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Is Extreme Partisanship Bad For Football?

CARSON, CA - NOVEMBER 07: Seattle Sounders FC fans show their support as their team lose to the Los Angeles Galaxy in the MLS Western Conference Semifinal match second leg at The Home Depot Center on November 7, 2010 in Carson, California. The Galaxy defeated Sounders FC 2-1. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)

The partisan nature of football is one of the greatest things about the sport. It gives us the chance to get behind one team, to share banter with opposing fans and feel that ecstatic high when our team wins. But do we take things too far? I am not talking about violence or poor behaviour by a minority of idiots, we all know that there is no excuse for that, but would the game be better, perhaps even more enjoyable if we all occasionally took off our team’s blinkers?

For me, one of the most frustrating elements of the modern game is the fan who never admits any failure by his own team. We see it from managers all the time but they are paid to protect players and play the mind games. We all moan every time we see football move away from being just a sport but we could all be a part of the problem.

Sport is completely unimportant. It doesn’t matter at all. Football is something that was invented as a way to pass the time between other much more important things, at its best when the balance between seriousness and frivolity is found and at its most useless when it becomes the be all and end all. By refusing to see things as they truly are we admit to seeing football as something more important than it is. Society frowns on those who blindly and ignorantly ignore simple truths. Why should football be any different?

I am as guilty as much as the next man. My natural position is to robustly defend my team even if I know that really they are rubbish or that they have made a mistake. I have seen otherwise perfectly normal, morally upright people defend actions on the pitch that would not be accepted in real life simply because the accused plays for their team. Surely this is a trait that we should all try and step away from?

Football creates debate like no other sport. Unfortunately in my experience it also fails to follow up on this promise of good discussion thanks to the proliferation of people who refuse to say a word against their team. How many arguments can you remember being ruined by someone who simply sticks to the line of argument that makes his club look good, regardless of its relationship with the truth?

How frustrating is it to see managers come out after the match and claim not to have seen a decision or that they only lost because of poor decisions and/or bad luck? I find this bad enough but coming from friends and fellow fans it is much worse. If we all just took a step back and viewed the game a little more objectively then I am certain we would all benefit. Debates would still happen but we might actually progress towards the occasional agreement and we might all regain a little bit of perspective.

After all, football is only a game, much as that may baffle a few people out there.

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  1. bob

    November 9, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    The partisanship is what makes football relevant.

    I support first for my community, second for my team (good or bad), third for the quality of play on the pitch. It’s a proxy war, my city-state against yours, played out in the stands by fans and on the pitch by players. Linking the team name and colors to the community is seen more and more as an essential element, as witnessed in the USA by franchise moves where the abandoned community retains the name & colors, reserved for when their team may rise again.

    Arguing “my team never does wrong” may be unproductive in a lot of blogs and forums, but I’m rarely annoyed by that. I think it’s good to have plenty of folks acting that way, since they demonstrate an unconditional support in discussions about their team. That level of support, the my-city-always mindset, is the point of what pro sports are about.

  2. mike

    November 9, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    i’m sorry, but football is not just a game. it is so much more than that. it can embdy racial, ethnic, and religious conflicts. it brings people together and tears people apart like few other things can. the real madrid-fc barcelona rivalry has roots in the spanish civil war, when real were the team of the nationlists under franco. “sport is completely unimportant.” are you kidding me?

    obviously, you are right when you talk negatively about fans who never admit failure by their own team. that has nothing to do with football being just a game or not though. i think you fail to realize that idiocy and partisanship do not have to go hand in hand. we can be good supporters of the sport, and still be intensely loyal to our own clubs. if you are advocating this, then i am right there with you. i hate the idiot as much as you do, but they will never completely go away. take away the extreme partisanship, though, and you take away what makes the derbies of this sport unlike any other. is that what you want?

  3. IanCransonsKnees

    November 9, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    I think this is where the boundary between the fan who attends and the fan who watches on TV is defined.

    Physically attending a match has a completely different effect on you. You get caught up in the moment, affected by those around you, what you hear chanted by your own fans and the opposition. Incidents that aren’t captured by the TV camera or the intensity of the build up before a match. You can never completely hear on TV what is happening in the crowd, it doesn’t translate.

    The clubs positively encourage this whipping up of the fans to generate some atmosphere for the players to feed on. It works both ways too, between players and fans. In an otherwise dull match a sudden flash point incident on the pitch can change a game on and off the pitch bringing the match and the fans to life.

