Fans can remain idiots, but they should stop preaching
It’s become such an ineluctable point of reference — if there was any — that one can’t help but defer to the piece by the Guardian’s Sean Ingle when it comes to discussing fandom and idiocy.
Fan culture in sport has always fascinated me in more ways than one. Yet, nothing confounds more than that seen in football; especially its English/European model. Being exposed more to the English language media gives me a broader understanding of the psyche of the English fan than say, his Italian or Spanish counterpart. But in essence, there is nothing too broad to understand about the mental makeup of the average football fan in England that can’t be explained in two lines, at most. I can explain it — and I will in a bit — but to do so would mean running the risk of pigeonholing a vast cross-section of a possibly diverse populace. It’s a risk I’m willing to take: for one, I don’t think said populace is as varied as one might think, nor is a remark — loaded with more than its share of presumption — coming from me, going to mean much in the broad scheme of things. (It’s not going to cause a tectonic shift of continental plates, for sure.)
So here it is…
Put simply, the archetypal English fan is usually the ultimate simpleton, the eternal masochist, and is dangerously defensive about his club; almost to the detriment of his private life. [The 'United, Kids, Wife' banner at Old Trafford is, at times, not as tongue-in-cheek as it would appear on first glance.]
My understanding of Italian, Spanish or German fan behaviour is admittedly limited, although fleeting glimpses of memorable occasions such as Samuel Eto’o's warm welcome at Zaragoza, or the myriad incidents of similar warmth accorded by rival Serie A fans to one another, allows me license to extend my theory to these fans too.
In England, much of the origins of the current state of fan behaviour could be traced to origins of clubs themselves. Either it was a church that spawned the club — like, say, Everton — or it was started by a group of railway workers — Newton Heath (present day Manchester United). It was fair to assume that these clubs were a product of the local community as opposed to the American franchise system, where one corporate entity plonks a club (or franchise, to be sure) in a market that has the higher chance of generating maximum revenue. This gave the local community, during simpler times, a sense of belonging and identity with the club, and hence, people had a lot more than their viewing pleasure invested in them.
It became a generational obsession too: ‘you were born into a club’; or ‘you decided to support a rival club as form of pre-pubescent rebellion against your parents’.
Be it peer-pressure, parental rebellion or supporting the local team, the fan culture revolved around a sense of identity. So, more often than not, you pick a club and you stick with it. For life. The passion, the chanting evolved differently across Europe, but it is safe to assume the level of attachment, the emotions and banter are likely to be equally intense in their own way across leagues. Which brings us to the central thrust of Ingle’s piece:
After all, you remain hooked on a sport that has, over the past decade, become as competitive as a F1 warm-up lap – while at the same time taking ever-larger chunks out of your salary. Smart people would stand up to such exploitation. Football fans prefer to revel in their “hardcore” commitment. Even if a match is shunted to some unholy hour to accommodate Sky, you think nothing of travelling hundreds of miles to sit in a stadium with all the atmosphere of a wake, to show loyalty to your club. The same club that’s always thinking of ingenious new ways to bleed you dry. When it comes to football, your rationality goes awol. [...] Your idiocy doesn’t end there. For you take more interest in pre-season friendlies – games which are, without exception, about as meaningful as Gazza’s comedy breasts – than the growing inequality between football’s haves and have-nots and what to do about it.
In short, you’re an idiot.
Whilst discussing my idea of evolution of fan culture, I didn’t talk about the evolution of clubs; doing so would digress from my central piece and so, I’ll just gloss over it. Clubs grew, being propped up by unwavering support from the community, and whilst many clubs grew too big for their cradle, most of them saw the commercial benefit of a die-hard fan base and, like modern self-respecting businessmen, learned to milk their ‘consumers’. Football follows an inelastic demand-supply system, they would say. And then there was Sky and the Premier League… I hope you get the import. Fan behaviour, on the other hand, has remained as it was, cosmetic changes to expression (such as English hooliganism) aside.
Sean Ingle talks about football fans being idiots in a way that shows contempt, but also in an I-pity-you-fools sort of way. He wonders how even great minds get reduced to impetuous nutcases, and the most hardened men become lumps of mush. And it’s hard to argue against. But is such behaviour necessarily bad? I say, fans should stay idiots. And why not? It’s not that it’s injurious to health. It’s the perfect drug, the perfect escape route, and the perfect way to vent. Let fans stay in that zone; let them experience the highs and lows of a season and after that let them come back home to reality and see how unhealthy their obsession truly is to their personal lives. Let him revel in his idiocy, and do it in style. Let him go atop the watchtower, stand on his left foot hoping his adventure, which would otherwise be classed in real life as irrational behaviour, somehow conspires with a greater power to ensure his beloved side avoids the drop. And if it means wearing the same polka-dotted Scunthorpe United underwear for a week, then so be it. Who cares if he’s actually the chief economic adviser to the head of state in his day job?
Let them do all of that and more… but let them not start comparing penis sizes.
Cyrus Philbrick, who runs the engaging Footsmoke blog briefly touches upon this when discussing the supposed feud between MLS fans and, who are known commonly in these lands as, the ‘Euro-snobs’.
But I don’t really understand the way some hard-core MLS fans have framed a battle between true American soccer fans and pretenders. Can someone explain to me how more exposure to the game, especially such a high quality brand of soccer, is bad? Should we stop importing foreign beer because it’s better and undermines our domestic product? And should we blame those who want to pay to drink it. Importing a refined foreign product should help American soccer fans, of which MLS fans represent only a small subset, continue to develop a realistic comparison to their domestic product.
He puts forth his point in terms of how a better ‘product’ would bring about better appreciation, and perhaps, newer fans. And the point is well made. My argument however is on a more basic level; one of human tendency of one-upmanship and rationalising for comfort.
Referring back to Philbrick’s piece, we see the tendency of MLS fans thinking they are somehow real fans for supporting a club that plays in their backyard. Somehow, those who don’t pay much heed to the goings on in their own alley deserve to be called fans, in inverted commas, rather than just plain fans. It is akin to saying my hairless head trumps your bald head. We are all involved in an activity that in essence is irrational. This irrationality is necessarily meant to be blissfully enjoyed. Pontification ruins it for everyone. Man City (and many other) fans claiming ‘at least we are from Manchester’ as a retort to bring down ‘glory-hunting’ United fans, or Man Utd fans defending their Heysel/Hillsborough chants against Liverpool as some sort of making up for years of Munich abuse copped are just excuses that would fail the most basic of tests on logic. Fans hurl insults in the heat of the moment because it gives them a warm fuzzy feeling of riling the other. If rationality gets attached to it, the point is lost.
Which is why when someone tells another fan what he needs to do in order to become a true fan, and what physical boundaries he needs to be within in order to be eligible to support a club, it ceases to be fun. Incidents where fans took a more grounded approach in touch with reality — such as the formation of AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester (even recent attempts by fan groups to take over Liverpool) — whilst based on principles of community and good intentions, are however rooted in the inherent need to find a club to identify with and grow a bond that will evolve into a relationship beyond the realms of logical explanation; or as Ingle would have it, idiocy. Yet, it’s the comparison of one form of idiocy with another — by elevating the one into a stratospheric layer of nobility — that makes it really laughable.
So, football fans, please remain idiots. But please, stop telling us how to conduct our relationship with our respective clubs. We’ve got that covered — in our own sweet, well, idiotic way.