Speaking Up for the Armchair Fan

Television is not a dirty word. It is not the sort of word that should be spat out in anger or growled with resentment or grumbled through gritted teeth. It is not a loaded word, or one laced with scorn and opprobrium and bile. It is not a word that has a tone. Not in most contexts, anyway.

In soccer, television is treated as the dirtiest word you can imagine. It is an object of disdain and frustration and, sometimes, hatred. Managers, and occasionally players, rail against its power to dictate when games are played and how often. They resent its scrutiny and its bombast. Television is never cited as the root of anything pleasant. Television is the cause of nothing but problems.

There is no need to linger for long on the irony and the hypocrisy here. Television, of course, is also what pays their wages. It is what has turned them into brands and businesses. It is television that means managers can accumulate squads full of stars, and it is television that means that, when they are fired, they leave with generous compensation packages. Television, and the money it pays to broadcast soccer, is what makes the whole circus possible.

If anything, though, the contempt of players and coaches for television pales in comparison with that of most fans. They, too, talk about television with a certain tone: television as the force behind the erosion of the game’s values, television as the driver of unwelcome change, television as the root of all evil.

To many fans, television has become something close to an antonym of tradition. It is television that has eaten away at the way the game used to be, distorting its form for its own ends. It is because of the needs of television that fixtures are spread across a weekend, rather than packed into a Saturday afternoon, as they always used to be. It is because of television that fans are forced to travel vast distances at inconvenient times. It is because of television that the game feels more distant, a religion reduced to just another form of entertainment.

There is, and always has been, a strict hierarchy of authenticity among fans. At its head sit those who follow their team home and away, who devote countless hours of their lives, and whatever money they have, to the greater glory of the colors. They might, in some cases, be ultras, or members of some organized fan group, though that is not necessarily a prerequisite.

Below them are those who hold a season ticket for home games. A step down are various stripes of match-going fans: those who attend regularly, those who go sometimes and so on, until we come to the bottom, where those who follow the game, their team, from the comfort of their own homes, through the television, reside. And there, almost audible, is that tone again.

Both that hierarchy and that attitude are baked into the conceptual landscapes of most fans. It is as close as soccer comes to a universal truth. Even broader organizations, the ones that speak for fans’ rights and work to protect their interests, hover somewhere between disinterest in and outright scorn for “armchair fans.”

In the latest annual report of the Football Supporters’ Association — a well-meaning, important body that represents soccer fans in England — there is a section entitled “TV Hell.”

“In previous years this chapter has been full of the misery that broadcast changes have inflicted on match-going fans,” it begins. “From late changes to kickoff times, to Monday night away games 300 miles away, supporters’ encounters with broadcasters have been fraught and adversarial.”

What follows is not to suggest that any of those complaints are invalid. By the time fans return to stadiums after the pandemic, it would be nice to think that both leagues and broadcasters — having become painfully aware, in their absence, of how crucial they are to the spectacle of soccer — would take the needs of match-going fans into account far more than they once did.

Capping ticket prices would be a start, a way of ensuring that seeing live sports in the flesh is no longer an innately privileged activity, one only readily available to certain demographics. Crowds need to become younger, more diverse in both color and gender, and cost — as the Chris Rock joke about luxury hotels has it — is the primary barrier to that.

Beyond that, subsidizing travel to games — as happens in Germany — would reflect the importance of fans to the experience. So, too, would scheduling them in such a way to make it as easy as possible for fans to attend. No more Monday nights for Newcastle fans in London; no more games that finish after the last train home has left.

But for an organization like the F.S.A. to suggest that the relationship between fans and television is inherently adversarial is a comprehensive misunderstanding of the dynamic between the two. It is one that it is far from alone in making, but it is one that serves to reinforce what is, in truth, an entirely false schism.

That is because we are all, deep down, armchair fans. If not all, then overwhelmingly: there may, it is true, be a few hundred die-hards attached to each team who travel to watch their side home and away and never watch another game of soccer.

But for most of us, even match-going fans, television is the way we consume the sport, whether we are season-ticket holders who follow away games remotely or fans who, by pure accident of geography, happen to live thousands of miles from the stadium our team calls home.

You might be an ardent supporter of a team mired in the lower leagues who regularly tunes in to watch whatever the big game of the weekend is. You might find yourself idly watching a distant Champions League game most weekday evenings in fall and spring. You might support one team, but take pleasure and hold interest in the sport as a whole. You might just like falling asleep in front of “Match of the Day.” Whatever their circumstances, television is the vector by which most fans get the bulk of their hit.

And those fans — although the traditional hierarchy does not recognize it — deserve an advocate for their interests, too, because their interests are our interests. Indeed, their interests are soccer’s interests.

This is the part that is always missed, whenever the sport bemoans the power of television: Television, that dirty word, does not actually mean television. It does not even, really, mean the broadcasters who produce the content and carry the games. It means, at its root, the fans who watch, the ones who buy the subscriptions and watch the games and make the advertising space valuable.

