Politicians and the futile art of fabricating commonality through football fandom

Politicians and the futile art of fabricating commonality through football fandom

April 2015 in South London. “We are a shining example of a country where multiple identities work,” David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, orates to the audience sat before him on his campaign trail. “Where you can be Welsh and Hindu and British; Northern Irish and Jewish and British; where you can wear a kilt and a turban; where you can wear a hijab covered in poppies. Where you can support Man Utd, the Windies and Team GB at the same time,” he says before pausing for effect, “of course, I’d rather you supported West Ham!”

The quips lands with a smattering of laughter on its tail, and so the Prime Minister lets his guard down, briefly affording himself a moment to chuckle at his own quite masterfully delivered jokette, before reconfiguring his facial expression back into that synthetic coalescence of authenticity, seniority and righteousness that seems to fit all public-facing politicians so well. His speech continues unabated.

All seems well for Mr. Cameron until, a moment later, it is awkwardly brought to his attention that his earlier gag – the West Ham bit – was seemingly made in error. After all, David Cameron is a self-confessed Aston Villa supporter; why on earth would he prefer the people of Britain support West Ham?

“I had a brain fade,” Cameron retorts, clambering for an excuse as it suddenly seems as though someone or something is sucking all of the oxygen directly from the cubic meter of air presently occupied by the prime minister’s reddening head. “I’m a Villa fan. I don’t know what happened to me. I must have been overcome with something this morning, but, there we are. These things sometimes happen.” Except, of course, they don’t.

The entire ordeal was both excruciatingly painful and life-affirmingly exquisite. It was like watching a bear stepping into a bear trap, if – and only if – said bear had laid the trap itself, stoutly believing that successfully circumnavigating the trap on live television would encourage its compatriots to vote for it to govern their so-easily-swayed bear nation.

Cameron’s foolish football faux pas was an entirely necessary and perversely enjoyable act of accidental self-immolation that personified exactly how and why attempting to fabricate commonality through false football fandom is as absurd and futile an act as any politician could commit.

If one wishes to have a person accept them, like them, trust them, a little common ground can go a long way. From despairingly unimaginative references to the weather made to a stranger in the hope of skewering an awkward bus stop silence, to intricate inspections of subjective taste in music or film held by a prospective friend, shared interests and experiences are essential when seeking to build rapport and to seek to nurture them is simply human nature.

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In Britain, as in many countries across the world, many of these conversations are centred around football. Just think to the speed with which you yourself may have turned to the phrase “so, who do you support then?” when speaking to a new acquaintance – and the immediate full stop this places upon the conversation when the response is a negative one – and this endeavour should come as little surprise.

There is no debating football’s intrinsic usability as a topic for the founding of kinship. It is, after all, the nation’s sport; it is both loved and loathed vociferously, in no small part due to its ubiquity – “CONSTANT, DIZZYING, 24-HOUR, YEAR-LONG ENDLESS FOOTBALL … ALL HERE, ALL THE TIME, FOREVER” to quote the famous Mitchell and Webb sketch – and there seems to be nought so common as a Briton’s firmly held feeling toward football, be it one built upon unashamed, unyielding adoration or bewildered, exhausted hatred.

Equally factual is the requirement for politicians to be ‘popular’ in order to most effectively do their job. A democratic parliamentary system, such as Britain’s, is literally a popularity contest. What’s more, it is not controversial to state that if a Venn diagram were to be made whereby Set A represented wealthy, upper-class, public school-educated MPs and Set B represented genuine, vocal football fans, there would be a very small and sparsely populated centre of overlap. That is to say, there are marked and deeply-entrenched societal differences between the average politician and the average football fan.

Therefore it is unsurprising that any given politician, with or without any genuine affinity for the game, may look to football in order to gain acceptance from an electorate comprised largely of the people with whom they share the least common ground. After all, as football writer Tony Evans put it, “Since the second half of the 19th century, football has been the biggest expression of working-class culture in Britain.”

