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Football fans - Where’s the love?

13 January 2013

By Tom Goulding

Of all the aspects of British football that people have reason to lament in comparison to foreign football cultures, and there are undoubtedly many, a particularly powerful one is the anger which seems to currently permeate through the game. Players angrily berate referees. Managers gesticulate angrily on the touchline. Thirty thousand fans angrily huff and puff in their seats, yet they are watching some of the most expensive and exciting talent in the world play for their clubs. Where did the joy go?

The commodification of fans has been written about and debated extensively, with the price of tickets, the lack of all-standing areas on the terraces, and the confiscation of fairly harmless banners in grounds across the country all disappointing realities. This is one of the causes of poisonous and rather depressing atmospheres at matches, where the only noise that emanates from the stands is angry noise.

Never is this more relevant when English sides come up against foreign ones, such as Schalke and Dortmund this year, who come from a league where many clubs are owned by the fans, matches are affordable and there is real potential for an authentic atmosphere at every game. For them, expectations are low and success feels high. They watch waiting to celebrate, not waiting to groan.

There are various predictable factors for why there is so much angst on English terraces. It costs a small fortune to watch football these days. People regularly pay £50 per ticket to watch a group of millionaires play, and if you paid that money at a substitute leisure activity, such as the theatre or cinema, you could reasonably expect guaranteed satisfaction - but not at football. There is so much money being paid to players who, being human, do not perform to their best every week, but fans still attach their happiness levels onto these inherently unreliable performances.

Continued disappointment with the national team contributes to the doom and gloom too, as England are the typical example of inflated expectations and underwhelming performances. The ‘golden generation’ can not only be characterised by competitive disappointment but also fundamental character flaws - it would be easier to overlook the urinating in public, cheating on spouses or hitting nightclub bouncers if the team were winning in major tournaments.

The media put the national team players up on a pedestal and then rush to pull them down into ignominy when a big ‘exclusive’ requires it. As a result the atmosphere around following the national team is toxic – a cycle of misplaced hope and dislikeable behaviour.

This permeates into club football and nowhere has the angst and toxicity seemed more relevant than in North London. The anguish at the Emirates is in the public eye nearly every week as Arsenal contrive to underwhelm their fans, who yearn for the Highbury years, but to say that the Emirates Stadium is the only stadium with a subdued, almost despairing atmosphere would of course be false.

Several miles north at White Hart Lane, Spurs fans are coming to terms with new expectations. Since Martin Jol and Harry Redknapp led them out of the era of perennial mid-table mediocrity, where the best they could hope for was a Worthington Cup run and perhaps a draw at home to rivals Arsenal, Spurs fans now assume they will challenge Arsenal and Chelsea competitively every year, something unthinkable pre-2005.

Talking to many Tottenham fans, you get the sense that after qualification for the Champions League in 2010 and finding themselves 10 points above Arsenal in the league table in March 2012, many thought the tides had finally turned and a new era had begun where, as the song goes, ‘North London is ours’.

The reality however is that their progress has been checked by a combination of youthful inexperience, spring collapses and some big players still choosing to transfer to warmer climes. The North London pendulum has not so much swung their way but edged closer towards the middle, though with Arsenal continuing to prevail in the final league table each year. Tottenham fans have been frustrated in their attempts to finally celebrate superiority over their rival, however fleeting, which many have prematurely anticipated since the final day of 2006 and Lasagne-gate.

As a result, inflated expectations strike again – Spurs fans are paying upwards of £50 every week to still somewhat live in their neighbour’s shadow, a matter of unnaturally high importance for the modern fan, who lives in an atmosphere of angry tribalism, where every set of supporters seem to have ever more sophisticated reasons to ‘hate’ a different club every year.

Surveying a cross-section of the customers in the stands, all you see on fans’ faces is variation on a common theme of permanent frowning; half in bemused disgust at the continued failure of the players and officials to reach their desired standard; and half in fearful anguish at the sight of an opposition player threatening their goal and thus undermining their dogmatic, blind belief that their own team are ‘by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen’.

Women shriek at the linesman. Children scream at the right-back for failing to control a ball whizzing through the air impossibly. In front of his children, a father of two hurls profanities at Gylfi Sigurdsson for not being Rafael van der Vaart.

It is likely that in no other sphere of their lives do these people express such anger, such angst, such puerile, emotional violence than on a Saturday afternoon at 3pm. Jean Paul-Sartre argued in a famous speech in Paris in 1945 that the fundamental human condition was one of anguish, despair and abandonment, all because there is no God, but you could just as easily argue it is because Martin Atkinson has failed to give you a ‘blatant penalty’.

Is this perhaps not a new phenomenon, maybe there has always been this level of anger supporting a team? Perhaps so, but through forums and Twitter it is easier to wind-up and bait opposition fans, something that seems to be the modus operandi of a football fan these days. 

It could also reasonably be argued that after 20 years of Sky’s money being pumped into every Premier League club, we have perhaps reached a saturation point with our lust for continuing 24-hour focus on the egos and controversies. Sky Sports News is continually in a state of shock and awe with its Requiem For A Dream title music, and you are always a week or two away from a ‘Super Sunday’ which you are compelled not to miss.

The constant analysis and scrutiny puts the gamesmanship which has undoubtedly always existed under a constant spotlight, and the inevitable diving, time-wasting and dangerous tackles perhaps foster the hostile atmosphere in the stand and in the pub as fans feel somewhat cheated out of the money they’ve spent.

They then use forums to vent their anger, blaming the officials, or the diving, or the off-pitch antics, or the lack of goal-line technology, when in truth they have forgotten that on the pitch there was not only their team but also another group of 11 talented individuals directly attempting to thwart what they want to see happen. After all, if you go to the theatre, you don’t have another cast on stage trying to put off the original cast and ruin their performance.

It is easy to forget that people pay a sizeable fortune for this to be their pastime of leisure. There is too much joy to be enjoyed in admiring the talent and following the stories in the game, is it too much to ask for football fans to not let tribal angst get in the way?

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