January 18, 2013 6:45 pm

Be careful what you pray for…

There are many reasons people become football fans. Yet to witness the desperate devotion around us is to feel we are in the midst of a religious cult
Illustration by Lucas Varela of a man praying over a soccer ball©Lucas Varela

The boy and I have a part share of a pair of Arsenal season tickets, so a few times each season we trudge up to north London to sit in the cold, listen to racist abuse and watch a team I don’t even support. (My own, lowly placed team did not deliver the bragging rights demanded by the boy.) There are, as Nick Hornby has explained, many reasons why people become fans, though, happily, neither of us looks set to be claimed as true disciples. Yet to witness the desperate devotion around us is to feel we are in the midst of a religious cult.

I wonder if Scientologists enjoy stories of the fanatical Gooners who surrender all their worldly possessions for golden membership status and worship the Delphic god Arsène. Perhaps Tom Cruise amuses himself with tales of soccer divorces in which wives wrench their children free of their father’s grasp when he tries to take them to away games: “These people are so obsessed – they have to stand in the cold for hours singing meaningless chants and travel miles to watch their team lose at Barnsley … ”

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Robert Shrimsley

This cultishness was nicely demonstrated last weekend when a former Arsenal player, Samir Nasri, foolishly decided to walk to a match at the Emirates stadium, where his new team, Manchester City, were playing. Spotted by fans, Nasri was jeered, menaced and insulted. His crime was to have left the club and given his reasons; that he wanted to be at a better team capable of winning major trophies. A similar reason lay behind the departure of Robin van Persie to Manchester United. Both were denounced by fans, some of whom voiced the hope, via Twitter, that they broke their legs. Again, the parallels with cults are striking. The pair left the one true path, their treachery all the greater because they were high priests whose weekly wage exceeds what most supporters earn in a year – even at Arsenal, where ticket prices almost demand a fan base of higher-rate taxpayers.

Fans did not consider the fact that Nasri, a Frenchman, and van Persie, who is Dutch, were not exactly umbilically linked to north London. The modern soccer professional is a hired gun, with ever fewer feeling deep attachment for their team. But fandom, as we know, defies rationality. It is wrapped up in identity, so the pair were not just abandoning the club, they were undermining the value of that self-definition.

There are few other professions where sensible career choices face such abuse. I have never held it against the assistant manager of my local Barclays that he took a managerial role at Lloyds. I do not follow him around chanting abuse or voice the hope that the black horse kicks him. The reason, obviously, is that I have no emotional investment in Barclays. Yet the players and staff at Arsenal – or any other top club – probably do not care any more about the fans than my bank does about me. Barclays may even care more about its customers, since it knows there is no emotional attachment tying them to the bank. My friends will not think less of me if I switch to Santander – although they may start worrying if they catch me outside the branch yelling, “Go on my son, land that standing order.”

Lest this seems a tenuous parallel, it is worth recalling that just as soccer stars of old were often local lads who once cheered on the same team from the terraces, so retail bank managers were part of the fabric of their communities who knew personally the people to whom they were lending money. Both businesses, at their upper echelons, lost their links to the communities as they grasped the larger financial rewards that were suddenly available. Barclays, incidentally, sponsors the Premier League, the collection of clubs that most egregiously and thoughtlessly milks its fans to fund the wages of players who feel no real attachment to the club.

This is not an argument against football, or even against the foreign players whose talent illuminates the matches. But it is an argument for fans to try to acquire the same detachment felt by the people they worship.

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robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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