There are three teams in the English football league that have swear words in their names. Can you name them?
(if you can’t, go and Google it. I’ll wait, I promise).
The third one of these teams is, of course, F***ing Man United/Manchester City/Liverpool/Everton/Chelsea//Spurs/whatever team you dislike the most. And yes, there are actually two teams that do have swear words in their names, but I’m not going to reveal their identities here.
My point is that football arouses tribal instincts of outright hatred for the opponents of one’s preferred team not seen in any other sport. If you were going to be all psychological and philosophical about it, you could say that football supporters more often than not define themselves in relation to the other. For instance, one of the things that brings, say, Raith Rovers supporters together is a shared dislike of Dunfermline Athletic. Even to fairly level-headed football fans, everything associated with the rival team takes on a slightly negative connotation.
Which is precisely why I find the Sauber F1 team’s decision to stick some Chelsea FC branding on the engine cover of their car so baffling. Previous attempts to link football and motor sport have been less than successful, so why should this be any different?
On the face of it, top-flight soccer and top-flight motor sport are not a million miles apart. Questionable ethics. Sensitive prima donnas. Dubious governance in favour of the big teams (well, in Scotland at least). Both sports are very popular among the publics of the Western world, and both attract significant investment in the form of sponsorship and partnership deals. Although admittedly it is pretty hard to feign injury whilst sitting down and strapped into a car.
What sets football and motor sport apart, though, is the viewing culture. 99.9% of F1 fans will appreciate a ‘good’ race no matter who the winner is and regardless of how their favourite driver has fared. For example, I am by no means a fan of the McLaren team – don’t ask me why, I just don’t like them – but I and many others like me are perfectly happy to admit that, on balance, Lewis Hamilton deserved the 2008 World Driver’s Championship, or have enjoyed the races where Jenson Button has used strategy and tyre management to pull off unlikely wins in trying circumstances. As soon as a stitched-up pig’s bladder comes into play, though, all pragmatism goes out the window. Man City blooming well should be winning with all the money they’ve spent. Ryan Babel went down awfully easy that time Liverpool beat Arsenal in the Champions’ League. It was NEVER across the line in 1966.
‘Ah, but what about all those times Ferrari have manipulated the result of a race? Surely you weren’t happy then?’ I hear you cry. You’re completely right. I wasn’t happy, and neither were the vast majority of other people who had tuned in to see an afternoon’s sport. But cheating is cheating no matter what the sport. Whether it’s Schumacher driving into someone, Diego Maradona using his hand to score or a friend taking an eighth letter in Scrabble, an artificially manipulated result can spoil any contest. The point I’m trying to make is simply that the kind of tribal instincts football brings out have a habit of distorting the facts in a way no other sport could ever imagine.
And it is precisely this that makes the Sauber-Chelsea link up so hard to understand for me. Regardless of whether they competed in rugby, cricket or lacrosse, Sauber would be a great team for the neutral spectator. They are perennial underdogs, cutting their cloth accordingly to survive and nurturing some of the most talented young athletes out there. It’s really hard not to like Sauber.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Chelsea. To be clear, I personally have nothing against Chelsea or their players – with the exception of those wearing squad numbers 3, 26, 5, 26, 8, 26 and 26 – but I know lots of people that can’t stand their buy-everything-that-moves philosophy and who are find the personalities of some of their star players less than sympathetic. Yet a number of these same people also like Formula One, and have nothing against Sauber at all. Will this be the same when the car rolls out on track replete with Chelsea FC branding, though?
In short, linking up with a football team runs the risk of alienating large sections of the sport-watching public. Carrying visible branding of one particular faction – especially a faction that has had an unfortunate habit of, fairly or not, attracting media controversy over the last few years – could have the unintended side-effect of making your brand a tiny bit less appealing to many. There are even people, including friends of mine, who watch motor sport precisely because it is not football, and who will resist any attempt to covertly sneak football-related talk into their beloved racing.
The official blurb states that this is a way to exchange branding and open up each institution to new markets, but then it would say something like that. In my mind at least, however, there is another possible explanation. Could it be that Russian oil billionaire Roman Abramovich is seeking to exercise dominance in another sporting arena? Particularly if Chelsea clinch the Champions’ League in a few weeks’ time, might he be looking for an additional challenge? If one was wanting a platform for success in the pinnacle of motor sport, one could do a lot worse that purchase Sauber – a team with a solid footing, a well-established base and a need for long-term investment. Might the appearance of Chelsea iconography on the Hinwil cars be a not-entirely-subtle way of testing the waters, à la Virgin with Brawn in 2009? If so, then here’s a tip for you Roman. Don’t insist that the team hire Vitaly Petrov. Don’t make them use Lada engines. Just give Monisha and Peter a pile of your company’s stickers to put on the (many) white bits of the car, pop a cheque for £100 million in the post to Switzerland every January, and make sure you’re at all the races to be sure to collect the first winner’s trophy.