Over the next few days, we will be taking a look at some issues relating to abuse within the context of football. With referees in Scotland threatening to go on strike, teams being booed from the pitch left, right and centre and internet forums and messageboards increasingly resembling bear-pits, it certainly feels as if football is “nastier” than it has been for some time. In the first of the series (and a reprint of an article written in August 2009, and subsequently re-written for When Saturday Comes in October 2009), Ian King takes a look at the culture of the “fanatic”.

Let’s take a moment to try and see into the mind of the man that bought the Manchester United shirt in this story from The Guardian. He went to a sports store and spent fifty-five pounds on a replica shirt – fifty-five pounds! – and, instead of having the name of his favourite player or even his own name printed on the back of it, decided to have “YSB” (which stands for “You Scouse Bastards”, apparently), “96” and “Not Enough” printed on the back of it. Some of you may not wish to dwell upon the sort of individual that would consider this to be a good idea and the very last word in sartorial elegance but he is worth dwelling upon, because he is a symbol of a wider phenomenon that has crept into football over the last couple of decades – the culture of taking football rather too seriously.

As with so many of life’s ills, we can, if we look at it all through a certain prism, hold Rupert Murdoch at least partially responsible for this phenomenon. At some point in the early 1990s somebody in the media decided that football matters. Not matters in the sense of wanting our team to win and being disappointed if they don’t, but matters in the sense that we have to live, breathe and absorb the game through osmosis, if possible. The popular cliche of the football supporter went from being that of a drunken, knife-wielding maniac to a man with at least fifty replica shirts, a hat, a scarf and cat named after his club’s greatest ever player within the space of about five years in the early 1990s. “Supporters”, people that got behind their teams, became “fans”, a contraction of the word “fanatics”, devoid of reason and blinded by their own prejudices.

Of course, it suits the media and, up to a point, the clubs for people to be fanatical. For these guys, fanatics are a brilliant captive audience – cannon fodder for those with something to sell. All Sky Sports have to say is a reassuring, “We know how you feel, because we feel the same” and they can sit back expecting drooling, gurgling noises and (most importantly, from their point of view) hundreds of millions of pounds to come rolling into their bank account. The clubs, meanwhile, stock their shops with tat in the expectation that people will lap it up, and the fact that football club megastores still exist (and, indeed, still sell tat) would seem to demonstrate that they do. Of course, there are strong arguments to say that these are fairly harmless activities and that people should be able to spend their money as they wish, but this isn’t where the spread of fanaticism ends.

In the world of the fanatic, it is starting to become apparent that merely supporting your team isn’t enough. Even loving your team isn’t really enough. These days, it feels as if you can’t be a real fan unless you hate your rivals as much as you love your own team. This doesn’t merely mean that you just want your lot to beat them and that maybe you dislike them a little bit.  It’s not even enough, apparently, to hate their players or their manager. You have to hate the club, it’s players, its supporters and the city that they come from – or the part of the city, if they come from the same city as your team.  You have to hate them so much that, if you support Manchester United, you have to wish that more than ninety-six Liverpool supporters had died in British football’s worst disaster, and you’d want to advertise the fact this is your opinion by putting it on a replica shirt. Also, you wouldn’t even be able to bring yourself to call them “Liverpool”. You’d spit “Scouse bastards” at them instead.

We have touched on the lack of self-awareness of people that engage in this sort of behaviour on here before (the two sides of the same coin, and all that), but the increase in the spite of it all has rather crept up on us, and anybody about to leap on their high horse about Manchester United and their supporters should probably pause to consider that their own club’s “fans” are likely to be just as vituperative. For every “Bin Dipper”, there is a “Munich”, a “Hun”, “Bitter Blue” or a “Scummer”, all dehumanising names which make the frothing hatred of the rival that much easier. Worst of all, the fanatic is bad for the rest of us. He makes our world sink a little when a story like the one linked at the top of this page becomes public. He drowns out more reasoned debate with his braying, spit-inflected rage and, above everything else, he is what a large number of people that don’t care about football at all think we are all like and the image of him is what can be used to tar the rest of us with. If you stop and think about it for a second, it’s not very flattering.

Coming up later this week on the same subject: The refereeing strike in Scotland, Booing your own team & more.

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