More than a few sports journalists have noted in recent weeks a deepening of ‘tribalism’ among football supporters that has taken hold. The triggers for these thoughts have been the racist incidents on the field, involving England captain John Terry and Liverpool striker Luis Suarez. As the allegations made against Terry are the subject of an ongoing court case* and the FA haven’t detailed their reasons for banning Suarez for 8 games, I won’t comment on these cases. But it is the reaction of Chelsea and Liverpool fans respectively that has provoked some soul-searching on certain aspects of modern-fandom.
Chelsea fans have not only volubly supported their Captain, but made disgusting chants about his accusor, QPR defender Anton Ferdinand. Liverpool fans have not behaved quite so abominably, but they and the club itself have hardly covered itself in glory over their response to Suarez’s ban. This is all anecdotal, and of course tribalism of a sort has always been a feature of football, with some manifestations being more sinister (the sectarianism in Scottish football) than others (small town rivalries, particularly at non-league level). And there are plenty of counter-examples – the tributes given to Gary Speed by fans of clubs he never played for and bucket collections for clubs in financial trouble spring most immediately to mind.
That said, there probably is something to the narrative of increasing (and increasingly toxic) tribalism, even if the evidence is largely anecdotal and subjective. What the many articles on the subject have failed to do is identify exactly why this should be happening. After all, certainly at the Championship and Premier League level, clubs are not as representative of their communities as they used to be. Gone are the days of fans and players being from the same place and background, and remaining in the same world even during and after successful careers in the game. But then gone are much of the ties and loyalties that once held people together – Unions, the Labour Party, the Church or Chapel, the neighbourhood.
It is the nature of humans as intensely social animals to associate with others, and want to be part of something bigger than themselves and their own lives. It is the reason why being an active part of a political party, or a church, or even an army (explaining the curious form of nostalgia for the horrific years of 1939-1945 felt by many people who lived through them), can be such an enriching experience.
Various factors have torn apart many of these institutions (Thatcherism, the end of the Soviet Union, increasing secularisation, Thatcherism again are my simplistic suggestions), and the atomisation and alienation many people feel is as a result of this as well as the generalised effect of living in a consumeristic, competitive, capitalist society, with an ever diminishing social safety net and sense of solidarity.
Is it so ridiculous to suggest that a deepening association between yourself and your football club, to the point of mislaying morality and a sense of perspective, might be an unconscious attempt to fill that gap for many people?
I don’t think so.
The alternative to this isn’t increasingly draconian legislation (such as that recently passed in Scotland) or mere hand-wringing, but continuing to try and build more constructive channels for that human need for solidarity and association – campaigns, movements, community associations, political parties, trade unions and much else besides.
*I’m under no illusions that my piddling views could have any impact on the outcome of the trial, but I still have the quaint view that trials should be fair and unprejudiced (however obnoxious I find the accused), despite New Labour’s attempts to smear such views as somehow backward and reactionary (increasing the likelihood of convicting an innocent person is, after all, thrillingly Atlantic and Modern). The spectacle of American-style trial by media, by which the British tabloid media attempted to string up the innocent Chris Jeffries (as well as Colin Stagg many years before), is horrific, and I don’t want to play any part in it, however minor and insignificant.