When Stadiums Disappear
Jorge Luis Borges, AFC Wimbledon and the meaning of home in football
“As an old tourist wandering through of the neighbourhood of Núñez and thereabouts, I could not help noticing that River’s Estadio Monumental was no longer in its usual spot.” Buenos Aires, 1967, and our narrator Honorio Bustos Domecq is about to discover something truly astounding. Football, it turns out, doesn’t really exist.
The sudden relocation of the capital’s largest stadium to God-knows-where raises scarcely an eyebrow, yet our protagonist feels compelled to investigate. Finding his way into the boardroom of the fictional Buenos Aires side Abasto Juniors, he meets club president Tulio Savastano and conversation soon turns to the football, and Juniors’ recent victory over a visiting XI from the Canary Islands. When Domecq deconstructs the winning goal, an easy finish from the centre-back Renovales after a slide-rule-pass from his teammate Musante, the ruse is finally revealed. “To think it was I who came up with those names,” confesses the executive.
In a sentence, the cultural institution known to you and me as football completely unravels. Every aspect of it is artificial: the scores pre-determined by club executives, the players mere actors working under pseudonyms, the football stadium a television graphic. Football, though, manages to cling onto a single key function: marketability. “These things don’t exist outside of recording studios and newspaper offices,” explains the club president. “Rest assured, Domecq, mass advertising is the trademark of modern times.”
Published in 1967 under the title “Esse est percipi” (“To be is to be perceived”), Honorio Bustos Domecq’s story is not the work of one writer, but of two: an Argentinian novelist by the name of Adolfo Bioy Casares, along with his close friend and contemporary Jorge Luis Borges.
Anyone familiar with Borges’s work will know that a story dealing with a phenomenon quite so banal as football was completely out of character for the old master’s work. Why did the great metaphysician and author of the wildly popular Ficciones turn his attentions to the sport relatively late in his literary career? Why, indeed, when he could scarcely disguise his flagrant antipathy for the pastime, calling it once “a game for imbeciles”, and arguing that “football is only popular because stupidity is”?
It’s possible that Borges saw in the game an opportunity to explore the kind of metaphysical quandaries that had characterised his most popular works. For he was no stranger to ideas of the very greatest magnitude. His 1941 story “The Library of Babel” imagined the universe as a library of practically infinite size, where the greatest works of human culture are to be found randomly alongside pages of inherently nonsensical strings of characters. The conclusion? The universe is much too vast to be described adequately in human language. His 1939 “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” tells of a fictional French writer who accidentally rewrites a verbatim copy of sections of Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Despite being a word for word copy, we’re told, the Frenchman’s version still manages to be better than the original.
The game of football offered Borges a convenient testing ground for those ideas: what is it that makes things in the world meaningful to us? And what is it that makes one thing different from another, and gives it an identity of its own? With that in mind, a better question than why Borges cared about football is why football should care about Borges. Because it turns out that the Argentinian’s metaphysical meditations can tell us an awful lot about it.
For all of his vehement dislike for something with football’s mass-appeal, Borges’s work was eerily prescient of the state of contemporary football. To him, tying a football club’s identity to something as flimsy as the geographical location of its stadium is enough to make the question of its identity meaningless. So what when a football club not only changes its geographical location? What when a football club changes its name and colours, and moves somewhere else entirely? Thankfully we have a way to test it out: look at the example of Wimbledon.
“Mass advertising is the marker of modern times,” says the bigwig mastermind behind the great footballing conspiracy in Borges’s story. The quote could hardly be better placed. Any football fan will be familiar with that kind of thinking: that cultural phenomena like football teams exist purely to satisfy corporate interests. AFC Wimbledon fans might identify with it especially since their local team’s ‘move’ to Milton Keynes. I say move in inverted commas, because it wasn’t actually a move at all.
Peter Winkelman, currently chairman of Milton Keynes Dons, is not dissimilar to Savastano, the ad exec in the Borges story, someone whose understanding of football is based entirely in finances. He’s a businessman first and foremost, a pop mogul turned stadium developer whose industrial development had it all: plans for an Asda, Ikea and a brand new football stadium. There was only one thing it lacked: a football team.
Charles Koppel was cut from the same cloth. In 2002, the Wimbledon FC chairman’s idea to use football as a business opportunity fell into the lap of Winkelman, who had already floated the idea of bringing Wimbledon up to Buckinghamshire once before.
