What does it mean to support a football club? My last piece inadvertently provoked a lengthy debate on the validity of Chelsea supporters around the world.
I was disappointed to see that the thread (which is still there) showed its contributors to be in equal measure, reasonable, tolerant and considered (unlike my own pub discussions which reveal me to be, in equal measure, annoying, repetitive and annoying.)
Eventually however, it seemed to fizzle out to one conclusion: all Chelsea fans are created equal, but some are more equal than others.
As far as conclusions go, it’s a fair, if mildly plagiarised one which, as all fair conclusions do, manages to avoid the central issue, in this case: what it means to support a football club.
The reason we support football clubs is tribalism. It’s no mystery. It’s an effective way of satisfying the fundamental desire for community, bringing the same benefits as family, safety in numbers and co-existence, and all with the added advantage of weekly escapism.
Tribalism is a very human characteristic and is often mistakenly dismissed as being exclusive to primitive cultures. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every habit in our modern lives owes at least something to the urge towards tribalism. Fashion, politics, diet, lifestyle, cars. Take a look at what you’re wearing right now. Think about when you bought it and what the determining factors were. Almost certainly, at some stage, the want to belong will have featured.
It’s important too to remember that success of the tribe is not integral to tribalism. Perhaps for children the need to believe that you’ve joined a winning formula holds a lot of sway, but it becomes increasingly irrelevant as we grow older. In fact, it can be said that failure is equally inspirational as a tribal attraction. Masochism is rife in sport, as England fans of football, cricket or tennis will testify. We haven’t actually won anything in those sports in years, but the fanbase has never been stronger.
So if not success, what is it that makes a tribe strong? In a word: exclusivity. Just as the sense of belonging is important to a tribe, so too is the exclusion of others. It’s not really a tribe if anyone can join, that’d be like facebook or something, a fad, a blip. To be a real tribe you need an initiation ceremony, a test of commitment. A password. Your first kit, your first game. Your post code.
Inevitably this leads to internal hierarchies in the tribe: I’ve been a fan since 1905; I haven’t missed a game; I sing louder; I inject myself with food colouring every day so that if you cut me I will actually bleed blue. We’ve all done it, and although it makes us feel better, we’re all shouting the same thing: I’m a better fan because I care more.
And I think that’s where the answer lies. What does it mean to support a football club? it means to care. To feel lifted by their success, to feel dejected at their failure, to rant and rave at your friends, to find it difficult to be magnanimous in victory and humble in defeat. And it doesn’t matter whether you live in West London or East Timor, the more you put in, the more you’ll get out.
Imagine if every weekend the newspapers and TV channels were filled with the sporting showdowns of the planets of our solar system. Cheeky little Mercury uses his speed to flummox big, fat, gassy Jupiter, who’s too busy parading his bulbous red spot. Meanwhile lonely old Pluto with his icy nips and sallow face loses again. Is he even a planet? loser. Or what about blinged up Saturn with his overpriced rings, lauding it over Uranus?If that was going on, we’d soon become interested.
We’d choose our favourites and cheer them on when times got rough. We’d goad each other when we won, get angry when others goaded us. In fact, we’d begin to care about how things panned out… but that doesn’t mean we’d ever dream of going there.