Has Soccer Developed an Unhealthy Obsession With Grief?
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Has Soccer Developed an Unhealthy Obsession With Grief?

​Football is being consumed by grief, with public acts of mourning fast becoming a weekly occurrence. But the increasing frequency reduces the impact of these displays and, over time, could serve to rob them of meaning altogether.

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

Football is becoming consumed by grief. Last month, Aston Villa held a minute's applause 20 minutes and 16 seconds into their final game of the calendar year, a 1-1 draw with Leeds United. The reason? To pay homage to "all the Villa fans that passed away in 2016". A year earlier, Southend United did the same thing to mark 2015's "lost supporters". Tactful and touching, or disingenuous, conceited, and just plain weird?


These are extreme examples of a booming phenomenon. During the same month that Villa mourned the departed, minute-long silences were held before fixtures at Ibrox (in memory of the 1971 disaster at that ground), Ayr United (after a young fan's death), Port Vale and Clyde (both for former players), and at every stadium across the country in the wake of the Chapecoense plane crash.

Elsewhere, Southend held a minute's applause in the 17th minute for two fans of that age who died in a car crash earlier in the week; Sheffield United did the same to mark the death of an eight-year-old fan; Crystal Palace held a minute's applause for a victim of the Croyden tram accident; Bristol City marked Aston Villa's visit to Ashton Gate with a minute's applause for a Villans fan who'd recently died of cancer; West Ham, Middlesbrough, and Leicester all did the same for recently deceased fans; Dunfermline for a former director; Hull City and Barnsley for former players.

Newcastle and Sunderland fans united in a minute's applause to recognise a six-year-old battling neuroblastoma; Macclesfield Town staged a minute's applause for a 20-year-old fan who'd been hospitalised (but not killed) after falling from a town-centre car park.

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All of these happened in December alone, and that month was no outlier. Indeed, if you were a Newcastle fan attending the game against Nottingham Forest on 30 December, you would have been impelled to partake in a minute's applause before kick-off (to mark the first anniversary of Pavel Srnicek's death), then again on the 17th minute (in tribute to the fans aboard the MH17 flight in 2014), and once again in the 19th minute (for a teenager stabbed to death on Christmas Eve).


This is obviously a sensitive subject, and the first point to be made is that none of these tributes are without merit or meaning. Many are strongly imbued with both, and anyone who has been part of a football stadium uniting in absolute silence can attest to the power the gesture can have.

Yet there is a sense that the point of overkill has long since been reached, that football has developed an unhealthy preoccupation with a custom that, a decade or so ago, would happen only once or twice a season to salute a double-winning centre-back or a semi-legendary manager.

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There is no exact science to this, and no one has the right to arbitrate on who is and isn't worthy of public commemoration. But when 37,000 attendees at Villa Park are compelled to pay tribute to the utterly vague category of 'fans who died in the past 12 months', accusations of self-indulgence start to feel justified. Self-congratulatory grief is no sort of grief at all.

Part of the reason the minute's applause has steadily taken over from the minute's silence as the go-to mode of memoriam is that fans can organise it themselves – it doesn't require a pre-kick-off interval, announced via the tannoy and bookended by a referee's whistle. In many ways this is a good thing: it means fans' tributes are not limited to those prescribed by officialdom. But this freedom has a downside: the rapid proliferation of orchestrated laments to tragedies which, in some cases, are only tenuously linked to those doing the lamenting.


It is a basic economic principle that the more there is of something, the less that item is worth. As this ritual becomes increasingly commonplace, the more fans will simply be taking part as a matter of routine. One Newcastle fanzine recently questioned whether it was time for St James' Park to desist with its customary 17th-minute applause in memory of John Alder and Liam Sweeney, for the reason that "fans' enthusiasm seems to be on the wane". Given that it's been a fortnightly formality for two and a half years, that should be no surprise, and the writer is far from the only supporter to note how the meaning of such ceremony is being eroded by a tide of sheer quantity.

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None of this is to mention that these expressions of grief, in their nature and frequency, are beginning to veer towards the performative, patting-ourselves-on-the-back variety that undermines the entire process altogether. It's an indulgence that players can be as guilty of as anyone: note Manchester City's absurd funeral tribute to the recently injured Ilkay Gundogan (itself a replica of the Brazil squad's equally inexcusable homage to Neymar in the 2014 World Cup).

It goes without saying that each and every one of the deaths (or accidents) listed at the top of this article were tragedies for those affected. Not all of them, however, bore a great deal of relevance to the thousands of fans partaking in their memorial, beyond the fact that the two parties shared a sporting allegiance. This isn't to say that the bond these allegiances can foster is worthless – sport's power to bring people together is invaluable – but that commonality alone isn't enough to induce heartfelt grief in every single fan, in every single instance.


Just as modern football fandom has birthed the phenomenon of faux-outrage – where fans are obliged to froth indignantly about such scandals as players swapping shirts as half-time, or a manager decorating his Christmas tree a rivals' colour – it has also spawned an equally disingenuous twin: faux-grief. It sees match after match punctuated with 60 seconds' applause, each time delivered with the sort of self-regarding solemnity that was once the preserve of Comic Relief interludes and Robin Williams movies.

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Why are we so compelled to make this a regular feature of the matchday routine? Is it because we feel genuine upset over the death of another human? A desire to be seen as wholesome and honourable? A shortcut to feeling good about ourselves? Is it a symptom of post-Diana Britain, where mourning has become as much a national pastime as tea and biscuits or Corrie?

The most likely answer is that elements of all of the above are at play. The combination differs in each instance, and undoubtedly the first of those explanations is almost always a driving force. Nevertheless, the mushrooming of these occasions makes grief a rapidly devaluing currency, in danger of becoming worthless altogether as the heartfelt and the habitual are inseparably entangled by a whirlwind of obligation.

"There is no grief like the grief that does not speak," a wise man one wrote. Right now, football's grief is shouting its head off. Sooner or later, people are going to stop listening altogether.