By Shane Thomas
I'd wager that if there were a question on the next national census, "Do you consider yourself a fan of sport?If so, which is your favourite", the most popular answer would be football. By popular consensus, football is the national sport, a constant talking point in the media, and a regular source of conversation in workplaces and pubs. So why do so many people seem to know so little about the game?
When I hear people mention in passing that they're a football fan, it reminds of those people who say that they like music, only to find their i-Pod contains nothing but music from the current Top 40 chart, or those who say how much they like movies, but have no idea who Tom Hardy was before his turn in The Dark Knight Rises. Where I think the disconnect lies, is that there's a difference between being a fan of the sport of football, and a fan of a particular club.
That doesn't mean that the twain shall never meet. It's perfectly possible for a profound love of your club and a wider appreciation of the entire sport of football to co-exist. But wearing a replica shirt, buying the ancillary merchandise and knowing the requisite songs doesn't seem to correlate with a discernible level of expertise. The essential issue seems to be this; the mindset of many fans isn't, what's good for the game, but what's good for my club?
How else to explain behaviour which seems to be increasingly commonplace. Players and pundits receiving abuse as a matter of course, some of it racially motivated. Chris Kirkland being assaulted during a game, and any and all unpleasant actions justified with ad hominem, "yeah, but what about when your player..." arguments.
A portion of Chelsea fans will happily give you numerous defences for scandals that have engulfed players such as John Terry and Ashley Cole, which are borne solely from them being very good football players who are an asset to their club. I didn't hear much from them when Adrian Mutu was sacked after having been found to have taken cocaine. This isn't to say that one offence is worse than the other, but Cole and Terry have been very significant in Chelsea's recent successes. Mutu was not.
This isn't an attack on Chelsea, as the same could be said for some Liverpool fans' zealous defence of Luis Suarez, from his suspension for uttering racial abuse, to his propensity to dive (which I personally think has been overstated). Arsenal fans routinely bemoaned rival supporters indulging in a chant, which suggested that Robin Van Persie was a rapist - a case that never even made it to court. However, now that Van Persie has moved to Manchester United, a section of "Gooners" are chanting the same vile accusation at the Dutchman. The rules seem to change when a player is deemed as a "traitor". No longer is it au fait to cheer for your team, but you must also chant against every other team.
While I think it is reductive to lay the blame at the door of Sky Sports and the Premier League, there's no doubt that post-Italia '90, there's been an acceptance - and even delight - to turn the sport into an ongoing soap opera, in which sensational tales are used as oxygen to keep interest alive. Every week, we have a new story to rail over; referees, goalline technology, racism, sexism, homophobia, or players as role models. After the wearying events from Stamford Bridge, when Chelsea played Manchester United, journalist Philippe Auclair tweeted, "Is the Premier League still about football, or just about narratives related to it, a screen on which to project neuroses and prejudice?" I fear that more can recite chapter & verse on certain scandals surrounding Wayne Rooney, than could tell us about the likes of Jock Stein or Charles Hughes.
And this wallowing in emetic negativity stops so many from removing the blinkers and seeing that the world of football is bigger than the narrow world of one's club. But so many are cloaked in the demented zeal of winning no matter what, the cost that it can have to the game becomes irrelevant. The distaste that many have for the aforementioned Suarez, means that many will be robbed of the joy of his sublime goal against Newcastle at the weekend. Whatever the faults in his character, if you can't find pleasure in the quality of that goal, then you're not a true lover of the sport (Newcastle fans are exempt in this specific instance).
Two great demonstrations of football that I've seen in recent years were Cristiano Ronaldo's coruscating performance against Arsenal, as he inspired Manchester United to a 3-1 victory in the Champions League. Not to be outdone, Lionel Messi's detonation of brilliance against the same opposition - in the same competition - in a 4-1 win was no less impressive. Any disappointment I felt as an Arsenal fan (and there was plenty of disappointment) was superseded by the privilege of watching the game played to an astounding level of proficiency.
But I appear to be in a minority, and clubs that seem to stand for more than just winning, such as Real Sociedad, St. Pauli or Crewe Alexandra, are an ever decreasing exception to the rule.
I'm not naive enough to expect this paradigm to change. If you choose to dwell in a land of self-interest, in which the only things that matter in football are the ones that affect your club, fine. But don't call yourself a football fan, because you aren't one.
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