Joanne O'Riordan: Football fans are passionate, let's not sanitise that
There is nothing wrong with sporadic and mindless attempts at cheering on your team
Fans let off flares as the the Manchester City team bus arrived at Anfield for their UEFA Champions League quarter-final, first leg match. Photograph: PA
Football is undoubtedly the most basic of all team sports. The single object of the game is to kick or head a ball into the opposition’s goal – and to do this more often than your opponents.
Despite, or maybe because of, the pure nature of the game, football is a fascinating pastime that has the globe united, crossing racial, cultural and religious boundaries-and barriers. Contradictorily, it also tends to reveal and stir outbursts of bigotry, extreme nationalism and crime, both organised and spontaneous.
Ultras and the extreme form of fanaticism is something that has always piqued my interest. They are a decisive and divisive group of individuals who, for some, are the ultimate thugs and hooligans who have no place in the modern game and are only there for a fight – think about those Russian lads who meet in woods 40 miles outside Moscow and have a bare-knuckle brawl.
For others, however, ultras are seen as critical ingredients to sport as they bring the noise, the extremism, the atmosphere, the fun and the joy. They are the ones who claim they are nothing without football and nothing is football without them.
It is tribal; it is passion, it is something so precious it cannot be bought, borrowed, stolen or even equalled in any way. The goal of the ultras is to create an atmosphere so loud and so intimidating it strikes fear into the heart of the opposition while also spurring on their team. And if that means bordering passion and thuggery, so be it. After all, they are nothing without football and football is nothing without them.
So why are we so obsessed with classifying these fans as mischievous thugs who have nothing better to be doing or classifying them as the ones who add the magic? Is it because in this Trump era we have been so sensitised by recent events we know what is ultimately wrong but don’t know what is right? Is it because we are afraid history may repeat itself and some of the ugly scenes may be recreated? Or is it because we are so scared to embrace behaviour that is different to the social norms we would instead label it as deviant and try and cast it away with all the other subcultures who have deviated from social norms?
Some may call it passion, and some may label it as thuggery and vicious hooliganism, but time and time again we see contradictions between these polar opposite expressions. Take the FA Cup as one example. Whenever a lower league team excels and beats the big dog in the Premier League, no matter how the fans express their delight, we always see Gary Lineker and many more pundits describe it as magic or as a night these fans will never forget. Heaven forbid a top teams’ fans do the same.
Aston Villa were pilloried some time ago when their fans expressed joy in a manner the BBC remarked cast the minds back to the hooliganism of the 1980s in many ways. Although I get it from a health and safety point of view more fans more havoc, the sheer disgust expressed by the same pundits is laughable.
The other example is the first leg between Liverpool versus Man City in the Champions League match at Anfield. I’m not condoning bottle throwing or any sort violence, but the raw and unsanitised atmosphere created by the Liverpool fans was something extraordinary. Fans always feel they can help their team over that final hurdle and that’s what they did. It’s naïve of me to assume the atmosphere truly rocked Man City players, but it has to be taken into consideration as a factor.
Just five days later I was greeted online with the sight of fans in Argentina being applauded for their tifo’s and natural firework display. That display was fetishised by parts of the media; however, the Liverpool scenes were an abomination to society and those caught must face retribution. In my opinion, I’d prefer those scenes of passion than the sanitised, commercialised and generally awkward scenes with plastic flags and music during goal celebrations – I’m looking at you Bayern Munich and that god awful techno Seven Nation Army.
What is the whole moral of this story? Bottles are bad, but flares and fun are cool. Some sections of the media love to moralise about fan behaviour and boisterous atmospheres and flares, but then use the same images and idolise similar behaviour in Brazil and Buenos Aires. We let people have fun, but not too much fun; express your emotions, but not too raucously; and support your team, but don’t cross that line of passion.
Whatever your opinion on the matter, it is almost impossible to deny that ultras and extremism plays a fundamental part in football. Rarely is this more strikingly witnessed than in one of the worst punishments that can be handed down to a club – to play behind closed doors. Without the fans in the stadium pushing their team on, football is nothing.
On the flip side, having fans in the stadium and it being an atmosphere so funereal, it’s actually deafening, is just as eerie and pointless. Either way, I encourage sporadic and mindless attempts at cheering on your team. I’m not calling for riots and massive brawls, but, can we just let the fans do their job and be fans, without sanitation, commercialisation and more importantly, without the folk who need to probably find another hobby.