You don’t choose the club, the club chooses you

by Joel Butler

A friend of mine often repeats the maxim that ‘football is a game of opinions’. Many people regard this as sage-like wisdom; I think it’s a saying he has developed to avoid controversy in his Sunday morning stints as a referee.

‘Opinion’ is too feeble a word to describe a truly avid football fan’s reactions – ‘emotion’ is much closer. Football is undeniably a game of emotions.

To take the Carling Cup Final as an example, the sheer unexpected joy of the Blues’ deserved victory over Wenger’s contemporary dancers led to an arguably irrational release of emotion in Varsity for me and other Brummies.

This was evidently viewed as irrational by the staff, who threatened to chuck us out if we didn’t calm down. But how could we calm down when a lifetime of conditioning about the nature of our club, our city – by extension even our family and friends – was being overturned?

I barely knew them, but we’re from Birmingham, so this was our moment together. Why shouldn’t we dance in the pub? Football is a game of identities.

I had planned to watch the game with an Arsenal supporter. He’s from Shropshire, and decided instead to watch the game with another Arsenal fan of our acquaintance, from Gloucestershire. Surely football can’t be a game of identity for them?

How can their emotions be as intense, what is the nature of their attachment? Their choice to watch the game together is instructive – they identify with each other through their club in the same way, though their accents may differ.

My Arsenal friend explained, “the importance of football to me is that it is existential: it has no meaning outside of itself, no significance in any ‘bigger picture’ of things. I came to Arsenal much as you’d come to have a favourite character in a book or film; I just liked the character of them, the iconography and the fact that their name was a word and not a place. I came to them on a whim, but I have stuck with them, and what’s interesting to me is that, even though I chose them on no particular basis, I now have a genuine emotional investment placed in them.”

So, football is a game of identity. I can identify with my club through where I was born and grew up, as well as my family and friends. My Arsenal buddies identify with their club through different, but equally personal means.

It’s interesting that areas with strong local identities (and clubs) to attach to would appear to be less fertile breeding grounds for long-distance, ‘glory’ supporting – at least before football became omnipresent on television. Everyone at school was Blues, Villa or West Brom.

There was a Newcastle supporter, but he was weird. In Shropshire, the might of Shrewsbury Town doesn’t quite generate the same excitement for everyone. Two of my best mates support Tottenham.

One is from Blackpool and the other from Hull, two places that – when we were first old enough to take a proper interest in football – were relative backwaters of the beautiful game.

My Spurs mates also present an interesting second issue – dual identity. One of the two is a committed Yid and joined me at Varsity in the hope of seeing Arsenal put to the sword. He doesn’t seem to show an awful lot of interest in Blackpool.

The other follows Hull as much as possible so long as it doesn’t clash with Spurs. It’s interesting that this double-identity can be held so long as the identities remain parallel.

It remains possible for my friend to go and see Hull with his mates at home as a laugh; it becomes an in-joke – something that they can talk about together. His passion and affinity to Spurs can be maintained with the same sense of identity shown by the long-distance Arsenal fans.

In many ways, the second team holds a version of the first club identity writ small. Watching sport is – ultimately – a social activity.

Affinity to the local team is part of a wider local identity. Watching Solihull Moors with my friends who are also Blues, Villa or Baggies is part of our group identity.

A Blues win represents my regional as well as my personal identity, while turning up in Workington or Stalybridge for a Moors game is more intimate, between friends.

Perhaps this is why people are driven to support clubs from afar: because an adopted identity can be as fervent and meaningful as one that is ingrained.

To return full circle and return to the League Cup Final, my other long-suffering companion was a lass who has never been particularly into football, but gained a marked interest and soft spot for the Liechtenstein national team after I lent her a book called Stamping Grounds.

I suppose this goes to show the power of identity, since she has managed to form an affinity simply through identifying with a snapshot of a team immortalised in print. Football is a game of attractions.