Article by Anthony Rispoli
Soccer. It’s the world’s sport. It can unite everyone from young children on the corner of a street in Mumbai, India to some of the world’s most famous celebrities, like Piers Morgan, Gordon Ramsey and Russell Brand. A quick look around Penn State’s main campus will show you many people wearing soccer jerseys from international pro soccer teams like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Arsenal and Liverpool. The most important games of the day are even shown in the HUB-Robeson Center’s main lobby. But if you ask the most die hard American soccer fan, chances are, they’ve never heard of AFC Wimbledon.
Founded in 1889, The Association Football Club of Wimbledon, better known as AFC Wimbledon, is a football club that plays in League One, the third division of English football. League One hosts some of England’s classic clubs, such as Bristol Rovers and Sheffield United. However, the league has the notoriety of Triple-A baseball teams — clubs have the potential to become something greater, but currently don’t have the talent nor the competition to draw national attention and fame.
AFC Wimbledon rose to England’s top tier soccer league, the English Premier League, by the 1980s, according to the clubs Wikipedia page. In 1988, the underdog Wimbledon team beat Liverpool, the most successful club in England, in the famed FA Cup Final. The directors of the club realized that this new wave of success called for improved facilities for the players and its fans, as Wimbledon’s current ground was rather small and old.
The club was also experiencing financial difficulties, something that is not new to English soccer. The board decided to move the club to the city of Milton Keynes, a growing city with no successful football clubs in the immediate area. The reason for the move was that the club would have gone bankrupt if it hadn’t taken action, according to a Wikipedia page detailing the move. The new club would be named Milton Keynes Dons FC, or MK Dons.
The move to a city, which was over an hour and a half away, caused a split in Wimbledon supporters. A small group of fans decided to go and support this new club. Most of the Wimbledon faithful protested, making the divide between fans larger. Their protests were in vain, as the MK Dons formed a few years later.
In the United States, it is common to see teams move across the country. For example, the National Football League team the St. Louis Rams recently moved to Los Angeles; the Major League Baseball team the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in the 1960s; and the National Basketball Association team the Seattle SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City in 2008 to become the Oklahoma City Thunder. But this is very uncommon in the United Kingdom. Therefore, the move from London to Milton Keynes was a very sensitive topic for Wimbledon fans. Those who stayed faithful were seen as “loyal” while those who joined the new club 50 miles away were considered “turncoats” and “traitors.”
Three fans of the old Wimbledon club met at a local pub and left a few hours later with a plan to create a new club — one that would represent the fans of the old Wimbledon FC. The new club would be called AFC Wimbledon and would be stationed in the Greater London Area.
AFC Wimbledon, also known affectionately as the “Dons” by their fans, quickly climbed up the ranks of English football. Their first season in 2003-2004 meant the club started in the Combined Counties Premier League Division, on the ninth tier of English football, according to a Vice Sports segment on Youtube. But the Dons would be promoted up to The Conference, the fifth tier of English football. By 2011, AFC Wimbledon was in the Football League, English football’s equivalent to Single-A Baseball.
The Don’s success wouldn’t garner much attention, as the club remained largely anonymous to the rest of the continent. But one person in particular managed to hear about the incredible strides AFC Wimbledon had taken in the last decade.
Award-winning author of The Fault In Our Stars, and creator of Youtube show “Crash Course History,” John Green, helped the club blossom into what they are today. Green took over his brother’s gaming channel on Youtube and decided to continue his brother’s FIFA 14 gaming series that centered around AFC Wimbledon. These videos gained quite a large number of views and likes in such a short amount of time. Green was awarded advertising revenue from the videos. He eventually decided to go to AFC Wimbledon and offered to donate the ad revenue money. Green would become a big part of AFC Wimbledon’s current run of success and has remained a popular image in the fan base, even getting a stand in the stadium named after him.
In recent history, Wimbledon achieved incredible history. After being stuck for a few seasons in League 2, the Dons reached the league playoffs where against all odds, they reached the finals after a 3-2 win on aggregate. The finals were held at Wembley Stadium in London, where more than 20,000 Wimbledon fans showed up to support their club, according to a Telegraph report. Star striker, Adebayo Akinfenwa would lead the Dons to a 2-0 win over Plymouth FC to clinch promotion to League One.
As of January 24, AFC Wimbledon sits in 11th place in League One competition, according to ESPN FC. They are in the same league as MK Dons, marking the first time the two have played in a competitive league together. MK Dons walked away from the first fixture with a scrappy 1-0 victory. However, Wimbledon currently sits six points above MK Dons.
AFC Wimbledon’s story is unlike any other sports team in the world. A club designed purely by the fans achieved six promotions in the last 13 years. They have officially made their mark on English football, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they left their mark on the European continent in the next fifteen years.
Feature Image Credit: Heather