I’m British but I grew up mostly abroad, so when I went to university in England I discovered a new species of man: the Total Fan, the teenager whose main identity was the football club he supported. I witnessed conversations in the common room that went like this:
Student in plastic Manchester United shirt: “We’re brilliant this season.”
Student in Spurs shirt: “No, you’re shit.”
Student in Crystal Palace shirt: “He’s right, Steve. You’re shit.”
They weren’t exactly casting aspersions on Steve’s personality. They were talking about his football club. However, they saw the two things as essentially the same. Steve was Manchester United. The Spurs fan once told me that, when his team won the FA Cup, he walked into the common room to receive everybody’s congratulations as if he personally had lifted the trophy.
Later in Britain, I saw people get addressed by the name of the club they supported: “Oi, Chelsea.” Fandom as identity was new to me. In the Netherlands, where I’d fallen for the sport, football lovers would ask each other, “Who do you play for?”, meaning which local amateur team. In Britain, I met devoted fans who had scarcely ever kicked a ball in their lives.
The Premier League’s return from its three-month hiatus feels incomplete without fans. English supporters traditionally regard themselves as participants rather than spectators. It felt wrong on Wednesday to be watching Manchester City against Arsenal in an empty stadium. “Fan cams” behind the goals could show up to 16 supporters watching from home but, fittingly, City at one point managed to fill only 13 slots, leaving three empty screens. The 150-year-old British custom of fandom is temporarily broken, and both the game and the fans are the poorer for it.
Fandom is often dismissed as a leisure-time pursuit, opium of the masses or stupid distraction. However, for many people, it’s more than that: a primary source of identity, or a crutch to get through life. And the English variety of fandom is so powerful that it has spread around the globe. How did football become so important?
In 1800, Manchester was a tranquil town of 70,000 inhabitants. Soon afterwards it began filling up with the first people on earth to exchange their villages of birth for a disease-ridden, atomised industrial city. Karl Marx’s friend Friedrich Engels ran his father’s factory here. This was the place so brutal that it inspired communism.
In 1878 a football club called Newton Heath LYR started up near Manchester’s newish railway line. Its players worked at the Newton Heath carriage works of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company. They played in work clogs against other work teams.
Players at Newton Heath LYR Football Club, which was founded in Manchester in 1878. It began as a team of railway workers who played in clogs … but in 1902 changed its name to Manchester United © Getty
In 1902 — by which time Manchester was Europe’s sixth-biggest city, with 1.25m inhabitants — Newton Heath became Manchester United. Many uprooted migrants found a new sense of community by supporting the club. Who were you, an Irish peasant lost in Manchester? You “were” Manchester United. The stadium replaced the parish church.
Across industrial Britain, migrants attached themselves to football clubs. By 1892, all 28 English professional clubs were from the north or the Midlands. Football was as northern a game as Rugby League. Only in 1931 did Arsenal become England’s first southern champions.
The legacy of the Industrial Revolution still shapes English fandom. Today, the combined population of Greater Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Lancashire county is less than 5.5m, or a little over 10 per cent of the English population. Nonetheless, three of the top five teams in the table — Liverpool, Manchester City and United — come from this region. Manchester United became arguably the world’s most popular club largely because Manchester was the world’s first industrial city. Conversely, there are very few professional clubs in unindustrialised areas such as the south-west, East Anglia, Lincolnshire or the region due south of London.
Almost all leading European football cities today are provincial towns with industrial pasts: Liverpool, Manchester, Barcelona, Turin, Munich and Milan. Madrid, a capital, is the exception. Even formerly industrial Nottingham has won more European Cups (two) than London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Moscow, Istanbul and Athens combined (one). Industrial cities had the greatest flux, the fewest established hierarchies, the weakest ties between people and place. Here, there were emotional gaps to fill.
Today, atomisation is again common across Europe. Ever fewer people live in their town of birth, belong to a church or trade union, or spend their career in a single workplace. Living alone has become common. Many people form their primary attachment to a football club, or at least to fellow fans of that club. (Clubs themselves have historically treated supporters with contempt, though recently they have grown interested in them as consumers.)
