Author’s note: I wrote the first half of this piece in November of 2019, and the second half in December. I, like the rest of you had no idea what was to come, what the world of sport, and the world at large were about to experience. After a few weeks of processing the shock of losing my job, and the fear of wondering where my next source of income would come from — I’m eternally grateful to the Canadian government — I started work on an old project I’d left by the side of the road.
That’s perhaps the most fascinating part of this new normal. All those old projects we’d left foundering and festering. For a rainy day. Well, it took me a few weeks to realise that we have nothing but rainy days now. I started writing a book about Chelsea, about my relationship with the team and the recent history of the club. A couple days ago, I was poring through my archives and came across this piece, one I’d written without an audience in mind, at the time. Little did I know how quickly, and fundamentally the world was about to change.
Just over a month ago, in early March of 2020, I was wondering what kind of impact Ruben Loftus-Cheek would have on our stretch run, paired with Billy the G.O.A.T. and Kova in midfield. Salivating at the prospect. I was jumping for joy at the snap-signing of the silky smooth left-footer Hakim Ziyech. I was both excited and terrified for the final push, it was going to be an exhilarating race for fourth.
But now. Sitting here, in April of 2020. Quarantined like most of the Western world. Stuck inside, with memories. Watching old game film and highlights. Listening to the haunting echoes of chants.
I found myself watching the grainy videos I took from that one Chelsea game I went to in 2012, repeating the Suuuuuuuper, Super Frank, Suuuuuuuper Super Frank, Suuuuuuuper Super Frank, Suuuuuper Frankie Laaaaampard! chant over and over again. Wondering, like the rest of us, when, if ever we’ll hear that chant again. When will we see stands packed to the brim with fans, chanting and yelling and screaming — spittle flying from their mouths — creating that raucous caucophony that gives sport its enduring essence.
In the Bill Simmons Podcast, the eponymous host made a fascinating observation. He watched Wrestlemania over the weekend, without fans. He hated it. To him, it took away the entire spectacle. It was just two men in tights fake fighting in a ring. But wrestling was always preordained. Soccer, basketball, baseball, football, hockey, and the rest? Not so much.
Sports will return. There’s too much money tied up in the game, there’s too much tradition and culture built around it. But sports will return without fans first. That’s almost inevitable. Which is why this piece I wrote feels so… hauntingly poignant right now. Will we ever have fans in stadiums again?
Of course we will. In time.
If a tree falls in a forest, but nobody’s there to hear it, does it make a sound?
Can a sport exist without fans?
We’ve all seen the images from time to time of empty stadiums, devoid of atmosphere culture and meaning. Goals mean more when more people are cheering. I can attest to that in my own experience as a soccer player growing up in North America.
In a football match in October 2019 at the Emirates stadium in London, a player was substituted in the 60th minute. The game was tied 2-2. He didn’t have the best game, nor the worst game. He got an assist. He may or may not have been partially at fault for a goal. Depends on which camp you’re in I suppose. He was wearing the armband, as he’d been appointed club captain at the beginning of the season. Substituting a captain isn’t abnormal, mind you. As soon as his number went up, a section of the fans erupted in cheers. Sarcastically cheering his removal. You see, this player had become a bellwether for the fans discontent. They used him as the stick to beat both the manager and the club with. He was the scapegoat.
He trudged off. Slowly. The atmosphere turned toxic. They started shouting and booing. Loudly. The player responded by waving his arms, urging them on. Cupping his hand to his ear, making it clear to the whole world he can hear them. You see him shout f*ck off, twice, at the fans. Baying them, as they boo him. His final act was to remove his jersey before stomping straight down the tunnel. To a chorus of boos. From his own fans. He might not be the best player, a little slow of foot, a little reckless in the tackle. Like a mix of Lee Cattermole and Andrea Pirlo. He tries. Maybe a little too hard sometimes. He cares too. And he was booed off the pitch. By his own fans.
It’d be easy for me to take the moral high ground here, and admonish the Arsenal fans for their behaviour, the rank meanness of it all. But I’ve been there too, I’ve done the same thing. I’ve booed my own players too.
The 2018-19 season was my roughest year as a Chelsea fan. Even compared to Mourinho’s annus horribilis in 2016. That was still Mourinho, so it was all very confusing. We’d just won the title. Nothing made sense any more. Until the resigned acceptance that Mou had to go. I didn’t truly turn on the players though, aside from the usual craven groaning that fans are prone to. Something something Branislav is too slow, something something Willian etc etc. We all know the usual schtick.
But the 2018-19 season was something different. I properly turned on a player. A player I’ve now grown to love and appreciate. It’s not like Uncle Cesc and his magic hat, wherein I was deeply deeply suspicious at first, but all it took was that incredible flick to André Schürrle in that game against Burnley on his debut.
The player, let’s call him George, came with a big price tag and a big reputation, and frankly, ran the league until November. But then Sarri’s system was found out and we entered some weird twilight zone, where the same thing kept happening. For months and months.
