Ten years ago the England football team played a friendly in Portugal. Afterwards I shared a taxi with some England fans. We chatted about the game. Then one of them asked: “What was the score, then?”
This man must have spent hundreds of pounds coming to Portugal to see the match. It begged the question: why are people football fans? Why will the coming World Cup be the biggest media event in history, measured by the numbers of TV viewers and clicks on websites? Football seems to give people something they can’t get elsewhere.
We are finally starting to understand fans’ motivations, partly because fandom is belatedly getting serious attention from scholars and market researchers. Previously, only hooligans were studied much.
The key finding that’s emerging: for most fans, fandom isn’t chiefly about winning, or even particularly about football itself. Rather, it’s about community. “Their happiest football memories always involve someone else,” says Borja García of the UK’s Loughborough University, one of nine European universities involved in the Football Research in an Enlarged Europe (Free) project.
Fandom is usually social. “Young fans start sharing their football experiences with their parents,” says García, “then during teenage-hood it is their ‘mates’ and friends who they go to football with. In their late twenties and thirties, supporters start going to football with partners and, mostly, with their kids. Once the kids grow older, the supporter again shares the football experience with groups of friends.”
Indeed, a recent study of more than 46,000 regular Dutch fans, by the Royal Dutch Football Association and the market research company Blauw, found that the average spectator went to a game with three other people. In the 45-59 age group, 88 per cent took children along at least sometimes. For many fans, taking the kids may even be the point. In a family, there is usually love but not much in common. Going to a game – and going to it is as important as watching it – allows you to be together without having to talk.
The community of fans peaks at a World Cup: half a country’s inhabitants might watch the national team play a big game. That’s a rare taste of togetherness in an era when, to quote the American sociologist Robert Putnam, people increasingly go “bowling alone”. The multimillionaire globalised players may no longer be part of this community; the fans march on without them.
In our book Soccernomics, Stefan Szymanski and I showed that suicide rates in European countries fall while the national team is playing in a major tournament. That’s probably because the sense of community – chatter about the game at bus stops or in the office – pulls in even the most vulnerable and lonely people. In the community of fans, everyone is accepted.
Winning matters chiefly as a joy to share with others, says García. Those others needn’t even be alive – a fan might visit his father’s grave to report that their country finally made it to a World Cup. Or the fan’s community may consist of strangers far away. Around the world, from Israel to Palestine, there are people who support Brazil. They form an international community, all attached to something that is indisputably world class.
Losing together can be a kind of perverse joy, too. In 1982, when Brazilians literally wept in the streets after defeat to Italy in the World Cup, it was a deep shared emotion. That creates community just as much as winning does.
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Being a fan also connects you to your own past. In life, everything changes: you grow up, and people divorce, move away and die. Only your football team is for ever. The England team in 2014, for instance, is still recognisably the same animal as the England team of 1954. Football allows you to be eight years old again.
Another joy of fandom: it offers a reassuringly comprehensible world, says the Australian philosopher Damon Young, author of How to Think About Exercise. Young explains: “The rules are clear. You know what it means to score a goal, get sent off, to win or lose. Sports decrease the painful ambiguity of life. They give us existential clarity. When you invest in your career, or your family, you get a constant sense of disappointment.” Only sport offers clear wins.
And the final reassurance: you know that football doesn’t really matter. When England get knocked out in Brazil, the TV cameras will pan to stricken spectators, heads in hands. But to some degree, these extreme emotions are a performance – even a rather enjoyable performance. The next day, everyone in England will come to work, grumble, “Typical!” and get on with life, fortified by the communal experience. Except for a few damaged fanatics, fans lose and move on.
“I would tend to say that fandom is not life-and-death,” says García. Young adds: “It’s a world that you can walk away from. It’s part of a consoling fantasy: this isn’t really your life.” In fact, fandom is rather more appealing than life.
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