This large-scale social subterfuge is not, at its roots, a wholly malevolent line of thinking. It is perhaps more desperate than it is intrusive. What it is, though, particularly in Cameron’s case, is manipulative and if not intentionally dishonest then blatantly obfuscatory, and their fatal mistake, prior to their wielding of football as some form of Machiavellian weapon of mass incorporation, is their assumption that football is a simple game and the people who watch it 0 the lesser-educated working class – are similarly uncomplicated. The truth is, they – that is to say both the sport and its most devoted advocates – are anything but.

In his 2016 lecture for The European Graduate School, named Working Class Ballet, philosopher Simon Critchley professed, “Football is the movement of the socius; the free association of human beings … the proper political form of football is socialism. Football is not experienced apart from others but only in and through association.” This inherent congregational nature of football is of the utmost importance.

One can imagine the game as a kind of benevolent breeze, swiftly traversing the country, searching with gusto for people to lift up, to carry to the nearest stadium and place gently down again, intent on forming two teams and an audience for them to play before. To resist being whisked away out of a disinterest in the spectacle would be one thing, but to accept its offer empowered by the sole intention of utilising the pitch as an impromptu stage upon which one’s political agenda can be delivered en masse is another entirely.

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As a part of what he calls “the rationality of arguments among fans”, Critchley speaks at length of the intricacies of football talk. “I spend hours, days, weeks, and years talking with fellow Liverpool fans, arguing about the transfer policy of the team, the squad selection, the variety of tactical formations, usually linking this to the history of the team, its traditions, its glories and its glorious failures,” he says.

“When one meets a fan of the same team there is not some kind of fated communion underpinned by grunts, yelps and manly hugs. No. One talks, one finds out how much they know, what sort of fan they are, and importantly how serious you can take them. If one meets a serious fan, and this happens a lot, then one listens to arguments with evidence to which counter-arguments and counter-evidence can usually be provided.

“And so it goes, back and forth. Often for very long periods. And indeed one can change one’s mind about some passionately held conviction about one’s team. One can listen to the fan of an enemy team, hear their arguments, listen to their reasons and even change one’s mind …”

Critchley continues, “Football talk can be a paradigm for moral behaviour and discussion. If only other areas of life were so reasonable and yet so subtended by passion. There is an intense rationality to discussions about football but they’re subtended by this visceral passion — and that’s what you want. That’s what discussion should be. It shouldn’t just be some series of abstractions and it shouldn’t be just some kind of passionate discussions of feelings but something that unifies the two.”

Though anecdotal, this depiction of active and communal football spectatorship reveals a facet of the fans themselves that flies in the face of the idea that they are simple and easily manipulated. Fans seem to be equipped, many unknowingly, with an immanent capacity and want for nuanced debate.

This is in no small way related to Critchley’s point about a football fan’s ability to perceive and assess how “seriously” a fellow fan should be taken, based on the knowledge, experience and commitment evidenced in their contributions to conversations about the game. It likely doesn’t need reiterating that watching a man – whose vested interests in football may already appear unlikely or fragile at best – publicly forget which team he supports doesn’t sit particularly well among the natives.

The idea that David Cameron may reserve only a thin slither of his brain to remembering simply that he “supports” some team or other who play in claret and blue is not only contemptuous – there exists a small part of us, surely, that demands if one is to lie so boldly then they should at least lie well, and only after having conducted the prerequisite research and rehearsal to do – but also entirely possible. How else could it be possible for Cameron to make an error so uncommon within the football community, so unfathomable, it doesn’t even have a name.

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As such, it is difficult to label Cameron’s error, or rank it in severity among others of its kind, because its deliverance and its origins are so far removed from one another. The performative aspect of it – the bizarre act of forgetting one’s specific allegiance, making a joke that subsequently does not work, then floundering so in search of a fitting excuse – almost belongs to an episode of You’ve Been Framed, in a collection of other silly bloopers and blunders, preceded by a teetering Granny falling backwards in stages into a bush and followed by an over-exuberant uncle dropping his wife while attempting to recreate that scene from Dirty Dancing on the dancefloor of a family wedding reception.

But the intent of such an act, should it have succeeded, is less simple cock-up and more disdainful transgression, not least because it is being performed by somebody volunteering themselves as a leader; a trustworthy figurehead upon whom the nation can hang their hopes for a better future for themselves and their loved ones.

