Without Rival

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The future of Portsmouth F.C was recently thrown into doubt, when the club released a statement warning of their impending liquidation.

Former owner Sacha Gaydamak was reported to have demanded much of the £2.5million owed to him in an up-front payment, which Portsmouth would have been unable to meet. Although the situation stabilised, there was a moment when it seemed Portsmouth FC would cease to exist.

This is news that you may have expected to spark celebration amongst Southampton fans, who sing about murdering their south-coast counterparts at least once a match. However, the mood about St. Marys was surprisingly downbeat at the thought of losing their greatest rivals. Rather than seeing Portsmouth’s closure as the final victory, fans instead feared a loss in their own club’s culture.

“We’d have no one to sing about, rivalries take a long time to build up. You wouldn’t be able to just replace them with another local club like Bournemouth. There’s a lot of history behind it,” a fan, introducing himself as ‘Chinner’ tells us. And the more fans we speak to, the clearer it becomes. Losing Portsmouth would mean losing an important part of their clubs identity.

A football team without their greatest rival would be like Superman with no Lex Luther; just a man in a blue leotard, using his x-ray vision for more nefarious purposes involving the local girls school. Rivalries can define a football team and their supporters. Imagine Liverpool with no Manchester United or Millwall with no West Ham.

In many cases, the enmity goes far beyond the chanting. Take Portsmouth and Southampton. Two docking cities, where a history of worker’s unions stealing employment from one another has created a great deal of bad blood. This dockyard rivalry which still lingers around St Mary’s has led to Southampton being branded ‘scummers’ by Portsmouth fans, an insult based upon the initials of their union, and Pompey fans in return are known as ‘skates’.

Moving away from the South Coast, probably the best known rivalry in British football is the ‘Old Firm’ derby. Glasgow Rangers and Celtic base their hatred on religion, and draw not only most of Scotland, but also Ireland into the historic Catholic against Protestants feud. At the height of the troubles, games would often spill over into sectarian violence, and the chants that feature in this fixture reflect the deep religious divide rather than the football.

This kind of history is not unusual. The backdrop to ‘el clasico’ matches, played between Spanish giants, Real Madrid and Barcelona is deeply political. Spain is a country with a long history of civil tension between the state and other regional areas around the country. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Catalonia; home of Barcelona football club. Their fans see Real Madrid as the club of the establishment, and matches between the two become a medium for playing out their struggle with the government of Madrid. The same is true in many other footballing countries across the world; football rivalries become about social and political struggles between two groups. It’s one of the many things that make following a football club part of people’s lives. It’s why FC Barcelona is dubbed ‘Més que un club’; to the supporters Barca is much more than just a club.

Perhaps its not surprising then that not one Saints fan we spoke to was happy about Portsmouth’s plight. Many expressed a desire to see the club relegated, or even felt a sense of justice after Southampton’s own financial difficulties over recent years, but none hoped to see Pompey fold entirely. One fan, James Stanyer, summed up the mood by saying, “You’d much rather they stay in business. We’d have nothing to moan about otherwise. Much as you might hate the club, no one wants to see another football team go under.”

Having a distinct enemy builds up the passion many people feel for their own club. Just as people feel more patriotic in wartime, football fans are most passionate when faced with their big rivals. Even half way through the first 45 minutes against Oldham, Southampton fans managed a rousing rendition of “We Hate Pompey”.  And that type of passion just can’t be stirred up on the back of a pre-season trip to Eastleigh. When asked about the animosity felt towards local league opponents Bournemouth, the most one fan could muster was “they’re alright really”. Hardly the sort of sentiment we fought the Nazi’s on.

What is happening here is in some ways typical of the modern game. These days football is big business, and clubs can become more of a pawn between their owners and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs than as the property of their fans. Crystal Palace nearly beat Portsmouth to become the first major footballing casualty of careless business practice, and considering  the well publicised debt troubles of most Premier League clubs, they may be far from the only two.

Surprisingly enough the real victims in this may not only be the fans of the club that disappeard, but also the set of fans that have spent so long singing about ‘shooting the Pompey scum’.

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