You can’t choose your fans
A famous story attributed to Groucho Marx is that having been told that he would be refused membership of a notoriously anti-Semitic beach club, he sent a telegram to his own club stating, “Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” The line was paraphrased by Woody Allen in Annie Hall to describe his character’s difficulty with relationships. In which case, you can extend its meaning to include football clubs too.
Call it what you will – tribalism, gang-mentality, the madness of the crowd – there’s something undeniably seductive about the atmosphere at live football. When you’re caught up in its intensity you don’t stop to consider that your fellow fans might be bigots, racists or homophobes, or just generally unpleasant in a way that is particular to you. In the stadium you are all comrades and ignorance is bliss. It’s much better this way: the more we know about our fellow fans, the harder it is to ignore that we find many of them intolerable.
The twin prongs of Twitter and comment sections on articles have made it all but impossible to deny the existence of football’s legion of twats. Sure, it’s great when social media facilitates some reasoned debate, but let’s be realistic – this is football. A football club has the least exclusive membership of any association you can think of. You don’t need to apply to be a supporter, just take your pick and declare your allegiance. The flipside of this laissez faire attitude to fandom is that anyone can choose to support your club.
Consider the Liverpool fan who directed a monkey insult at Patrice Evra, or the (you can assume) Chelsea fan who sent Anton Ferdinand a bullet in the post. You can be a Chelsea fan or a Liverpool fan and deplore these acts, but you can’t deny the perpetrators are fans of your team. A popular tactic is to call those who bring shame on a club ‘so called’ fans, as if they are not the real fans. But who gets to decide? Who arbitrates on the real fans?
Arsenal had the unwanted honour of being Osama Bin Laden’s club. It’s a brave marketing team that try to spin that one into a positive association. One Arsenal fansite boasted that the Gunners had more ‘celebrity’ fans than any other club, but as the list includes chauvinist insurance salesman Michael Winner and TV ‘prankster’ Jeremy Beadle, few will envy them that honour. Imagine if you’d turned up at the Emirates on the first day of the season, clutching your new season ticket, to find those three occupying the seats surrounding yours. Beadle and Bin Laden would be particular surprises.
Juventus featured on Colonel Gaddafi’s portfolio of business interests, and at one time his son was a board member. Most of us would probably prefer it our clubs refrained from selling shares to a regime that funded global terrorism. Closer to home, David Cameron supports Aston Villa. Granted, that one could go either way, depending on your political views, but for the sake of argument, imagine you’re a Villa fan of the hard-left persuasion; you’re unlikely to be thrilled to find Dave sat next to you in the Holte End.
You can compare supporting a football club to the association we make with political parties. It’s a broad church, attracting people from different backgrounds under the notion of some vague shared interests. But, just because you voted the same way as someone, that doesn’t mean you have a great deal in common. More so, it doesn’t mean your fellow voter won’t reveal himself to be a total idiot, given the opportunity to sound off.
We see this time and again in football. It must be hard enough for Arsenal fans to cope with the ridicule poured on them this season. But, what’s worse, conceding eight at Old Trafford, or having Piers Morgan claiming to represent the views of Arsenal fans? Morgan is a man nobody seems to like. Or, at least, a man nobody will admit to liking. A man so charmless, he has been outgunned by the mighty personalities of Gary Lineker and Michael Owen. And yet, there he is, lasered onto your consciousness, relentless thrusting his opinions on Arsenal to a global audience, calling for their most successful manager to be sacked and patronising their players.
By comparison, no one took the rumours that Bin Laden supported Arsenal very seriously. It’s not like he was publicly critiquing Arsene Wenger’s tactics and transfer policy, unless a load of secret recordings lie buried in an Afghan cave. Maybe the CIA seized them and right now their top agents are trying to decipher a thirty minute rant about Manuel Almunia’s vulnerability to high balls.
Of course, whether you view association with individuals as good or bad is highly subjective. When Lazio fans unfurled a banner in support of Serbian war lord, Arkan, it was met with widespread condemnation and disgust around the world, but the Ultras on the Curva Nord seemed rather pleased with themselves. No doubt they’d be appalled if they discovered a famous left-wing philosopher supported their team. Even so, should we tar all Lazio supporters with the same brush? After all, you don’t have to be a fascist to support Lazio, although, let’s be honest, it probably helps.
To conclude, there’s really not much you can do to prevent your club from unwanted attention, or to limit your exposure to idiocy among your ranks. However, as with many things in life, a reference to The Simpsons provides practical solutions (see Homer the Great). In Arsenal’s case, a re-branding of the Gunners as the ‘No Assholes Club’ would provide a much needed filter. And if Piers Morgan was at the door, protesting that Michael Winner had been allowed in? Sorry, Piers, it says No Assholes; they’re allowed one.
Follow Michael here.