The Hamilton Spectator

Winning or Losing, A Team Makes a Stand

- By RORY SMITH

DUBLIN — In the back room of the threadbare offices of the Irish soccer team Bohemians, the printer whirs, spitting out shipping labels. Some bear the names of Dublin streets. Others are from farther afield: across Ireland, across the Irish Sea, across the Atlantic.

Each label will be affixed to a package containing a Bohemians jersey. And these days, the club sells a lot of jerseys.

The appeal is not rooted in any traditiona­l drivers of soccer’s merchandis­e market: success, glamour, a star player. Daniel Lambert, the club’s chief operating officer, loves both Bohemians and the League of Ireland, in which it plays, but he is under no illusions. “We’re a small team in a poor league,” he said.

Instead, fans are drawn to Bohemians by the jerseys themselves; or, rather, what the jerseys say, both about the team and the customer. Some recent editions have drawn on the cultural iconograph­y of Dublin: the Poolbeg cooling towers; the pattern from the city’s bus seats; the face of Phil Lynott, former frontman of the band Thin Lizzy. Others send a more explicit message: One of this season’s efforts has been designed in the colors of the Palestinia­n flag. A couple of years ago, another bore the slogan “Refugees Welcome.”

In an apolitical sport, where most teams avoid staking out positions except on the safest of ground, that makes Bohemians an enthusiast­ic, unabashed outlier: a rare example of a soccer club willing to wear its values on its sleeve, its torso and any other surface it can find.

At Dalymount Park, Bohemians’ ramshackle home, the corner flags bear the rainbow colors of the Pride movement. Corrugated iron walls are decorated with images of Che Guevara and the Venezuelan flag. Behind one section, home to the most boisterous supporters, a fist rises against a redand-black background. “Love football, hate racism,” it reads.

It has been placed there quite deliberate­ly. Bohemians might lean, unapologet­ically,

to the left, but the club has been more than willing to harness distinctly capitalist marketing strategies to amplify its reach.

“The politics are absolutely sincere,” Dion Fanning, a writer and co-host of the podcast Free State, said. “But the way they do it is very clever.”

Much of that can be attributed to Mr. Lambert’s background in music. He thinks, essentiall­y, like a promoter.

Bohemians’ appeal now stretches far beyond its traditiona­l base in the north Dublin suburb of Phibsborou­gh, capturing the hearts and minds of fans across the world.

Bohemians attracts fans, Mr. Lambert said, who are “socially conscious, concerned about what has happened to the game, uncomforta­ble with state actors being in charge of these precious things that belong to the working class.”

There are enough of them that Bohemians now stands as a remarkable commercial success story. A little more than a decade ago, the club stood on the verge of a first-ever relegation from the top tier of Irish soccer and the brink of financial oblivion. In 2015, the club had only 530 members. It now has 3,000, “with a waiting list,” Mr. Lambert noted.

There are 10 teams in the

League of Ireland, yet Bohemians accounts for a quarter of the league’s commercial revenue. The club’s merchandis­e sales alone have soared by 2,000 percent in a decade. The orders for jerseys are not just for the newest versions, either; old ones continue to sell well, something Mr. Lambert attributes to the fact that they are not ephemeral fashion items. “They tell a story,” he said.

He conceded that some fans may have been put off by the club’s activism — on subjects as diverse as gay marriage, climate justice and the ending of what he terms Ireland’s “inhumane” handling of asylum seekers — and he has detected grumbling among supporters of rival teams. Very few soccer teams have an in-house poet, or host halftime raves, or employ four staff members devoted to establishi­ng a climate strategy. “We’ve heard it all: the hipster club, a load of gimmicks,” Mr. Lambert said. “You do hear people say: ‘Why can’t Bohs just be normal?’ ”

The answer to that, he said, is simple. Bohemians does not see the positions it takes as inherently political. To the club, they are humanitari­an issues, the natural values of a team owned not by a private investor but by its fans. And expressing them, he and others said, is more pressing than ever, as Ireland’s incipient far right grows in strength and volume.

Mary Nolan, who has been attending games with her father since she was a child, said: “There’s still a few old men who moan that none of the newcomers know anything about football, but it’s generally a very welcoming space now. Far more people have been drawn in than put off by the politics.”

 ?? ?? Bohemian F.C., an Irish soccer club, has made its values part of its identity, helping it to sell jerseys. Murals in support of various causes are scattered in its stadium.
Bohemian F.C., an Irish soccer club, has made its values part of its identity, helping it to sell jerseys. Murals in support of various causes are scattered in its stadium.
 ?? PHOTOGRAPH­S BY PAULO NUNES DOS SANTOS FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES ??
PHOTOGRAPH­S BY PAULO NUNES DOS SANTOS FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
 ?? PAULO NUNES DOS SANTOS FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? A mural in support of Palestine in Bohemian F.C.’s stadium. The club, with 3,000 members, has a waiting list to join.
PAULO NUNES DOS SANTOS FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES A mural in support of Palestine in Bohemian F.C.’s stadium. The club, with 3,000 members, has a waiting list to join.

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