Beyond entertainment: tradition, community and what it means to be a football fan

The relief was like nothing I’d experienced in a long time. When Per Mertesacker bundled the ball into the Wigan net to equalise in the 84th minute of Arsenal’s F.A Cup semi final two Saturdays ago it was like a thousand tonnes of pressure had suddenly been lifted off my shoulders. Passing Prelims? Waking up after a Park End Wednesday to find some cash still in my wallet? Not even close.
For many, the way sports fans can hang their emotions on the outcome of a game over which they have no control must seem absurd. Yet since Roman taverns were alive with talk of gladiators and chariot racing, sporting competition has captured the imagination. For many, enjoyment and selection of a team comes down to sheer entertainment. For me it was tradition. My Dad and my Grandad are Arsenal fans, so when I took an interest in football at a young age there was never any doubt that I would be a ‘gooner’.

However whilst many are brought into the fold of fandom by tradition or by entertainment, attachment to a sports team can stretch far beyond this. Barcelona’s club crest carries their famous motto ‘mes que un club’ – ‘more than a club’. Perhaps more than any other football team Barcelona carries a cultural weight far greater than anything that happens on the pitch. Throughout the Franco regime, a period where Catalan language and identity came under persecution, Barcelona’s stadium, the Nou Camp, was one of the few places Catalan could be spoken without fear of reprisal. The last few years have been the most successful in Barcelona’s history and with a side built on a spine of Catalonian players the team have become recognised worldwide as the primary symbol of Catalan identity and nationhood. It is perhaps not a coincidence that this successful period has coincided with a concerted political call for Catalonian independence.

Often though, it is simpler than this. Over the vac I was lucky enough to visit Buenos Aires and during my stay I got the chance to look around ‘La Bombonera’; the stadium of Boca Juniors, perhaps South America’s proudest football club. Far from Barcelona’s representation of Catalan nationhood, Boca’s message is something more personal. The club’s motto ‘La mitad más uno’ – ‘half plus one’- came from a speech by a club president emphasising the club’s popularity in Argentina, but maybe it points to something else. Namely, belonging. La Boca, the neighbourhood where Boca Juniors are based was, at the turn of the 20th century, a thriving port area where immigrants from all over Europe came to seek work and prosperity. Those days are long gone. The area is now a husk of its former self and the majority of it is strictly off limits to tourists. But in an area where unemployment and poverty are rife Boca Juniors represents something to be proud of. Outside of La Boca the club can count on legions of fans from all over the country. The boast that Boca could count on the support of half the country plus one rings true.

While I was in Buenos Aires, the ‘Superclassico’, the match between Boca and their richer city rivals River Plate, a game celebrated as one of the greatest in world football, took place. For 90 minutes the city ground to a halt. Watching the game from a crowded bar the passion of the Boca fans was clear. What captured my imagination most was the reaction when Juan Roman Riquelme, Boca Juniors legend, scored a sublime free kick during the second half. Before I had only seen grown men cry in Paris 2006 when Arsenal were cruelly denied a first European cup by two late Barcelona goals. Here I saw a stadium full of them. Speaking to someone who had been at the game a week or so later I was told how after the goal had been scored he saw 3 generations of Boca fans, at the game together, burst into tears. Perhaps this sums it up. To many Boca fans the club is both an escape from the grind of everyday life in La Boca and an extension of their own identity, even their family.

The creeping commercialisation of the game and the continuation of the inevitable transition of professional sports clubs from pillars of their local communities to pillars of the entertainment industry is an unavoidable fact. However, to many the most important part of supporting a team is the tradition and community that surrounds the entertainment. Gareth Bale’s sublime goal for Real Madrid against Barcelona last Wednesday was a true feat of human athleticism; the kind of goal fanatics and those without a shred of interest in football could appreciate equally. But as a gooner, Mertesacker’s goal the other weekend, the one that bounced almost accidentally off his head and into the net, means infinitely more.


PHOTO/Esporte Clube Pelotas