Fandom helps people say who they are. That’s what my friends at university were doing: if you’re a teenage boy with low self-esteem, it’s much better to become known as “Tottenham”, to align yourself with the alpha males who play for the team. Fandom remains a favourite source of masculine identity: witness the avowedly male “Democratic Football Lads Alliance”, including many hooligans, who violently “defended” a Winston Churchill statue in London last weekend.
Fandom also gives fans a ready-made topic of conversation. Nick Hornby writes in his classic fan’s memoir Fever Pitch: “The first and easiest friends I made at college were football fans; a studious examination of a newspaper back page during the lunch hour of the first day in a new job usually provokes some kind of response. And yes, I am aware of the downside of this wonderful facility that men have: they become repressed, they fail in their relationships with women, their conversation is trivial and boorish, they find themselves unable to express their emotional needs, they cannot relate to their children, and they die lonely and miserable. But, you know, what the hell?”
Life is hard enough as it is. Fandom offers so many psychological compensations — nowadays, thankfully, to women, too. People age, divorce, move away and die, but if you’re lucky, the one thing in life that doesn’t change is your club, still playing in the same colours and possibly even the same ground as when you were eight. All that’s required to be a fan among fans is to know what to grumble about. On match day, you become an eight-year-old without responsibilities again: it’s the players and manager who have to perform.
And watching the game, in the stadium or a pub, is a ritual you can share with people you love without needing to speak. Arsenal gave Hornby and his divorced father a way to be together: “We could talk when we wanted, the football gave us something to talk about.”
The fantasy world of football can momentarily erase even quite pressing personal problems. As a soldier on a German military ship in Italy during the second world war, the great footballer Fritz Walter found himself mobbed by sailors. He reflected later: “For them I am the embodiment of concepts that seem to be lost for ever: peace, home, sport . . . ” He was probably too modest to say it, but he also embodied beauty and greatness. Few of us get much of either in our daily lives, but watch Lionel Messi on telly, and there they are.
I have talked so far about life-long one-club fans. They are the people who fill the stadiums with noise. Simon Inglis, chronicler of football stadiums, says the British stadium owes its atmosphere to cheapness. In his maxim: “Form follows whatever the club chairman’s builder pal from the Rotary Club could come up with at a cut-price.”
To save space, English stands towered steeply from the field’s edge. There was no athletics track because athletics didn’t pay. That left fans crammed up against the pitch. Low, cheap roofs amplified their singing. Jacques Herzog, whose architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron built Beijing’s Olympic “Birds Nest” stadium and Munich’s Allianz Arena, told me that the intimacy of English stadiums was his ideal: “The Shakespearean theatre — probably it was even a model for the soccer stadium in England.” Until Covid-19, English football was unthinkable without fans.
Life-long one-club fans dominate the conversation about fandom. No wonder, since they speak loudest, and they have compelling stories to tell about roots, love and conflict. They are also football’s most valuable customers, so clubs and the media listen to them.
However, life-long one-club fans are a minority. Far more common are armchair fans. According to a survey by market researchers Kantar Media in 2016, about 36 per cent of Britons call themselves football fans. That’s more than 20m people. Yet in the average pre-pandemic fortnight, when all English and Scottish professional clubs played at home once, only about 1.8m attended a game. In other words, most British fans rarely or never enter stadiums. Most of fandom has long been virtual — you watch the game on TV, while arguing about it on social media — and therefore well equipped to ride out this pandemic.
Many fans dip in and out of live attendance. In our book Soccernomics, the sports economist Stefan Szymanski and I show the constant flux in football crowds. To cite a random example, if Reading host Preston one season, and then again the next, about half the seats in the stadium will be occupied by different people the second time around.
The cliché goes that you can change your job, your spouse or your gender, but never your football team. This is empirically false. Many fans do change. They might fall for a team aged eight, but by 28 or 88 they are no longer the same people.
