Jonathan Wilson's Editor's Note from Issue Thirty Four
There is a dispiriting term begun to be popularised in political blogging: “footballification”. It is used to describe the tribal nature of modern Britain politics, the way that activists and, increasingly, journalists rally behind their side whatever the situation. Critical thought is rare, there’s simply a reflex that says: we must attack this person because he is pro-Brexit; or we must support this view because it appears to be what Corbyn thinks.
Nobody acknowledges that their side might, on this occasion, have got it wrong. Nuance disappears and politics increasingly become pointless braying behind a flag. The idea that politicians or pundits might actually step back and consider an issue, might seek a workable compromise, has come to feel absurdly idealistic and the result is many of our leaders and the commentariat either being nakedly hypocritical or engaging in ludicrous rhetorical gymnastics to justify holding two apparently contradictory positions simultaneously.
But what’s galling is that this new tribalism is seen as being characteristic of football. And these days, of course, it is. Whether it’s Manchester City fans defending Abu Dhabi’s legal system, Liverpool fans blindly supporting Luis Suárez in the Patrice Évra affair or Sunderland fans insisting Ricky Álvarez would be a good signing, the inclination to rally behind the shirt is strong. Any critic must be an enemy (“Why can’t you be positive? Why are you talking him down?” Because I’ve seen him play) and so must be crushed.
Perhaps that tendency has always been there and has just been made more prominent by the way social media makes it so straightforward to berate opponents. But the tribalism feels more entrenched now.
Although I was always a Sunderland fan, when I was in my mid-late teens, I would go to half a dozen Newcastle home games a season. My dad was a Roker End season- ticket holder and a semi-regular on the Gallowgate until he married. I don’t think we were particularly unusual. Such an ecumenical approach, of course, is all but impossible now, given ticket prices and the difficulty of getting in to Premier League grounds. With so many other distractions and the prevalence of football on television, perhaps it’s not even desirable.
But watching two teams regularly at least teaches you that fans of other clubs are not the enemy, that you can have sympathy for the Other without it somehow being a betrayal of yourself. Why football has turned out this way is another question and one I suspect more relevant to politics. Perhaps social media, the need always to be performatively supportive of your side, erodes empathy.
Football can’t really protest at the description of itself as innately tribal but there is a great sadness to that. It is perhaps the most universal cultural mode and as such it should be a tool for building understanding. To an extent it is, but there’s an awful lot of blowhards shouting on Twitter to get through first.