibes. Its fans see Al Ahly as the oppressive power - helped by officials and by interested parties to maintain their grip on the league. They speak of only ever feeling free at the club, like Al Ahly a vast sporting organisation that offers membership to those who can afford it and a range of sporting and social facilities.
Al Ahly, meanwhile, have been at the heart of a new phenomenon, the rise of the Ultras. Slavishly modelled along the lines of Italian Tifosi, elaborately choreographed displays of support with massive banners, structured leadership and highly orchestrated support. But to be an Ultra in Egypt is very different from Italian society.
Ultras traditionally hate the police but that is a dangerous thing to do in a virtual police state. They must organise secretly at night, arriving at the ground hours before anyone else to bring in their banners and paraphernalia. In the days and hours leading up to the game, leaders of both Al Ahly and Zamalek Ultras have been detained by the police but their plans go ahead.
Al Ahly's Ultras may despise their Zamalek cousins but reserve true hatred for the fans of nearby Ismaily. At their most recent away fixture, the Ultras stunned police with a blazing display of flares that shrouded the entire game in smoke.
Now, as the hours tick away, the police are taking no chances. Both the recent loss to Algeria and the orchestrated flares of the Al Ahly Ultras at Ismaily mean the national stadium - the only place big enough and safe enough to host the derby - is surrounded by the police and army.
Fans are thoroughly searched, any flag has its stick removed and all the while, plain-clothed security forces, in comfortable slacks and knitwear, watch attentively. Which is why my producer and I, perhaps naively brandishing BBC marked microphones are experiencing the ignominy of not being allowed in.
First broadcast on 14 June 2010
All the King’s Men - Asante Kotoko v Accra Hearts of Oak
By David Goldblatt
For decades this has been Ghana’s biggest game. These two clubs have been contesting bragging rights well before independence.
Following independence, football became crucial to national identity, part of Kwame Nkrumah’s project to achieve Pan African glory. And these two clubs have been the traditional source of players for the nation’s pride, the Black Stars.
But not now - these two clubs mirror the decline of domestic football. Kotoko, still very much associated with the regional power base of the Asante kingdom and the rule of the Asantehene - life president of the club and Hearts of Oak - are pale shadows of the glory years in the 1960s and 70s.
The money rich leagues of Europe have drained them of their best players. A top player at Hearts of Oak - the most supported club in the country - can make something like $5000 a year. A figure easily surpassed by the lowliest leagues of say Belgium or the Ukraine.
Consequently there has been a mass migration since the late 1980s that has rapidly gathered pace. To add insult to injury, Ghanaians naturally want to watch their best players play, so the games of the English Premiership, Serie A and La Liga attract huge and passionate crowds to bars and shacks across Accra, and the nation - often at the expense of domestic football attendance. That and the uncomfortable, occasionally life-threatening experience of watching the game have contributed to dwindling crowds.
In 2001, 126 people lost their lives during a Hearts of Oak versus Asante Kotoko game when riot police fired tear gas into the crowd, following trouble and triggered a panicked stampede. Last year six died at Asabte Kotoko, in a crush in the ‘popular end’, after senior officials illegally encouraged ticketless fans in and pocketed the money. To date no one has been prosecuted for either tragedy.
This fixture is one of the few that still draws a large crowd. Some 20,000 fans on both sides mingle, drumming, singing and dancing their way through a game marked by ferocious tackling, second rate football and officiating that temporarily unites all in bouts of condemnation and cursing.
In the company of local football journalist Jerome Otchere, I hear from the founder of Circle O - the musical voice of Hearts of Oak - still traumatised by the tragedy of 2001.
I also get involved in an impromptu radio phone-in, tease out the myths of royal and political allegiances and wonder whether I really should be eating one of those sweaty doughnuts hawked in the crowd.
First broadcast on 21 June 2010
Geordie Nation - Newcastle v Anybody
By David Goldblatt
It's 11 May 2009 and the English Premiership is awash with money and self-importance as the world’s "greatest league". But here in the North East, the early standard bearer for the Premiership revolution is wounded and in trouble.
This is a one-city club; its fortunes dominate the lives of many, as does the outline of St James' Park stadium as you climb the approach. Business, civic pride, local bragging rights with their hated "Mackem" - Sunderland - rivals and the nagging ache of having won "nowt" for decades, are all bundled up in the black and white fervour of the Toon army.
A litany of Newcastle’s recent woes, clustered together under the wildly unpopular ownership of the elusive tycoon Mike Ashley, makes for grim reading and gallows humour for its many passionate fans.
Scandal, sackings, punch ups between players, disastrous decision-making, a financial meltdown and now potential relegation. Even the return of local hero Alan Shearer, as manger, can’t banish the stink of fear that grips the club and its fans as they play local rivals Middlesbrough - who also seemingly doomed to the drop.
Fans have written their own play - You Couldn’t Make It Up - to chart the ludicrous misfortunes of recent years. Whilst an encounter with Sir John Hall - a key figure in the regeneration of the club in the 1980s - reveals the impossible dream of the Geordie nation. That night, amidst nail biting and near hysteria, the club first fall behind and then rally and win.
It is their sole win under Shearer, they are relegated anyway with a whimper. All is doomed, fans form their own group to try and wrest control of the club from an owner they have come to loathe. Players leave, the club prepares for life in the second tier and owner Mike Ashley renames the legendary St James’ Park stadium, Sports Direct.com@ St James Park. Things can’t get any worse.
On 2 April 2010, Newcastle are playing Ipswich and the dark night of last season has been banished by the light. The team has rallied, achieved promotion at the first time of asking and now are about to be crowned champions as they play their last home game of the season. But for those same fans that I met in the depths of despair what does the future hold?
First broadcast on 28 June 2010