Thursday, 22 April 2010

On being a fan

When I was nine years old, my family moved from a small village in County Wicklow to Wicklow town. Moving from a small village school to a much bigger, all-boys school I quickly realised that I didn’t have an English soccer team to support. This was an intolerable situation, one completely impossible for a boy of my age to be in – without a team I was so completely out that my life was a misery. And so, for some reason not completely clear to me now (maybe the fact that they’d won the League in 1969), I decided that Leeds United was my team. I set out to find out all about them, checked the papers every Sunday to see how they’d played the day before and was rewarded for my newly pledged allegiance when they reached the FA Cup final in April 1970.

Leeds finally lost the final after a replay in Old Trafford but went on to do pretty well in the following years, among other things reaching the final of the European Cup in 1975, only to be beaten by Bayern Munich (whom I will come back to later). It was a characteristic of my team that they specialised in coming second; between 1965 and 1974 finishing second in the league five times and losing the FA Cup final three times. In that sense, Leeds were a very good lesson to me as a boy about one of the things being a fan means; you follow your team through the good and the bad times, you gloat when they/you win and you suffer ridicule when they/you lose. In fact, the very language you use changes when you become a fan, you become, in a strange fashion, part of the team and the third person is transformed, through your identification with your team to that warm, inclusive “we.” Of course, that means that you have to take the rough with the smooth, since loyalty and fidelity are part of the mystical union with your team which fanship involves.

In the early seventies, my family moved to Sligo and I got my second lesson in fanship – Sligo Rovers. Sligo is somewhat unique for a small town in the west of Ireland in having had a professional soccer team since 1928. The reasons for this have a lot to do with a substratum in Sligo culture which is unique in having a strong, in many ways non-Gaelic, almost British working-class culture; but that’s another subject. As I said, Sligo has a professional soccer team, but this doesn’t mean that they are necessarily always a very good soccer team. Being a Rovers fan means learning some basic hard lessons about life; that you often get beaten, that the whole world – personified by fouling opponents and biased referees – is against you, that natural justice is a myth, and that Murphy was an optimist. It is, in my opinion, part of the basic state of being a Sligonian that you are a Rovers supporter and that your default mindset is one of resigned despair at the desperate performance of your team.

This is what made the season of 76-77 so special. In an unprecedented series of victories, Sligo Rovers marched to the League of Ireland Championship and all the pain and scoffing endured, all the cold wet Sunday afternoons watching Rovers being outperformed, or just playing badly, were redeemed in one glorious season, the first championship since 1937. The fans rejoiced, but I do remember feeling somewhat bemused, that this situation of actually being champions was unreal. I needn’t have worried; reality soon reasserted itself and Rovers haven’t won the championship since.

Being a fan (particularly a fan of a sports team) admits you to a strange world, one that has lots of attractions. Things are very clear. There’s us, that group/your team which you belong to and them, the other teams and their fans. (There are also, of course, people who aren’t fans of any team at all, but they are – when you are in your fan mode – beneath any practical consideration). You are in complete, simple rivalry with them, which makes everything very simple. All of this is governed by some easy rules.

1. Nothing they do can ever be good. Nothing we do can ever really be bad, since we are better than all the others. There are some qualifications however; there are usually some rivals who are particular enemies of your teams and so it is legitimate to cheer for other rivals if they are playing against one of these particular enemies. Criticism of the actions and performance of your own team is also allowed, but is best limited to internal circles (although, should your team be performing particularly badly, general comments of disgust are also permissible, as long as it is clear that this disillusionment in no way affects your basic loyalty to your team).

2. Being a fan automatically confers you with expert status. There is no particular need for any deep understanding of the issues involved, as long as you have committed yourself to the state of fanship through the gift of unconditional loyalty to your team.

3. Objectivity is not required – indeed it can often be a definite hindrance. When watching a game (the ultimate sacrament of fanship, especially when celebrated live in a stadium), your own team is to be cheered at all costs, the opposing team is to be shouted at, insulted, taunted, etc. Your team never fouls; such incidents are simply examples of the stupidity of match officials, biased in favour of your opponents. Occasional, obviously positive actions of your opponents are simply flukes, or strokes of luck – usually aided and abetted by the aforementioned biased blind officials, who are ignoring the blatant cheating continually practiced by the other side.

4. All of this takes place within a strict and elaborate framework of rules, which all involve adhere to (even if the others are constantly trying to break them). These rules allow you, from within the security of your own group (or in the privacy of your own home in front of your TV screen), to hurl deprecations and insults on your opponents (and their fans), as well as the match officials which, in the “real” world, would quickly see you facing serious legal charges. The agreed rules, however, do stipulate that the invective remains verbal and never spills over into physical conflict.

5. In the end, despite all resentment and feelings of being cheated or robbed, the result at the final whistle is binding on all sides. Defeat is to be accepted with sullen resignation, victory allows unalloyed joy.
(Thanks to Flavia for suggesting this track)
When it comes to supporting football teams, a few more comments seem appropriate. For example, there is no absolute geographical imperative to fanship. There is a certain correlation; if your town has a team then there is a fairly high likelihood that most of the residents of that town who are into football and fanship will be fans of the local team. But this is not absolute. There are residents of Liverpool who are Chelsea fans, I know of Dortmunders who are fans of Bayern Munich and many Londoners who support Manchester United. Otherwise, if your town doesn’t have a top division team, then the geographical location of your heroes is irrelevant.

The one geographical rule that does seem to apply is that towns tend to produce football teams in pairs – as if too much local unanimity is unnatural. So you have Glasgow Rangers and Celtic, Manchester City and United, Inter and AC Milan, Schalke and Dortmund.

Then there is the special category of teams with respect to whom neutrality is impossible. These are generally big, successful clubs with a very large following; Real Madrid in Spain, Juventus in Italy, Bayern Munich in Germany and, above all, Manchester United in England. These are clubs which have huge numbers of fans – every fan of every other club hates them. I once knew someone whose hatred of Bayern Munich was so pure that he watched every game in which they played which was broadcast on TV; he would lay in a good supply of beer and passionately cheer on Bayern’s opponents, no matter who they were. (Given Bayern’s general rate of success, he was more often disappointed than happy – but that fitted his overall personality.)

The interesting thing about all of this is that practically everything about fanship is not rational – yet it seems to satisfy a deep-seated human need, particularly in the male psyche. Anyone wondering about the roots of this need only watch a nature film on the subject of what happens when two groups of monkeys of the same species come into contact with each other. There is immediate hostility, jeering and heckling of the others, almost ritual threats, accompanied by cheers for those who show themselves as the heroes of the group. Once more, we’re back to one of my favourite subjects – monkey business. Despite all our subsequent evolutionary development, everything we have achieved through consciousness and rationality, all our technological, aesthetic and social sophistication, we still contain an awful lot of our pre-human primate origins.

Which, of course, leads me to wonder about the real deepest reasons why human organisations – nations and countries – go to war with each other? And then to a possible, admittedly abstruse, justification for the insane sums footballers like Lionel Messi, Franck Ribery, Christiano Ronaldo and all the others earn every year. If the sublimation of aggressive human instincts into the ritualised behaviour of fans lowers our urges to beat the shit out of others or go to war with them, why, then they’re worth every penny they’re paid …


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