Mark Perryman of PhilosophyFootball sketches out a framework for understanding 21st century football fan culture
The contact between football and politics is inevitable, as football is part of society. Football itself is socially organised, institutions govern it, values are invested in it. The forms of organisation have a social base, values are contested as well as accepted.
So far... so familiar, or at least it should be.
But there are deeper reasons for the neglect of football as an aspect of social life. Just as there is a division between mental and physical labour, so there is a division between mental and physical activity. English cultural life is marked by a very distinct division between two types of person - the sporting philistine and the non-sporting aesthete. These are two archetypal products of the English public school and university education.
Football is thus marked down as a natural, taken-for-granted activity.
Football instead needs to be considered as it shapes, and is shaped by, race, gender, national identity and class.
Traditionally the sports media have reported football with great professional skill but often discuss it with a crass lack of seriousness. Newspapers relay results efficiently and delight in trivial controversy, but are timid and uninformative about the organisation of football. TV and radio football coverage has largely failed to produce informative football journalism. This however started to change with the post -1990s fanzine generation of football writers.
Football must be forced out of its often self-imposed separation. Football is not separate from social life as a whole, nor is it separate from cultural life. It is not a natural activity which cannot be changed and need not be discussed. In part, this is what the post Nick Hornby Fever Pitch (published in 1992 year one of the Premiership) new football writing, overtly or covertly, academically or popularly, set out to achieve.
The new football writing revealed a deeper awareness of issues of race, gender, sexuality and power. Though there is often very little overview : no sense of the historical evolution of football. Instead there is a welcome stress on football as pleasure, football as play, football as a necessary part of many contemporary lives.
To understand fan culture properly we have to appreciate the reasons why football gives so much pleasure to so many, and despite the pain it also provides keep coming back, season after season. What is it about football that gives us pleasure, and how, if at all, can we account for it?
The football crowd is expressive but inarticulate, using a range of communicative sounds beyond words to convey the excitement and frustration of the match. It is difficult to attribute definite meanings to these inarticulate vocalisations. Yet the football crowd is an important arena for the display of human emotion.
What does football offer us? A sanctuary, a sense of place, a community, a language, for some.... an addiction? In his book Football Delirium Chris Oakley provides this by way of an explanation :
“Football allows us, as communion, as community, to share a whole catalogue of intensely intoxicating sense-impressions in-mixed with heightened emotions. It is great fun and yet at times it will bring about immense depression, aguish and despair. Catastrophic dismay and baely containable grief haunt the terrain.”
A sense of place is often crucial to the behaviour of the football crowd. The football stadium allows for the congregation of large numbers of people. In an increasingly fragmented public sphere such large-scale meeting places can fulfil a vital social function.
Discussions of the body and its desires are approached, if only obliquely, through the discourses of football more than anywhere else. The workings of the body, its successes and failures as a machine, are debated in the pages of the sports newspapers on the television, online, and in casual discussion.
Football contains the elements of confrontation, crisis and resolution which are necessary to drama. In football there is the macro-drama of the season, which includes within it the mini-dramas of individual matches, and micro-dramas of confrontations between players, or officials, and sometimes both.
On occasion the drama of football becomes truly public, as crossover is achieved from the back pages to the front pages of newspapers, and for a time displaces the routine stories of political and economic life.
Much of this is more or less specific to football. It explains why it emerged as a mass spectator sport in the early twentieth century and a century later remains in that sense at least more or less unchanged. Its core aesthetic however is the same as any other sport, the value of unpredictability and the unfamiliar, if we knew for certain before kick-off who would win and how why would anyone turn up however good the football on offer?
Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football