“You are not a season ticket holder, so what do you know about my club?”. “Support your local team, and leave us, the real fans, to support our own.” It is surprising to think that in the 21st century, we are still having this conversation.
As football has transcended to new global heights, reaching every corner of the globe and still expanding beyond the stratosphere, its popularity has linked people from different cultural and national backgrounds to a point where a Zimbabwean like myself can communicate with a supporter from the United Kingdom and have an actual conversation about the current trends in football – the demise of Manchester United, the redemption of Paco Alcacer, La Liga’s unpredictability.
We are connected, on some level, to the sport we love. We are enlightened when someone’s line of thinking is different from our own.
Yet, there are those that still defend the pride of their sovereign birthright to be at the pinnacle of the football supporters’ pyramid because they are a “life-long, die-hard follower of the club”, grasping onto a wrinkled piece of paper – their precious season ticket.
This line of thinking may have been acceptable when globalisation was in its infancy, but with the current speed at which the transfer of knowledge and information is traveling, the world of football is a much smaller place.
Team devotion, be it from within the stadium or a million kilometres away, cannot be simplified to the metric that one has watched their team in the stands on a regular basis and another person has not.
Their opinion does not become the holy grail of football understanding because they have seen the blades of grass at Old Trafford or taken pictures of the banners in the Nou Camp.
If religion can be practiced away from the altar, then why can one not devote themselves to the daily travails of their favourite football team from the comfort of their own home, even if it is from another country?
When the team celebrates, we celebrate. When they struggle, we sympathise with their struggles. Of course, the dream would be to have a moment in the euphoric noise of Anfield or lose the senses in a crescendo of song in the Yellow Wall of the Signal Iduna Park, but the reality is that not all are given that opportunity.
Why must one, then, be subjected to the scrutiny of a handful of supporters parading their ‘authenticity’ to the discredit of others?
The identity of the ‘authentic’ football supporter is difficult to categorise. The definition of what is means to be a ‘fan’ has no mention of location that goes with the title.
To support a club through thick and thin, passionately without reservation or thought, would be the bare minimum expected. The stadium has been brought to our television screens, our cellphones, our radio frequencies; the ideological view of what it means to be a football supporter has diminished.
Long may it continue. The globalisation of football has allowed us to follow the biggest clubs wherever they go. Initiatives such as Fanzone on Premier League TV allow supporters to have a voice, be it a 15-year-old sitting in the comfort of his room in London or a middle-aged man in Lagos, proudly donning his replica Chelsea jersey purchased online for a pretty price, because it does not matter where you come from now. Football fandom is now a worldwide phenomenon.
Supporters are contributing to the success of their clubs in different ways, and it would be naive to think otherwise. Pre-season tours are met with scenes of jubilation at airports and stadiums. Replica football jerseys are sold out in a matter of weeks. Supporters stay up into the twilight hours of the morning to watch their favourite teams play, constantly tweeting and hash-tagging “#GGMU” or “#EmeryBall” because it makes them feel part of the bigger picture.
Are some traditional supporters threatened by the ever-increasing globalisation of the clubs that they support so fiercely? Does the opinion of a millennial fringe on the ego of those that have “seen it all”, seemingly carrying the heavy load of following ‘their’ team, week in, week out?
The term “glory hunter” is not very far from their fingers, referring to those supporters that, to them, only follow the team when all is rosy, the champagne is flowing, the trophies are being raked in and rivals are at their wit’s end.
Football is the one language that needs no translation, no explanation. It is a feeling, the butterflies you feel in your stomach when you hear the Champions League anthem or the goosebumps that greet you on the eve of El Clàsico.
Being a football supporter is a free right that needs no policing. One does not need to recite every word to every chant in the hymn book, or name all of the players in a squad of 23 to prove their loyalties.
How can we change the mindset of those that are not accepting of the ever-changing football environment? Humanity thrives on the freedom of choice, but when that freedom is put into question, then how can we engage with each other?
Granted, we cannot all be sat around a campfire, singing “Kumbaya, my Lord”, but football has become the world’s game. The connection between supporter and team is stronger than ever.
So, what are some afraid of when it comes to the continued globalisation of their clubs? It may be the fact that some clubs have lost their original identity because of their increased commercialisation, so much so that the ethos that once resonated throughout their traditional supporters has been lost on them.
United, once a great giant of club football, seemed to have shifted their focus on dissecting their financial numbers rather than their opposition.
Manchester City have somehow struck the balance of becoming a global superpower but realising that their identity on the pitch helps them gain a significant following off of it. Without Pep Guardiola, where would they actually be?
The same goes for teams like FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich. The quality of football, that which identifies them and their supporters, has not been lost in their attempts to reach a wider audience.
If we translated this to the actual players on the pitch, having them play for the teams in their local communities, then we would not have the increased global footprint that we see in the top European leagues: the English would play in England, the French in France, the Italians in Italy. The Cristiano Ronaldo-Lionel Messi duopoly would cease to exist. Tiki-taka – or some version of it – would be played only in Spain and total football in the Netherlands.
Support local, and clubs would have lost the ability to become diverse, commercially successful entities. They would have lost a support base that is willing to contribute to their continued success kilometres away from the stadium.
Disparities between teams may have been smaller, and competition broader, but where would the fun have been if it was all about living in a bubble of familiarity? Systems and tactics would be all too similar, thinking processes too identical, ideas too narrow.
The global football supporter is here to stay, and as social media continues to provide us with avenues of communication to critique and create dialogue, it would be a step in the right direction if the handful of traditional supporters allowed themselves to accept the current trend of football fandom.