You hear them before you see them. They’re there, grinding their teeth during that 3-3 draw and smirking with affected detachment while the rest of the world is lost in the game. They told you that you shouldn’t have enjoyed Manchester City’s Champions League game with Monaco and that, while one of the most dramatic reverses in footballing history, Barcelona’s mighty comeback against Paris Saint-Germain really just depended on defensive weakness.
“Yeah, but did you see the marking…”
They are the parent at the house party and the HR representative on the office day out.
They are football’s fun police.
This a distinctly modern phenomenon which, interestingly, contradicts many contemporary truisms. Football’s transition from “sport” to “entertainment” is nearly complete and almost every facet of the game is geared towards the provision of an experience. Concourses are decorated with exotic foods and, at the biggest grounds, children are even free to play the latest FIFA game if the match itself isn’t any good. Outside the stadium, ex-players entertain the gathering crowds in the mini-fan parks and visitors can lose themselves in the raw capitalism of the megastore.
It’s tempting, then, to see these online arbiters as part of the retaliation against that. In fact, they almost certainly see themselves that way: as purists capable of cutting through the marketing bluster and artificial sense of occasion.
But that’s a loose-fitting costume. Before football became an extension of the events industry, all that really seemed to matter occurred between the first and last whistle. That’s not rose-tinted nostalgia, either, because it wasn’t so long ago. Supporters have always bickered about players they don’t like and having been grumbling forever about managers and chairmen, but winning on a Saturday was usually enough to quieten those complaints. That’s may not be true anymore, but then directing attention away from the score and towards the primacy of the play itself just represents a different form of obfuscation; it’s another way of making football about something that it really isn’t.
As with many current trends, this change was likely germinated by the rise of social media. Twitter certainly amplified a discussion that was always there, but it added stronger tones to it, too, and created new criteria for which games and performances could be judged. Winning and losing was no longer definitive and from that point on results have been subjected to a validation process: if the starting lineup is wonky and the tactics askew, victory is begrudgingly tolerated rather than enjoyed.
It’s not so hard to explain: the internet put a premium on being proven right and wherever there are loud, binary opinions there is usually a need for confirmation.
This latest facet is a cousin of that movement. It’s not shaped by club loyalty or tribalism, but rather by a rigid perception of how the game should be played and – ultimately – enjoyed. It’s the next frontier of snobbery.
Most of us at one time or another have encountered a relative who looks down on football. They insist it to be a simple game and affect that practiced look of forced incredulity when you try telling them otherwise. There is a difference, however, between acknowledging the sport’s complexities and looking down on those who don’t view the game with detached intellectualism. Not the sort of person who enjoys tactical analysis or a deep dissection of a club’s finances, because those are entirely legitimate areas of interest, but rather the type who can’t overlook imperfection.
That person wants passes to be played with a certain rhythm, defensive lines to be straight enough to take a spirit level, and goals to always arrive after multi-phase moves. And if those boxes aren’t ticked, they’ll typically wonder aloud why anyone even bothers to go to these games at all.
Lately, English football has begun to attract these nightseekers in swarms. The Premier League makes itself a natural target of course, with its posturing and big brand identity, and its native style is obviously not without flaws. But it’s a strange movement indeed which demands that all football conform to a narrow brand of homogenised excellence. It’s stranger still to attempt to enforce that piety on everyone else.
This likely draws part of its energy from mass television coverage. By convention, people were drawn to teams and leagues by locality or family and rarely was it an active choice. Now, with every major European competition broadly covered each weekend, football fandom is more of a sporting buffet, with newer fans able to take what’s on offer rather than just what they’re given. The effect is a consumer mentality, which – in a few cases – manifests in that rather pompous “why are you bothering with this” mentality and the various psychoses described above.
It’s regrettable, though, and certainly seems like an erosive force. Permanent qualification of what happens in a football match stands against one of the core principles of spectator sport: nobody should ever have to justify why they enjoy the game and, had they had to do so, it would never have grown as it has.
Football is often chaos, sometimes clumsy and laughable, and it’s actually often more infectious when that’s the case.