A few days before this year’s World Cup quarter-finals, I received a phone call from a friend who also follows football closely. In the course of the conversation, she informed me that she would be rooting for Germany against France. Before I could thank her — I have been a German supporter ever since I started watching the World Cup — my friend enumerated on her favourite teams. If Germany were to beat France, she would dump Germany in favour of Brazil in the semi-final, and, later, shift her loyalty to Argentina, if the two South American neighbours met in the final. Unsurprisingly, the conversation did not go far.
What makes my friend the quintessential modern football fan is her dubious fidelity. The members of this burgeoning tribe are noted — and despised by older, but endangered, fanatics like me — for their inclination to switch allegiance among teams. Apart from brittle fealties, modern football fans share two other vices. First, combining their selective knowledge with expert opinion, they scan the pool of competitors and then identify the team that is rated as the best to win an important tournament. I personally know of several football-lovers who had sworn their undying love for the azzurri since 2006. Four years later, their emotional leanings had acquired a decidedly Spanish tilt. Second, these people are easy prey for teams that are marketed well by wily corporate benefactors. The choice to support a football team is no longer an extension of free will. Public opinion in football increasingly reflects the perverse success of corporations that have conquered and commodified every aspect of footballing culture, from players — glorified mercenaries — to even the humble team shirt, which, now, has been transformed into coveted merchandise.
There is thus a case for investigating the fragile sense of ownership of the modern fan in light of the gradual corporatization of the game, especially in western Europe. While making football remunerative, competitive and truly global — the World Cup has been held successfully in previously unexplored territories such as South Africa and, earlier, Japan and South Korea — the market has also introduced an element of homogeneity into the sport that was one of the few surviving bastions of diverse, and democratic, subcultures. Some of the salient features of the entrepreneurial model that has dealt this killer blow after its adoption by leading football clubs merit attention for an understanding of the weakening bonds between fans and teams. In England, after a tragedy killed 96 Liverpool supporters in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, several clubs got rid of the “terraces” citing safety concerns, thus doing away with the least expensive part of their stadiums. This compounded the problems for the traditional, but often poorer, fan because high ticket prices had already made football-watching prohibitively expensive. In the same year as the Hillsborough tragedy, Margaret Thatcher introduced the Football Spectators Act that made it mandatory for fans to purchase membership cards to buy tickets for away matches. Significantly, the act came with an Orwellian twist: the membership cards also held personal information such as home address and passport numbers. The football fraternity’s traditional association with the working class led to its demonization, and, subsequently, the sanitization of footballing culture in many countries, including Britain.
Institutional anxiety with football, its lucrative potential notwithstanding, persists globally. But the emphasis now is on transforming — instead of demonizing — fans into consumers. The game is also being increasingly equated with public recreation. English clubs have resorted to building grander stadiums complete with trendy multinational food kiosks away from the city-centre, making them inaccessible to the local communities. There are even dubious attempts to set benchmarks for performance. After Arsenal’s humiliating capitulation to Manchester United in 2011, the fans who had travelled to Old Trafford to watch the game were offered a refund. The complex relationship between community pride and performance was being replaced by a bond that equated performance with entertainment. For the purist, that was the moment when the transformation of the fan into a customer was perfected.
Yet, once there were fans. Their loyalty to, and concomitant ownership of, a club or nation were augmented by a shared history. Calcutta’s association with Brazil isn’t only because the nation used to play football with unmatched beauty. The city’s love and respect for Brazil can be attributed to a post-colonial affinity in which two different cultures relate to each other’s heroic attempts to fight grinding poverty and endemic corruption, violence and inequality, among other structural problems, through a game that could, momentarily, unify a people into dreaming of a better, and fairer, world. Similarly, younger members of families, brought up on the stories of the horrors of migration to Calcutta from Bangladesh after Partition, forged a robust solidarity with German football that was synonymous with such cherished values as resilience and doggedness. (It is not without reason that the followers of the local club, East Bengal — patronized by East Bengalis and their descendants — are known as Germans in Maidan parlance.)
The death of the football fan signifies the impending demise of not just a community but also histories and ways of living. But while deifying traditional fans as symbols of solidarity, one must not ignore their episodic propensity to ethnic, class or racial violence. Instead of investigating the embedded iniquities that contributed to these tensions, the State has cleverly vilified fans and then unleashed the market to neutralize the obdurate pockets of collective resistance.
After Mario Götze had neatly chested down an André Schürrle lob and volleyed it past the Argentinian goal-keeper in the dying minutes of the final, my phone buzzed to inform me that two other people I never knew were German fans were getting ready to honour the Mannschaft. For four years I presume?