Schadenfreude. Whoever could’ve imagined that a four-syllable German compound word would come to define so much of what, these days, English football is really all about? This plucky upstart noun has been quietly ascendant over the last few years, getting its head down, putting in the hard yards, gradually emerging from the backwaters of broadsheet think-pieces into the glaring mainstream light of match reports and gossip columns spaffed on to the pages of the most cravenly idiotic tabloids around.
Every club in the Premier League has done their bit for schadenfreude in that time, especially the Big Six, who often seem to be passing it between them like an STD. Looking back, though, the German national team’s early exit from last year’s World Cup feels like a real watershed moment for schadenfreude in this country, the point at which the word was taken from the tongues of the elite and made OK, democratised. Before, deploying it in the wrong pub might’ve seen you doused in Foster’s top and smashed headfirst off the nearest condom machine. But in the jingoistic euphoria of Die Mannschaft’s golden collapse, it suddenly became OK to say “schadenfreude” out loud. Because it was exactly what we were all feeling.
Used to describe a kind of guilt-laden pleasure derived from other people’s misfortune, schadenfreude is a word that fits our football like a glove, the Premier League better at creating misfortune than anything else. The division is a rolling spectacle of failure devoured avidly by a sleepless online army of piss-takers, laughing boys and vile trolls, all dosed up to the eyeballs on cry-laugh emojis, net spend statistics and gleefully detonated Ls. It is a coat made out of human shit that you are forced to wear for days on end if you drop points to Huddersfield Town. At times, it can feel as though it is so consumed by swirling tribal noise, delirious digital ju-ju and “bottle-job” accusations that the real aim of the Premier League now isn’t to win it at all, but to simply make it through another anxiety-ridden Barclays day without humiliating yourself and your entire fanbase in front of the whole watching world.
Sadly, this is something that has been beyond Fulham this season. For them, the campaign is over before Easter, after seven months in which they’ve often resembled less a football team than a troupe of performance activists on some kind of holy mission to elevate global awareness and understanding of schadenfreude, to sacrifice themselves to the forces of schadenfreude before an audience of millions every Saturday, each game a harrowing, full-frontal, town-square ego-death designed to pump the concept of schadenfreude into the discourse, get it debated in the Commons, secure through public consensus the schadenfreude martyrdom of André-Frank Zambo Anguissa. Since Fulham’s most expensive player of all time joined for £30 million on deadline day in August, the club have been rewarded with a total of five points from the 17 league games he’s featured in. The last of those points came in a 1-1 draw against Watford on the 22nd of September.
Six and a half torturous months later, it was Watford who were mercifully dispatching Anguissa’s side back to the Championship, pummelling them 4-1 at Vicarage Road last week despite Fulham actually playing quite well in spells. What did for them on the night was more or less the same thing that has been doing for them all campaign: the concession of three critical goals in 12 absurd second-half minutes in which every Fulham player’s head just seemed to fall off. Since the turn of the year in particular, it feels as though something wild and masochistic has come to live within Fulham’s play, the kind of dark impulse that occasionally tells you to do bad things when you lean over the side of a bridge or see a flat-bed truck rattling towards you at 50mph along a dual carriageway.
Watching them lose 13 of the 14 games they’ve played in 2019 – shipping 35 goals along the way, at a rate of one every 36 minutes – it’s often been hard to believe that a team of professionals could perform this badly without there being some element of self-sabotage involved. Especially when they were getting dumped out of the FA Cup by Oldham Athletic, a League Two side so mired in chaos they’ve changed manager three times since Christmas.
Playing badly isn’t enough in and of itself for schadenfreude to flourish, of course. There has to be some element of voyeuristic pleasure to a side’s floundering, the sense of hubris being exposed, a bubble bursting. Huddersfield were relegated a few days before Fulham but there was nothing especially fun or funny about that; just an honest team of overachievers being hauled, with rotten and terminal predictability, back to mean. But Fulham aren’t like that at all; they’re box-office bad, a firework going off in a dog shit bin, a Tommy Wiseau’s The Room kind of team you wanna watch whenever they’re on telly to find out what new lessons they’re going to teach you about self-destruction.
I realised that I have come to rely on the shivering, illicit thrill of seeing their entire defence performing as if chained to invisible radiators: Dennis Odoi playing like Mr Blobby is the mayor of his brain, the hapless Maxime Le Marchand spending what feels like the entirety of the last seven months falling over backwards on his arse as Tim Ream looks on, screaming. All this without even touching on the three different managers (Slaviša Jokanović, Claudio Ranieri, and Scott Parker) or the fact that the striker Aboubakar Kamara was last seen heading in the direction of Turkish club Yeni Malatyaspor after getting into a fight during a yoga session and arrested at the training ground on suspicion of ABH.
All of which is not to be pointlessly cruel, but to examine how and why Fulham became the schadenfreude kings of 2018/19, to attempt to understand better just why the Premier League can so often feel now like a big room full of people pointing and laughing at each other. It seems clear that there wouldn’t be such an urge to rubber-neck at what’s been unfolding in west London this year were it not for the lucre. After their stirring finish to last season, culminating in a glorious Wembley play-off final, Fulham entered the summer with a dearth of senior players on their books.There was an obvious need to spend money but it was spent in bulk and abysmally. Jean Michaël Seri, like Anguissa, cost in excess of £20 million only to play well below the level he’d set for himself in France’s Ligue 1, as if one sight of owner Shahid Khan’s “ten past ten” moustache was enough to transform Craven Cottage into a terrifying Salvador Dali landscape where gravity had ceased to exist and Havard Nordveit was turning into a stork-legged elephant before Seri’s very eyes.
Of all their buys, Aleksandar Mitrovic looks like decent resale value at £18 million and Ryan Babel has impressed since arriving in January, but Alfie Mawson has been £15 million worth of regret even when fit, while Fabri, the least favoured of Fulham’s clutch of three hapless goalkeepers, has conceded five goals in 180 minutes of playing time. Meanwhile, besides Calum Chambers, none of the six loanees Khan has brought to the club have offered much at all, six-goal Andre Schürrle heading a class of dunces that includes Luciano Vietto, Sergio Rico, Nordveit and Timothy Fosu-Mensah. In total, Fulham spent £100 million in the summer. And for what? The chance to push Ream to near-total nervous collapse and play in the same league as Luton Town next season? Never before have a newly promoted team invested a nine-figure sum in their playing squad. Never before have a team been relegated so expensively – and thus hilariously – from the top flight of English football.
For all the essential Germanness of the word, schadenfreude has always been lurking there in the collective English psyche; centuries of passive-aggressive class hatred and jovial feudalism dictating that a certain amount of cruel laughter will always greet the spectacle of collapsing ambition, of wealth failing. In this more narrow set of circumstances, schadenfreude is also what you invariably get when you combine awful defending and lots and lots of money, especially when you play in London and until very recently had a well-populated neutral stand. All that remains now is to bid Fulham a fond farewell, to thank them for the memories, and to console them with the fact that for all their pain and humiliation, for all the dying gravity in Tim Ream’s shellshocked eyes, it could’ve been far worse. Imagine if they never tore down that Michael Jackson statue.