One of the favourite national pastimes to emerge from the Olympics was picking on our overpaid, inaccessible, ego-driven footballers who, so it goes, lack the passion, humility and sense of fair play of Team GB’s Olympic heroes.
Anyone who witnessed the animosity between both sets of fans and players in last Sunday’s Community Shield would struggle to disagree. Given that the ugly atmosphere at Villa Park took place on the very same day the Games bade a triumphant, almost delirious goodbye to London in the Olympic Stadium, one could not have failed to be struck by the difference in interaction between fans and athletes in both arenas.
And yet, for all of this, for all the negativity currently surrounding the sport, when the Premier League kicks off again this Saturday we will once again follow its every twist and turn from here until the last weekend in May. Every pass, every shot, every cross, every goal, every celebration, every foul, every dive, every tantrum, every transfer, every transfer request, everything. Like it or not, football is the national game but more than that, it is the national obsession. There is a sense of tribalism to being a football fan, a weekly ritual built up over years of following your team week in, week out. It is a tribalism that demands certain codes of loyalty and signs of allegiance in the form of replica jerseys, songs, chants and having an identifiable rival against whose values and style you can project your own. In many cases, this tribalism can go as far as defining an entire city or even region – can you imagine Liverpool, Manchester or Newcastle without their respective football clubs? Just ask the blue half of Glasgow or the people down in Portsmouth what their team means to them and their city and what impact losing them can have on the greater psyche?
By the same token, this tribalism is not always a force for good. There is no excuse for the venom that has so characterised the Old Firm derbies in recent years nor for the type of unadulterated hatred present during Liverpool and Man United’s encounters last season. These are just the most high profile examples but each offer a clear indication that for some fans, going to a match has less to do with enjoying the sport they profess to love but more with unleashing abuse en masse for reasons that go deeper than mere sporting rivalry.
There is no doubt that something is rotten in the world of football, Clubs, players and supporters must all share some of the blame for creating this state of affairs. Indeed, the relationship between clubs, players and fans is currently in a very precarious state. Never before has the divide between football’s protagonists and their adoring public been wider. When even lower league players and those fresh out of the youth academy are already earning thousands (if not tens of thousands) of pounds a week – let alone the £150k plus of the Premier League’s highest earners – how is the ordinary fan supposed to connect with them in a meaningful way, especially when season ticket prices keep going up every year to subsidise these wages? You can understand this frustration when the codes of loyalty and dedication that fans adhere to do not get replicated on the pitch. In an era when the rather handsomely paid Carlos Tevez decides he’s not coming off the bench and Joey Barton spends more time tweeting Nietzsche quotes he googled twenty minutes earlier and head-butting his way into trouble rather than helping his struggling teammates, it says something about the fans and the sport itself that they keep coming back for more.
Because in spite of all its many glaring faults, football has moments of glory that eclipse all its current difficulties. In the last year alone think of the sheer drama of Man City wrenching the title out of Man United’s grasp in literally the last seconds of the season, Chelsea somehow emerging as Champions League winners against all odds in Munich, the mesmerizing beauty of Spain’s Euro 2012 final performance against Italy and the genius of Lionel Messi. And on these shores there are the fans themselves, whose unwavering support of their teams make the Premier League the most exciting on the planet. The same fans that at first stood silently in horror and then came together last year to pray for Fabrice Muamba. Ah yes, Fabrice Muamba. Who came to these shores in exile. Who worked his way up to realise every little boy’s dream and play at the highest level, representing England U21’s thirty-three times on the way Who this week announced his retirement at 24 years of age as a result of the cardiac arrest he suffered at White Hart Lane last March, with the best wishes of every supporter still ringing in his ear. Proof, that not all footballers and fans are lost just yet. Proof that at some level this game still matters. We at KHP for one will be staying up for Match of the Day on Saturday…
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