It is fair to say that football at its core is very much a fan-orientated sport. The effects of having no fans in the stadiums due to the coronavirus pandemic has been clear for all to see and, for some, the allure of the game has fallen flat. Football fans are passionate, almost tribal in their support and belief in their club, but why does football have this effect on people?
For a lot of people, football represents different things. This can depend on the club you support, your upbringing, the area you live in, or a number of different variables. In this series of articles, I am going to explore the reasons behind the passion for football, based on different areas – both within countries and around the world.
In this piece, I’ll be focusing on London. The capital of England, and perhaps the capital of football – if not through quality and size of clubs, then through sheer numbers. London has five clubs in the Premier League, and a total of 13 professional clubs – ranging from Arsenal and Chelsea to Barnet and Leyton Orient – as well as numerous semi-professional clubs. With the sheer number of surrounding clubs, it’s easy to see how competitive rivalry could be born, as you are always bound to be near somebody of another fan base.
A person’s link to his/her club, the passion, the bond, and the link has to come from somewhere. Speaking to fans of Crystal Palace, West Ham United, Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur – all of which have a season ticket at their respective club – it appears that the main connection between fans and their clubs is either the place in which they live, or were born. One West Ham fan said: “West Ham is only a five minute walk from my home. I think supporting your local [team] is important to keep communities going strong.” And a Fulham fan told me: “I was born 15 minutes away from the ground.” This brings up the sense of community that comes with supporting a football club. I was also told that, while at the respective home grounds of these clubs, it feels “like a family” and that they “trust pretty much everyone” around them. This idea of trust, and perhaps a sense of belonging as a family, is encapsulated in the opinions of the fans whom I asked about how it feels to be at the home ground. “I think it’s the fact of it being familiar. You experience it every week, see the same people, and the ritual becomes second nature!” commented one West Ham fan, while a Palace supporter added that Selhurst Park was like his “safe space.”Embed from Getty Images
Another source of support for clubs appears to be family connections. One Crystal Palace fan told me “I know this sounds very tribalistic, but it’s impossible to truly feel attached to your club unless you’re either local, it’s in your family, or both.” A comment which begs the question of the connection to a club held by an individual – whether this is a developed experience, or one naturally passed down. With family being a recurring theme around football, both literally and metaphorically, it’s fair to say that the tribal nature of football can be linked to defending your family name and protecting something you feel close to.
When it comes to rivalry in football, it tends to boil down to desire to assert dominance in an area, or to prove yourself as superior. An almost animalistic, instinctive feeling of rivalry and hatred for anybody who dares to challenge your position – similar to lions in a pride. Fans often display and vocalise their ‘hatred’ towards their rivals, both during games and on social media platforms such as Twitter. Out of the 10 fans I spoke to, six said they genuinely ‘hate’ their rivals, while the other four insisted that, while they held a strong dislike towards their rival team, ‘hate’ was too strong of a word. The most interesting thing I found was that almost all of the individual fans had their own reason for disliking their rivals, suggesting that while the basic reason for a rivalry always stays the same, new experiences by certain people lead to these games becoming even more personal and almost transcending the ‘natural dislike’ between two opposing sides. “Competition breeds hatred” – an apt description made by a Crystal Palace fan. Others told me “it’s the atmosphere [at derby games] being around fans, seeing tweets, and the history behind it,” and, lastly, “most fans have a natural hatred for their rival team.”
Natural, competitive, historical. Football fandom and rivalry in London.