Just a short walk north from the Olympic stadium, up a canal dug in the 1770s, is the Hackney Marshes. Unprepossessing on a weekday with the wind whipping in from the west, this site has in a fact become defined by a clash between the international and local role of sport: in a very different way to the Olympics perhaps but making some interesting parallels.
The Marshes as Londoners still think is a huge stretch of flat grasslands that are covered in over 60 football pitches. Not just for the inhabitants of the capital, the pitches have had a mythical status in national football – a sign of the sport’s grip on the English imagination and national identity. Verified facts are hard come by. Myths are plentiful. Tottenham Hotspur began as an amateur club playing here in the 19th century. In 1947 the Hackney and Leyton Sunday League was founded and over 120 pitches were crammed on to the site, although it now houses half the number. The mythical status is in its very fabric. According to Johnnie Walker the League’s chairman the reason that the pitches drain so well is because ‘these pitches were created on the foundations of the rubble created by the ‘Blitz’ and the heavy bombing of London.’ Beneath its surface lies English grit.
Numerous English football players are supposed to have played here. Terry Venables – a talented player and great manager, although a total liability in terms of his financial record – trotted out here first. They say Rio Ferdinand began his career here too, on the 280 acre site. Yet as its mythical status has increased, the League has slowly contracted in size. The working men’s social clubs and youth club system that supported the weekend leagues, drawing in teams from all over London, and further afield has declined in influence. The administrators that are required to support training and league organisation are often the butt of jokes amongst players, but they are vital to keep the game going. Furthermore, changed work and social patterns, mean that men are unable to commit to playing on a Sunday. Football is still played to the same degree but not in an organised fashion; ad hoc games in the park or after work, in one of the many 5-a-side pitches that have cropped up across our cities.
Appositely the Marshes has during this process anchored itself in the popular imagination as a place of importance to amateur football, a place which symbolised a pre-lapsarian goodness in the game. Nothing summed this up better than the fact that David Beckham by the 1990s a global brand himself, had learned to play on the Marshes.
In 1997 Nike ran an ad campaign that showed Premiership footballers playing in Sunday league teams on Hackney Marshes in east London. To the tune of Blur’s Parklife, Eric Cantona, David Seaman and Robbie Fowler were seen playing alongside rank amateurs. It was one of the most popular advertising campaigns of the 1990s, showing some nice touches of humour, a clear understanding of the humour and thinly repressed violence that typifies the amateur game. It also riffed nicely on that nostalgia for all things British and blokey that Britpop bands like Blur, Pulp and Supergrass had recently returned to cultural favour. Hackney Marshes was the ultimate amateur football venue. Even when there were no games taking place there, the ranks of goal posts receding from view, covered in scraps of tapes, were apparent monuments to the games enduring popularity, neatly obscuring the fact that the Sunday League was never as popular as it was when it was founded.
Nike though became infatuated with this endless stretch of grass, laid over the rubble of the East End. In 2006, as the sportswear industry prepared itself for the World Cup, Nike again tried to identify itself with grassroots and returned to Hackney Marshes. This time though, Nike produced trainers, footballs, T-shirts, shorts and tracksuit bottoms that not only boasted the name Hackney Marshes, but also an exact copy of the council’s logo surrounded by the words The London Borough of Hackney. The Hackney logo was sold on limited edition goods around the world According to the Guardian, a Hackney council employee saw it in a shop in Manila. In September 2006, the sports brand agreed to pay £300,000 in an out of court settlement to Hackney council for copyright infringement. Even before the Olympic Games arrived on its doorstep, the Marshes represented the fault line between two very separate ideas of what sport is: a universal pursuit and a global commodity.
Adidas also came a cropper here. In September 2010, as part of a publicity stunt by Adidas, Lionel Messi was flown to an area considered to be the spiritual home of English football by helicopter. The organisers had teased fans of the player with messages on a social networking sites but had not banked on the excitement caused by the arrival of Messi, at that time FIFA’s Player of the Year. When Messi stepped out of the helicopter on his own with a kit bag in hand he was immediately surrounded by fans. Addidas had planned to introduce Messi for the final ten minutes of a match. However the security was utterly unprepared for the levels of excitement and the diminutive Argentinian had to be bundled into a van by his minders and taken to a signing event elsewhere in the East End. Global football brands 0, Hackney Marshes 2.
But whilst global brands have been confounded in their use of the Marshes as a trope for grass roots or football as the truly global game, it is not because the ‘community’ resisted it. It’s because their vision of grass roots was contrived and bogus in the first place. One can see the traditional role of the Marshes as a site of London-wide, organised recreation eroding – a testimony to the fading role of social organisations, created by workers for workers. Old changing rooms have been replaced with a new Centre, which not only provides new facilities for football but also a cafeteria and spare rooms for teaching spaces. The hope is to capture passing trade from walkers who will enjoy the newly landscaped wilderness. Leisure is changing its shape and reshaping the Marshes: pitches, a symbol, of organised leisure, being replaced by wooded rambling areas. The architect for the centre works for the established design practice Stanton Williams makes this clear: ‘we wanted a community-based sports facility that related to nature,’ he says. The gabion wall and cor-ten steel reference what another architect William Mann has described as the Bastard Countryside of the Lea Valley.
It is an old theme for the Lea Valley. Back in the early 60s a Civic Trust was established to promote and preserve the strip of land which the Marshes is effectively the foundation of. Their founding document declared: ‘it will be a playground for Londoners against the background of London. This background – power stations, gas works, factories, railways, houses and flats – must be accepted and acknowledged in the landscape theme.” Even as organised football’s role was declining the idea of an industrial bucolic, one which Mann first notes in Balzac’s work, was being formed. This is precisely the landscape which writers like Iain Sinclair and Will Self have so adored for its apparently untrammeled qualities. Important to note however that even this aesthetic of an apparently unimpeded beauty was first conceived and then managed, albeit in a much much more light-handed fashion, before the Olympics arrived – in their eyes – to ‘ruin’ it.