Emotions in Football Fans

Emotions are not limited to crying or feeling upset. Emotions connect us with people and experiences on a daily basis. They activate our reactions and thoughts, guiding us through the good, bad and everything in between. Used mindfully, they are a human’s greatest asset. However, too much or too little emotion can cause difficulties – both on and off the field. 

In this three-part series, I evaluate emotions in football through its three human components: managers, players, and fans. The relationships between each component are compelling. The effects of these relationships are central to the emotions that football evokes.

This third and final segment analyses you and I: the fans. We are the ones who are emotionally, financially and socially invested into our respective clubs and players: our weekends are ruined when we lose, and we look forward to going into the office on Monday when we win. What emotions do we feel, and why? What are we supposed to do with them? 

Part Three: Emotions and Masculinity amongst Fans 

What, or who, made you fall in love with football? For me, it was David Beckham. He was England captain, was married to one of the Spice Girls and every hair style looked good on him. I tried to replicate them all at some stage, apart from the cornrows circa 2003. I loved everything that he did. One of my first memories was his last-minute free kick against Greece in 2001 sending England to the 2002 World Cup. My house erupted; what an introduction to euphoria. 

England’s David Beckham scores from a free-kick to equalise against Greece in their World Cup Group qualifying match

Twenty years on, I am still incredibly emotionally connected to football. However, the emotions, their origins and their consequences have developed. From the sheer awe and excitement of being a child fan, to frustration and adolescent despair, and to the pure romance of history as an adult. The most profound, unconditional love is a lad’s affection for his football team – it is truly through thick and thin. Football has taught more men about love than any Mills and Boon story could

The affection formed from a young age is usually modelled by your surroundings, most notably who your family supports and whether your family are ‘active’ fans of the sport. As you grow older, you may begin to attend regularly yourself and feel far more enchanted by the club. The most evocative memory is walking up the steps for the first time and seeing the pitch, with the stands filling up around you, mouth opened and eyes agog.

Us fans seek moments of joy and form strong emotional attachments to everything to do with our football club. Whether it be a certain player, or route to the stadium, or indulging the communal practises of chanting, debating and celebrating with those around you: many of whom you have very little in common with apart from your mutual affection. The transient threat of a Super League and the minor complication of a global pandemic helped us realise just how much these things do matter – but more on that later. 

For many men, football is our first conscious experience of emotion and masculinity. Football is a vehicle for men to negotiate and realise our own masculinity, as well as it being a definitive factor of our own machismo. 

Football assists men in asserting ourselves around other men in social situations, claiming the superiority of our team over theirs – from history, to on-field success to the activeness of a club’s fanbase. Our football team is a prodigious source of masculine pride and provides a sense of belonging: owing to the human compulsion to feel accepted and affiliated with others.

Michel Maffesoli, a French sociologist, hypothesised a concept of ‘neotribalism’ where human beings would evolve to live in tribal societies and instinctively form social networks, referred to as ‘pseudo-tribes’. The ritualistic behaviours in a footballing context, such as simultaneously singing, chanting, booing and applauding, or worshipping club heroes and inducing nostalgia, create a sense of unity and safety in numbers. 

Despite the solidarity created through football, fandom always creates alter-egos: from hooliganism to the contemporary vitriol on Twitter. The advent of social media and the ability to share an instant opinion has created a minefield. The concept of debate has vanished; you are either for or against an opinion with no room for nuance. If you agree, good. If not, you can easily become a target of mindless abuse – especially if you are fortunate, or unfortunate, enough to have a platform on social media.

The term tribalism has pejorated as a result. For me, tribalism is a sense of emotional and actual belonging; tribalism is the unilateral support from those around you as a fan which makes it so enchanting. It’s a feeling of unadulterated, partisan love and devotion with strangers for your club. But what happens when football is without adoring fans?

We’ve seen what football is like without fans. Emotionless.

The past year has reduced a 90-minute football match to exactly that: a game. The emotional experience is no longer there. The feeling of being a fan has changed for what feels like an eternity. There’s no rush of excitement to get to the game, and no consultation with fellow fans at the bars or in the seats next to you. Yet, sat on our sofas, fans are still strapped into the rollercoaster of shifting emotional states that football inflicts.

