Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The Nostalgia Industry

Zagreb isn't the first place most people think of for a trip away in mid-winter. Nor is it a city which grabs all that many sporting headlines. Those who follow skiing, or who remember England goalkeeper Paul Robinson's night of shame at Zagreb's Maksimir Stadium in 2006, may beg to differ. But, on the whole, I hadn't expected too much to write about in today's Cynical Challenge when I booked to visit a friend in the Croatian capital over the weekend.

The one item of note was, I had assumed, a fairly inconsequential ice hockey match between the local side, ZG Medveščak, and Austrian side EC VSV from the town of Villach. About a fortnight ago, hoping it might provide something to do on a Friday night, I contacted Medveščak and acquired some press tickets.

What I hadn't realised was what a big deal the game was. 

Medveščak are Zagreb's most successful hockey team, having won the domestic championship 14 years out of the last 16 since Croatia emerged from the war in the Former Yugoslavia. Ice hockey, along with many other professional sports, fell apart in the country during the war. But the game is undergoing a resurgence in Zagreb, with Medveščak having been invited to compete in the Erste Bank Liga, comprising teams from across Central Europe, for the first time in 2009-10.

Over the weekend, the club happened to be hosting a special event dubbed the "Šalata Winter Classic". Ordinarily Medveščak play their home games at the indoor Dom Sportova complex. But the Šalata Winter Classic was different - two matches, the first against Villach and the second two days later against the Vienna Capitals, held at Medveščak's former home, the outdoor Šalata Sport and Recreational Centre. These would be the club's first matches at Šalata, by all accounts a much-loved stadium among residents of Zagreb, in nearly 40 years.

Friday's game was an absolute joy. The slightly crumbling stadium was a sell-out, with 4,000 fans turning up to roar on Medveščak, even as the temperature dropped to -5C. The pre-match entertainment only added to the sense that this was a evening for looking back as much as forwards, with renditions of Stompin Tom Connors' The Hockey Song, released in 1973 - a year after Medveščak left Šalata. And, as if to emphasise the point, the crowd joined in a rendition of the Croatian song Za Stara Dobra Vremena - "to the good old times".

Sporting nostalgia works in mysterious ways. It has the ability to unite disparate supporters in a way that discussion of current sporting trends rarely does. The passing of a respected former footballer - one thinks of Bobby Moore or Stanley Matthews as recent examples - seems invariably to provoke eulogies from across the board, irrespective of partisan loyalties, and despite the potential for dissent. Even Manchester City supporters (broadly) respected the minute's applause at a home game after the death of former nemesis George Best in 2005.

In another way, fans often resort to the use of their club's history as a rallying call and a signal of their credibility. Witness the Manchester United fans who, in recent weeks, have adopted the green and yellow of Newton Heath FC, the Old Trafford club's forerunners, as the banner for their movement against the Glazer family - perceived to be outsiders and therefore improper guardians of the club's history.

Toasting the "good old times" in sport isn't always so positively-received, though. In his excellent Englischer Fussball German author Raphael Honigstein argues persuasively that English fans' inflated perception of their country's importance in world football has inhibited their team's performances at international level; while Germany's reluctance to think too hard about its past (particularly the years 1933-45) has allowed players the freedom to play, and win, without the weight of history on their shoulders.

And sometimes nostalgia can even be cynical manipulation. In football especially, the resort to appropriating club traditions - the interviews with faded stars, the tours round dusty old trophy rooms - is often, perversely, a symptom of the destruction of that history. As the game becomes ever more global, and the focus of clubs transcends the local communities which house them, tradition itself becomes commercialised, packaged and sold to fans the same as replica kits. In this way the clubs satisfy the emotional bond between a team and its local support base, while expanding into the global marketplace and thereby, slowly but surely, rendering that bond illusory.

However, albeit viewed from a position of ignorance, the Šalata Winter Classic represented a truly successful return to the roots of a sporting institution, the sell-out crowd a testament to the profound meaning attached to Medveščak's return to the club's Tito-era home.

Friday's game plainly demonstrated the fact that, for many sports fans, remembering their club's past can often be more important than planning for its future. It's a lesson that many who run sporting institutions in the UK may pay lip service to - but Medveščak's example is a relatively rare one, a beacon of credibility in a sea of clumsy attempts by many, particularly in the Premier League, to 'sell' tradition to fans.

The only let-down - the result. Medveščak lost on penalties after a 2-2 draw.


One hour to go. Nothing says 'Eastern European sport' like a floodlight pylon


Wheel out the prematch entertainment


Let's get ready to rumble. By the way, the little yellow lights in the crowd are sparklers


Game on!


The punching, stamping and general violence begins

A view from the gantry


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Always glad to hear your thoughts. Be nice now! James