Whenever you hear discussions about the nature of the football industry, someone is bound to remark: ‘Football isn’t like an ordinary business….Just look at the fans; they don’t behave like ‘customers’ buying a product.’ And it may be true of course – at least for the majority of supporters. Even if the goods are rubbish, they will keep going to the same shop. (And proud of it.)
It’s all wrapped up in the central notion that being a ‘real’ football fan involves a lifelong relationship with one club. Richer or poorer; in sickness and in health; until death do us part. In short a marriage, without possibility of divorce or even a bit of a fling on the side.
But this definition of a ‘real’ fan may only be substantially true for the ‘old world’ of football; principally South America and Europe. Fans from these ‘developed’ footballing continents do largely owe lifetime allegiance to one club, and one club only. It is a relationship both geographical (ie with a local club), and often inherited from parental traditions: ‘Our family have supported Fluminense since they moved to Rio in 1902…’
But many other fans end up supporting the opposite (often rival) club from their parents or family tradition, for a variety of reasons, including sheer bloody-mindedness. Others will develop in their youth a powerful, lasting relationship with a particular player, and adopt the club he plays for, wherever it is.
However, there are (at least) two other ‘worlds’ of football: the ‘developing’ and the ‘emerging’ worlds which, in the current days of the game’s globalisation, stretch across just about everywhere else outside of South America & Europe. Do the majority of fans in those regions develop the same kind of powerful, monogamous relationship with one club as their more traditional counterparts in the ‘old world’? Probably not.
If they don’t, does that mean they are not ‘real’ football fans? Is monogamy a core element in any definition of the latter? What if, in the absence of any clubs in say, China, South Korea or Japan, with anything approaching the history and traditions of ‘old world’ clubs, your footballing monogamy is directed solely at your national team? Does that mean you’re not a ‘real’ fan?
For much of the developing and emerging football worlds, national teams stand in for club teams as the only, purely monogamous relationship fans have to football. No South Korean could ever ditch the Reds for Japan’s Blues; anymore than a Man Utd fan could cross over to City (but the latter is more likely than the former).
Back in the old football world however, there is a very long tradition of supporting one club but also having strong feelings for another; the equivalent of a formally monogamous marriage which includes an (often exotic) lover in the wings.
This is most frequently associated with fans who inherit or choose relationships with often small, lower league clubs who, in the current structures, will never progress a great deal further up the feeding chain than they currently occupy. (These days ‘doing a Wimbledon’, and making your way up from non-league status to the top division and an FA Cup victory, is highly implausible; perhaps virtually impossible.)
But it also works the other way around too, and a Man Utd fan may support Blackpool just as much. Even more, some fans (we don’t know how many) may in fact support two teams of similar status; psychologically, a very sound position to find yourself in, as you’ve got your emotional eggs in at least two baskets.
There may also be many more fans than we ever know about who get divorced from one club and marry another. Others may simply love the game itself, regardless of who’s playing it.
Maybe football monogamy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But there is one thing about it which, strangely, does make it more attractive: with all your eggs in one basket, you’re guaranteed real pain.
Dr Rogan Taylor is the Director of the Football Industry Group at the University of Liverpool. He is also a writer and broadcaster, with five football books and numerous radio and TV contributions. He has acted as a special adviser to The FA, The Premier League and Premier League Clubs.
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