The nadir was a three-week stretch in February when we got beaten 10-0 by Bournemouth and Citeh in the league and wheeled out of the Cup by Ole. And George was booed off the pitch when he was substituted. By the Stamford Bridge faithful. And I agreed with it. I wholeheartedly agreed. I’d come to see George as emblematic and indicative of the coach I disliked and the regime I disliked and the atmosphere I disliked.
The club suddenly felt in the throes of a civil war, between the Sarri-faithful and the never-Sarri. I’d never really seen anything like it before. I ended up pitching my tent on one side of the fight, which meant that George was out. And yeah, he’s not the quickest. And in Sarri’s style of play, which was distinctly rigid, he was easily overwhelmed and made to look like he was running in treacle. Easy scapegoat.
It points at something deeper though. Why do fans of the same team end up turning on their own players? And why do fans of the same team end up fighting amongst each other? Why did I find myself arguing online about Jorginho and Sarri and getting actively frustrated at other Chelsea fans, admonishing them because “they never played the game”, which is just about the most condescending and disrespectful thing you can say to a sports fan. How does a civil war erupt in the fanbase of a team?
There’s an easy answer. The easy answer is that winning is infectious and addictive, and once you stop winning you crave that feeling so you start wondering why you’re not winning any more, and you end up pointing fingers here and there and everywhere. And because you’re a fan, and you literally have no control over the team or players or performance or frankly anything at all, your gripes are inherently falling on deaf ears. We’re all just pawns in the same game.
But then there’s the interesting answer. The one that has to do with expectations and culture and connection. Chelsea managers, for as long as I can recall, generally speaking, have had very favourable relationships with the fans. Each manager is different of course, with their own personalities and styles. But one thing rang true for them all (aside from dear Avram, Rafa and Sarri). Charisma.
Charismatic managers will always engender a level of trust, loyalty and support from the fans. Especially when wedded with passion. Perhaps it was especially challenging for Sarri, following up Antonio Conte, a man who literally threw himself into the crowd to celebrate goals. Sarri gave the appearance of a stern high school vice principal. There’s actually a really neat throughline to politics here — where leaders of political parties do need to generally have a little charisma to ensure loyalty and popularity from the people. It rings true for football managers as well.
Arsenal’s manager, Unai Emery, was profoundly unpopular, but fan discontent with managers is hardly out of the ordinary. Fans can’t sack the manager. But they can boo a player they have decided — fairly or not — is the living breathing representation of the manager on the pitch. Chelsea fans booed Jorginho last year because he was the living breathing representation of Sarri and Sarri-ball on the pitch. Once results had turned, goals stopped flowing and the football became stodgy and predictable, the fans booed.
It’s a strange situation though. In any other profession, if you performed poorly, would you be roundly booed by thousands of people? Some fans seem to think it’s okay, because they are paying customers. It’s kind of like those customers who make your life a living hell as a server or bartender or cashier or sales clerk or customer service agent. (Full disclosure: I’m a bartender.) They feel that because they are paying, they have a right to criticize someone else. Which, when you think about it now, says a lot more about them, than it does about the person they’re criticizing. I know that at least some of my criticism of Jorginho had more to do with my own unhappiness than anything to do with him.
And the moment he scores a goal, or we win a game, All is forgotten. The cravenness of the sports fan.
What happens when a player transgresses the code of the game? What happens when a player, as the actor in the theatre, does a heel turn and becomes the pantomime villain? Diego Simeone, take a bow. Eric Dier, we’re here for you. What is the acceptable level of abuse one can direct at a player?
In the Guardian’s weekly football podcast on December 22nd Max Rushden and Jonathan Wilson entertained this notion after Antonio Rüdiger faced racial abuse from Spurs fans for his role in Son Heung-min getting sent off. Wilson initially contended that by all accounts all abuse is bad and wrong and shouldn’t be in the game, but then Rushden mentioned booing. Is it okay to “boo” an opposition player? In the case of Rüdiger, he certainly embellished and exaggerated the contact. So did that earn him the right to be booed? Are footballers, and athletes in general simply pantomime villains? Is this all just one big theatrical production? If we talk to Eduardo Galeano the simple answer is yes.
“The players in this show act with their legs for an audience of thousands or millions who watch them from the stands or in their living rooms with their souls on edge. Who writes the play — the manager? This play mocks its author, unfolding as it pleases and according to the actors’ abilities. It definitely depends on fate, which like the wind blows every which way. That’s why the outcome is always a surprise to the spectators and protagonists alike, except in cases of bribery or other inescapable tricks of destiny”
He then goes on to describe each and every detail of a football match and how from the players to the manager to the pantomime villain and the sorcerer (Cesc, Magic hat) the entire experience is one large theatrical production. If it wasn’t clear already, find and read this book.