Fandom is usually a process, not a static condition. The university friends I’m still in touch with now have jobs, mortgages, children and new identities. None of them is as invested in their club as they were at 18. Some fans abandon football altogether. Others shift allegiances, because they have moved to a new town, started to follow the team their kids support or fallen for better football elsewhere. England is so densely stuffed with professional clubs — there are 43 within 90 miles of Manchester — that many people can find a new local side without going to the trouble of moving home.
Then there is football’s dirty secret: many fans support multiple teams. If you live in Plymouth, you might support Plymouth Argyle, Chelsea and Barcelona, and have a fondness for a half-dozen other clubs, even though if Plymouth ever get to Wembley, you will show up decked out as a “life-long Plymouth fan”. In fact, whereas the usual analogy for football fandom is idealised monogamous marriage, a better one is music fandom. People are fans of The Beatles, or The Cure, or the Pixies, but they generally follow more than one band, and they move on when their heroes fade.
My own fandom has petered out, largely because in decades of writing about football I got too close to the game. I have peeked behind the curtain. I haven’t seen anything terrible. I simply realised: the players and managers I’ve interviewed regard their clubs not as magical entities but as employers. Football for them is a job — a job they might love, but a job. Steve, the Manchester United fan whom I met at university, now works for a bank. He told me once that he believed United’s long-serving players Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs loved United. I asked him if he loved his bank. Obviously not, he said. Well, Scholes and Giggs don’t love United either. They just had happy employee-employer relationships.
Listen to footballers’ language: they call themselves “professionals” with “careers”. For me too, football has become a job. In Johannesburg in 2010, I sat in the stands watching my team, the Netherlands, almost win a World Cup final. But when Andrés Iniesta scored Spain’s winner with five minutes left, I was relieved. The match had gone to extra time, my deadline for filing the match report had passed, FT editors kept emailing to ask me when I could write, and I couldn’t until I knew who would win. Iniesta solved my problem.
In 2007, Argentina’s then rugby captain Agustín Pichot told me he thought football had become a “fragile” sport. He explained: “It has become a very neat product, where everyone should have a special haircut and brilliant boots and where the grass is so green. And I applaud that. That’s a really well-managed product.” The problem, he said, was that the supporters were more passionate than the players: “A guy that shouts his life during 90 minutes — and probably a player that finishes the game and he’s not bothered if he wins or loses.” Pichot thought fans might grow disillusioned.
Well, they haven’t yet. The Premier League’s restart is being watched worldwide. English football has seduced foreign fans for decades with the killer combination of tradition (ancient clubs), youth culture (those haircuts) and community (singing fans).
The great Dutchman Johan Cruyff, born in 1947, told me in 2000: “English football, in the time I was growing up, was three houses above everything else . . . They were already pros when we didn’t even know the ball was round, in a manner of speaking.” Cruyff was a classic polygamous supporter: he said that as a kid he followed Liverpool, “Manchester” (meaning Manchester United) and Arsenal.
In communist Albania, fans would listen under the bedclothes to football broadcasts on the forbidden BBC.
The spell was strongest in Britain’s former colonies. The English language, and the communications networks of empire — boys’ cartoons such as Billy’s Boots and Roy of the Rovers as well as the BBC — carried English football even to poor non-white townships outside Cape Town. Mike Abrahams, a former Cape gangster turned activist, told me one of his friends named his son Shankly, after Liverpool’s legendary manager Bill Shankly. “And this is an activist!” Abrahams exclaimed. “You can say that England is a bitch on Friday night, and then on Saturday afternoon you go to a sports pub to watch English soccer.”
A friend of mine who has studied the deep sociological divide that runs through Thai society — Liverpool fans versus Manchester United fans — points to the desire of people in a developing country to attach themselves to something “world-class”. You may live in a Bangkok shack, and your children attend a bad school, and you will never rise above these circumstances, but you are Liverpool.
In James Erskine’s documentary series This Is Football, a group of Liverpool fans, the Rwandan Reds, meet in Kigali to watch every game together. Many were orphaned in the genocide of 1994. They don’t have families but they have Liverpool. Liverpool FC’s original supporters in the 1890s, searching for their moorings in a city where life expectancy was 38, would have understood.
Simon Kuper is an FT columnist
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