With the adversarial nature of football tribalism making heated debate between rival fans rather inevitable, it’s perhaps more interesting to look at the in-fighting that happened in the wake of Arsenal’s recent FA Cup defeat to Watford.
While the wholly embarrassing physical brawling which occurred outside the Emirates was a toxic mix of frustration and heat-of-the-moment rage, it is symptomatic of what is a wider issue in the world of football fandom nowadays.
Social media and internet-based comment sections have fundamentally changed the way football fans engage with one another. Conversations and discussions which once upon a time had to be saved for the pub after the game or Monday morning by the water cooler can now happen seconds after individual events. And that’s brilliant. A broadened footballing community which transcends the boundaries of location or social stature allows for tailored interaction with the like-minded, no matter how sophisticated or puerile your tastes.
But here’s the thing: this new agency to be highly reactive means that immediacy is king, having seemingly usurped depth and insight. The desire now is for things you can easily form an opinion on. Compacted, concise, easily digestible pieces with low engagement have grown exponentially more popular of late, whether it’s this season’s 5 Things We Learned or 10 Players Who Could Move or even a slideshow depicting predicted line-ups.
It’s not necessarily bad or incoherent. People who write this stuff know what they are talking about and the number of views or reads suggest these opinions matter. The trouble is it’s not substantive. It’s watered-down content, so bereft of discursiveness or reasoning that there is a striking emphasis on over-generalisations. But moreover there is no room or time for deliberation. Readers need to know things now. If what they’re reading is what they think, they feel validated. If it’s not what they think, they can brand it rubbish and move on. Rinse and repeat. It’s a real shame – in a sport where there is so much to talk about, there are (by and large) only two camps. Yes or no. Right or wrong. For or against.
And herein lies the crux of the problem – there’s no middle ground. There’s a lot to be said for sitting on the fence, but football discourse now dictates that it’s increasingly uncomfortable. Instead of joining you on the proverbial fence, they are on either side trying to haul you into their camp. Many are increasingly unwilling to entertain anything other than thoughts which directly correlate with their own. Things are either great or terrible and that’s all that matters in the end.
Even more worrying is that this view appears to have permeated football itself. Let’s not forget that the feud between Robbie Savage and John Terry began with the bandying about of extremes. In response to some not unwarranted criticism of his performances, Terry petulantly labelled Savage’s entire career as “really bad”. Talented player as he is, the Chelsea captain is not an authority on these sorts of things. “Really bad”? Behave, John. Savage wasn’t some pub league player, turning up pitchside still hungover to comment on the frailties of the game’s elites. Granted he never won the Champions League or came close to title glory, but he played almost 350 times in England’s top flight. But this piece isn’t about John Terry – it’s about expression and formation of opinions. And Terry’s opinion is that if you aren’t elite, then neither are you worthy. The comments were unpleasant but more than that, they were a microcosm of the fast-deteriorating middle-ground of football reasoning.
In truth, it’s not entirely clear why polarisation in football is so popular. Everything about the intricacies and contradictions inherent in the sport tells you that it’s an illogical approach to pursue. Perhaps it offers an easy opinion stance or a guideline of how and what to think. Anything you see on the pitch which reinforces your views can be used as ammunition, while you can conveniently and blissfully ignore everything else.
It may be linked to football’s apparent necessity for blame. A pariah for which to pin the worst elements of a result upon, suggesting an easy fix for a team’s woes. If there’s something perceived to be wrong or bad about the team on an occasion, then venting frustration gets easier. The next week it might be in vogue to detest something else about the team, casting last week’s pariah by the wayside. Follow this pattern week in, week out and it’s easy to see why so many fanbases are labelled as ‘fickle’. Unfairly, too. It’s not that their opinions change, it’s their perceptions of players fluctuate so much that they are constantly over-calibrating to appear reasonable.