    In terms of what is sung or chanted at matches there is very little respect shown to anyone. I remember Stoke playing Man CIty in 1996 just after Euro 96, Alan Ball was in charge and had a poor start. A revered world cup legend you’d think, he’d even managed Stoke at one point. To the tune of Baddiel and Skinner’s ‘It’s Coming Home’ all that got belted out once we took the lead was, ‘He’s on the dole, he’s on the dole, Bally’s on the dole’. A very pointed dig that he was about to be sacked and would have to sign on for welfare benefits being out of work.

    Thinking about partisanship and atmosphere in 16 years of following my team home and away the match that takes the biscuit again was against Manchester City. Our first season back in the top flight and Rory Delap gets sent off and Stoke are down to ten men. The crowd were incensed, went absolutely wild and intimidated the CIty players so much you can see they didn’t want to be there. That and James Beattie’s header won us the match playing with ten men for around 55 minutes.

    If you want a more sedate atmosphere you’ll end up with matches that are like preseason friendlies. In a country where it only takes three to four hours maximum for most fans to attend away games you will get wrapped up in it and it will take over your life if you let it.

    I think the fans who understand it most completely are those who have experienced the highs and lows of promotion and relegation. There is a much stronger connection and I find it easier to converse with those that understand where I (my team) has come from and I’m sure it works the opposite way. There was such an outpouring of emotion across the city when we got promoted back to the top flight after nearly 25 years you’d have thought a war had ended. The only thing that came close was Sir Stanley Matthews funeral when 100,000 people lined the city streets to clap him off one last time. Both moments had that same electric atmosphere but caused by the ecstasy and pride of achievement and grief and remembrance. People calling the area that the club is situated in ‘home’ and being able to relate to it that way is key in causing that I think.

    • Matthew Duncan

      November 10, 2010 at 5:45 am

      I attend matches but that does not mean that it is OK for me to be blinkered/abusive.
      I understand that whilst in the stands the emotions are generally higher than when you are sat on your armchair at home but that does not mean that the fan who goes to every game is excused from entering into a rational discussion.
      Please don’t think that I am encouraging some sort of more sedate atmosphere. I relish the chance to sing and shout but I am talking about after the match when you come across fans in the pub or hear them on radio phone-ins and you can’t help but be amazed at the way that they see the game.

      • IanCransonsKnees

        November 10, 2010 at 8:54 am

        But how do you know those that are in the pub or are on the radio have attended the match? The majority of responses on here are generally as blinkered and one eyed as anywhere else and most people will have viewed the game on TV.

  4. Ringo

    November 9, 2010 at 9:28 am

    I think it’s alright to be a little partisan when supporting your club (in any sport), but refusing to enter into rational discussions or see right from wrong simply because your club is involved makes you look like a moron. I love Spurs but I can see that Tom Huddlestone’s stamp on Elmander this past week was a deliberate foul, and we were lucky to get away with it. By the same token I don’t think there’s anything wrong with calling Wenger a pedophile or Chamakh a diving **** as long as you don’t try to run on to the pitch or chase them down after the game. That part of being a supporter is all in good fun.

    • Matthew Duncan

      November 9, 2010 at 1:07 pm

      Ringo, personally I think there is something wrong with calling someone a paedophile if there are not.

      • IanCransonsKnees

        November 9, 2010 at 1:15 pm

        People I know got a three year banning order for singing the same sort of thing about Dave Jones, (he was acquitted after being accused in the 1990s whilst managing Southampton)

  5. Matthew Duncan

    November 9, 2010 at 5:55 am

    It is interesting to note the distinction between those who have always followed a club and those who have recently started watching the sport. For those who are drinking the Kool-Aid to borrow a quote from The Gaffer, would you still be a football fan if you didn’t have a team to follow.

    Lyle, I see your point. Maybe that is the same problem though, everybody wrapped up in their own club an not seeing things as they truly are?

    Also soonerscotty, personally I think that Shankly’s quote is one of the most ridiculous to ever be uttered in the world of sport.

