Mar 302012

Athletic Bilbao wonderkid Iker Muniain representing the Basque Country

The world of football is more exposed than ever thanks to the internet.  The global game has become increasingly more accessible, and the amount of people following the game online multiplies each day.  Elementary translation services provided by services such as Google, or Bing, mean foreign texts can be badly translated and taken out of context; and every club, nation, manager, and player is covered by some blog, tweet, journalist or podcast somewhere in the ether.

Football fans have never had it so good, as the overpriced TV channels show leagues from all over the globe, and even if you can’t access these the internet allows you to keep up with results and news in almost any league around the world.  However, this also brings football’s bad side to the fore, where passionate support often involves the loss of all coherent thought, and once a line has been crossed it has a snowballing effect.  You just have to read the comments on the status updates of popular football Facebook pages, or search Twitter for the latest controversial opinions.  Twitter especially seems like a never ending no holds barred, knock down drag out fight when it comes to football discussion, and not a day goes by when there isn’t someone taking offence, or someone expressing their idiotic views behind an annoying mask of football banter and the relative anonymity of their twitter handle.

Maybe football is replacing something people used to have in the form of nationalism, national pride, political allegiance, or religious leanings.  Football’s ease of access means it’s easier to nail your team’s colours to a mast, than it is to eke out any miniscule differences between modern day political parties.  You might want to vote Green or Socialist, but you know your vote is unlikely to make a difference, so instead you concentrate your efforts into explaining to people why your football club is better than theirs.

We see from this globalisation that national pride can still be exist in football, but many people now seem more nationalistic towards their club.  Football nations such as the US seem more patriotic and tend to look out for their players with the national team in mind regardless of the club they play for.  This may be due to the fact that US teams are run as franchises rather than traditional clubs, and might lack the identity and sense of affinity which comes with most football teams.  Then you have countries like Brazil who are just obsessive in their support of both club and country, and countries like England where many fans support the opposition rather than their country of origin – a concept which is unheard of and unthinkable in some nations.

The term nationalism to explain something other than an attachment to a nation has been explained by George Orwell in his essay entitled Notes on Nationalism.  Orwell used the term ‘nationalism’ not just to refer to people who have an affinity to a nation, but to refer to those people who attach themselves to a single unit or entity.  In our example, the unit would be a football club.

Here we can see the traits of the football fan, which make football one of the most passionately supported phenomena in the world, and as mentioned earlier this passion can have both good and bad points.  If you read the following references from Orwell’s essay with football fans in mind, there are many parallels to be drawn between his observations on nationalism, and the behaviour of football fans towards their team.

England, Your England - George Orwell“It is also worth emphasising once again that nationalist feeling can be purely negative. There are, for example, Trotskyists who have become simply enemies of the U.S.S.R. without developing a corresponding loyalty to any other unit. When one grasps the implications of this, the nature of what I mean by nationalism becomes a good deal clearer. A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige”.

The example of Trotskyists who abandoned their attachment to the USSR could be compared with those fans in England, usually of big successful clubs, who look negatively upon the English national team and often support its opponents.  Their support of their club comes before anything else, and they often think that the national team only serves to interfere with their club’s affairs, calling players up for unnecessary matches where they may get injured or fatigued.  Add to this that some players in the national side will be star players at rival clubs, and they see more reasons to dislike their national team.  The best example of this might be fans of football in general who don’t tend to support a specific team, but have become disillusioned with their national team as they feel more detached from its players and their lifestyle.  They have become enemies of their national team without allying strongly to any other football club.

You could extend this idea to clubs who portray themselves almost as a nation in their own right.  The extreme example of this would be Athletic Bilbao and their self imposed rule that their players have to be from the Basque Country region of Spain.  Whilst this policy has been slightly more flexible in recent years, it could be said that the manager of their team is effectively managing a Basque Country national side.  Similarly many Barcelona fans and players feel more nationalistic towards their region of Catalonia, than they do to the Spanish team, but this has also been less evident in recent years…

Fans of the two biggest clubs in England – Manchester United and Liverpool – often show this type of attitude towards their respective clubs as well.  Many Liverpool fans would prefer to be known as ‘Scouse’ instead of English, and there is a piece of merchandise on the excellent Manchester United site – – which states United > England.

The next extract from Orwell’s essay draws further parallels with football fans, and conveniently mentions football related terms such as victories, defeats, and triumphs.  But maybe the most significant of these is humiliation – which is possibly the emotion most sought and feared in equal measure by football fans around the world.  There is nothing better than humiliating your biggest rivals, but no worse a feeling when the roles reverse:

“He may be a positive or a negative nationalist — that is, he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating — but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade. But finally, it is important not to confuse nationalism with mere worship of success. The nationalist does not go on the principle of simply ganging up with the strongest side. On the contrary, having picked his side, he persuades himself that it is the strongest, and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him. Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right”.

This section of the essay even hints at nationalist feelings related to modern football supporters who are termed ‘glory hunters’, as they seek to support a team who will achieve more success than that of the local team they should support.  The line “The nationalist does not go on the principle of simply ganging up with the strongest side”, suggests that in this sense, a glory hunter isn’t a true football fan.

Finally we come to the passage in Orwell’s essay subtitled ‘Obsession’, which gets to the crux of the issue being discussed.  The notion that fans think their club is by far the greatest team the world has ever seen despite evidence to the contrary, and the extreme sensitivity they display when someone dares to suggest otherwise.

“Obsession. As nearly as possible, no nationalist ever thinks, talks, or writes about anything except the superiority of his own power unit. It is difficult if not impossible for any nationalist to conceal his allegiance. The smallest slur upon his own unit, or any implied praise of a rival organization, fills him with uneasiness which he can relieve only by making some sharp retort”.

This is when things can start to get nasty, and the point at which all rational thought is lost.  Fans argue, provoke, discriminate against, and attack their opponents without considering the consequences or the wider implications of their biased views.  They came up with a ludicrous word to enable them to get away with it – banter.

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