In an inversion of the usual term, Milton Keynes was a stadium in search of a club, and in August 2001 Koppel wrote a letter to the Football League asking permission to franchise Wimbledon Football Club and bring it up the M1, to the dissent of the press, supporters and Football League officials themselves. David Burns, chief executive of the Football League, told the BBC in 2001: “The general principles of the Football League have always applied — and there is no reason to depart from those except in exceptional circumstances — that a club should play in its natural home.
“Wimbledon have moved from their natural home and one of the things that we in the League will do — and I have already written to the council — is to find out why they cannot go back to their natural home.”
Placement in the natural home is simply part of what makes a football club a football club. Moving the Estadio Monumental from one part of Buenos Aires to another, is that not enough to change the identity of River, the club that plays there? Well, perhaps not. Wimbledon FC hadn’t played at their natural home in Plough Lane since 1991, leaving the stadium derelict. Yet no one would have claimed that Wimbledon were no longer Wimbledon during the days they had to share Selhurst Park.
Perhaps then we can use football to critique Borges. Is placement in the natural home not enough for a club to maintain its identity? If Club Atlético River Plate left the Barrio Núñez for elsewhere in Buenos Aires, but kept their name, colours and fanbase, who could argue that they are no longer themselves? River, after all, had begun life as a club based in the docks near Boca. The fact that a football club can change its stadium but maintain its identity shows that football is far more durable than Borges had imagined. Its changeability is its continuity.
Part of what makes a club a club is either a spiritual connection to its particular patch of grass, or the potential to return there. The connection to that sort of edenic space is part of a club’s mythmaking and makeup. Tottenham Hotspur will still be Tottenham Hotspur when they return to White Hart Lane after a season at Wembley. AFC Wimbledon’s fans can be heard on the terraces in Kingston singing of the dream to return to Plough Lane. Should the plan to return by 2019 come to fruition, they will be much more a continuation of Wimbledon FC than Milton Keynes Dons ever were.
When the move was originally rejected by the Football League, Koppel appealed and an independent commission was set up to adjudicate on the final decision. So the question of the identity of an entire football club landed on the desk of chief executives and corporate lawyers. The motion to allow Wimbledon to move to Milton Keynes passed by two votes to one.
What was sold as a move was seen differently by the supporters. Marc Jones, a spokesman for the Wimbledon Independent Supporters’ Association told the press: "It's pretty sickening. I've stood and watched Wimbledon since 1979 and now I don't have a club to support any more.
“I won’t be going to Milton Keynes. It has to be the death of our club. If it moves it will mean nothing to us.”
How right he was. The club was taken out of administration, out of its club colours and out of its natural home. Not even taking the name Wimbledon FC during their temporary stint at Milton Keynes’s National Hockey Stadium, nor the appropriation of the nickname ‘Dons’ when the club finally installed itself in Stadium: MK could offer anything other than a sense of false continuity.
So when Wimbledon directors argued to the independent commission that it was the club’s last chance of financial survival, they couldn’t have been more wrong. What they should have said was that this was their last chance of finding themselves on a board of a football club in the Football League, because whatever club they ended up with would never have been Wimbledon.
By virtue of belonging to the same natural home as Wimbledon FC used to, AFC Wimbledon has become an off-cut, genetically identical to Merton’s old ‘Crazy Gang’. MK Dons have none of the DNA of that club. As such, the sentence that Wimbledon moved to Milton Keynes is a sentence devoid of meaning. There is no way that the club could have moved to Milton Keynes and still have been, in some sense, Wimbledon.
To Borges, tying a club’s identity to something so flimsy as some bricks and mortar on one patch of land, like Plough Lane in Wimbledon or Anfield in Liverpool, shows how flimsy a club’s identity actually is. But then, what if that conversation is moot? What if Milton Keynes Dons are just the epitome of a process of constant transformation that every football club undergoes?
Let’s leave Borges for the moment and turn our attentions to another great metaphysician, Plutarch. In what came to be known as the Ship of Theseus paradox, the Greek posited the question: At what point does one ship become another ship?
“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete,” Plutarch wrote in Theseus, “had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”
When the ship has been dismantled and rebuilt anew, piece by piece, is it still the same ship as before? The question has troubled philosophers for millennia, even popularising itself in the form of Trigger’s broom in the sitcom Only Fools and Horses. Trigger’s broom has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles in its 20-year career, but he regards it as being still the same broom it’s always been.
