Whether you like football or not, the sport has a rich and complex history and remains adored by the nation.
Early versions of British football were disliked by authorities due to the antisocial behaviour unstandardised games promoted. What were known as village vs. village games often involved large teams competing in rule-less matches over several miles rather than one field. Eventually, however, football was standardised when the FA, who established official rules, was born in 1863. FIFA was later founded in 1904 in Paris, and by the 1950s, there were more than 73 FIFA members. Since then, we’ve watched the game grow exponentially, with football continuing to bring people joy 90-minutes at a time.
For an insight into football’s fan culture, I spoke to Professor Alan Bairner of Sport and Social Theory at Loughborough University and Emma Hartley, a Football Journalism graduate (and diehard Chelsea fan). You can read our interviews below:
What are your favourite things about football apart from the actual sport itself?
Alan - What I’ve always liked best has been the ritual – the journey to the match, buying a match programme, having a burger, watching the teams warm up. After that, the day has often gone downhill until the final whistle when it was time to go for a few beers. As for favourite matches, I liked going to meaningless pre-season friendlies at grounds such as Central Park, Cowdenbeath and Stark’s Park, Kirkcaldy when I could see players from other countries even if the other country was usually only England. What I’ve disliked most are sitting in the cold on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings in winter and the fact that weekend games are no longer always played on Saturday afternoons.
Emma - Friends, meeting new people, and the social side of football is something I love. I’ve met so many amazing people at football and made friends for life. I’ve talked to such incredible people and have met people from all around the world which has been fascinating and something I’m very grateful for. I also love a pie and pints on a match day. It’s all part of the experience for me and completes the day. Singing and chanting at games is also one of the best feelings.
The pandemic has had a lasting effect on many different things – sport being one of them. What impact do you think the pandemic has had on football’s fan culture?
Alan - I don’t know how it has affected other people but the impact on me has been considerable. I suspect that I won’t attend any live games from now on. I’d always wondered at what point as I got older this would happen and the pandemic provided me with a useful cut off point. I’ve done my bit having watched my first live match at East End Park, Dunfermline in 1957!
Emma - I think football fans will appreciate going to football more than they did pre-pandemic. Going to live games was taken away from us for quite a while so now we have it back nobody will ever take it for granted again.
Do you think racist and homophobic abuse in football has gotten worse, or is it just getting more coverage from the media?
Alan - Racism is ever-present in many societies. I don’t think it’s worse at football grounds in England now than it was in the 1970s and 1980s. However, it is being talked about more. I haven’t heard as much homophobic abuse lately either but that’s probably because a majority of male fans are convinced or want to believe that theirs is an all-straight world.
Emma - After talking to family members that have watched football for more than 50 years, they think that racist and homophobic abuse in football hasn’t gotten worse. However, there is more coverage from the media and also cameras are picking up on it and other fans and individuals film it on their mobile devices too.
Earlier this year, Gareth Southgate said that players have a ‘duty’ to interact with fans on issues such as racial injustice – do you agree?
Alan - I don’t think the players have a ‘duty’ to be politically engaged but they do have a ‘right’ to be politically engaged. Engagement with fans is fine but both players and fans really need to put pressure on governing bodies – FIFA, UEFA the FA, etc. If these bodies refuse to act decisively when racist incidents occur, players should go on strike and fans should boycott games. Otherwise nothing will happen especially as so many populist nationalist governments around the world including that of the UK insidiously promote discriminatory attitudes.
Emma - I think players do have a duty to interact with fans on issues such as racial injustice and to use their platforms to communicate important messages. I think this responsibility lies with everyone as everyone can make a difference if they work together.