How can you explain what a country is really like to someone who has never been there? I would mention the warmth of the people, the climate and the countryside – part coastal paradise, part jungle, part Andes mountains – so colourful and diverse. It never seemed to convince people that it was a good place to live. They probably thought I would catch a stray bullet and that would be the end of me.
My son, Ned, started watching live football when he was six years old. We were living in Mexico City at the time. Twice a week I would take him to a match – usually to watch America, Cruz Azul or Necaxa play at the huge and impressive Aztec Stadium. Sometimes we would go further afield to the Olympic Stadium to watch Pumas or to the stadium in the centre of that vast city, where Atlante played. We went to two playoff finals at the Aztec Stadium with crowds in excess of 120,000. The stadium capacity was 105,000 but counterfeit tickets added extra people to the crowd.
Colombians and Mexicans loved football as much as we did in the UK. The difference was that in both countries attendances could be sparse for run-of-the-mill games, but the big matches would fill the stadia. But then again football filled the air waves – there was always football to watch on tv.
Our visits to England in those days were limited by the cost of flying. However, whenever we got there we would visit my father in Wigan and take a trip to Springfield Park. Ned probably cannot remember watching Bryan Hamilton’s Latics team in a visit to England from Colombia. His most impressive recollection is later – watching the Three Amigos play in a pre-season friendly, with Roberto Martinez scoring a well taken goal.
From an early age, Ned had become a Latic fanatic. Every week my father would send us cuttings of match reports and features on Latics from the newspapers. It helped to keep us updated in those pre-internet days.
Ask a Colombian in their thirties which Italian team he likes best and he will probably roll out the usual suspects – AC, Inter and Juventus. But you will also find Parma high on the list. Why Parma?
Faustino Asprilla joined Parma in 1992 and helped them win the European Cup Winners Cup in his first season. The following season they signed Gianfranco Zola. Practically every Parma match was shown on Colombian television and people were glued to their sets, watching their footballing hero Asprilla. The combination of Asprilla and Zola was to tear defences apart and little club Parma was to win the UEFA Cup in 1994-95. It was the era when those people who are now in their thirties were in their teenage years.
A lot of people get hooked on a team when they are in their early teens. Last May when I was living in Jakarta most teenagers in Indonesia liked Man U, Chelsea or Man City. Fake replica shirts of those clubs were rampant on the streets. However, the expat enclave had a high proportion of Liverpool fans. Hardly any of them were actually from Liverpool – many were Scandinavians in their forties. The successes of Liverpool in the 1980’s must have impressed them as teenagers, let alone that Liverpool have had a fair share of good Nordic players over the years.
In January 2010 the Daily Mail quoted Latics manager Roberto Martinez saying that: ‘In terms of the future we have the highest number of youngsters as season tickets holder in the Premier League. I think it is about 20 per cent of Wigan’s population at under 16 are season ticket holders, so there are many, many positive signs.’
Even kids on the street in Indonesia are likely know the name of Wigan Athletic right now. Winning the FA Cup has put Latics on the global map.
When I was on holiday in Saigon in January I saw a young Asian man wearing a Wigan Athletic shirt. I went over and asked him if he was a Latics fan. He was Vietnamese and had taken a liking to Latics after seeing them play on television. He had been looking for a replica shirt for some time and managed to find one when he went to Singapore for a holiday.
Some of the young Indonesians would probably buy a Latics shirt too, if they were available in their country. Indonesians are crazy about English football and with a population of 250 million there are huge marketing opportunities. Once Manchester United signed Park Ji-Sung they won a lot of followers in Korea, selling lots of expensive replica shirts in the process.
Football continues to adjust slowly to the modern world. Video technology has still not been embraced as it has in all other major world sports. However, clubs have started to realise that they have not just a national, but a global, audience. Being relegated from the Premier League means that Latics’ overseas fans have much less access to watching games now. Surely the day will come when all their matches are streamed live overseas through pay-for-view internet? There is money to be made there, let alone in following up on the interest created by selling club merchandise.
Making contact with the local community is becoming more and more important for English football clubs. There was good news last week that the Wigan Athletic Community Trust has been given a £270,000 grant to help up to 70 local primary schools with their football and PE programmes. Latics have a lot to gain from such an arrangement, building up an early bond with potential young supporters and in providing further links for the club’s Academy to identify young local talent for the future.
Wigan Athletic have not been particularly successful in nurturing young players from their own back yard, more often than not relying on picking up youth players released by big Premier League clubs in the north west. It is good to see Wigan lad, Tim Chow, currently coming through the ranks in the under 21 team. There need to be more like him.
Year by year while they were in the Premier League, Wigan Athletic were gradually building up a global fan base. When Ben Watson’s header went in at Wembley it magnified the club’s image on a global level. Being in the Europa League is also giving them more exposure.
Wigan Athletic have turned the corner as far as support is concerned. Their potential fan base is far greater than it has ever been before.
There is a young core of supporters who will remain fans for years to come. As the club steps up its involvement in the local community more and more people will be drawn to the DW Stadium.
Moreover it now has a global following, that if nurtured, could reap dividends.