Look again at the letter above… it’s much more important than football. Have we lost sight of that? Has the digital native blurred the lines between banter and bitterness forever? Warning: this article contains more than 140 characters. By Matt Crist. 

There was a time, not in recent years, but certainly within living memory, when the football fan was a very different beast from that of today.

I’m not talking about the explosion in sales of replica shirts complete with constantly changing names and ‘friendship scarves’. These are simply fashion accessories that can disappear as quickly as they arrived – just like football rattles, silk scarves and wool bobble hats. I’m referring to the way football fans, supporters, enthusiasts or whatever you want to call them now interact with each other.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not some kind of fluffy rant about how it all used to be better in the old days. Football supporters have thrived on a healthy dislike for their nearest rivals, or those who they have tussled with down the years for the greater share of success, and long may that last. This has been the case all my life and I don’t think there is anyone reading this who would want to see it any different. But, what has changed, is the way that football fans now see every other team, each opposition player, all opposing fans and pretty much every town, city and community outside of their own, not just as the enemy, but as a legitimate target for raw and unbridled hatred and mockery. Something I genuinely believe to be very much of a modern day phenomenon.

Take my father’s generation. Growing up in north London as an Arsenal fan in the fifties and sixties, he would make the short distance to watch his team every other Saturday like thousands of others. But, in an era when attending away games was simply not an option unless it was to a fixture that was relatively close-by, and faced with the prospect of a weekend without watching a game, the next best option for him was to watch his nearest rivals when they played at home the following week: Tottenham Hotspur. Obviously the rivalry was still there, and just as intense (he probably even wanted Spurs to lose), but he was still prepared to rub shoulders with fans of another club, share stories, swap experiences and see how the other half lived… something that most modern football followers simply wouldn’t be able to swallow.

Obviously, I’m not proposing that everyone reading this should go along to their bitterest rivals to watch a game in some kind of crass display of false sincerity – and such is the nature of today’s game it’s highly unlikely that one will ever be that starved of football anytime soon. Nor am I suggesting that everything in the garden has always been rosy when it comes to club or international rivalry, as anyone who was watching football in the seventies and eighties will be the first to testify. What I am claiming is that football has become even more poisonously tribal in recent years, however ridiculous that might sound to those who have watched the sport during much darker days than these.  And as the local core and community spirit of many top clubs is exchanged in return for greater global expansion and exposure, those who claim to care most about their team, the fans, have become the standard bearers for this football-related gang warfare.

The cause of this hatred explosion can be blamed on many things: a wider national and international TV audience and the general homogenisation of society… but, without a doubt, even if it’s not responsible for its origins, social media has to shoulder much of the blame for perpetuating the trend. Actual physical rivalries or affiliations that were once such a strong part of watching football have become a thing of the past as fans have now become factions that go to war with each other over the merest of issues, often without substance and usually without actually looking each other in the eye. Groups of grown men and women will take great pleasure in barracking fellow fans that they have probably never even met, from places they have never even been to, in order to gain any advantage they can gain in the battle for bragging rights – whether it be unemployment figures, crime rate, average income or homelessness… all in the name of sport.

It was Freud who said that crowds allow us to express our subconscious without fear of condemnation. Well, now, thanks to the likes of Twitter and Facebook, we all have a crowd, whatever the time of day or night, wherever we need it, whenever we need it, for self validation and basically to get a cheap laugh at the expense of somebody else. Every match day Twitter and Facebook are swamped with tweets, retweets and status updates designed purely to chastise and mock an individual, a group or a whole community in order to gain some form of one-upmanship over the team they support, only for the user to inevitably say something just as ridiculous themselves barely two minutes later. If nothing else, this goading proves that a whole generation of football fans are comfortable being angry and confrontational all the time. Why? Well, because there is always someone else to blame and someone to target their wrath of course.

The breakdown in geographical regions may also have something to do with this. Not literally, but virtually. Whereas the football fan’s sphere of influence and area of expertise would have once been confined to the local community where they lived, a mass global TV audience means there is now a hungry international audience which has no limits or boundaries, not to mention no responsibility to a particular area – all of whom want to prove they are ‘more of a fan than you’.

After witnessing the jubilant scenes at Celtic Manor during Europe’s dramatic 2010 Ryder Cup win, former Newcastle and Spurs winger David Ginola used the occasion to illustrate how raw passion that drives sporting tribalism is something that can be harnessed and used to great advantage. But there is a very fine line between passion and tribalism. And is it right to say the Premier League is any more intense than the Ashes, Six Nations or Ryder Cup? Would fans of other sports be so keen to question the legitimacy of a player’s child, mock the effects that decades of economic hardship have had on a community or use a national tragedy as a stick to beat their rival with?

Football chants have always been a little too close to the bone, but the terrace humour which was once the envy of the world – and a blank canvas for so much wit and invention – appears to have been lost for good in favour of shared memes and general online finger pointing (at anyone who may pose a threat), usually in its crudest form.  

Yes, football is a game built on geographic and social rivalries and this is what we all love about it. But, when it’s so easy to mock people you’ll probably never meet – who come from a place you have no desire to visit – from behind the relative safety of a keyboard, why would anyone want to stand out from the virtual crowd and risk accusation of not being a ‘real fan’?

Pic courtesy Hodder & Stoughton