Off the Ball

A club for life, and beyond

Wedding at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille

“You can change your wife, change your politics, change your religion. But never, never can you change your favourite football team!” This memorable line, taken from Ken Loach’s comedy-drama film *Looking for Eric, *during which the central character idolises French legend Eric Cantona, is an appropriate summary of the relationship that every supporter enjoys with his chosen side.

Supporting a football club is an activity that lasts a lifetime, and for some passionate individuals, it is a life in which practically everything revolves around following their heroes. takes a look at the services offered by clubs that help their most loyal fans achieve just that, be it in birth, marriage or even death.

It is often difficult to put an exact finger on the moment someone decides to become a fan of a certain team, but Hannoversupporters no longer have this problem. Since the autumn of 2009, the German outfit has placed a delivery room at the disposal of expectant mothers, who are now able to bring new devotees into the world at the Friederikenstift clinic, located right next to the AWD-Arena, in a room entirely decorated in green and white, the club’s official colours.

The new arrivals are not only presented with a club-branded babygrow, but automatically become members of the club. “Youth is the future – this project could enable children to identify with our club very early on in life,” explained Hannover President Martin Kind, whose name in German translates rather fittingly as “child”.

There are many other clubs around the world who have understood the importance of this message. In Argentina, while teams have not yet begun to sign babies still playing in their cots, they do play a crucial role in children’s education. Estudiantes, Lanus and Banfield are just three examples of clubs that have opened nurseries or primary schools, but the pioneers in this field are River Plate.

In 1982, the Buenos Aires giants opened their own school, the purpose of which was to offer a comprehensive education to their apprentice footballers. “We tend to encourage playing together as a team rather than promoting competitiveness,” Marcos Capurro, head of physical education at Instituto River Plate, told French magazine Foot Citoyen.

“Of course, we guide the most talented children towards sports at which they excel, because we never lose sight of the fact that we are part of a club that’s in a results-based business. But the main objective remains teaching them to work together, and for that, sport is the ideal instrument,” he continued.

Life-long union
The mixed-sex establishment, whose former pupils include Pablo Aimar, Javier Saviola, Gonzalo Higuain and Javier Mascherano, is attended by over 1,000 students, 60 per cent of whom are socios (members) of the club. But supporting River is not part of the selection criteria, and some of the children do not hide their feelings for Boca Juniors, Independiente or Racing Club in the playground, despite it being located in the shadows of River's legendary stadium, El Monumental.

Los Millonarios are not the only ones to provide their supporters with more than just a vantage point to watch matches. Taking the expression “Football is a religion” to its natural conclusion, a number of clubs now possess their own churches

In Germany, both Hertha Berlinand Schalkeallow fans to tie the knot at a venue where they would normally worship their footballing heroes. But for a truly memorable marriage, the prize goes to Eintracht Frankfurt, who offer the chance to say “I do” at the Commerzbank-Arena in the presence of a prestigious witness, namely Attila the eagle, the club mascot, or Charly, the stadium mascot.

Youth is the future – this project could enable children to identify with our club very early on in life.

In Scotland, *Celtic *leave the choice of witnesses and guests up to the bride and groom, but will take care of practically everything else. Not only are the happy couple given total access to the pitch and dressing room, they are helped along the way by a wedding planner, who ensures that all goes smoothly on the big day, including getting hold of a garter in club colours from the club shop.

The Glasgow club may well have drawn inspiration from Real Madrid who, in 2010, launched their own range of luxury lingerie. “I’m sure that a club with a great history and such special fans will sell a lot of these products,” predicted Real defender Pepe at the time.

Followers of Lyondo not yet have the possibility to show their support via their underwear, but on the day of a match, there are many other ways that they can do so. With their Lyon telephone package, they can call Lyon’s taxi service – which may not actually be required, if they passed their test after lessons at Lyon’s driving school.

The latter can arrange for them to be dropped off at the official Lyon hairdresser, where they can get an attractive new haircut in preparation for their upcoming holiday, organised through Lyon’s travel agency. And how would they pay for it all? With a Lyon-branded bank card, of course.

Till death do us part
Several clubs offer credit cards to their devotees; South African outfit Kaizer Chiefs have been doing so for over a decade. In addition, in order to ensure fans’ well-being for as long as possible, the Soweto side also provide health insurance in the event of hospitalisation. And because football supporters famously remain loyal until the very end, they even offer funeral services to the Chiefs' faithful.

Atletico Madrid extended this concept in 2008 by opening a columbarium to store the ashes of its socios. *Some *4,200 ceramic urns, upon which the greatest moments in the history of the club are depicted, are now held within the Vicente Calderon stadium. The idea has since caught on, with Real Betis, EspanyolandManchester City following suit.

Argentinian heavyweights Boca Juniors have gone one step further, as they literally accompany their supporters to their final resting place. In 2006, they became the first football club to create their own cemetery, an idea since copied by HamburgandSchalke.

“Many fans leave instructions in their wills for their loved ones to scatter their ashes on the pitch,” said former Boca marketing director Orlando Salvestrini. “They would just turn up at the stadium with their urns,” he added

Now, they can buy a burial plot and spend eternity alongside fellow fanatics and legendary players such as former goalkeepers Juan Estrada and Julio Elias Musimessi. Inevitably, the coffins that Los Xeneizes make available to their fanbase are painted blue and yellow, the team’s traditional colours.

This initiative was also adopted by Reading, who offer personalised coffins featuring the English club’s colours and badge. “But it’s not a market that we’re looking to explore further,” pointed out marketing manager Boyd Butler. “Our supporters are much more valuable to us alive than dead.”

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