Burnley, Basque, and The Footballing Populists

In a world where progressive globalism appears to be the main demand – the blurred lines of borders, the free-flowing labor, all in the name of “progress” – I personally find it daring and somewhat controversial to see someone hold dearly the populist values and avoiding the melting pot. Because that’s what this is about, isn’t it? – culture and identity the two ever-growing topics of discussion. In football, that’s no different, apparently.

Obviously, there’s Trump with his ill-advised “America First” worldview, May’s peculiar obsession with blue passports, and Farage’s outcry against job-taking, economy-undermining Eastern European immigrants. And then there’s Sean Dyche, the Burnley manager. Pardon my slightly derogative fashion in putting Dyche’s name in the same context of those three horrid people, and there is no intention to dismiss his recent success managing his team, but something clearly caught my attention.

Blackburn Rovers v Burnley - npower Championship
Burnley FC manager, Sean Dyche

It’s not that Dyche is xenophobic or that he hates immigrants, but apparently there seems to be a recruitment policy going on at Burnley. Former Burnley goalie Paul Robinson, who retired last summer, said that “There’s a certain type of player he wants. He’s got a style that he wants to play, and a certain player that fits the mould”. In his article on the topic, Independent’s Jonathan Liew said that the policy had something to do with the “Britishness” of the club, pointing out that the Burnley squad “is drawn almost exclusively from the British Isles”, with the exception of Ashley Barnes, an Austrian who is born and raised in Bath (270 kilometers from Burnley); Steven Defour, an English-speaking Belgian; Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson, an Icelandic who played approximate total of 5 years of football in England; and a very few others who are foreign to the British Isles, but not exactly unfamiliar with English Football.

Along with that, there’s also this “British” way of running the club, as Robinson revealed. Liew described it as “a curiously repressive regime, characterised by petty rules, arbitrary punishments and a culture of secret denunciation”. The rules that forbid players from wearing gloves, hats, or even headphones, with the punishments determined by the “wheel of fortune”. That’s pretty bloody strict, and it’s clearly not just some cringeworthy “three envelopes” method applied by Brendan Rodgers in his time at Liverpool.

“And then I told them I had three envelopes lmao”

Right now, the “Britishness” of Burnley is very odd considering the nature of the Premier League – let alone world football – which is very, very borderless (Ragnar Klavan’s goal at the start of the month marks the 98th nationality who have scored in the league). However, they’re not the only ones. There’s the Celtic vs Rangers rivaly which includes restriction of buying Protestant and Catholic players respectively, and there’s also the “Basqueness” of Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao in Spain.

Rangers’ and Celtic’s policy ended when Mo Johnston crossed the line in 1989, being the first Catholic to sign for Rangers. In the same year, Real Sociedad’s policy to sign only Basque players ended with John Aldridge signing for the club. Meanwhile, Athletic Bilbao is still holding to its “Basqueness” until now.

Started in 1912, the policy restricts the club from signing non-Basque players, and with their higher status and financial strength, they managed to do that easily while muscling out rivals Real Sociedad in recruiting the best local talent from nearby Sociedad, Alaves and Osasuna. Their unbreakable loyalty to the cause is a sign of their strong intention to preserve and uphold the Basque identity to the modern footballing world, particularly to Spain. They even have a saying that embodies their philosophy – “con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación” which translates to “with homegrown talent and local support, you don’t need for imports.”

With Burnley’s “Britishness” and Bilbao’s “Basqueness”, it’s amazing to see how those two clubs set an example that sticking to your local identity and upholding it to the face of the modern, borderless, inflation-ridden footballing world doesn’t mean you won’t survive – Burnley is now still going strong in the top half of the Premier League table, while Athletic Bilbao still remains as one of the most successful teams in Spain.

Athletic Bilbao winning the Spanish Super Cup in 2015, defeating Barcelona 5-1 on aggregate

Their stories serve as an alternative explanation to the one I learned last year in a seminar on identity politics in football. I learned that in the cases of top teams, it’s rare to see a club upholding its own local identity and culture, and most of the times it’s up to the fans to represent local values. The unique St. Pauli fanbase, fan-owned clubs in Germany, the remarkable tifos in Italy, and the flag-bearing Kop Stand at Anfield to name a few. Players oftentimes also shy away from representing local values and develop close relationship to their fans, except for home-grown players playing for their boyhood club, and some other exceptions like – from a Liverpool fan – Danish Daniel Agger tattooing “YNWA” on his fingers and Brazilian Lucas Leiva embracing the Scouse culture. But when the club, the fans, and the players are on the same page when it comes to embracing their own identity and culture, that’s something special.

Or is it?

Maybe it’s just a minor glitch in the perfected capitalist world of football, driven by rich owners and statistics? Maybe those few examples are “special” only because they’re so rare and not in an ultimately good way? Maybe the high demands and expectations of the fans to see their team be successful while playing good football overwrite their local spirit and proudness of their own identity and culture?

Or maybe the likes of Manchester City, PSG, Barcelona, and the Chinese Super League are ruining football with their massive financial strength, rich owners, TV deals, sponsorship deals, and shitloads of revenues? Maybe the top teams in the top leagues should just go local and see where it takes them?

This is what £200m looks like, apparently

Or…maybe it all doesn’t matter? Maybe we just want to see good football regardless of who’s playing? Maybe we just want to support our favourite team regardless of where we originated from?

The debate between populism, globalism, and even centrism transcends political affiliations, and whichever way we choose to answer the aforementioned questions, I believe it says much about our own worldview.

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