What turns “everyday normal people” into screaming firebrands of pent up energy? What has the power to split families, create rivalries, draw lines across the country and paint areas, ghetto-like, in one colour? What gives thousands upon thousands of people intense delight and gut-wrenching frustration on a weekly basis? What has created a universal language of comradeship and togetherness which can explode into intense rivalry and mutual hatred without the need for actual words?
Employment? Unemployment? POLITICS? Cult religions? Race relations? The gender pay gap?Never..it can only be football.
There are two types of people in this world – football fans and others.
Football! Modern man’s tribal bonding; the display of club colours, the chanting, the imbibing of alcohol and more alcohol, the mass hysteria, the rituals. By rebooting our ancestral roots, football resurrects the caveman still dwelling within us – and awakens his fears! To be one beside the fire amongst many like-minded fellows was to survive. To be able to repel one’s enemies with a group display of aggression – to appear to be the bigger “monster” – was to be safe. To lose the fight, to suffer humiliation, to be second best, was to die. That is football too! The terraces replicate the hunting grounds we thought we had left behind in our evolutionary journey – maybe we have not evolved very much at all.
“Some people think that football is a matter of life and death – I assure you, it is much more important than that!”
That was a comment from the late, great Bill Shankly. To some people it is a joke – those people are not football fans! Shankly understood football and more importantly, he understood football fans. He understood the demands of the tribal mindset and the subconscious penalties paid for failure. The tribe would literally be fighting for its life – for its very survival. Shankly understood the common working man and his need to escape from the factories and coal faces to a world where the warrior could once again proclaim his strength and power with primal displays. He saw the humble cloth cap transformed into a war bonnet, the wooden rattle raised as proudly as any weapon.
Allegiances forged in the cradle are not easily broken.
Children from football families are rarely given the choice about which team they follow – they are gently indoctrinated before they realise that there are other choices. Not liking football is not on the table! Oh the shame! Youngsters are presented to the tribe with pride. This is of great importance to the parent since the tribe’s continuing health relies on young blood joining the adults in the associated rites and rituals. They are taught the songs and the history, they learn the sworn enemies and the “nobody hates you, nobody cares” tribes that no-one fears.
Defending the sacred turf and the pride of the club is the role of the fan.
This is akin to a religion! The icon carrying flock attends the sporting church to worship beside the revered turf, calling upon a greater power for success – or at least, for a decent referee! Sacred relics or football superstitions – lucky socks, lucky pants, lucky whatevers, are carefully prepared for the match. There are the pre-match rituals, THE scarf, THE shirt, the hymns sung in unison. The books within the team bible are many and varied. They tell of victories – past glories are trumpeted to the heavens and the infidel consigned in song to the cold depths of league one.
The players, more like celebrity demi-Gods these days, are culturally a step removed from their adoring disciples, their names shouted with reverence. It can work both ways – a worshipped team member leaving the tribe instantly grows horns and a tail, visible only to the aggrieved parties… any skills they possessed are now negated by the change of colours. And football fans have long memories for anyone challenging the honour of the club.
Watch any group of (mainly) men watching a game in a pub. Banging tables, crying out in joy or pain, arms signalling the success (raised) or failure (cradling the head) of their favourites. Those same arms punching the air or barely suppressing the urge to punch a neighbour whose team is besting their own. Watch them covertly observing the guy beside them – where are his allegiances – what are his colours -is he of their tribe? See the inter-connections being forged – those making the same gestures of triumph will form a bond across the room, brothers in arms. Those whose reactions show that they are not of the same group will be regarded with sullen suspicion – unless their team loses of course! Then they are prey!
Who are ya?
Football fans refer to the name calling and humorous threats as “banter”. Banter can be funny and witty – banter can also be highly insulting and sometimes bordering on hate speech. Banter is songs and chants, it is “in-jokes” about six-digit hands and webbed feet, questionable parentage and social standing… it is part of the colourful football world. Much of the real violence has died out now – the angry young men grew up and became lawyers. Trouble at the ground now tends to mean that the bar ran out of pies or the referee’s mother was his brother, you know? The surging terraces gave way to seating and crowds were sterilised. The rebels who used to smuggle weapons into the grounds now appease their inner terrorist by standing despite the stewards’ demands that they sit.
Some anger remains-
There are still teams which attract the angry mob, even in England where the Government’s knee jerk reaction to football’s 1970/1980’s troubles almost reached high enough to split the jugular vein of the game. Most of the major instigators of the violence are now fathers to the modern crowds – maybe they are not wiser but their offspring seem to be. Mostly. Football is a great way of releasing pent up frustration – playing or supporting. It gives the disaffected somewhere to regain a sense of power without needing to consider adopting a political cause.
The police presence at certain games is markedly raised and tense; they watch the opposing factions, herding them along preplanned routes in a manner that can be seen in sheepdog trials. The sheep – or fans – obey their inner flocking instinct as a means of staying safe. As in times way past, to be cut off from the tribe is to become vulnerable. Understand that and you are at one with any football crowd.
It is a game…it is only football! This is my way of stepping back and observing my own tribal instincts to football through the glass of a screen. We know it is just a game. We know it is unimportant in the overall scheme of things. If your team loses, yea, the sun still shines, the world carries on turning, the birds still sing. But I tell you what – the sun dims, the world slows and those bloody budgies are going to be plucked!
ITID…and if you don’t know what that means, you are not in MY tribe!!