Football is often compared to religion True fans are born in to supporting their team; leaving your team and supporting another will cost you friends, and possibly family members. On the other hand you meet fellow fans who are your instant friends, just because.
In his Unherd article Giles Fraser starts by suggesting there are more global football fans than Christians but this is erroneous. I support Leeds United and it does not educate me about the rules of life. Bielsa maybe a god to us but he is not God. Nonetheless, I learn a lot about devotion and suffering.
That said football fandom is extremely tribalist giving it community features – we stick with our club through thick and thin, and are protective of our players. Football fans have also always been a little off colour in its language, loud in its voice, and vociferous in its expectations.
But football has changed with the times as society has. English football came out of its dark ages of wooden stadia, right wing behaviour, and gang warfare. Fighting, abusive language and its bad image have diminished, the bad bunch have joined other marginalised members of society on social media. Seating and executive boxes brought gentrification – working class fans found tickets increasingly expensive.
Players are still resolutely from a working class background. Sky and BT Sports has expanded the fan base, and the growth in football in local communities has connected with working class communities.
Back to religion, football has elements of cult behaviour to it. Loyalty is about the way game is played, the identity of the club, and a reluctance to accept outsiders. Our hero worship extended to having footballers alongside rock bands on posters in our bedrooms.
We tolerated the new era of foreign owners as long as they played by our rules. Abramovich brought players and success to Chelsea FC without messing with its identity. Ironically, Ken Bates has proved to be one the worst owners of Leeds United with his public dislike of fans and high ticket prices. Radrizzani has brought a new era for Leeds United with supporters firmly behind the new owner.
The pandemic brought a new era to fans and football. Grounds were draped in fan paraphernalia. The importance of fans in a stadium has never been so starkly apparent. But other factors were also at play. The Black Lives Matter movement arrived in the UK and cast a light over the modern problem of racism in social media and its focus on Black footballers. Football in the UK is one of the rare industries where Black footballers on the pitch are as equal and successful as other footballers. Management remains a stubborn problem for Black coaches. Footballers began taking the knee and mostly still do with one season over and England team continuing to do so mostly on its own at Euro 2020 finals.
So with recent booing of taking the knee has come the tut tutting of the liberal establishment. As fans we may be torn when we see our players taking the knee – players see the issue as still high on the agenda (as in recent social media boycott), some fans have questioned why it is still happening after a year and voiced their disapproval. Taking the knee is an American import. The UK issue is related to problematic social media behaviour which is horrendous but questionable as a reason. Fans are not being racist when they boo, they simply don’t want this particular act continuing for so log in their ground. It is liberal middle class virtue signalling not a working class act.
Brendan O’Neill in Spiked worries taking the knee is a provocative act against the “plebs.” The risk is the true football fans are vilified and clubs are harassed by media into taking action against them. He picks up how the Guardian has taken a stand against booing. Other newspapers like the Telegraph are more neutral in their stance. Footballers taking the knee risk alienating themselves from their core fans who will be labelled ‘problematic’.
No doubt it is a genuine attempt to make a symbolic statement against racism in social media but it also a signal against the “presumed prejudices of the jeering fanbase.” The risk is that the footballing establishment will be obliged by liberal middle-class media to virtue signal and demonstrate its ‘credibility.’
There is so much the football organisations can do by working with football supporters associations and social media organisations to create a culture of no tolerance to racism with fans and social media that will make a difference. Working with fans who pay to attend and watch matches is critical to marginalising and using rational debate to silence the extreme reactions on social media.