The Real Problem
Is the ‘real fan’ being marginalised or is he just a rhetorical tool?
“Real football, real fans.”— Football League brand slogan
The ‘real football fan’ has had an interesting career lately. His extinction, at least from the top flight, is regularly lamented — “Are there any real fans left in the Premier League?’” the Daily Mail keened in 2008 — but an extensive media industry has sprung up to give him a voice: “real fans, real opinions” is the tagline of more than one football website. He’s being bled pale by the greedy owners of his club (“Has the Premier League priced out all the real fans?” the Guardian wondered last year), which is hard, because one of the many things he doesn’t like to do is watch football on television (“real football fans go and watch games”, to quote one representative internet comment). Other things he doesn’t do: criticise his own players (“Real Fans Don’t Boo,” as a recent blog post asserts); sit down, ever (“real fans STAND at the football, no excuses!” a Leeds-supporting forum poster writes); or support a top-four club (unless he happens to have been born within half a mile of the centre-circle at Old Trafford, in which case he has an excuse).
You can barely venture onto the internet these days without encountering the saga of the real fan and his struggles with the modern game. Of all the ways he’s exploited, though, the worst may be simply as a straw man. It doesn’t take a safecracker to work out that mostly, the real fan is a rhetorical device deployed to strengthen whatever argument the deployer wants to make. If you want to criticise Premier League ticket pricing, you could make the case that the league is pricing out lower-income fans — a legitimately important point. But if you tweak that to say that the league is pricing out real fans, you can recruit a whole other kind of authenticity into your argument. Start an online forum for real fans, and you flatter whoever joins it that their perspective on the game is not just more knowledgeable but also more genuine than that of the fakes and poseurs who populate other message boards. Call fans who’ve followed a club since before 1992 real fans, rather than traditional fans or old-school fans or any of the other terms you could use, and you suggest that everyone who’s come along since then is a false fan. And why would anyone listen to a false fan’s point of view?
The culture of sport is changing everywhere. But the culture of English football is changing at a really dizzying pace. In the past 20 years — you hardly need me to tell you this — football in England has undergone two major conceptual reconfigurations: the advent of the Premier League/Sky era in the 1990s, which transformed the commercial basis of the game and called into question settled notions of what a football club is for, and the very rapid technology-assisted expansion of the global fan base in the 2000s, which shook up old expectations about who the audience for a football league is supposed to be. In other words, both what the game was and who it was being played for seemed to acquire different answers, almost overnight. What had seemed (hindsight is admittedly a little rose-coloured in this description) a community endeavour suddenly appeared a capitalist kraken with tentacles unfurled to Taipei. It’s no surprise that the nature of fandom would come into frequent question during this period, or that the ‘real fan’ figure — like his natural enemies, the ‘gloryhunter’ and the ‘football hipster’ — would be used to trace the anxieties and frustrations of an established English fan base trying to come to terms with whatever the hell was happening to their game.
Those last two words are a problem, though, because while the ‘real fan’ designation is by nature exclusionary — it defines a class of supporters who it says have the only legitimate claim on the sport, and too bad for everyone else — football doesn’t actually belong to any one group of people. There are tens of millions of more or less non-traditional Premier League fans all over the world who, whether they discovered the league through commercial manipulation or not, now genuinely love their teams. (Besides, it’s not as though the ‘real fan’ is a stranger to commercial manipulation: see the crypto-isolationist dog whistle of a Football League motto I quoted at the start of this piece.) Arsenal fans in Africa often seem to take Arsenal more seriously than Arsenal fans at the Emirates. Which are the real fans? Some of the most fascinating football writing I’ve read in the last few years has come in separate pieces by Supriya Nair and Suhrith Parthasarathy on what it’s like to follow a European club from India — climbing out of bed in the middle of the night, watching matches alone in the green glow of the television, biting down on shouts that would wake up the whole block. That’s a form of passion no less real than the one that makes a Newcastle supporter drive to Swansea, even if it’s a relatively new thing in the world.
More to the point: why should any of us accept that there’s only one proper way to watch football? Where was the meeting that decided that anyone who doesn’t fit the follows-one-team-loyally, sings-his-head-off, goes-to-the-pub style of fandom is worse than anyone who does? If there are a million varieties of love, I don’t see why there shouldn’t be a million varieties of love for football, which, after all, has no real importance beyond its ability to add some enjoyment to our lives. There’s something spectacularly silly about fans policing other fans for their adherence to the laws of fandom, as if not having one favourite club, or preferring to watch from a seated position, is a VERY SERIOUS INFRACTION that should be SWIFTLY AND MERCILESSLY DEALT WITH. Because, you know, the economic recovery can’t gather steam if Kyle in Ohio thinks it’s fun to watch Chelsea on television.
Well, by ‘real fan’ standards, I’m about as fake as they come, so I’m biased. But at the risk of running against the indie-rock logic that prevails in these situations, I think football culture has gone past the point at which any single notion of what a football fan is or ought to be can be viable. (Of course it’s arguable whether football culture was ever not past that point, but there you have it.) Like it or not, the fandom of the foreseeable future is going to include people huddled over dodgy online streams, people watching on phones, people ready to snap shut their laptop lids if their bosses walk in, people sipping tea in the middle of the night — as well as people holding scarves up in stadiums. Some of these fans are going to have club loyalties handed down by their fathers and grandfathers; others are going to choose teams based on a player they like or a style of play, or not choose a team at all. All of this is okay.
Calling some of this activity ‘real’ and the rest of it ‘fake’ misses the point. 1975 is not rolling back around the block. We might as well acknowledge that we share the same goofy obsession and try to find some common ground in it, rather than frantically working to exclude one another from our narrow definitions of fandom. Really, this isn’t so bad. People are fascinating everywhere, and the culture is where it is. That’s not me talking; that’s reality.
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