To write this and not come across as patronising or bitter will be nigh-on impossible, but I’ll give it a go.
It comes with two immediate provisos: one, as a fan of a middling Premier League team with no realistic shot of a domestic cup run, let alone a European trophy, I’ll never truly be able to gauge the emotional pressure of a big final where Champions League qualification, millions of pounds and even a club’s future is on the line.
Second, nobody could blame fans of Arsenal or Chelsea for watching their team in local pubs or on their sofa considering the utterly ludicrous costs and logistics involved in the final, where tiny ticket allocations proved impossible to fill and the few thousand miles to Baku even harder to traverse. This whole process has cemented the widely-held theory that UEFA’s pledge to look after fans has no true grounding whatsoever. In spending a fraction of the money that watching UEFA’s game would demand in their local community, fans are taking the first step in wrestling control of the game back from the TV companies that stole it from them.
I joined a few Arsenal-supporting friends in a north London pub to watch the game which, initially at least, seemed a straightforward solution to the problem. They had been nervous all day after copping grief from Tottenham fan colleagues and frantically checking Twitter for team news. The pre-match beer was as much to ease the nerves as it was to enjoy over a packet of pork scratchings.
Now filling up, the pub began to take on a strange identity – some mix of a crowded nightclub, amateur boxing fight and a Strokes gig. As the game kicked off, the baying mob started to unearth itself from the once relaxed and jovial crowd. Pissed blokes became an unbearable annoyance (to be expected) as the queues for the bar, toilets and any vestibule of fresh outside air varied between completely packed and a legitimate biohazard. Booing and screaming at the screen became a constant backing track, occasionally peppered by disgusting tirades of abuse at anyone from Olivier Giroud, to the ref, to any Chelsea fans in the ground, to some misplaced advert at half-time.
Perhaps this was the purest reflection of the vile echo chamber of self-validation that Twitter has become. Blokes shouting at other like-minded blokes in an endlessly perpetuating void of blind allegiance, hatred for anyone else and a concrete belief that they were correct on every refereeing decision, all while seven pints deep on a dodgy screen, on that dodgy projector, in that dodgy pub. You’d have thought that when Giroud scored and dropped to his knees apologetically and soberly, he’d taken a piss on the graves of all the Arsenal greats that came before him, such was the abuse he copped from that crowd of devastated, angry fans. One bloke behind me screamed and swore so much his phlegm regularly topped my pint up.
Something clear and obvious emerged from that hazy atmosphere of alcohol, sweat, rage and disappointment: all of this is not worth it whatsoever. The venom and anger in the air while watching their team in a European final, surely one of the sport’s peaks, subverted the entire thing. Gone were hopeful and jolly chants supporting Arsenal and willing them on – they were replaced by a toxic and insatiable need to berate anyone that wasn’t Arsenal-related. Almost half the chants involved hating Spurs, for Christ’s sake. Apologies, Arsenal fans, but your bitter rivals are playing in the final of the premier European competition and you’re in the lite version. Concentrate on yourselves, not the belittling of Spurs.
In this age of a more sanitised stadium atmosphere, there has been a groundswell of support for non-league football. It is a refreshing, heartfelt alternative to the Premier League commercial behemoths. Some football fandom is being channelled down less traditional routes, with a focus on enjoyment. So why is there still such a prevalence of fandom being used as an excuse to act in a way that no other portion of daily life would allow someone to?
To abuse and attack, rather than enjoy and support. This disparity is everywhere. Occupying football stadiums mainly as a neutral, it’s disheartening to see the glee fans get from their opposition’s misfortune outweighing the joy in seeing their own team do well. The dominant sentiment remains “we succeeded because they failed”, rather than “we succeeded”.
Broadly, it’s also an extension of the ‘whataboutery’ narrative that dominates social media. Football is one of the most significant cultural nodes in modern society, yet it is the only one where someone’s preferences can make them blind to any other point of view. Criticism of their team, however constructive, is completely disregarded. It’s all a case of “well, what about x” and suggestions of media bias (one of the most laughable and moronic aspects of modern football fandom).
So, what can be done? As I mentioned, it’s impossible to offer solutions and not sound like some smug, patronising writer lauding it over other fans. But as the early steps in the recent fightback against racism in the stands have proven, problems must be openly addressed before they can be solved. Perhaps it’s time to reassess our perspective as football fans and examine what truly motivates our spending of countless hours and pounds following our clubs. Objectively, it should not be about frustration and abuse toward rival teams, players, fans, the referee or the media – anyone who would tell you otherwise has lost sight of what it means to be a football fan. These should not be the main focus – they shouldn’t really be there at all.
Anyone who wonders why the demographic at football stadiums is overwhelmingly white and male need only look at this: ‘supporters’, in the most basic sense of the word, go against their very definition when spouting horrific abuse from the stands, pubs or online. A culture of understanding, while not losing out on the vibrant and effervescent atmospheres that English fans can still produce, is surely the way forward.
Not only will it make football fandom a place for the many swathes of our society, not the few, it also might just be more enjoyable for those already there.
Charlie Morgan is on Twitter