Former Liverpool F.C. manager, Bill Shankley, famously said: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much, more important than that”. It was an astute observation. The fanaticism and infatuation of football’s fandom is, almost, beyond parallel. It has been thoroughly hardwired into British culture, absorbing not only our time, but our emotions – provoking, alternatively, frustration, debilitation, gratification and exhilaration. For some British citizens, their affinity with their football team will be the most enduring and defining relationship of their life.
The cult that surrounds football intrigues me – why the devotion? Why the unquestioning loyalty? Most of all, what promotes the rigid and – at times, hysteric – tribalism?
Objectively, the sport is aesthetically pleasing and structurally dramatic. The elegant blend of athleticism, intelligence and technique is visually stimulating, while the unpredictable structure of the sport gives rise to frenetic crescendos and dramatic intrigue. But, other sports contain these features. Other mediums enthrall us, yet we neither revere, say, the films of Christopher Nolan to the same extent, nor submit those who fail to share our taste in music to pernicious rivalry.
For some, football’s hold is lubricated by family ties. I have vivid memories of travelling to Anfield as a six-year-old with my father to watch Tottenham Hotspur in the quarter-final of the F.A. Cup in 1995 and – importantly – the sheer joy associated with the victory secured on that day. Indeed, the image of ex-Tottenham striker and talisman, Teddy Sheringham, still arouses a juvenile feeling of unbridled veneration. In this way, football was a vehicle for parental bonding and, in part, shaped my adolescent relationship with my father. Those with families – in particular, fathers or father-figures – that are more ingrained into the fortunes of their football clubs, will display a stronger familial attraction to the sport.
However, the universal reason behind our addiction to football is rooted in broader cultural trends – on the one hand, a yearning to subscribe to a community, and a need to be part of something more significant than merely the individual. On the other, an impulse to escape from the pressures of our routine and stratified lives, and immerse ourselves in the uncontrollable fortunes of others. In fact, it is utterly, and perversely, liberating to, willingly, hold oneself hostage to the actions of a third party.
That football engenders solidarity among its fans is well-established. The best – and, most disturbing – example came after the ex-Sheffield United striker, Ched Evans, was convicted for an offence of rape; a certain section of Sheffield United’s fanbase exposed the complainant to unpleasant language via Twitter. While, of course, this instance is far from the norm, football fans positively demand fidelity to their clubs. This premium on loyalty feeds its’ appeal – because fandom is leveraged by commitment, anyone can participate, provided they are willing. And, in this way, supporting a team represents something of a social leveler – inside the stadium, fans are not judged on their appearance, or wealth, or personal characteristics, but, simply, their allegiance to the cause. For ninety minutes, all fans are united in a common purpose – and, understandably, they derive comfort and familiarity in the process.
Further, I believe that the delirium that surrounds football has been exacerbated by its’ recent change of audience and, in particular, its’ engulfment of the middle classes. In terms of football’s history, its’ status as a surrogate for more expansive, and abstract, cultural needs is a relatively recent phenomenon. Traditionally, football was the exclusive province of the working class – subscription to a particular team depended on geographical location, and demonstrating an affection for that team reflected the principal importance of the locality in the individual’s personal psyche. This is no longer the case. A variety of technological developments that led to the increased geographical – and, indeed, social – mobility, has led to a more fluid and esoteric society. In short, and owing to frequent inter-city migration, one’s identity is no longer associated with the locality in which they inhabit.
Similarly, football is no longer a working class pursuit. For example, the price of watching Premier League football – either at the grounds, or via a subscription to Sky Sports – certainly suggests a viable and healthy middle class membership exists. And, the presence of corporate hospitality seating represents the virile interest that our middle classes exhibit towards football. The fact that the former Chief Executive of Barclays Plc, Bob Diamond, proudly tweeted a picture of himself with John Terry and the F.A. Cup reflects the omni-class component to footballs modern fanbase.
There is a perception that the emergence of the middle-class football fan has had an adverse effect on football – that the increased finance has led to an inequality of arms, that the atmosphere has been punctured, and that the rise of ‘glory hunters’, who merely support the successful teams has cultivated a more superficial aspect of football fandom. These are, to some extent, valid observations. In reality, however, the middle-class’s colonization of football has cultivated a far deeper shift in the way the game is followed.
For example, I suspect that a deeper emotional investment in the fortunes of football teams is directly linked to the deeper financial investment that modern football fandom demands – because supporters finance their clubs budgets, they demand an input into how it is spent. Similarly, because they finance footballers’ large salaries, fans feel that they are entitled to, and expect, elite performance. Along the way, the fan’s dependence on football has heightened – turning one’s back on football would, at this point, represent an admission that all the wealth spent on pursuing the game was, essentially, misplaced.
In addition, football has been affected by a revolution in the dissemination of information, which – while hardly the exclusive property of the middle classes – is certainly most closely intertwined with the social and professional lives of the highly-literate, bourgeois, folk. Essentially, and as innovations in technology have fed the professional classes’ gargantuan appetite for information, they are now accustomed to its’ absorption from a myriad of sources, and at regular intervals during the day. The upshot is that football’s fandom now positively soaks itself with constant information regarding football – most notably, of course, via endless, rolling news channels such as Sky Sports News.
Indeed, the precise method by which information regarding football is promulgated reflects the proliferation of the professional classes into football’s fandom. Whether consciously or unconsciously, news relating to football now emulates the mediums in which financial data and economic development is dispersed – for instance, the ever-updating (or “breaking”) culture of Sky Sports News mirrors the hectic atmosphere of the stock exchange, while the reliance placed on transfer gossip echoes the importance of insider knowledge in business.
The reasons why the middle classes have developed a fascination with football are, perhaps, less well-established. Principally, I believe that football embodies an element of escapism that innately appeals to our middle classes. Supporting football is, above, all easy. It is non-intellectual and non-pressurised. It is also direct and visceral; rather than determining success over quarters, football assesses competence over ninety minutes. Further, although football is inherently, and infuriatingly, unfair, being a supporter is thoroughly non-political and predictable. Finally, football is utterly unconventional, where – for instance – turnovers increase during recession and the impulses of the heart overrule machinations of the brain.