    • Eric

      November 10, 2010 at 2:36 am


      I think you misinterpret what Mr. Shankly was trying to convey. Sport, especially soccer, gives regular Joes something to look forward to in life. During the 70s and 80s life on Merseyside wasn’t very easy. The docks slowed to a hault and the Toxteth riots brought a new level of fear to the city. But during these hard times, people turned to their football team for inspiration. Liverpool were taking Europe by storm and giving the general public a reason to believe again. On Saturday mornings, for the briefest of moments, people could forget their troubles and watch their heroes go to battle on the pitch, instilling in the people a passion and ferocity that could not be found anywhere else in the city. Sport unites the masses and provides a feeling of belonging. It wasn’t just the players winning those titles, but the entire city and its supporters. Being a true supporter is to be a part of something that normal day reality cannot provide. Where else can young and old can share such a common bond, where one voice can have the volume of 40,000 voices, where grown men cry in jubilation? And this is where Mr. Shankly is right. It’s not a matter of life and death. It’s something more.

      Matt, I challenge you to go sit in the Kop at Anfield, the Südtribüne of Borussia Dortmund, or the Camp Nou’s supporter section and not come away a changed man, for there’s a reason the Catalan team’s moto is ‘”Més que un club” (More than a club) and after a 90 min vist, I think you will know why.

      • Matthew Duncan

        November 10, 2010 at 5:39 am


        That still does not make it more important than life and death. I know full well the history surrounding some of the great rivalries between clubs and the ties with supporters but at the end of the day, if football simply ceased to be, nobody would die. Therefore Mr Shankly is wrong.

        I understand the amazing power that football holds as a way of escaping the troubles of real life but that still does not make it more important than life itself. However, and here I will contradict myself, this complete triviality does also make football and sport in general important. It is good to get away from it all once a week and for millions of people football is the way to do that.

        But I still stand by my point about the quote.

  6. soonerscotty

    November 9, 2010 at 2:33 am

    Duncan: “Sport is completely unimportant. It doesn’t matter at all.”

    Shankly: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

    Duncan 0-1 Shankly


  7. Lyle

    November 9, 2010 at 12:44 am

    This article sucks. If this article was a footballer, it’d be Titus Bramble. I want to cuss you out.

    Seriously, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Most footballing fans I come across are way too negative. One little screw up and it’s Henry VIII level off with your head type stuff. That’s what sucks about a lot football fans… they hate their own team too damn much. All it is is pissing and moaning, week end and week out.

    People need to get some perspective and show more love. The less critical the better.

  8. Has

    November 8, 2010 at 8:21 pm

    I just watched an English program called ‘Eric Contana – Looking for Manchester’. The program looks at the rivalry between the two clubs in Manchester, just ahead of a derby match. It inadvertently gives interesting insight into the idea of club partisanship. It’s a good watch for Manchester United fans rather than City fans, as it mainly focuses on United. You can watch it on ITV1 iplayer.

  9. Sir Guy

    November 8, 2010 at 8:06 pm

    Meh. What can you say. “Yes.” “No.” “It all depends.”

    It is the same in all sports, not just football. Fanaticism carried to the extreme is reprehensible. However, the degree of the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat is an individual feeling to us all. It doesn’t bother me one way or another.

    For myself, I am a Fulham fan. Not in a class with Jason G., but a fan nonetheless. I am always for the Whites, but am under no delusions. Otherwise, I just enjoy the sport. I will watch any match and pick a team based pretty much on who is the underdog. I loved seeing Bolton pick off the Spurs. Kevin Davies was fantastic….Footballer of the Week, imo. It was nice to see El Nino get his mojo working and to see Liverpool have some success. I want Blackpool to win every match.

    I suppose this makes me a Premier League gypsy of a sort, but I enjoy every fixture every weekend and never lose any sleep over anything—-unless it would be another Fulham draw. 😉

  10. UpTheBlues

    November 8, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    I’ll keep drinking the championship kool-aid, thank you very much 😉

  11. JARKT

    November 8, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    I’m practically a Nomad so i so most of my team selections vary depending on my travels, as for football , i have been an Avid Pensioner most of my football cheering days, and I have never set foot in England my whole life, So for me the love of football comes first easily …. Though it aches my heart to take the defeat to liverpool y’day, it was the revival of Torres that brought a cheer to my heart and the second half fight by the blues is what football is all about ..

    What I hate is ppl like “u know who” who self proclaim to be the greatest of all footballers out there and the followers of that club actually defend that claim !!

  12. Carl

    November 8, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    Interesting article. I’ve been checking out articles on this site ever since I first discovered it slightly after the World Cup, but this is the first one that I’ve felt the need to comment on.

