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What is a fan?

Monday 26th February 2018

In 2017, philosopher and Liverpool fan (nobody’s perfect) Simon Critchley published a thoughtful book titled “What we think about when we think about football.” IRAIW’s Allan Kemp reviewed it in November. My aunt recently came across it in Book Culture, a shop near Columbia University in Manhattan. She thoughtfully sent it to me as a gift. It arrived in packaging designed to protect it from a nuclear explosion because she does that. It is, she claims, a genetic trait inherent in her branch of the family tree.

Luckily, Florida Atlantic University has a physics department. With their help, I had the package opened and the pleasant opportunity to read the American version of Critchley’s book. The difference between the US and UK versions is, even though Critchley knows the abbreviated term is in fact British and was in common use, interchanged in conversation and print with the current accepted social norm as recently as the 1970s, the word football has been politely exchanged for the vulgar colonial appellation, soccer.

I agree with Allan that Critchley is a “clever chap,” albeit not nearly so as my aunt, whose packaging skill suggests she knows exactly how the ancient Egyptians managed to construct the pyramids with such astounding precision. By and large, I think Critchley has a deep understanding of football’s nature. There is one chapter where he goes completely and horribly wrong, however. It is the one titled “Intelligence,” and deals with fans.

Before you feel insulted (don’t worry, that comes later), let me assure you I agree with his assessment of the typical supporter’s capacious cognitive abilities.

Football fans are not a collection of dumb hooligans, simple-minded nationalists, or rabid fascists. Not at all. Nor are they quasi-Nietzschean participants in some sacral, ritual communion. They are an intelligent, often hugely well-informed and critical crowd, even if they are often given to extremes of tastelessness and the licentious candour of [free speech]. They are often expert in their knowledge, relaxed in their opinions, and never afraid to make an umpire’s judgment.

The problem I perceive is that Critchley actually considers the fan to be necessary to the game’s existence not through commercial support but the players’ emotional and psychological validation. That is why he likens the madding crowd to umpires. After a bit of preamble to begin the chapter he says:

I think that the spectator is the superior party to the parity of the players on the pitch. The spectator is an umpire, a word which derives etymologically from ‘nonper’, a non-peer, one who is not the equal of others.

He then paraphrases the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who died too soon to be a football fan but given his long name deserved to have been reincarnated as Shakhtar Donetsk's brilliant midfielder, Fred.

The being of the players is not being-in-itself, but being-for-us, mediated through the spectators and requiring their recognition in order to affirm the players’ existence.

Intellectual debate or not, I have to call horse hockey on that one. Players do not need us; we need them. They lead; we follow.

From the time we are children, and Critchley even remarks that youngsters are surprisingly conversant in football, fans wish they could be footballers. When kids play, they argue over who gets to be Messi and who has to be Ronaldo or vice versa. Which illustrates my point.

The debate is who will be the player perceived to be the best. The loser protests he must settle for less.

In my Canadian childhood, we did the same when playing ball hockey (without horses). Everyone tried to be Guy Lafleur or Dave Keon. No one wanted to be Barry Melrose. That’s a joke you must be a hockey fan to understand. My point, however, is it’s in our primal nature to seek superiority. That urge entertains and encourages the convenient fiction Critchley supports, but the lie is exposed by the fact we are watching supremely talented players who can do what we never will. Any proclamation that a gifted artist such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, or Paul Pogba is inferior to the average working stiff who lives his (and her) dreams through their existence is simply a way to escape our own self-perceived shortcomings. It is petty jealousy.

The notion the player needs us for emotional validation as well as to earn a living is demonstrably false. Critchley sees no point in playing a match behind closed doors, feeling the quality is somehow diminished. That may be for the television viewer conditioned to crowd noise. Not so for the players. They continue to give their all. Their satisfaction is in the doing, not the acknowledgement. If spectators are needed, why do grown adults go to their local park for kickabouts, or join recreational leagues? The need lies entirely with the spectator, as evidenced by the passersby who might stop to watch said impromptu kickabouts. Despite entertaining delusions of grandeur involving fandom, Critchley knows this.

This also happens when we watch kids playing football in a park, car park, or somesuch. We become intensely engaged in the movement of play and vicariously engage in it. Indeed, it is sometimes impossible to resist joining in and asking for the ball or engaging in a thundering tackle to get it off one of the kids. This isn’t nice, I know.

Recent events involving VAR and racism have brought the fan’s role in the game to the fore. There is a prevailing belief that, as paying customers, the game would not exist without them. In a commercial sense, this is true. In all others, it is not. The fan who so often laments how money is ruining the game but considers that football is nothing without their financial support must look in the mirror.

If the world fell into economic ruin tomorrow or engaged in another world war, the stadiums might sit empty, yes, but both history and contemporary children in Brazilian favelas, playing barefoot in the dirt on the street, sometimes with a ball of rags, prove the game would survive without the paying spectator.

We are paying because the spectacle is a treat, not our right. In the end, fans are peripheral. They should remain both literally and figuratively on the perimeter. Money is ruining the game but, news flash, it is your money. If you continue paying premium prices for and needing what you acknowledge to be an unsatisfactory product, you are the unhealthy party, not the game. Change begins with you. Keep your money in your wallet to make a fair point, but stop deluding yourself with ideas that only perpetuate the madness.

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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