AN English academic, trying to explain the typical extra-curricular activities of British people, once remarked that in any group of 100 men, around 50% spent much of their free time watching association football. He went on to explain that for many of these people, the game of football was, to a certain degree, the replacement for some of the conventional life-defining moments that people go through.
Invariably, the nationwide obsession for a game that owed its commercial origins in Victorian England, has instilled a devotion to every intrinsic detail of its history, its protagonists and its execution. For 90 minutes, the followers of football teams are so transfixed, so blinkered in their support of their favourites, that nothing else matters while a game is in progress.
In its infancy, through the two world wars and into the post-war boom decade in which crowds spiked, the game was, essentially, the property of the working man. Largely complementing the importance of “the weekend”, something that British people valued and cherished more than almost any other nation – hence Adolf Hitler’s strategy of disrupting Saturdays and Sunday to capitalise on the negative impact it would have on British morale – this was the theatre of the flat cap, the rattle, the turned-up collar and the mythical elixir of Bovril. Much of the nostalgia for a “people’s game” is derived from this somewhat egalitarian period, where the game’s grandees were Industrial Revolution leaders and the supporters were mill workers, pitmen, foundry hands and ship builders. The players, while well compensated compared to the men on the terrace, were not so far removed from the people that idolised them.
Hankering for the days when terraces were packed to the rafters and swayed like fields of corn conveniently forgets just how fundamental and primitive football stadiums were until the modern era. The Chelsea Shed boy, Wesler’s burger in mouth, standing at a toilet as rivers of urine lapped around his “bovver boots” is a far cry from today’s rather antiseptic football arenas. Thankfully.
The devotion of the fan, one of many subjects covered by Desmond Morris in his classic, The Soccer Tribe, seems somewhat passé in the current age of corporate football with greater fan awareness and people seeking more meaning and satisfaction in their lives. Football is, after all, 90 minutes involving 22 young men in their early-to-late 20s. The older one gets, the less sensible it seems to hang your well-being onto a batch of temperamental youngsters.
Should a football club be the most important thing in someone’s life? It can, comfortably, be the most important pastime outside the most meaningful elements. In today’s environment, big-time football has become a business. The fans are, regardless of what a club calls them, customers or clients. Club owners, although cognisant of the way fans view their business – more vocational than corporate – cannot possibly share the relationship the fan believes he or she has with the club. No matter how many times an owner is seen – rather uncomfortably – sitting in the main stand with an oversized scarf draped around a bespoke suit, the owner is an investor and the club is an asset class.
That fan-club dynamic is almost identical the world over and in with very few exceptions, the story is the same. Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, while ground-breaking, was the story of a really rather sad individual and his irrational obsession with Arsenal. It undoubtedly prompted thousands of fans, of various clubs, to declare, “that’s me!”. We can all indulge myopic fans who are passionate about their clubs, but their belief that their relationship is somehow unique – how this club ruined their life, how that club saved their life – is mostly misguided. The obsessive fan who has rejected marriage, job advancement, religion and other accepted instalments of life can be found at all clubs at all levels of the game.
It is a stage that almost every fan goes through, the belief that it is pure sacrilege to miss a home game, to not have that match programme, to even consider doing something else other than attending the shrine. But once a sequence of games ends, most people realise that missing a home match is not the end of a devotional period of allegiance. There are other things in life, but football and its clubs often provide a refuge, a sense of belonging for the waifs and strays.
But all said and done, clubs have relied upon the devotion and reliability of fans who watch their teams home and away and spend so much money in support of the object of their desire. It’s a curious way to spend your life, attached to a sporting institution that more often than not will let the fan down – in an industry that has so many flaws. It is often supported by a belief that a person cannot do without the opium-like buzz of the club, even with all its shortcomings.
For decades, middle class folk, the professional classes and sportsmen of, for example, cricket and rugby, failed to understand why football had such a grasp on its audience. Very few in the entertainment and business sectors would admit to having a favourite team and football fans were seen as oafish, dangerous and rather odd. That’s changed and with corporate football, thousands of new fans have been acquired, supporters that do not come from the game’s traditional demographic. This has also created a new ambience, far removed from the days of the Bovril-laced days of the terrace and one which lacks the “animal” spirit of the past.
It’s still a distraction from daily life, but the old football audience has, largely, been priced-out of the market. But with TV coverage now at saturation point, people do not need to visit their favourite club to watch games. Supply has been outstripped by demand for tickets, hence it is a seller’s market and that means a different client is buying, one that now sees an Arsenal or Chelsea season ticket as a status symbol. One that has resources.
Furthermore, the game is no longer the property of red-brick back doubles and smoking chimneys but belongs to out-of-town retail parks, nautical stadiums with statues outside them and card carrying businessmen. In their own way, they’re as devoted as their flat-capped predecessors.
But this new set of disciples, more diverse and more cosmopolitan, are also part of a generation that has taken club worship in a different direction. In the past, league defeats were accepted with a shrug of the shoulder, and a realisation that there was another game in a week’s time. Not so today, where almost every setback is greeted like a major crisis. This has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the constant glare of TV cameras, scanning the crowd for the weeping fan, heartbroken by every boa constrictor on the board game.
Very often, failure is seen as a betrayal by the club and its owners and board of directors. Fans complain aggressively when their club is relegated, yet they do have a choice – football is a discretionary activity and supporters can show their displeasure by refusing to endorse a regime. They rarely do, underlining the unconditional love that fans have for their clubs.
Is this misplaced? Should football really be a market where the buyer (i.e. the fan) shops around and chooses the club that best suits his or her requirements? The old rule of thumb, that you support your local club seems somewhat outdated in this global age and while many people still have pride in their home town or city, the element of community has become frayed, and in many cases, disconnected. People rarely stay in the town of their birth.
In some respects, all the factors that have made football so integral to everyday life for the working class have been replaced by a new industry narrative, yet people still turn up, still yearn for recognition of their loyalty. This is all the more remarkable given the enormous wages paid to players, individuals who have very little affinity with the towns their clubs represent. It is almost impossible for folk in, for example, Liverpool or Manchester to expect the owners, managers and players to have the same undying loyalty and allegiance to a culture and history that inspires fans from these cities to continue their stubbornly optimistic patronage.
So we have a game that still tugs at the heart strings of its followers, played by millionaires and owned by billionaires. Does the game deserve that kind of support? And should people really be throwing their emotional shareholding – “my weekend was spoiled” – into clubs that are no longer representative of their local community?
Football still has enormous, some would say unprecedented, appeal to 21st century Britain. The game’s simplicity, even in this age of “game management”, over-complicated tactics and high technology is still the secret of its success. In short, we have never truly found an alternative to distract vast groups of people, although gaming and TV companies have tried – it is after all, despite the obscene riches handed to players, and a change in terms and conditions, still the people’s game.