Ask football supporters what the most fulfilling aspect of following the sport is and the vast majority will most likely offer a heartfelt and emotionally invested tale of what their club means to them; why they support them; and the thrills of charting their ups and downs.
Following a specific team – for whatever reason – is the very essence of football. A reference point for any individuals view on the beautiful game and the opportunity to be part of something bigger than yourself. Enter into an informal chat with a football fan and it is likely that efforts to ascertain which side each of you supports will be made very early on. Many will make immediate judgements on new acquaintances purely on what team they follow.
But are football fans bound by this relationship? Does one have to follow a team in order to fully enjoy what the sport has to offer? Or is it possible to merely appreciate the spectacle without having to pin ones colours to a particular mast?
At the very highest level, the quality of football is not in doubt. If one wanted to exclusively watch the very best ‘product’ that football has to offer, then they would be pointed in the direction of the UEFA Champions League and the towards the top of Europe’s strongest leagues. Of course some fans – cynical or otherwise – will claim the disputed moral high ground, that this top level has been stained by the commercialisation of professional football and the adverse effect it has had on the ‘fan experience’. There will be supporters – usually from the lower leagues – who take a distinct pleasure in the lack of glamour and money that is par for the course in their footballing environment. Whilst following a lower league club through thick and thin is commendable, surely if a football fan wishes to watch only the very best, they should be allowed to?
As odd as this may sound to many a supporter, watching football without the pressure of allegiance and loyalty would allow that person to enjoy the the fundamental aspect of the sport – to take in what is offered on the field at the highest level without bias and/or prejudice clouding their consumption.
Fans of other entertainment mediums – and make no mistake, football is part of the entertainment industry – can enjoy their pursuits without the need to create unhealthy rivalry or as hatred of other actors/musicians/performers. Why can football fans not be free to do the same. Announcing that you don’t support any one team in particular, but ‘support football’ is decried and frowned upon. Are fans so narrow minded that there is only one way to follow the game? Are they insistent on treating those without the same unwavering partisanship as someone second class fans?
As a social experiment, would any supporter be willing to ‘give up’ his or her club for a season to try and enjoy football purely as a neutral? Is that even possible? Clearly one eye would always be on their team, but by forcing themselves to watch other sides on a regular basis – maybe even their rivals – they might just realise that there is more to this game that just supporting one side. That’s not to say that passionately following one club is wrong; it’s part of what makes football great, but the sport in general would be in a much healthier position if the need for rivalry, hatred and conflict was taken out of the equation.