After every famous defeat suffered by the team — and there have been quite a few in recent months — I head over to the popular YouTube channel, ArsenalFanTV, and carefully run through clips of diehard Arsenal supporters giving vent to their rage. Most of them want the club’s manager, Arsène Wenger, to be sacked; they want the club’s owner to be replaced with someone more goal-oriented (in more than one sense of the phrase); and they want the players to be given proper haircuts with clean shaves.
Such sentiments are not unusual in the arena of popular sports. If I support a team or a player, nothing riles me up more than the sight of them standing among the vanquished. The true fan is never a graceful loser — feeling cheated and let down, he makes a production number of his dismay. He wants his voice heard and his money back. Psychologically, he identifies with the sportsperson’s obsessive pursuit for finishing first more than an average spectator ever can. And so the hurt that a fan might feel watching his team sink is totally congruent with the hurt feelings in the dressing room or the dugout.
With one crucial difference: failure is often cathartic for a sportsperson, an object lesson in character-building; whereas for fans it carries little significance other than as a trigger for anger, shame and other manifestations of the victim mindset. Yes, to witness your beloved team lose a game is to act the role of the principal protagonist — the victim — in a heartless tragedy.
It should be understood that I have here a particular species of sports fan in mind — the kind who make a career out of supporting their teams. European football is the hub for such fandom. And I suppose you need to have grown up in a footballing city — like, say, Manchester, or Dortmund — in order to understand the pull this culture can exert on the general population. The romance of the season ticket and the official T-shirt and the inevitable pub brawl: all this comprises a specific kind of community experience, which I, growing up in the ’90s cricket-crazy Delhi, had no inkling of.
We cricket fans were hardly worthy of being called fans. For one thing, we never cared for the official merchandise of the Indian cricket team. (There was a time when it was considered bad form to be wearing the team’s T-shirt to a live match; as big a vulgar faux pas as wearing a Black Sabbath tee to a Black Sabbath concert.) Second — and this distinction is very important — we did not, for the most part, expect our team to really win.
Failure is often cathartic for a sportsperson, an object lesson in character-building, whereas for fans it carries little significance other than as a trigger for anger, shame and other manifestations of the victim mindset.
The Indian cricket team of the ’90s seldom surprised us with its winning streak anyway. With them, we were mostly looking at a draw or a pathetic loss. And it was invariably a pathetic loss if the other side was Australia. Yet we watched the games and lent support, in our own miserable way. Not in expectation of anything. We watched for the simpler pleasures that the unfolding narrative had to offer; not for some promise of deliverance to be found in the climax. We watched to witness the new routes charted by our team towards new failures. And we remained loyal to the team in spite of — perhaps because of — its apparent inability to triumph.
In all sports, there’s an exalted place reserved for the underdog. The sporting encounter is made all the more dramatic when the improbable occurs. But you’ve got to give the underdog, the underperformer, time. You’ve got to give them all the time in the world, and all the unconditional support they need. This was our credo of fandom. And perhaps we saw back then, more clearly than many football fans do today, that your team does not really need your support if it’s winning all the time.
Earlier this month, Arsenal took another shellacking in the Premiere League, losing 0-3 to Crystal Palace (who have had a dismal season) away from home. It was reported after the game that during playtime some Arsenal fans shouted at Arsenal players that the latter were “not fit to wear the shirt”.
This made me think: the more you identify with the players you support, by wearing the same shirt or the same hairdo, the less you tend to empathise with them. Which is why loyalties switch the moment expectations are not met. I am reminded of a recent visit I made to the Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium for an IPL Game between Delhi and Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR). The section of the crowd that was loudly cheering the home team on, after a brief lull in the on-field proceedings, suddenly defected to the other side and began chanting, “KKR! KKR!”. But then again, IPL’s fan culture is as hollow and superficial as the quality of the cricket played.
In an ideal world, though, the fans and players should be able to celebrate, as well as mourn together. And I believe there’s something to be said for the longsuffering fan who is not spoiled by the taste of victory; whose loyalty is determined by how badly the team fails — not by how often it wins.