The Fans Deserve Better Football

This little opinion essay is in response to the Guardian Op-Ed piece about the acceptability of fans booing their own teams’ players.

Does football need better fans? No. That is to say, perhaps they should be more respectful or sporting fans, but I actually believe that football fans in fact deserve better football.

The fans are the only reason why this sport is as popular and why these players and teams are half as successful as they are. Fans are emotionally invested in the team and yet most have no access to the clubs and footballing monopoly. Fans are small-scale financial investors and expect returns. There are an unrecorded number of fans but very few professional players due to the high level of entry in this business; only the very few make it and the rest of us can only watch from the sidelines and this translates into passion for the unattainable which may manifest in criticism (“those who cannot do…”). Footballers are professionals and should accept that this public criticism is a part of their jobs. Football is a hierarchy and with all hierarchies there is some accountability, no matter how trivial, toward the fans, those belonging on the lowest rung of the hierarchy, who ensure that this hierarchy continues to exist. Lastly, if FIFA chooses to make football into a commodity that can be bought and sold, then is it truly unexpected if to find that fans will behave as consumers?

Fans can only express their emotional devotion by vocally expressing what they are feeling. There are many who will say that  fans who “boo” their own teams are not fans. But living in Toronto, where sports fans are incredibly loyal (or incredibly stupid, according to some sports pundits) to the local sporting franchises through better and (mostly) worse, booing doesn’t mean anything other than the only public way that fans are allowed to express our devotion. We are very vocal in booing the opposing players and teams to the point where I was really embarrassed watching a TFC match, but we also, I have found, boo our own team. We criticise and we have the right to because we, more than any other, have more than mere commercial interests at stake. Our fortunes are emotionally tied to that of our club. But unlike the clubs who have public relations personnel and media to organise and speak on their behalf, based on pre-planned press conferences and press releases, we as fans have no such access to the club. We boo and jeer and criticise because that is how we express either our love or disapproval of club dealings and do so at stadiums during matches because that’s the only way we are able to or are allowed to provide feedback.

We purchase jerseys, we purchase tickets, we subscribe to cable channels that show our teams. These are all financial interests that show our dedication toward our team. They will never be as much as the socios or stakeholders owning teams, but we do not view them as investments. For the stakeholders–whether or not they are fans–winning trophies and acquiring players as well as ensuring overseas advertisement is a commercial interest. The average fan and our expenditures are small, but some of us spend more money on football than we do on the necessities of life.  There are many others who do not have the resources to do so but it would be one of the first things we spend on if we had won the lottery or gotten a raise. We don’t view this as financial investment; tickets are only as good through the match and are worth nothing after the final whistle is blown, and jerseys, like other clothes, depreciate as soon as we don them. We view this as our passion and dedication and we ask that these clubs show us a little acknowledgement in return.

Most fans don’t play football at that level, and we never will; we acknowledge fully that not every Tom, Dick and Harry can become a footballer and not every Tom, Dick and Harry was born capable of developing the high level of skills that are needed to play at the highest level. Because of this, we live our footballing fantasies through the teams we’ve loved and supported through thick and thin. We live through our teams and expect our teams to do well for us. It’s the “Fever Pitch” phenomenon. When we see our players on the pitch earning more money due to talent that God or whatever higher being gave to them and not to us, playing in the jersey we treasure so much, we pretty much expect them to be invincible. Everybody has an opinion of the team and the players that should be invincible and most of us are going to voice it loudly and as vocally as we can. At the end of the day, the football teams don’t really listen to us anyway, regardless of their complaints that we are somehow ungrateful for expressing dismay at the shite level of enthusiasm and skill Player X came on to the field with at that match. This is the only way we can manifest our love.

As high-level footballers, you earn a living from football–you are a professional athlete and must always perform in your job as such. We know you have great talent but when you’re on the pitch playing shit football, then how can we justify your large salary? If you were an office worker and you were not performing at work up to par, you would either be fired or demoted. The only difference is you made the choice to become someone who’s weekly goals are not presented in a boardroom, but in an arena filled with thousands of people. You are going to always be in the spotlight. We are going to know about you like you are someone important, someone who can affect world peace and the weather, and we are going to know how much money you make and what you spend it on. If you wanted to earn a shit tonne of money without getting criticism from the public at large, you would have to avoid things such as politics, sports, business… You take the good with the bad. And like any professional in any industry, the emotional turmoil you go through should not be in any way manifested in the way you perform your duties and obligations. So, why is it seen as a negative thing that we expect you to play with the same skill level, consistently proportionally to the amount of money you make?

The commercialisation of football has made this sport more popular now than even half a century ago. It makes it something like the Impossible Dream; very few make it and the rest of us bask in the afterglow. The commercialisation of football also means that a lot of people still play at amateur levels and know, on some conscious levels, what goes on, if only on the small scale. Everybody thus has an opinion. And as we know from politics, we all can have an opinion and the parties and leaders don’t listen to us anyway, and they never will until we push for accountability. When we criticise we are asking for accountable players and accountable footballing officials and teams.

Lastly, because, as I mentioned above, football is so heavily commercialised in this day, with FIFA and football clubs marketing ruthlessly their product, hawking them everywhere from Los Angeles to Lamno on television, on bus stops, in magazines, in supermarkets. Thus, fans, are no longer merely admirers who buy into these products, fans become consumers. With these consumers come the concept of consumer rights. The main one of which is, “the customer is always right”, which does not always apply in this case, but, the right to complain about one’s purchased good when it fails to meet expectations still exists. They are not passive recipients.

No matter how loudly or obnoxiously the most fervent football fan complains and criticises with every player, it is still tantamount to support. Even the most optimistic of fans is not asking for anything but how come they are seen as the “better” fan? Between the two, they both donate their time and passionately dedicate their hopes to the club and ask for nothing else in return. Football is a subjective culture and football fans can do whatever the fuck they want–as long, of course, as they abide by the Harm Principle. Sure, some of us are more polite than others but some clubs also are more fan-friendly than others. But there are six billion people in the world and about 80% of these people are football fans; there are going to be ones who are more or less sporting than one or the other. The club, in turn, needs to abide by the Football Principle, that is to play the best they can in any conditions regardless of boardroom dealings, locker room controversies, media scape-goating and of course, booing supporters. All we ask of them is to play to the best of their abilities through it all.

And, of course, get over the booing because it will always happen.

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