There are two logics of football fandom that are at war in the modern game, and regrettably, the wrong one is winning the battle.
These two logics are that of (1) football as event, carnival vs. (2) football as emotional investment.
Football as an event refers to a model of World-Cup like fandom, increasingly common today, in which attending a game becomes a form of attending a party. Whether your team wins or loses is of course of concern, but the ultimate ambition is to have a good time, to enjoy.
Enjoyment is what football is all about. But when it becomes a requirement, a stated objective and expectation of the event itself, it becomes quite an oppressive category.
This oppressive nature is best expressed in one of the most absurd practices of the modern game: that pressure that fans attending a game feel, when their image comes up on the Jumbotron or ‘big screen’, to dance up and down manically as if to prove to themselves they are having fun.
It is a false, perverse enactment that occurs even when the fans’ team is 3-0 down at home against F.C. Kebab.
This overbearing demand to have fun is expressed in any FIFA-approved media you have engaged with. Watching the World Cup on T.V., while glorious, often feels like being subjected to ‘Party Patrol’.
Every time the ball goes out for a throw in, the camera spans the crowd, finding a group of face-painted, Carlsberg-laden pleasing-on-the-eye ‘cool’ people who shake their beer or flag at the monitor. If these same people had watched England 0-0 Costa Rica as I did, they would be sitting down leaden-faced, asking for stronger beer.
Football is now seen as a site of consumption. There has been a remarkable cross-fertilization between the entertainment industries: football’s administrators have combined the uninhibited ‘festival feel’ of summer music events, the circus notion of hiring performers to entertain fans as well as the wine and dine culture of haute cuisine with watching a football match.
There is nothing inherently objectionable with the model. Apart from the fact that it is:
a) incredibly status quo, using a mass event in a conformist manner to: to enjoy ourselves, consume and forget issues of political contention.
At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the government was more than happy to ignore social protests, placing emphasis instead on the euphoric imagery of fans dancing side by side on the Copacabana.
b) quite frankly, really boring after five minutes. Where is the meaning in a dramatic narrative in which everyone gets on?
The second model of fandom is that of football as emotional investment or suffering.
Being a football fan is about being ready to suffer. To be ready to get soaked, and secretly enjoy it, on a Tuesday night away at Carlisle United. It is a perverse sense of enjoyment that arouses people; faced with the repetition and banality of everyday life, is it not understandable that people enjoy the absurd?
For these devoted, suffering fans, football is the serious life, not some game to be consumed like a soft drink at the weekend. It is the realm where emotions are produced, emotions which are not triggered by the everyday routine.
Jonathan Wilson alludes to such a model of fandom, in his excellent Behind the Curtain: Football in Eastern Europe. As Wilson notes on the first page of the book, the reason he is drawn to football in this region is because it is so unsanitised, so overt in its politics.
Following a story about a team that holds the referee at gun point at half time is just “writing a story about the hamstring injury of St. Mirren’s right back” as Wilson suggests.
While we may condemn the action, and rightly so, I think we would be lying if we said that there is not an element of enjoying rubber-necking, of being drawn to the car crash. There is an intensity surrounding the politics of a crowd of forty thousand men standing in a stadium each week that cannot be found elsewhere.
We cannot remove the fan from his social context. If a football club is situated in an industrial workers’ town, as it is in Donetsk to give one example, it would be an act of violence to demand that fans separate their social identity from their support for the club.
Shaktar is such a pertinent example because the billionaire owner Rinat Akhmetov has demanded precisely that, to the mass protest of fans.
This must also be said of fans whose political ideologies do not fit our liberal narrative. Abhorrent as their views may be, there is a sociological reason why young men in Eastern European countries are drawn to Fascist ideology.
It is not because they are football fans-to say so is to reverse cause and effect – rather it is because they, unemployed, angry or scared of change, project their own sense of victimhood onto an ideology that specialises in recruiting imagined victims.
We need to engage these fans rather than treating them as anachronistic disorders of the past. Thousands of ‘Nazi’ football fans were not just coincidentally ‘born’ in these countries at the same time; they are products of their society.
It is also important that we do not demonise football fans. Yes, when their iconography incites violence we should remove them from the stadium. But, otherwise, we might let a little bit of tension be released at stadiums through singing and non-coercive means.
In this regard, Simon Kuper is right: football needs Darth Vaders. We need ‘bad guys’ who it is okay to dislike. We need certain clubs, like Chelsea in Britain or Paris Saint German in France, that we love to hate. We need clubs like Besitkas, AEK Athens, FC St. Pauli and yes, even Roma and Red Star Belgrade. They provide a historical richness that we need to give our lives meaning.
Sometimes fans will be violent. And yes, myself included, we will jump on the bandwagon to condemn petty passions being translated into violence. But we cannot over-adjust and completely sanitise the game instead; to be human is to live with the ambiguity and anxiety that comes with experiencing emotions. We cannot regulate this by removing base emotions from the game.
Besides, can we expect football fans not to be attracted to politics when watching a game that mirrors models of political organization? Anyone who watched Atletico Madrid reach the 2014 Champions League Final will have recognised that Atleti under Diego Simeone are a quintessentially socialist team.
Dressed in red, insulting the vulgar ‘Galacticos’ of Real, and playing as an aggressive collective in which every player is a cog in the larger whole, Atletico are a sporting advertisement for collectivist politics. Even despite their Azerbaijani sponsors…
And similarly, Cristiano Ronaldo is inadvertently the supreme representative of Fascist masculinity: he is overwhelmingly individualist in his play, refers constantly to the strength of his will and flaunts his sculptured body like it is a public exhibit
What has gone unrecognised to date is that the argumentation of many football ultras is quite sophisticated. Those football fans fighting in the streets of Belgrade, Kiev and Sofia are not just mindless ‘yobs.’
If you have an opportunity, watch the ‘Last Argument’, an anti-‘modern football’ video uploaded on YouTube by Dynamo Kiev ultras in 2011. It is a testament to their political self-awareness. It belies the myth of mindless yobs.
It is the footballing equivalent of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche famously wrote of his fear of the coming of the ‘Last Man’, a man no longer willing to take any risks or invest himself emotionally in any goal, a man wary of life, waiting to die. Dynamo Kiev fans’ decision to entitle their video ‘The Last Argument’ takes on a deeper meaning in this context.
The argument of the hour-long video is crude, raw, and discomforting. But it is appealing nevertheless. For all the same reasons that Nietzsche remains a seminal philosopher today.
The video begins with a man standing, head tucked downward, on a metro platform waiting for the train. The train arrives. He gets in. The train then sets off again, becoming a blur as it accelerates. A narrator voices over the action:
Do you live? Or do you only think that you live? Nowadays life is like a recurring dream. Monday, in the morning you go to work, in the evening you watch tv before having a dull orgasm before you go to sleep…They tell you that this is how you live life: To consume more it is necessary to work more.
These guys have clearly read Nietzche, as well as Marx’s theory of alienation, using the modernist symbolism of the metro to represent the oppressiveness of industrial society.
The leaders of the various Ukrainian ultra groups then revert to a common discourse. Football is about emotions.
Whether or like it or not, this message contains a kernel of truth. We have to combat the alienation of football in the super-club era.
To take Andy Bennett’s term, we are going to have to reimagine football clubs not as brands but as a form of neo-tribe, an ideological community that nevertheless stigmatises violence. This means allowing fans representation on boards, providing cheaper ticket prices, facilitating singing sections and the deployment of tifos.
For at the moment clubs are moving towards becoming rootless, even soulless entities. Entities that know the cost of everything but the meaning of nothing.