Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby is by far one of the best books I’ve ever read about football, and one of its many interesting aspects is the writer’s willingness to lay bare his obsession and discuss what it really means to be a fan. Hornby talks about how Arsenal helped him deal with the divorce of his parents, and how later when it irretrievably became entangled with his life, it became his haven, his escape from the real world.
Since it is impossible to emotionally detach from your team, there is a hapless resignation when we leave ourselves open to a life-time of hurt, heartache and deep depression; the exact kind we might be running away from in our day-to-day reality. Why then this meek acceptance when it comes to football? (Or any sport for that matter?) I personally think it’s about quality and intensity. It is our basic need to yearn for a pure, unadulterated form of emotion, the likes of which are rarely encountered in a mundane, routine life. Sport has the potential for those magical, indelible moments. Along with all the pain, it allows us a chance to dream of the impossible, of the unattainable, and retain the hope that anything can happen, and does happen, more often than we could dare to wish for. An added benefit is the chance to share this experience on a communal level.
“… So please, be tolerant of those who describe a sporting moment as their best ever. We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium.” (Fever Pitch)
When Hornby talks about taking a girlfriend to watch a live game and continuing to even once she fainted and got taken to the hospital by a friend, we stop and wonder (maybe even guiltily) what we would do in his place. Similarly, when he brings up the eternal dilemma of missing a game because of a prior engagement or unavoidable function and makes it perfectly clear that he’s willing to miss everything for a 0-0 draw at Highbury in the cold rain, a part of us feels grudging respect. So it’s not untrue to say that this book, released just before the advent of the Premier League, presented many with an avenue of being more vocal about their passion, helped countless others to feel part of a like-minded community and provided a valid excuse and argument for fans to remain the way they are in spite of what the rest might say.
But it also led to a template of what it means to be a fan – a passionate fanatic who prioritises the club above everything else, is an encyclopedia of information, attends almost every game, travels up on a chilly Wednesday night to a place like Stoke and believes no sacrifice too little for the greater good. While most fans can relate to parts of this (or all of it), it isn’t a definitive, decisive model that doesn’t allow the existence of others. Things today are vastly different from what they were when the writer was a boy, or even in his twenties or thirties. The year 1992 brought along Rupert Murdoch and Sky, a vast amount of money, accountability, safety, TV rights and increasingly world-wide coverage, and changed much of the British football scene described in Fever Pitch. And this scene that has seen even more of a radical transformation in the last decade.
Our generation’s hyper-connectivity allows us different platforms and ways to express support and connect with other individuals of similar wavelength across barriers of continents, culture and language. We can interact with people who share our passion, can relate and be relied on for friendly, constructive discussions and banter. We have the opportunity to experience being part of an international fan support system without moving from our homes. All of this is responsible for an increasingly global version of a football fan. No longer is it necessary for a fan to be born or live locally or to have gone to a live game. One is allowed to feel an inexplicable connection to a club thousands of miles away and refer to it as a collective ‘we’. We all have our own unique relationships to our clubs in spite of everything we share and none of this showcases a lesser passion.
Today we have to accept that a particular ‘brand’ of fandom isn’t right or wrong; it’s a system which allows for different opinions, personalities, and choices to co-exist happily and equally. As long as we love the club, care about what happens to it and want what’s best for it (even if we may not always agree on the how), then that’s all that should matter. Passion or support cannot be categorised into a simple set of rules and we cannot afford to continue insisting that someone’s not a real fan if they don’t fit into a certain ideology.
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However that route isn’t simple either. Who decides what the definitions are? How can we quantify or qualify love for one’s team or what’s best for it? Rational debates and coherent arguments are based on a foundation of clear-cut definitions. And as long as one is able to back theirs up with logical examples, it should be enough. But when we find ourselves in a very dynamic situation with highly subjective tools of discourse (good, bad, right, wrong, results, success, improvements, ambitions), our perspectives also need to be constantly evolving with them and this is where the considerable flip-side of being a modern-day fan comes into play. This inability to categorise is abused by many who misuse the ‘everybody has a right to an opinion’ claim in order to spew offending, irrational bile against almost everyone. The ease of consuming and sharing information means that there is a lack of accountability or responsibility with regards what is being posted. It is made worse by the much-reduced attention spans (caused by content saturation among other things) and a disturbing need for quick results and solutions to problems that require exactly the opposite.
This anonymity of the internet has given rise to a large amount of unsavoury keyboard warriors with their inflammatory reactions, conspiracy theories, ill-researched, uninformed opinions, biases and incapacity for constructive criticism. They seem to live to misunderstand, misinterpret, mistrust and have no qualms hiding behind their computer screens to hurl extremely vitriolic abuse at the players, their families, the managers and other fans. What is disturbing is that they claim that all of this stems from wanting the best for their club. It’s a stubborn illusion from people who always find something to moan about and genuinely appear to revel in blind hate and negativity so that their bitter proclamations can be proved true. It is sad that their skewed, cynical view doesn’t seem to allow for the possibility of any sort of life-affirming good.
How do we then argue that they are not fans when our definition of a modern-day fan is woefully inadequate? They go against everything that should be included in a multi-faceted definition of a supporter and complicate an already layered debate, which is about more than simply an open-minded tolerance and acceptance of legitimately differing views. Maybe the fan base back in the day would have reacted in a similar way had the technological revolution happened then, we can never say. But the reality is, being a fan is a far harder existence now than it has ever been before. With the lines between the private and personal, right and wrong, moral and immoral blurring so rapidly that they are already fairly redundant, we are in unchartered waters as a society. And in such an atmosphere it is crucial that we not lose sight of what matters. Cultivating the virtue of patience should be a top priority for our sanity. To serve as a reminder that nothing worthwhile, lasting or meaningful is ever instantaneous.
This is where Fever Pitch will always be relevant. Supporters did moan and curse the players back then, but every small mistake wasn’t obsessively dissected until it resembled something else entirely, nor was every digression or grudge permanently documented and never forgotten. It was more about kinship and a sense of belonging, more about the football as an inseparable part of life, and loyalty through thick or thin than trophies or continuous success.
This is precisely what we need to focus on, the important stuff that forms the core of our pull towards the game. That is when we realise that football is still all about the emotions, about all the reasons we fell in love with it. That is when we cheer that this constancy is something we can always count on as fans. I think it’s apt to conclude with a quote from Nick Hornby himself.He told the Telegraph …..
“… my sons and millions of others, boys and girls, are just starting out on a journey that will bring them a lot of pain and, very occasionally, moments of transcendental joy. I don’t suppose that will ever end.”
Anu reviews Fever Pitch is brilliantly here and this article was originally posted on Soccer without Limits