According to the familiar terrace chant, football fans vow to follow a club ‘til they die.
In recent years, though, it has been increasingly common for such devotion to be immortalised after death.
When Boca Juniors hit the international headlines in the mid-2000s by becoming the most high-profile club in Latin America to launch coffins in the colours of their club, some felt that such a product was nothing more than a morbid gimmick.
The growth of the fan memorials sector since then, though, has shown how wrong they were.
Fast-forward to 2014, and FC Barcelona opened a dedicated mausoleum, in which up to 500 urns could be stored for free at the cemetery of Les Corts. Initial plans for the revamped Nou Camp development included space for 30,000 urns.
Similarly, Barcelona’s city rival Espanyol offers a columbarium for fans who were “intensely” committed to the club. The area at the club’s home ground, the RCDE Stadium, can incorporate single urns or sections where groups of four urns can be placed.
Sports clubs have a variety of reasons for embracing the growth of fan memorial-related areas, products and services.
Of course, a level of demand from fans can translate into income for clubs. For example, last year in the US the so-called ‘death care’ industry was worth an eye-watering $28.7bn.
Furthermore, sport is a common theme at funerals. In the UK, where 600,000 burials or cremations take place per year, Co-Op Funeralcare’s annual ‘chart’ of the most-played songs at such gatherings is scattered with famous sports-related musical creations, from the long-running theme tune to BBC One’s ‘Match of the Day’ programme to ‘The Chain’ – the Fleetwood Mac hit that accompanied the broadcaster’s Formula 1 coverage for many years.
However, whilst financial return is always a consideration for any investment by clubs or venue operators in products, services or facilities, social awareness also plays a significant role in persuading them to embrace the sector.
Providing the means to remember loved ones is a way of giving back to a fan base and maintaining a special connection with generations of supporters.
This focus on social responsibility in relation to their community of fans has only been strengthened over the past 18 months, with the pandemic having left countless families devastated.
In North America’s Major League Baseball – and with fans absent due to Covid-19 restrictions – several teams last year offered the opportunity to purchase cut-outs of individuals to sit in the empty bleachers. Inevitably, the initiative became a source of comfort for those grieving a personal loss, with cut-outs of pets – as well as people – looking over the action. One MLB team, the Seattle Mariners, sold almost 15,000 fan cut-outs, raising just over $70,000 for those that had been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic (below).
Such options are among a multitude of options available surrounding the death of a sports fan.
Companies such as Funeral Products, based in Eindhoven in the Netherlands, provide a range of services and products surrounding the loss of a sports fan, from branded urns and bio-degradable items through to memorial jewellery and photograph frames.
Traditional requests to scatter ashes on the hallowed turf at professional sports grounds are usually rejected by clubs, wary of harming their carefully manicured playing surfaces.
However, in addressing the issue, many clubs have incorporated a memorial garden or a memorial wall for families of fans who have died.
AFC Ajax in the Netherlands has collaborated with PC Utivaart to set up the Ajax memorial field at Westgaarde Memorial Park, so that supporters can rest in peace in an area dedicated to their treasured football club.
Families of Ajax players who have passed away are also able to have their ashes scattered at the field, which contains grass from the club’s home between 1934 and 1996 – Stadium De Meer. A new columbarium – set to feature a new weatherproof, branded columbarium from Funeral Products – is set to open this year.
In England, Premier League football club Leicester City has said that it will incorporate a memorial garden into its proposed stadium revamp.
Leicester opened a memorial garden in 2019 following the deaths of Leicester owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and his co-passengers and pilots in a helicopter crash just yards from the King Power Stadium on October 27, 2018. However, the new garden will be open to fans as well.
Leicester said: “Separate plans for a continuation of the club’s Remembrance Garden, which is located in the south-west corner of King Power Stadium, will be incorporated into the stadium’s wider expansion plans.”
At fellow Premier League club Burnley, the Turf Moor Memorial Ground is another example of when fans and a club can come together to create a space where other supporters can be remembered.
In 2014, fan Peter Briggs teamed up with the Burnley Former Players Association and the club to turn the Turf Moor Memorial Garden into a reality, following the idea to honour six Burnley players that had served as soldiers during the First World War.
After years of hard work, fundraising and a £30,000 donation from the club, Turf Moor Memorial Garden, opened in 2018, situated opposite the Jimmy Mcllroy stand of Turf Moor. It continues to provide a space where fans can come and remember their loved ones, and also scatter “a small cup of cremated remains – a maximum of 12 ounces” – for free. Families can also purchase plaques for various memorial walls, memorial wedges and path-side wedges.
Keeping the memory alive
Some football clubs also offer the opportunity to incorporate the fan’s beloved home stadium into their funeral procession. Premier League club Aston Villa provides such a service, allowing funeral cortéges to pass by its Villa Park stadium, as long as the route is agreed in advance.
The club also displays a memorial book in a cabinet in its North Stand reception, as well holding its ‘Holte Enders in the Sky’ tribute at the end of each season, with the club’s Chaplain, Rev Jon Grant, holding a service at the stadium.
Ahead of its first game back at Goodison Park with fans following the pandemic, Premier League club Everton presented a memorial video across its social channels, providing a platform for the pictures and names of those who have died over the past year-and-a-half to be remembered.
The return to stadiums over recent weeks across the world will have been poignant for many, especially if the seat next to them is no longer occupied.
However, with clubs increasingly committed to the benefits of remembering fans, a supporter’s connection with their spiritual sporting home need not end with death.
Image: Funeral Products