Last week, my personal favorite team in sports suffered a foreseeable, but still devastating blow: Swansea FC were relegated out of the Premier League and into the (confusingly named) Championship League. If this all sounds foreign to you, it’s because it is. I’m talking about Soccer.
OH MY GOD, GRAHAM’S WRITING A SPORTS
I’m not an avid soccer follower. Sports, for me, are more of a pleasant diversion or social occasion than a passion. There are a few teams I root for and casually follow, but I don’t know much in the way of stats, be it team or player. This tends to be a common thread of fandom for me; there’s a lot of bands I love who I couldn’t name all their members.
My affinity for the Swansea Swans From 2007-2009, I lived in Swansea, the second largest city in South Wales. When people think about Wales, if they think about Wales, there are generally associations with green, rolling hills, sheep, and maybe something about vaguely pagan Celtic traditions.
BUT FIRST LET’S TALK ABOUT WALES
That’s all fine and good, but it’s not really what the cities in South Wales are like. The area was the first in the world to feel the full effects of the Industrial Revolution, along with cities in northern England like Birmingham and Manchester. It’s concrete, densely populated, dirty, and a little grim. Port Talbot was said to have been Ridley Scott’s inspiration for the look of Blade Runner. Swansea has some truly gorgeous scenery and tons of charm, but it’s far from an idyllic green getaway.
I loved my time in Swansea, but beyond the challenges already faced by a second city with a stagnant economy and reputation for cheap drugs and car theft, there was a relentless underdog aesthetic that bordered on self-sabotage. The reputation of the town nationally was largely informed by crude stereotypes. Even Swansea’s most famous export could only muster the phrase“lovely, ugly town” to complement his birthplace.
So when the Swans clawed their way to the Premiership shortly after my return to the U.S., it was clear that this would be potentially a huge improvement in the town’s fortunes.
And it was.
A CITY’S RELATIONSHIP TO SPORTS IS COMPLICATED, EXCEPT WHEN IT’S NOT
I have decidedly mixed feelings about the ways that pro sports interact with city economies, and the Premier League is every bit as issue-riddled as the NFL or NBA. But while that overhaul is a slow train coming, the benefits to Swansea were immediate. Swansea University saw an uptick in registration based on city-name recognition alone. Tourism increased. Games against Arsenal or Manchester United brought people who’d never been into town. Friends of mine from elsewhere no longer registered a cold blank when I mentioned the town; instead, they talked about Brendan Rogers’ coaching style and the Swans’ inclusive, pass-focused style of play.
For their first five years in the Premiership, Swansea were a team admired; theirs was a true underdog story, and they played smart soccer, the type a fan of the game could respect. They were never top six, they weren’t producing international superstars, but they pulled off some surprising victories and were fun to watch.
Arguably the most exciting of their seasons was when Cardiff FC also achieved the Premiership, re-igniting a longstanding rivalry. These matches were great to watch… from the safety of a screen. Those fans weren’t messing around.
There isn’t one reason for their decline in play and relegation, but the purchase of the club by an American consortium and the following behind-the-scenes turmoil couldn’t have helped. The last two years have been the team constantly avoiding falling into the bottom three teams of the Premiership, until, with a loss last week, there was no math that would keep them afloat. For at least a year, they’ll be playing in the Championship (not to be confused with Champions, wtf) league, and trying to decide whether to slowly build the team back up, or make a mad dash for promotion.
There’s a bitter irony, then, that Cardiff City FC has been once again promoted; while this is doubtlessly good business for South Wales as a whole, the longstanding rivalry between towns has been a bit lopsided for a while. Swansea’s status as the city with the football team that stayed Premier was a balm to the city that routinely got fewer government funds, infrastructure improvements, or bands coming through.
Still, this has always been an underdog story, and if Cardiff can come back, so can Swansea. In some ways, the time in the Premiership will provide a hope more powerful than the disappointment of relegation. Back in 2002, the idea of Swansea being a top-flight football city was scoffed at. Now it’s in the realm of the possible.