Because, ultimately, television does not pay for soccer: We do. The broadcasters only pay a prince’s ransom for rights to leagues because they know that we will tune in. Their aim is to make a profit from their investment, whether direct — through the advertising sales and subscriptions — or indirect, as is the case in Britain, where both Sky and BT, the Premier League’s principal broadcasters, see soccer as a weapon in the war to dominate the country’s broadband market.

Deep down, it is not television that keeps the circus rolling, it is us. We are the ones that pay the salaries, that provide the millions, that have turned the players into stars. (This very same argument, as it happens, can be applied to the issue of the need for more transparency in soccer.)

The relationship between television and fans is not adversarial because, at heart, television is the fans. When soccer comes to consider how it will look in the post-pandemic age, it would do well to remember that: not to present those who go to games and those who do not as antagonists, but as two overlapping groups, with interests that dovetail more than they divide. Television should not be soccer’s dirty word. Television, at heart, means all of us.

Political Football (Reprise)

Britain’s hospitals are close to their breaking point. Intensive care departments are full, or close to it. Ambulances are lining up at the gates. More than a thousand people are dying a day. Case rates are soaring. The population, or at least that part of it that is not being compelled to go to work, is locked down once more.

Underprivileged children are being sent individual potatoes and zip-lock bags full of cheese in lieu of school meals. The bleak realities of Brexit are starting to bite at the country’s ports and docks. And yet, listening to a substantial portion of the country’s public discourse this week, it is almost as if Britain’s most pressing issue is soccer players who hug after scoring a goal.

We have been here before. Back in the spring, during the first wave of the pandemic, British lawmakers seized eagerly on the idea that the Premier League’s millionaire stars should all take a pay cut, as many of their clubs were requesting. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, used a news briefing to urge them all to “make a contribution,” even though it was not clear how them allowing the billionaire owners of their teams to save money would help the beleaguered National Health Service.

This time, the central axis of the debate is a little different. The government is concerned, apparently, that players’ celebrating goals is “sending the wrong message” at a time when the country as a whole is forbidden by law from even seeing friends and family, much less hugging them. Lawmakers have written to the leagues to remind them of the need to follow restrictions. The leagues have, duly, written to their clubs. The news media has brimmed with fulmination.

To be clear: there are protocols in place that players and their clubs must adhere to if soccer is to continue in the pandemic, rules that exist for their own protection and the protection of society as a whole. Players who are proved to have broken those protocols away from the field, if anything, have not been punished enough.

But a ban on celebrating goals is not part of those protocols. The players have all been tested, often more than once a week. If they are on the field, we have to assume they are clear of the virus. If we cannot assume that, they should not be playing at all. They are no closer during celebrations than they are at corner kicks. If the former is not safe, then neither is the latter. There have been no cases of transmission between teams during games, or even among a single team: Where there have been outbreaks, they seem to have taken place at training facilities.

Celebrating goals, in other words, is a nonissue. That it has been allowed to become a controversy, to take air away from all of those things that genuinely matter, is because lawmakers are once again in need of a convenient villain, and because sections of the news media cannot resist a chance to indulge the cheap thrill of click-inducing indignity. And both, in such circumstances, know exactly where to look.

Correspondence

First, to address a query expressed by a couple of readers: Yes, I am aware that George Best was not actually in the Beatles. No, I am not mixing him up with Pete Best. How could I? Pete Best never won a European Cup, for a start.

The confusion arose from some poor phrasing in last week’s column (a lesson, here, on the importance of precision in language). I wrote that Best (George) was “regarded as the fifth Beatle,” though perhaps “presented as a fifth Beatle” would have been better.

As the story goes, Best (the footballer) was nicknamed “O Quinto Beatle” by the Portuguese news media after starring in a game between Manchester United and Benfica in 1966. That was then picked up by the British newspapers, who referred to him as “El Beatle.” Presumably because the idea that Portuguese and Spanish were distinct languages was too much for them. Still, we all go wrong with the direct article sometimes.

On the subject of the fading of the F.A. Cup, George McIntire wonders whether the most conclusive proof of its reduced status came from Arsenal. “What truly sealed its declining relevance was the futility of three wins in four years to save Arsène Wenger’s job,” he wrote. “There’s no Wenger Out campaign if he wins three leagues or Champions Leagues.” This is entirely right, and it’s interesting to note that — at certain clubs — domestic titles appear to be going the same way.

And a depressing note to end on from Casey Lindstrom. “You wrote that fame and values are interlinked,” he wrote. “However, one does not need to look far [outside sports] to see those who are famous with all the values, ethics and integrity of robber barons.” This is also entirely right, and I do not have a convincing response to it. Though I find it hard to imagine that an athlete would achieve, say, Marcus Rashford’s level of prominence espousing less admirable views, and that is some solace.

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