    As a relatively recent American convert to the game, I’ve definitely taken to enjoying the Premier League (and MLS) matches I’ve been able to catch, but I don’t think there’s any one team that really stands out to me as mine, at least not yet. Maybe I’ll pick one side over the other on a match by match basis, but watching the games is a different experience for me than when I follow American sports and teams that I’ve supported for years in some cases. The matches are almost more of a relaxing experience for me in some ways since I don’t get too stressed over who’s winning, but at the same time I can’t really experience the same euphoria I get when a team I’ve invested so much of myself in goes and wins that big game or championship. Not that I necessarily think it’s preferable not to have a team preference of course, but it’s been a unique way for me to experience following a league over the past few months without having those team colored glasses on. And who knows, maybe some day that will change for me. Being a fan or supporter of a certain team is just part of sports in general.

  13. Jason Gatties

    November 8, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    Yup pretty much Gaffer. I really enjoy the Black and White Kool Aid I drink on a daily basis. COME ON FULHAM!

  14. The Gaffer

    November 8, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    Matt, great article and a fascinating topic. I always find it interesting how football supporters will cheer their hero and sing songs about him, but then when he leaves their club and plays against them, the amount of hate screamed and shouted at the same individual can be deafening.

    I also find it interesting regarding soccer fans who obviously support their club very passionately. But they’re unable to remain objective when their club or players are criticized. Are they drinking the Kool Aid or do they really believe in their club so much that they’re unable to see the light?

    The Gaffer

    • warren

      November 9, 2010 at 10:13 am

      “Are they drinking the Kool Aid”… definitely not in the UK, Gaffer! Probably beer of some kind…

      If the article author thinks partisanship is one of the greatest aspects of the game, then bias for your own club comes with that – to be partisan is pretty much to be single-minded in your support for something.

      Also, not totally relevant to the thrust of the article, but I don’t subscribe to the “it’s only a game” theory. Apart from the tangible enjoyment millions receive from it, it’s big business for clubs and media alike, employing large amounts of people in much the same way as any industry. One might as well say pharmaceuticals is only a chemistry experiment or banking is only a comedy of errors. 😉

      • Matthew Duncan

        November 9, 2010 at 1:05 pm

        It is still only a game. I say n the article that those within the game are not what I am talking about, for them it is a professional matter. For us fans however it really doesn’t matter, or at least it shouldn’t matter too much.

  15. Matthew Duncan

    November 8, 2010 at 2:36 pm


    Glad to see I am not the only one who thinks this way.

  16. David

    November 8, 2010 at 2:28 pm

    I agree. I go to a game to watch soccer first and my team second, and when I see great soccer, I am happy. Of course I want my team to be the one making the great plays, but sometimes it’s not, and the overwhelming boos are frankly embarrassing. Sorry to make comparisons to other sports, but I grew up in Cincinnati watching baseball, and the custom there was to applaud great plays by the away team. Not necessarily cheers and stomps, but enough to show that the spectators understood and respected the skill they just witnessed.

    I just cannot understand the mindset of people who are so angry at having the opportunity to see a beautiful act of skill and agility that might never be repeated. I wonder why they bother coming out at all. If all they care about is their team and not the game, why not just read the scores in the paper?

    • IanCransonsKnees

      November 9, 2010 at 1:27 pm

      This is where what you see on TV and what happens in the crowd doesn’t translate. I’ve seen enough quality goals, passes and performances against me team over the years and generally the fans in attendance will mutedly applaud and acknowledge a player performing an act of skill or having a good match.

      Dempsey’s strike against us last year along with Figueroa’s both spring to mind.

  17. Laurence

    November 8, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    Really interesting article. We all know why.

    It has been interesting to watch this site progress since the World Cup.

    Jose is famous for saying it’s only a game ‘food on the table’ etc. But there are reasons why is matter so much to so many people:

    – Health/The great outdoors.
    – Economy.
    – Lifestyle.
    – Community.
    – Personality.

    Football fans (not all) create and define identity by their football clubs. It’s a case of old traditional vs. Post-Modern values right? Ideology locked into local/national identity and you see why it matters so much. I’m not saying that any of this makes football a nice place to be all the time, but it’s a real area of interest.

    It’s good to side with Jose but I can understand why some people might regard it as more than ‘life and death’.

    I’d be interested to hear more of your views for our docu later this year. Gimme an email:

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