Since the turnstiles have been shut, this emotion is without release. The anger of a poor refereeing decision, the frustration of a misplaced pass, and the amalgam of relief and ecstasy that comes with a last-minute winner. From a nation of supporters that celebrate a corner like no other, the lack of release has made social media a tough place to be. 

A lack of fans has also affected performances on the pitch – reducing former fortresses to a strip of grass with two goalposts at each end. The formidable nature of fans grinds out more results than we give ourselves credit for; the emotional connection that comes with your football team winning and losing is an unparalleled dichotomy of jubilation and despair. These two contrary emotions are the fabric of our beautiful game, and the thrill of the outcome that competition brings. 

Every fan feels despair during the ebbs and flow of a season: a last-minute winner trickling past your keeper or losing a cup final or a local derby. The antidote to anguish is the exact same events except being on the opposite side of the result. Football transports you between emotions, in the blink of an eye, like nothing else.  

Each club’s folklore is a tapestry comprising stories of epic comebacks, tragedies, victories that should have been defeats and vice versa. Each memory chronicled and stitched and woven into history. A patchwork of emotions, passed through time and allowing fans to connect through narrative. A historical tapestry threatened by venture capitalists and their tone-deaf brainchild of a breakaway Super League. 

With the light at the end of a tunnel for a horrendous, damaging 18 months in the grips of COVID-19, the rumours became reality: twelve European clubs, including six from England, were revealed as founding members of a new Super League. Whilst the European footballing world was being divided in two between the financially dominant and ‘the rest’, fans became one.

Tariq Panja of the New York Times reported that each team, for merely entering, would earn in excess of $400 million (£290M) – over quadruple the amount Bayern Munich earned for winning the 2020 Champions League. The motivation for the breakaway need not be disputed. 

The unscrupulous owners managed to unite all fans of English football against the concept. Chelsea protested outside Stamford Bridge, with Petr Cech momentarily getting caught in the crossfire; Arsenal and Spurs followed suit and all six Premier League clubs withdrew within 48 hours. Manchester United fans protested outside The Lowry and within the walls of Old Trafford, causing their game against Liverpool to be postponed.

By thinking that their withdrawal would subdue the backlash, it was yet another abysmal failure of judgement from those involved. Fans, particularly those of the ‘big six’ involved, were betrayed by the sobering reminder of where the game is headed. 

Petr Cech pleads with the Chelsea fans to calm their protests against the Super League

Being a fan is embodied by the long away days, visiting new stadiums, and spectating behind a pillar for 90 minutes with an obstructed view. There is a romance to going to Turf Moor, as there is during a blustery evening in Stoke. Whilst the owners saw pound notes, they failed to hear exactly what it is that makes their most loyal fans pay the inflated ticket prices.

What makes the Premier League the most lucrative league in the world is the fact that a team narrowly avoiding relegation the season before can beat the incumbent champions 7-2. A Super League would remove the competition and meritocracy from football. This episode highlighted the importance of fans, and the sanctity of competition, promotion and relegation. 

The unity of fans, by nature, will not last forever. Fans are far too emotionally invested to remain in agreement for too long. Yet, on the dawn of fans being allowed into stadiums once again, albeit with cautious protocols, I think there will be a far more positive air at 3pm on a Saturday. 

COVID-19 has caused everybody to lose something, with football being a relatively nominal loss in comparison to losing loved ones and our proximity to people. Yet fans are brought together by yearning to go through a turnstile once again.

We will be far more thankful for the rollercoaster experience of following our clubs from the stands, and eternally hopeful that it will never be taken from us again. In being more emotionally aware as fans, it will create a more positive space to express masculinity, exhibit fervent support and still have a kind laugh with other supporters without vitriol.

I for one cannot wait to be with 42,000 strangers at Stamford Bridge again, paying through the nose for a ticket and a beer, and burrowing my way onto a tube at Fulham Broadway. But this time, being more appreciative of the experience and choosing my furious words towards the referee more wisely. The kid in 2001 has acquired as many swear words as he has emotional scars from the game that he sometimes loathes to love. 

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