There's More to the Death of Traditional Football Than Those Half and Half Shirts
They've got the internet raging over the demise of the beautiful game, but they're just a symptom of bigger issues threatening the sport.
It's no secret that the terraces aren't what they used to be. In fact, they aren't even terraces any more. They've been so heavily neutered, controlled and seated that they're now more akin to provincial arts centres, albeit with slightly more sleet-soaked Aquascutum jackets, male pattern baldness and bottles of Fanta with the tops confiscated.
The old clichés of Bovril, nationalism and "taking the North Stand" are now rose-tinted memories from the days in which the likes of Cass Pennant and Andy "Nightmare" Frain were still allowed to go to football matches, rather than acting in British B-movies and doing after-dinner speeches at rotary clubs. The hooligans have been priced out, financially, culturally and spiritually. And as anyone who's read Among the Thugs, Bill Buford's investigation into 80s football hooliganism (in which a Chelsea fan sucks out a CID officer's eyeball), would attest, that could be a good thing. But while football grounds might not be as nasty (or as fun, depending on your idea of fun) as they used to be, they've remained inherently partisan places in the face of this terminal pacification.
The occasional "vile chant" still gets past the stewards, the bigger clubs are still pulling people in through the doors and you might even get the occasional bit of agro, albeit in a "gotta make the last train" kind of way. Largely, watching football has become middle aged, rather than geriatric.
However, in more recent years there's been a slow creep away from the old notions of tribalism, towards a more civilised, more appreciative, worldly, non-partisan approach. If you've been to any few Premier League games in the last few years, you'll know football has largely become a little bit quiet, more about the threat of a number 10 than the threat of a 10-stretch. And nothing exemplifies this new breed of football fandom more than the phenomenon of "half and half" replica shirts, made with the colours two teams and worn proudly by an increasingly maligned sub-section of fans.
The most recent example of this would be the fetching Sunderland x Arsenal number at a game last weekend. But they've also been spotted at Liverpool v Hull, Chelsea v Man United and, internationally, Dortmund v Munich. Needless to say, this has caused a whole lot of consternation among the die-hards, with people accusing the 50/50 squad of being the personification of everything wrong with football, harbingers of some terrible dawn of neutrality. Most of the hate exists on Twitter and the occasional headsy blog right now, but be sure that as soon as it reaches the Talk Sport offices there'll be a three hour Call Collymore diatribe about it, in which Stan accuses the plastics of "ripping the heart and soul out of the working man's game".
Interestingly, half and half scarves have been a thing for a long time and have been pissing people off for a long time, but there was always the sense that they were novelty items, souvenirs for Tromsø fans not quite versed in the violent tribalism of British football. But in the climate of the modern game, the advent half and half shirts (god knows where you actually buy them) feels like a step further, not just a novelty, not just a souvenir, more of a statement. A signifier that you aren't reared in the old ways of bringing a gram to the match and a cosh to the away fans' pub after, that you're somehow more sophisticated than the others, that you love football, but not necessarily football culture. That you're a nice person. That you can appreciate the game for it's nuances, not its excesses – even if that means cheering on Sam Allardyce's Sunderland.
So where has this phenomenon come from? Well, like most things on the planet, the internet is partly to blame. I first heard about this wave of nu-objectivity when a friend told me he'd noticed a trend among the commenters on the football website he was working for: a slew of people who were seemingly supporting a different team every season. Apparently the fickle Barca fans had became Dortmund fans, then Atletico fans, and are now most likely into Sevilla or Zenit or PSG. The old concept of supporting your local club and following them to your dying day started to fade in the Ferguson era, but here were a new breed of fans whose allegiances were there to be bought by pass completion rates and fetching kits alone.
As tempting as it is to get up on your high horse about it, the truth is that half and half shirts, as they might be, are just a small manifestation of a much bigger issue in football: the separation between clubs and their traditional fanbases, and football's increasingly megalomaniacal, almost colonial ambitions. As global capitalism creeps further and further into the game, to the point where Cardiff City have to seriously think about emerging markets in Asia, the demographic of a club's fanbase will change and, with that, so will the people in the stadium. Hence, the half and half shirts, which are really just a symptom of globalisation, along with Liverpool-themed weddings in Singapore; Barcelona shirts becoming a staple piece of the "euro-normcore" swag; The Indian Super League; decreasing volumes in stadiums; and any number of recent happenings.
The Independent's football writer, Jack Pitt-Brooke, explains: "The number one story here is the breaking of the traditional link between clubs and their local area. The accessibility of info, live matches and merchandise means that it is very easy to support any team from anywhere in the world. Even the things that used to set match-going aside – the chants, the angry fans – are now all over the internet. There is very little about the match-going experience at Chelsea, City or whatever – beyond the physically being there – that you can't experience from Tokyo, or wherever."
