The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Black Sky Thinking

Would You Still Be Singing If Hitler Bought Your Football Club?
Tariq Goddard , October 27th, 2014 12:08

How much should being a football fan allow you to sideline your own ethics, wonders Tariq Goddard

Ten years ago I was asked by Radio 4 to broadcast my reaction to Roman Abramovich's takeover of Chelsea for their Thought For The Day programme; I squandered the opportunity giving an edited-down version of my "thought". That, in turn, underwent a further edit, ending up as a banal and wistful dilution of my original piece, the final cut a misrepresentation of what I wanted to say, had I been fully aware of what it was.

In the decade since, I have waited for the conundrum to lift, mature into something else, or simply go away. It has not happened, though for the sake of a quiet life, I have learned to silence it fairly effectively, at times re-experiencing it as the death knell of a complacent and self-willed naivety, while at its worst, it holds the power to disrupt the pleasure I take in the people's game altogether.

I had read of Stalin's apologists turning cartwheels to defend their master in Moscow, and at a far lowlier level, I tried out something similar to justify the morally compromised owner of Chelsea. I could not have done this without two assumptions that are as unsupportable as they were unquestioned: namely that nothing in the world matters more than the club (and the club doing well), not ethics, politics, the fate of former Russian state assets, or even intellectual honesty. And that, paradoxically, given the first assumption, neither the club nor the game matter in terms of real life (whatever that has become), and so should not be confused with it. Or as my father used to say, "Cheer up, it's only a game." Neither view has anything in common with anything else I think or how I view the world in general, which tends towards the holistic rather than the compartmentalised. But this was the unconscious framework I needed to keep the front and back pages of the newspapers separate realms, desperate that they should not meet in the middle and confuse one of the more enduring joys of my life. The motivation for my inconsistency came mostly from selfishness; who wants a good time ruined by inconvenient truths? But also from my love of football and loyalty to the club. Under scrutiny both lost some of their lustre yet continue to survive in a qualified form, stronger than mere habit.

Club loyalty is largely an accidental phenomenon, and a secondary one at that: it doesn't announce itself on your birth certificate and billions of people complete their lives never having experienced the faintest twinge of belonging, to either their local club, or any other. Even when it is not, it is still an arbitrary identity determined by circumstances and tradition, and now more commonly, a deliberate one chosen on the basis of success (or a combination: I was born in West London and thought Chelsea a classier option than QPR and Fulham). The choice of football team does not, or should not, constitute a bond stronger than family, class, nation or one's own conscience, but can, on occasion, trump all of those. I know that the looks of disbelief I received in Russia in 2005, from people who could not see the funny side of Hernán Crespo's salary (though to be fair, nor could Chelsea fans - he was "earning" that on loan at Inter), lacking essential services and the political rights to protest against them, constituted a more profound event than the euphoria of hugging fellow fans as we won the league, yet they ran uncomfortably close.

There is a meaningful argument to be made that supporter solidarity is what was really being celebrated when Chelsea lifted the title. Valid as this is, and worthy as attempts by supporters to take back and protect their clubs are (or in Chelsea's case, maintain the freehold of the ground and naming rights), a true fan's passion is an incredibly supple force to exploit, hanging more on whether a team is winning games, than any moral consideration. Which is only the most obvious reason why the breakaway FC.United won't be meeting Manchester United in a local derby this season, and why FC.Chelsea doesn't exist. Success is a great eliminator of perspective, the supposedly irreducible joy of a fan easily redirected into replica shirts, season ticket hikes, and, should present trends continue, a future World Cup held on the Moon. Though supporter self-organisation is where the emancipative hope for the game lies, there is something about the very enjoyment of football that encourages myopia and a necessary blindness. Premiership owners know that the nuclear option of the fans simply not turning up is an infinitely delay-able event. And for all the positive examples to the contrary (particularly the Hillsborough campaign), there is a kind of lumpen nihilism and rejection of meaning and bourgeois mores, carried over from when the game was still socially shunned, at the heart of old-school fandom, exemplified in the "no one likes us, we don't care - why should a referendum matter more than watching Gillingham getting tonked 4-0 away in the League Cup?" outlook, an ethos that revels in its ugly vitality, wanting nothing from high-minded analyses or activism, preferring the reactionary pleasures of ritual and repetition.

Although there are historical examples of the game acting as a force for subversion, the Premier League has always been a mirror of capitalism's aggressive tendencies, sped up and amplified, which is why many on the left have always looked down on it, and sport in general, as another opium of the people. That, and the essential irrationality of fandom make it a sympathetic foil for cynical owners and market forces, a shared and collective experience that would rather vent its rage at supporters of other clubs than authority, or as the cliché has it, nationalism's baby brother.

Yet despite being aware of, and seeing the teeth of this kind of critique, it made little difference to me. For the kind of supporter I was, and to an extent still am, football cannot be enjoyed properly unless I believe it is important, or at least, not fully believe in my attempts to pretend it isn't. All context that is not internal to the game itself has to be suppressed, and my immersion total. Like a gambler who can't appreciate a contest unless they've hedged a bet, the partisan fan has to have a horse in the race to care about it in the first place, making it impossible to "appreciate" football as a neutral connoisseur. Even if it is not the meaning-conquering activity I once confused it for, I've learnt that it is fandom or nothing for me, the sewer of contradictions doing nothing to blunt my desire for silverware.

Which is why it would not be a foregone conclusion for the hardcore supporter of any team that they would take up golf, defect to rugby, or support someone else, if Hitler bought their football club. They would probably still think it was their club, not his, and even if they did not, they might yet accept the Faustian pact, with reservations, knowing that there could be no cause for complaint if the loans were recalled and, to the scorn of their rivals' jeers, it all ended in ruins, with ravens in the deserted stands. Because like so many of the pleasures first encountered in youth, that are great fun while they last, the price you pay for them grows ever more expensive with age.

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.