This act evidences that not only do they not belong to the sport that so many do – a crime in the eyes of many, as it is – but they are ready and willing to lie about it in search of popularity and the fulfilment of their own aspirations. There’s nothing quite like building the foundations of a relationship solely out of deception and obfuscation.

Furthermore, a key element of the reason this deception is viewed so severely by football fans alone is because of the intense link they uniquely experience, between their love of football – most often a single team – and their own sense of identity.

Fans congregate on the sloping terraces of stadiums they, without irony, call “home” and for the duration of any given game surrender their own individuality in order to coalesce with fellow supporters, adorned in same-coloured clothing and emboldened by identical aspirations and desires, with the intention of becoming, and subsequently willing to victory, an institution much greater than themselves.

Fans routinely take great pride in seeing young graduates of their own youth academies representing their teams; content and secure in the knowledge that they walked the same streets, attended the same schools, frequented the same hangouts as those who now fight for their team in a way they could only dream of doing. Fans pass down their allegiances through generations and, through their shared faith, bond with their kin, trading stories of their own heroes, each one unique to their own eras of support but nevertheless united in the subject of their support.

To attempt to enter this intricate world of football supportership so cockhandedly from the outside is to attempt to disregard or, worse, unravel the vast history, the evolving sociology and the traditional practices that help in no small way to inform the identities of countless men, women and children across the world.

One alternative reason for such an involuntary reaction to the sight of somebody such as David Cameron attempting to assimilate into the world of football – once more, for their own personal gain – despite belonging so clearly to the disparate world of mainstream politics, is found in the concept of football as an escape.

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Football can and does provide a sanctuary to where millions of people, for 90 minutes each week, can book themselves into – physically; literally, and mentally – in order to escape the realities of life; the realities of a challenging or unfulfilling existences perhaps made all the more challenging or unfulfilling by the very politics appearing to worm its way into the game in the form of David Cameron.

It is not unlike developing a habit of retreating into one’s kitchen in order to escape the shrill cries of an unrelenting pneumatic drill operating just outside of the living room window, and coming to deeply cherish those few brief moments of blissful silence each day, only to turn on the television one day and be faced by a breaking news bulletin detailing the drill operator’s intentions of relocating his worksite to the kitchen itself.

This invasion of one’s space and routine unsurprisingly warrants the most visceral of reactions from those devoted to keeping their safe haven pure, given that it is so necessary, to so very many, in providing a reason to live and for staying sane in a world slowly becoming madder.

Football and politics are not mutually exclusive – some may even argue that all football is political – and the latter’s roots run deep across the game. Throughout history, football has routinely been used as a vehicle for mobilisation in the name of political expression.

When Catalonians packed the Camp Nou throughout the 1950s and 60s, many were not simply supporting their favourite players; they were exercising their last and only right to express their nationalistic pride and opposition of Franco’s dictatorship. As Emma Kate Ranachan writes in her thesis Cheering for Barça: FC Barcelona and the Shaping of Catalan Identity, “Having been stripped of their access to other forms of nationalist identification, Catalan society turned to [Barcelona] as a surrogate to shelter their nationalist aspirations.”

When French fans flocked to the Champs-Élysées in the summer of ‘98, they did so not simply to toast the success of their chosen team but to, albeit briefly, unite en masse and bask in their nation’s strength in racial diversity, chanting “Black, Blanc, Beur” (meaning Black, White, Arab); their instinctive act of joyful union ensuring the colours of the streets would mirror their eclectic and uniquely triumphant representatives on the pitch.

In these examples, and countless others of its kind, football – or the sport’s utilisation as a means of social unification and empowerment – sought to amalgamate in the pursuit of a single uplifting or emancipatory experience. Falsified fandom, instead, seeks to emulate this by corralling fans and sowing in the common ground they stand upon the seeds of a deception that can be reaped for one’s own benefit, season after season.

In attempting to gain favour through falsifying an interest in football, what politicians are doing is utilising the game for very much the same purpose as those who love it but are doing so inspired by a motivation that is the very antithesis of what it does for the people they so clearly wish to manipulate through this process. They seemingly intend to bend the game to their own will and, thus, football fans should rightly seek to protect what is so proudly, desperately and imperatively theirs.

By Will Sharp @shillwarp

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