Two Portrayals of Soccer Fandom

I am currently reading John King’s 1996 novel The Football Factory about soccer fan culture and its causes in 1980s/early-1990s England. I also just read Sarah Lyall’s recent New York Times article about attending English soccer matches, which I found via one of my favorite soccer websites, When Saturday Comes.

The contrast between the two pieces is striking. It is clear to any serious follower of the English game that Lyall’s piece is written by a rank outsider (which is, admittedly, in part the point, as she assumes that most of her readers will also be outsiders), and thus contains some major flaws. Aside from a smattering of factual errors (e.g., that the famous meat pies served at matches are traditionally filled with chicken rather than red meat, usually beef), there is no attempt to actually understand the culture. Instead, the article highlights its idiosyncrasies in order to demean them and the culture as a whole. It is an example of disgustingly U.S.-centric reporting.

The article is flawed in its depiction of sports fandom in general, not just soccer fandom. The usual elitist attitude toward sports that is shared by way too many otherwise rational intellectuals (i.e., the sentiment “Why waste time caring about sports? It’s just a game.” In contrast, the reason I love When Saturday Comes is that it shows that a love of sports and a life of the mind can coexist.) is present throughout the piece. For example, Lyall is puzzled by the fact that English fans often seem miserable when watching their team, but this is the case with the majority of serious fans of any sport, including Americans. It is difficult to watch a team that you desperately care about for a multitude of reasons (not just whether they win or lose) play even if they are often successful (like my beloved Manchester United) and you expect them to win. Once you understand the nuances of a sport, it is difficult not to focus on the flaws inherent in the way it is played. That doesn’t mean that the glorious moments of beauty and triumph aren’t enjoyable, but that the knowledge that they are rare leads to a sort of resigned pessimism.

Unlike the article, The Football Factory endeavors to show how soccer fandom fits within its broader societal context. The book is especially trenchant in its portrayal of how the Thatcher government’s policies destroyed the working and middle classes, and how responses to this calamity manifested themselves in soccer fandom. The novel does not celebrate troubling elements of fandom such as hooliganism, but it does offer a genuine attempt to understand them. Lyall’s article fails in this regard. It views fandom in a vacuum instead of considering how issues of class, race, and gender intersect with it.

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