The unwritten laws of football fandom state that every fan absolutely must have a favourite team to support. On top of that under no circumstances may any fan swerve in their loyalty to that team. “Who do you support?” is often one of the first questions asked when one football fan first meets another. Rarely is the answer “nobody really” given in reply.
It seems widely accepted that having a favourite team is an obligation of any football fan and it seems inextricably linked with somebody’s worthiness as a fan. But why does this arbitrary notion go largely unchallenged? What’s wrong with being a football fan without actually having a favourite team? What’s wrong with once having had a favourite team but no longer feeling an unquestioning and loyalty to them?
There’s nothing wrong with never finding a team to whom you feel sufficiently attached to call yourself a supporter. And there’s nothing wrong with choosing to stop offering your support to a team that you were once a fan of.
The majority of football fans have a team that they probably started supporting during childhood and have kept since. Fair enough. Nothing wrong with that. However, I’ve realised recently that football is extremely enjoyable as a neutral and free from obligations towards any given team. Not supporting a team may take away a degree of emotional involvement with the sport – the joy of success, the despair at loss, the endless frustrations and irritations etc. but these are compensated for by the positives – greater opportunities to experience different leagues and clubs, a more balanced appreciation of the sport and its players as a whole and not feeling the need to support a club whose owner(s) treat fans badly and as a secondary concern to their wider business models.
As we grow up our sense of what is important and what matters develops and changes. I have supported my team (Newcastle United) since childhood and can’t remember making a conscious decision to do so. Until fairly recently I have always unquestioningly and dutifully supported them, never once asking myself why I did this, or if I even wanted to carry on doing this. But recently, like a long-time member of a church congregation who after many years is questioning their faith, in my mid-twenties I am beginning to question my allegiance to my team.
The reason for this is that Newcastle’s off pitch dealings and business connections make the club something which I find difficult to actively support. The city of Newcastle and the north east of England more generally are working-class and (by British standards)are relatively deprived areas. Newcastle’s major sponsor is Wonga; a payday loans company with extortionate interest rates whom exploit some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society. Added to that the owner of the club is also the owner of Sport Direct; a company who exploit their already low-paid workforce by awarding many of their staff ‘zero-hours’ contracts. Having put up with zero-hours contracts myself and seen friends descend deep into debt after turning to loans from payday lenders I questioned whether supporting Newcastle United in its current guise is something I wanted to continue doing.
Other fans may feel the same way about their clubs for different reasons. Maybe their club has become too expensive. Maybe their club treats the fans badly. Maybe the club’s owners have messed around with the team’s name or colours. Maybe inflated wages, over-zealous stewarding and everything that goes with modern football have taken some of the enjoyment away from top-level football. Maybe nothing like this has happened to a fan’s club and they’ve just gradually lost enthusiasm. Most likely though fans won’t have questioned their continued support to their team because the notion that they absolutely must maintain their blind loyalty to their team is deeply ingrained into fan culture.
Football fandom is often tribal. It is often unquestioningly and dutifully subservient. This allows owners to take a club’s fans for granted and can lead to fans being treated as an afterthought. It also means that fans may indirectly prop up and financially support business when they would not normally do so. Whether or not football fans care about off-pitch matters is entirely up to them. Should I care about Newcastle’s ties to legalised loan sharks and exploitative companies? Should Hull and Cardiff fans care about their respective owners’ seeming contempt for their clubs’ traditions? Some may do, some may only see football in the context of what happens on the pitch. All I would like to see is football fans questioning their continued support of a given club and challenging the arbitrary and absurd notion that all fans absolutely must support a club, and must always support that club exclusively and for life.
It‘s fine if you never find a club to support. It’s fine if you do and then change your mind and consequently stop your support. It is also fine if you do support one club for your whole life. None of these make you any more or any less of a football fan.