I’ve come across some very annoying sports fans. We all recognize the type: opinionated, unwilling to take gainsaying, trash-talking, loud, obnoxious. I’ve heard it said that the modern sports fandom is a socially sanctioned way to express the fanaticism and warrior-like need to denigrate an opponent that in past centuries would have been reserved to the battlefield in defense of ones homeland.
Whether that’s true is debatable, but I would like to posit a way to be a sports fan that is centered on camaraderie, tactical enjoyment, and constructive support of ones team. I’ll be sticking to football (soccer, for the Americans) as that’s the sport with which I have the most familiarity, though I imagine this would work equally well across other sports.
Picking a Team
There is no one approach here, but frequently we inherit the team we support from a family member or a group of friends. For example, my father has been a Bayern Munich supporter since he was seven. Naturally, whenever we watched the Bundesliga together when I was growing up, I too supported Bayern and do to this day. In middle school, most of my close friends were Manchester United supporters, so it was not hard to make that my Premier League team—though I had lived in England, I’d never even been to Manchester. I’ve supported Manchester United since seventh grade, whether they’re winning under Sir Alex Ferguson or going through a series of very lean, often disappointing, transition years.
Those with a more stationary upbringing than my own are likely to support their local team. I sometimes envy the passion and genuine connection supporters of much smaller teams have, not only because of family or friend connections, but because that’s the team that plays in a stadium down the road. That level of fandom is closed to me, but I admire the strength of the fan support they have.
Whatever way a fan comes to their team, one should support them whether they are winning or losing. Support doesn’t mean blind allegiance; it can entail criticism. But it also means not jumping ship to another team at the first sign of trouble. Whether they’re not playing well, whether the owners have a bad transfer strategy, or the coach is a jerk, we keep supporting our team.
Being a fan means watching games, either in a stadium or on TV. And that means in their entirety, not just the highlights. It means not just following the players’ instagram accounts, buying the newest kit, and smack-talking the opposition fans. Spending time and enjoyment in taking in the actual games is paramount.
And that’s not just for when my team is playing. Yes, I feel a closer investment when watching Bayern, Man United, or the German National team. But watching other teams play can be just as rewarding. There is a freeing relaxation in knowing that I can simply watch skilled players without being in any way invested in the outcome of the game.
This can lead to an understanding of the underlying frameworks of the game. My wife likes to joke that when she watches football with me, it just seems like a bunch of sweaty men chasing a ball across the grass. But with the investment of time and many years of joyful watching, I see much more. I can tell what a team is doing well, which players are pulling their team along, where the coach may have made a tactical mistake in setting up the team formation. This understanding brings a deeper appreciation when watching and makes the successes that much more satisfying.
It can be hard for some fans to remember that those who support another team (even a rival) have the same passion for the same sport. There is even the false sense of accomplishment that comes when an opponent loses even if it is to another team.
It took me numerous years (and watching a lot of Premier League games with the Varsity coach at the school I teach at) to understand that that’s not necessary. My support for my team does not hinge on bashing or belittling another team or its supporters. Among close friends, a little joking can be lively, but I’ve met enough fans—unfortunately a lot of Manchester United fans—that seem more bent on tearing down the opposition than supporting their own team.
The truth is, I can appreciate watching good football regardless of who is playing. I’m a big fan of Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool coach. I do not support Liverpool as a fan, but I very much look forward to watching their games because I like how Klopp engages with his players, am very impressed by Mohammed Salah, and am entertained by their football. The same can be said for others coaches, players, and teams.
Once I realized this, my enjoyment of watching all football increased significantly. I can talk to fans of Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, or other teams and genuinely engage in the conversations of how their teams are doing well, where they are struggling, and what new players they might bring in. And I find that those fans are then much more willing to discuss the teams I support in an even-handed way. We have great conversations that aren’t simply about which team is better but as people who love the same sport, even if it is through different teams.
Play the Sport
I’ve never been very athletic. The day of the mile run in middle school was usually my least favorite day of the school year. I have almost no hand-eye coordination and short of having pretty good balance, anything that requires physical prowess is hard for me to be good at.
Yet I love playing football. I’m not very good, never made a team, and was usually one of the last people chosen in a pick-up game. But I’ve been playing for years, first on the dead-end street where my family lived in Nairobi, then some intramural games in college, and now a weekly game at my school. And in over two decades of playing, I can say I’ve gotten a bit better. But I’ll never be a great player.
It’s easy to criticize the football players through the screen and imagine that we could do it better. We can play through all sorts of scenarios in our heads of what we’d do on the field, but when we actually get there, it is significantly harder. Those fans that have been in stadiums and watched the professional athletes up close will recognize the sheer level of athleticism that they inhabit. The least significant player in the lowest team in the Premier League would stand head and shoulders above anyone on a high school varsity team. But that’s doesn’t always translate through the screen. Playing the game can give us a more accurate perspective of what is actually happening on the field.
We should enjoy the sport. Enjoy watching it, playing it, talking about it. And that should come from a place of genuine investment not a misguided sense of antagonism.