Now what if a football club, any football club, even your football club, is just another Ship of Theseus, just another Trigger’s Broom? Football clubs are constantly adding new elements and removing old ones. The crests change, the kits and the colours aren’t the same, each set of playing staff completely different from the one a decade earlier. Even the bricks and mortar might change. Even clubs that stay precisely where they are no longer play in the same old stadium: football grounds are gradually rebuilt brick by brick over the course of decades.
So what’s the same about your club now as it was in the past? What permits you to say that your club is the same club as ever?
Perhaps there’s a solution, and it lies in the difference between what philosophers call quantitative and numerical identity.
Quantitative identity refers to two things sharing common properties. A cat and a dog are both mammals, and in that property they are identical. A tabby cat and a ginger cat are both cats, and in that property they are even more identical to each other than dogs and cats are. Numerical identity refers, by contrast, to when there is only one of something. Numerical identity is shared between only a thing and itself. That’s precisely the kind of identity that football fans attribute to their clubs — it’s the same club, and has never been another club. Perhaps they should think of it in terms of the former.
So as long as your club shares some qualities with its former selves, you can safely say it’s the same club as ever. But we’re not out of the woods just yet. Because it’s not enough to share some qualities and say you’re the same club. You have to share the right ones. Ownership, for example, is not one. Wimbledon FC was Winkelman’s club, and so is MK Dons. But just as Winkelman owned two football clubs, Theseus owned two ships. And they definitely were not the same.
So what qualities must a club share with itself in order to still be itself? The obvious is a tie to its community, its natural home as David Burns said. No one could feasibly argue that Arsenal are no longer Arsenal since they swapped Highbury for Ashburton Grove. Even West Ham United’s fraught relocation to Stratford hasn’t quite divested themselves of the right to still call themselves the Hammers and pull on claret and blue every weekend.
But Milton Keynes Dons are definitely not the same club as Wimbledon FC once were. To such an extent that it’s now time to change the official narrative. When fans talk of Wimbledon ‘moving’ to Milton Keynes, what are they really saying? They’re saying that on some level, Wimbledon and MK Dons are cut from the same cloth, that the latter is a natural continuation of the former.
But Wimbledon never moved anywhere. That club was dismantled and its place in the league was taken by a team in a different part of the country. “Wimbledon moved to Milton Keynes” is a statement that cannot possibly be true. It is impossible for a club to abandon its natural home, abandon its name, club colours and fan community and have anything to do with its predecessor.
None of this, of course, is what Borges and Casares were driving at when they wrote “Esse est percipi”. They, frankly, didn’t care which football team was which — they refer to Boca instead as Abasto Juniors, for example — but do seem to care about football’s potential to demonstrate a particular metaphysical argument: the arbitrariness of things in the world.
Borges’s view of the universe was famously bleak. If the universe is like a library, stacked infinitely with more books than the human mind can imagine, then it is much too vast for humankind to grasp fully. In such a universe, nothing is inherently meaningful. The only meaning that exists is that which we create to come to terms with the vastness of the universe. In Borges, not even when something has numerical identity can it really be identical of itself. The story of Pierre Menard, whose verbatim writing of Don Quixote is in fact a different, and much better, text than the original, shows that well enough. Talking about two prints of the same text as if they were the same text is to mislead ourselves into thinking that it is inherently meaningful. Nothing — the world, a text, a football club — is inherently meaningful.
Football fans will probably be familiar with having non-football fans ask why they care so much about the game. It’s only a sport, after all, why get so caught up in it? Or in other words, why is it meaningful? Borges, no friend of the game of football, would have relished that discussion. His particular brand of metaphysical doubt — the fear that no human endeavour will ever ultimately matter — finds in football a convenient target. Why invest emotionally in an institution such as a football club? Is it not simply a construction of the human mind, the result of subjective association between a stadium, team and fanbase? And if so, what’s the point?
Why, in other words, is football meaningful? Perhaps Borges is right. Perhaps it’s just another construction there to help us make a shred of sense out of the immeasurable patchwork of the universe. But if football does exist in an indifferent universe, then it is no more meaningless than any other human pursuit. That is its defeat and also its victory.