But here’s the fascinating rub. Given Gustave Le Bon and his theories on how and why humans are subsumed by the crowd, given the fact that football fans are simply a mirror for society, the crowd at football games is quite the microcosm for the culture wars of 2019. One of the podcasters made the fascinating point that you would currently get in more trouble at a football match for racist behaviour than in regular society on the street. And then made the point that at a football match fans are subsumed by the crowd and feel safe within the anonymity, thus allowing them to yell things they otherwise never would. It was telling that each time someone gets arrested or tossed from the game for yelling racial epithets at an opposing player they use the same line: “but I’m not a racist”.
It’s also fascinating and telling when you look at the blind and wilful ignorance of home fans, be they of Spurs or Cheslea persuasion. Now, the party line is oddly similar to that bandied about in Italy: “oh but it’s just banter lads, it’s just banter, we’re simply trying to get into the heads of the opposition players, it’s not serious.”
In how many lines of work, in the real world, would members of the public think it’s reasonable to criticize your performance on a regular basis? It always struck me as odd that someone could sit at my bar and openly criticize the work I’m doing. And then complain to the manager, and if I was working a corporate gig, they’d get a free meal or drink on the house. Because, specifically because, they’re a paying customer.
If you spend half a second in the comments section of various fan message boards, you’ll eventually see this thread. “We pay more than any other fans to watch our team, we are entitled to voice our displeasure as the paying public if we believe we are not getting value for our money.” Some actually believe that to their core. And to be clear, it’s not just Arsenal fans. It’s sports fans in general. By paying for a “service”, they seem to think that gives them the right, the entitlement, to criticize that service. Even though neither the players nor the coaches - who are often the target of the opprobrium - are the ones deciding the price of tickets.
But, if a tree falls in a forest and nobody’s around…
Sports are nothing without the fans.
So where does that leave us? It’s not as if every sports fan is a racist, or an abuser. But, what’s the threshold for acceptable abuse?
Some players actually actively revel in the role of pantomime villain. I’ll never forget LeBron James’ performance in back-to-back-to-back playoff series against my dear Toronto Raptors, where by the end, the internet decided to rename Toronto “LeBronto”. He was mercilessly booed all game every game, and he LOVED it. Flexing to the crowd after every basket, lording his talent over all of us, playing to the gantry. It was pure spectacle, it was pure entertainment, it was magic. Some professional athletes love playing on the road, in opposing stadiums. They love shutting up a crowd, they feed off the negative feedback loop. But what’s the acceptable threshold? When LeBron’s home was vandalized with racial epithets in LA, that clearly crossed a line. When Antonio Rüdiger was racially abused, that crossed a line. When Ron Artest had a drink thrown at him by a fan, that crossed a line. (Yes, Ron’s response was beyond the pale, but also, kind of magical?)
There’s a strange, and slightly disconcerting current that runs through professional sports fandom — envy. We, the fans, pay, using our own hard-earned money to watch sports for fun. It’s a trifle surreal, if you peel it back: watching other people get paid more money than we’ll ever see in our lifetimes play a game we most likely played as a child — all the while we have to go back to work tomorrow, the factory, the office. Life in the capitalist world can be ruthless at times, and professional sports offer an outlet, a space to collectively come together around a shared identity — one that is ever so fractious here at the end of the decade.
And yet, fanbases aren’t even universal wholes any more. From the decade-long civil war at Arsenal, to the cleavages wrought by Sarri at Chelsea last year, despite cheering for the same team (or perhaps, sharing political or religious views) just being a fan of a team doesn’t actually mean collective unity anymore.
Given that sports are simply a mirror of society, I’m really not sure where we go from here. Maybe if life weren’t so ruthless, fans wouldn’t be so envious of either other players or other teams. Maybe if we weren’t forced into competing against each other for scarce resources (in this case jobs and housing) perhaps the bonds of collective unity would be stronger and we as sports fans would be less liable to hurl blood-curling insults at each other.
Personally, I’m trying to learn how to not hate other teams and fanbases. Part of my education as a sports fan was to learn to hate other teams. It’s a classic socialization trick that borrows heavily from the British “divide and conquer” attitude that is fundamentally classist and racist in tone. Us versus them and all that fun stuff. But it’s hard, it’s real hard, when we’re talking about learned behaviours and well established ways of thinking, neural pathways.
Despite my best efforts, I still revel in every victory over Tottenham Hotspur, I chortle and snort whenever Manchester United lose a game. Because rivalries are an inherent part of sports fandom, and because of history, and culture and tradition, give the game the life and colour that we love so much about it.
Sports are nothing without the fans, but the fans are nothing without the sport. I’ll let Galeano take it away.
“Once a week, the fan flees his house for the stadium. Banners wave and the air resounds with noisemakers, firecrackers, and drums; it rains streamers and confetti. The city disappears, its routine forgotten. All that exists is the temple. In this sacred place, the only religion without atheists puts its divinities on display. Although the fan can contemplate the miracle more comfortably on TV, he prefers to make the pilgrimage to this spot where he can see his angels in the flesh doing battle with the demons of the day.” (Soccer in Sun and Shadow, pg 7)