But this is a story that goes way beyond just the chat rooms on Ronaldo 7 streams, the Guardian podcast and those "Messi – The Little Wizard Goals, Skills and Assists" videos on YouTube. It's a story that starts with the most famous football team of all time, moves through the television era and will most likely end with the change of football as we know it.
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Enis Koylu, a football writer at Goal.com, explains: "The first time we saw the old ties to clubs breaking down was the 1990s with Manchester United, but it's not purely down to Ferguson and his team's success. It was also a natural consequence of the Champions League, not just a great competition, but an incredibly glamorous one, which brought with it global broadcasting. Famous names such as Juventus, AC Milan and Real Madrid, which people across the world would only have heard of and read about, were beamed into the homes of billions of new people, and it became possible to follow teams from faraway lands on a weekly basis."
Why did football clubs need to reach fans beyond their own ends? To make more money. And the simple fact is that by appealing to people who have no geographical or familial links to football clubs, you're going to have offer them football as an experience, not an obligation. With ever-rising ticket prices, and ever-rising TV sports package prices, simply expecting people to pay their shillings at the turnstyle out of some sense of tribal duty just isn't feasible any more. You've got to offer them football as something closer to the WWE, or a U2 concert, or Derren Brown: Live. And to do that, you're going to have to take away the rough edges and let these new fans do it the way they want. Because the customer is always right. It's first-day-at-your-Business-Studies-GNVQ stuff.
"The more people who go to games as a one-off experience, rather than a routine – never mind an obligation – the more they are going to want mementos, the more they are going to want selfies and a fully Hollywood experience. If you fly 5,000 miles to see City, or Spurs, or Fulham, or anyone, you are going to want to celebrate being there. And that means celebrating the opposition, too, I think," says Jack Pitt-Brooke.
On a personal level, I find it hard to pour too much scorn on this new generation of fans. Firstly, because judging from Stamford Bridge, at least, the tourists aren't the only quiet ones. That's not to say that Chelsea are badly supported, but there are simply too many people who've been there too long, who know how to read every move in the game, who know exactly when to join the beer queue at half-time, who have perfectly streamlined their commutes home over years. Granted, there are plenty of fans who do go for it, but blaming a lack of atmosphere on the day-trippers seems fallacious, and getting pissed off about a tiny, tiny minority of people in half and half shirts seems, in all honesty, a little bit xenophobic and nativist, especially when some of your longest-serving fans are bumming the place out even more so.
Secondly, football is a wonderful thing, and just because your culture doesn't dictate that you should be totally indoctrinated in it from the day you were born and given "Zola" as your middle name, doesn't mean you shouldn't be welcomed with open arms.
As Pitt Brooke says: "This is a two-way street. How many English people do you know who have similar shallow, flexible 'attachments' to foreign teams? I am literally the owner of: St Pauli socks, a Napoli gilet, a Dortmund scarf, an 1860 Munich pint glass, a Bayern pint glass, etc. I have Porto and Club Brugge stickers on my laptop. These foreign clubs – and their own cultures – are very attractive to English fans who have access to the same material that foreigners have of the PL. I wonder if you spoke to a Dortmund, Hamburg or Feyenoord fan if they'd complain about English stag-dos and students taking up their seats, pushing up prices, spoiling the atmosphere, etc."
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Problem is, what exactly is a football club when it's cutting ties with its local area, trying to attract a more affluent fanbase than its traditional working class one and generally more interested in running itself like a business above all else? Well, it's just a brand. A brand that plays football. Standard Chartered with a stadium. And that's where it gets a little bit worrying.
Because the more football clubs move away from being sporting representations of the parts of the world they inhabit, carrying the hopes of the towns and cities that birthed them, the more they just become abstract, rootless, money-making machines offering you a service of fluctuating quality. They become Pret, essentially. Just a thing that's there that's quite expensive and mostly a bit disappointing, yet you still seem to go for it anyway, if only for a bit of a cheap thrill. However, the entire thrill of football should rely on having to support a team, for whatever reason that may be. Because football with neutrality is like sex without romance, inherently pleasurable, but lacking the life and death factor that really makes it worth it. Football is always better when there's feelings involved. If you want the highs to be as high as possible, it's being there for the third round replays that will take the game to the next level, not supporting a team whose manager you like the most.
What the solution is, I'm not sure. Investing more in local communities seems like a good place to start. Trying to rouse the crowd, playing football that makes it seem as if this might be more than a business trying to tick-over by playing it safe on the pitch, explaining what it is to really believe in a team to newcomers, your players getting pissed with the fans more often? Who knows. Maybe it is terminal. Maybe we should all just become Pune City fans before we start to look like Johnny-come-latelys. But what's absolutely certain is that it's not the half and half shirts that are responsible for football becoming less exciting, but the clubs and the associations who are trying to disconnect football from the unfortunate truth: that football, at its best, is a pursuit for masochists and sadists, not aesthetes.
It's the pain that makes the game worth it, not the passing.
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