What is it about football that makes people have blind faith and loyalty to a cause? I have been thinking that our generation, more than any other, has no reason to support A or B. Take me for example: I support Liverpool FC. I am not from Liverpool, never lived there. My support is based purely on their widely-broadcast success of the 80s. Moreover, the first team has two Liverpool-born players, and not many more who are English. So what does Liverpool FC stand for? Change the crest and move the ground a few miles away and you might as well call it something else-nobody would notice. It’s the same with most clubs in Europe. In my native Cyprus, second division clubs have squads full of EU-born players. The only things linking club and locale are the shirt, the crest and the actual football ground (unless your an ex-Wimbledon, currently MK Dons fan).
I am fully aware of football as a huge business which makes players, managers, officials and (most damagingly) agents rich beyond their wildest dreams. I have no illusions as to the purpose of UEFA and FIFA, the Premier League and Sky. Football is a commodity in high demand, and they are responding to that demand. I am unaware of another commodity which also combines the unending loyalty of fans, the following which spans generations (nationalism comes close). On the one hand we have the cynics, the business-minded who reap the benefits of the spectacle. That’s fine. I get it. What I don’t get is: why do we fans pledge eternal loyalty and faith to our respective clubs? We refer to them as ‘us’, ‘we played well last night’, ‘I hope we buy a couple of good players’ etc etc. We feel physical pain when our clubs lose to a fierce rival, and personally betrayed when our star striker moves on to another club. I have a colleague who doesn’t turn up for work if his team loses to its city rival. Loyalty, passion, even crime, all in the name of the club, the sacred colours, the crest.
Ticket prices are sky-high, cheap replica shirts sell for £50 at a ridiculous markup. The clubs rip off their own fans, the very people who swear allegiance to them. It’s not that the fans are naive. They know full well that most players are just professionals, like in any other profession. Offer them more money and they’ll be off at the blink of an eye. The players themselves are unapologetic about it. Take Fernando Torres for example: who left Liverpool, a club and city he had claimed to love so much he wanted his daughter to learn Scouse. Fast forward 18 months and that love is lost. Torres spoke about the romance of football being dead, that it’s all about winning trophies. Torres, as predictable as a middle-class climber who wants the bigger car, is only interested in ‘success’.
And yet, if romance is dead, how do we explain all those professionals who have stayed at their club forever and never even considered leaving? Why is Dirk Kuyt not as anxious to move? Why did Ryan Giggs play all his career at Man Utd? Javier Zanetti? Torres’ assertion doesn’t hold water if you consider all the top class professionals who chose to stay and not move in search of success. Romance is dead for some, but very much alive for others. You know that your team is staffed by professionals with little attachment to what you consider your club’s values. You know that they’re overpaid primadonnas and that the club owner made his money in shady ways in the oil fields of Siberia (or Saudi Arabia). And yet…and yet…every weekend, as they take to the pitch, you are willing to raise your voice with thousands of others, because at the end of the day this is your tribe, your religion, your passion. It doesn’t matter really who wears the shirt, who owns the club. It always represents the fans’ hopes and anxieties. And that’s the beauty of it. And that’s the tragedy of it.
Perhaps it’s all rooted in a previous time, when clubs were local, and foreign player meant someone from outside the city’s boundaries. Back when fans gathered to build their clubs’ stadia by hand, volunteers for the big cause. And of course when clubs reflected people’s political beliefs, and weren’t simple caricatures at the age of money. Maybe we’re all clinging to that past as the golden era, in one grand (and final) delusion.
Joan Miró‘s poster for the 1982 World Cup