I am part of a visible phenomenon at Stamford Bridge these days: the football tourist. Those guys drinking down at the end of the Shed Bar? Norwegians. The people spilling out of the coach that just pulled into the yard? Chinese. The fan clubs from New York and Iceland are both reportedly here. Local fans, I learn with each conversation, are bemused.
“It’s been fifty years since we won the league,” said the man in the seat next to me during that Arsenal match. “Do you have any idea what that means? We’ve been waiting fifty years.”
No, I don’t have any idea. There were no blue-and-white scarves hanging from the coat rack in my West Vancouver boyhood home. My allegiance to Chelsea is a perfectly North American construct: an arbitrary, although inspired, whim. Specifically, a sporting fever picked up watching a five-and-a-half-foot-tall striker named Gianfranco Zola who could tuck free kicks into top corners with a dexterity that took the breath away. “The Little Sardinian” joined Chelsea in 1996, and, after a few years watching him on television skim uprights inches beyond the keeper’s reach and bend wicked shots around walls he couldn’t even see over, I was hooked.
As were many others. Chelsea is located in famous, fashionable West London. Think Chelsea boots, green mohawks, skinhead chic, Sloane Rangers. The place is hard-wired into the global cultural grid, and that’s probably why I’ve run into more remote Chelsea fans over the years than long-distance followers of, say, Scunthorpe County. And the buzz on Fulham Road lately suggests that the Chelsea Football Club might well become the biggest local export of them all.
In the latest issue of The Walrus, Canada’s award-winning literary magazine, Timothy Taylor, journalist, author and longtime Chelsea supporter, explores Chelsea Football Club in the Roman Abramovich era, in the context of the ongoing push to brand and globalise football clubs. Working from a long-distance fan’s perspective, Taylor combines personal experience, research, and reportage — including interviews with Franklin Foer, author of How Soccer Explains the World, and several prominent members of Chelsea’s supporter network — to show how clubs are extending their global presence and changing English football in the process. Read it here.