April 11, 2014 6:35 pm

Re-evaluating my goals

‘We are part of a social underclass, too tribal or emotionally stunted to break free from loser soccer teams’
©Lucas Varela

It was not a good soccer weekend in the household. Both mine and the boy’s teams clocked up impressively unimpressive defeats which all but extinguished most hopes for this season.

We should not be surprised. Neither of our teams has won a major trophy for as long as we can remember. For me, as a QPR fan, this comes with the territory; but for him as an Arsenal supporter, this was not part of the deal. He rejected QPR because he was not, like his Dad, going to waste his best years watching a poor team play poorly. Now he is spending his best years watching a good team play poorly instead.

We are part of a social underclass, too tribal or emotionally stunted to break free from loser teams. One should not overstate our own plight; the boy, in particular, is still part of soccer’s upper middle class. But up to a million fans are living in soccer poverty. For them, happiness is a one-all draw secured in a muddy goalmouth scramble and a tepid tea at half time.

Why do we do it? There are few other areas where one puts up with such poor customer service. But give most of us a team that hasn’t notched up three successive wins since Agincourt and we will follow them until oblivion. Worse still, fans of weak teams actually look down on those smart enough to follow a top side.

What is clear is that football fans are a disastrous market failure: irrational, unable to help themselves and screaming out for government intervention.

Since there is no lack of competition, the problem must lie in the switching mechanisms. This is unsurprising because most fans cannot even be persuaded to switch seats. Any man – and let’s face it, this is a male affliction – who has taken his new girlfriend to a game will know the moment when she asks why you are sitting in this seat when it is a) sunnier over there and b) the view is better. Faced with these logical questions, he always answers “Because this is where I always sit.” You see what I mean? These people can no longer help themselves.

What can government do? David Cameron’s behavioural economics team might develop some advertising campaigns giving “permission” to switch; posters with messages like: “98 per cent of Man U fans used to support someone else. Join them today.”

This may help, but most fans are too enfeebled by self-myths or too scared of the derision of friends and family to act. They need to be compulsorily moved. My solution – and I admit there are a few wrinkles to iron out – would see the fans of the lowest team in each division forcibly transferred to one of the top six or seven clubs at the end of each season. This both rewards the top clubs and forces the newly unsupported teams to take steps to win a new fan base. These might include better facilities, a range of biscuits beyond Wagon Wheels, or just bloody well winning once in a while.

Some clubs might collapse, but we do need to break the cycle of despair. Anyway, a club might not lose all its fans. The worst premier league team might forfeit 25 per cent of its fan base, with that figure rising in the lower leagues. Fans would be offered a practical alternative within a certain radius. A less coercive step might be taxing “loser” fans as we tax cigarettes, although this may just add to their misery rather than cajole them to break free.

There will be hold-outs. But they could be offered treatment in the hospitality suite of a top club. Those who still resist would be made to watch rugby league until they reform – although at the lower levels of the league, the difference between the two sports is probably marginal.

The upsides are immense; the best clubs will just get bigger and “loser” fans will be assisted out of their misery.

As a QPR fan, for example, I could never voluntarily support a certain more successful west London team. But under this scheme, I would be forced to transfer and put up with scintillating soccer. It would be tough, but perhaps over time I would learn to cope.

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robert.shrimsley@ft.com; Twitter: @robertshrimsley

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