Last updated: April 28, 2012 12:58 am

Why we follow football

Going to a match is one of the comforting rituals that carry you through life. Yet this ritual is poorly understood

Like everyone else, I still remember the first football match I ever saw. It was in The Hague in 1979, and Den Haag beat Utrecht 3-1. That day we discovered my brother needed glasses, because he couldn’t read the scoreboard. I can still see the Jehovah’s Witness who played full-back for Den Haag scoring the opening goal, and the young thugs charging around the terraces.

Going to football is one of the comforting rituals that carry you through life. It’s also one of the few pleasures that parents and children can share: in the stadium, everyone becomes nine years old again. To quote a poem by the Dutchman Henk Spaan: “A stadium is a monument to all fathers who are already dead/ A monument to the common man.” Nowadays, the common woman goes too.

Yet this ritual is poorly understood. The sports economist Stefan Szymanski and I have just published a new version of our book Soccernomics*, and two questions we ask are: why exactly do people go to watch football? And what makes them stop? The great myth is that most spectators simply have to go; that they are helpless, lifelong fans of one club, bound to it by blood and soil. This myth was nicely worded by Charles Burgess, journalist and Carlisle fan: “There never was any choice. My dad took me … to watch the derby match against Workington Town just after Christmas 41 years ago. I was hooked and have been ever since … My support has been about who we are and where we are from.”

British fans, in particular, like to present themselves as lifelong diehards. Some of them are. However, as Szymanski and I found, while studying 61 years of English football attendances, most aren’t. Very few spectators take their seats year after year at the same club. Many people change clubs. For instance, according to surveys carried out by the Sport+Markt consultancy, 90 per cent of English fans of Chelsea in 2006 had not supported the club in 2003.

Some fans move to another town and start watching their new local club, or start following the team their children like, or abandon football because they’re too busy. The marketing expert Alan Tapp, studying a club in the English Midlands, found that fans who let their season-tickets lapse often had small children. Older people, with less complicated lives, tended to keep their seats. In other words, showing up year in, year out isn’t a great marker of loyalty; rather, it’s a good marker of age.

Few English fans are lifelong diehards. But nor are most glory hunters, who only watch winning teams. Rather, we found that most spectators go to watch a plausible team playing locally in a comfortable, safe stadium – winning matters less to them than having a pleasant experience. Arsenal is the perfect example: when the club moved from Highbury to the Emirates, the larger new stadium filled, even though the team stopped winning trophies. Perhaps the traditional rival fans’ chant of “Where were you when you were shit?” should be revised to “Where were you when your stadium was shit?”

. . .

We know that hooliganism deters fans from going to football. But one thing deters them even more: match-fixing. If people think that crooked players or referees have fixed results in advance, they will stop going. After Italy’s Calciopoli bribery scandal broke in 2006, a Roman friend emailed me to say he was “in a strange mood. It was all fake!” He’d always thought he was watching reality, but it had just been a show.

The economists Babatunde Buraimo, Giuseppe Migali and Rob Simmons showed in a recent paper that the five top-division clubs found guilty in Calciopoli subsequently saw their attendances slump. These teams lost perhaps a fifth more fans than “innocent” clubs. That is ominous, because match-fixing is going global. The rise in online betting, especially in Asia, has made it more lucrative for gamblers to fix matches. Sometimes clubs secretly bet on themselves to lose. The economist Romesh Vaitilingam found a similar phenomenon in tennis, where players often bet on themselves to lose first-round matches, and then pull out, claiming to be injured.

Match-fixing has pervaded football from Asia to Italy. Perhaps only a handful of leagues on earth remain immune, for now. Steven de Lil, the policeman in charge of fighting “football fraud” in Belgium, told me it’s very hard to catch match-fixers. Football is a closed world, and clubs rarely report wrongdoing, he said. What de Lil has seen influences the way he now watches football as a fan: “I always have my suspicions. I go to see a good match, but pretty soon I’m thinking, ‘How can that be happening?’”

Once most of us watch football like that, we’ll stop watching.

simon.kuper@ft.com

* The revised, updated “Soccernomics” (previously published as ‘Why England Lose’) is published by HarperSport, £8.99

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