A couple of pictures did the rounds on social media over the weekend which attracted much ire and condemnation from football fans. If the first image of a woman at the match between Liverpool and Hull City at Anfield wearing a half-and-half jersey was bad enough, then the news that a fellow matchgoer had also decided to go all Frankenstein on his football tops at Sunday’s Premier League clash between fierce rivals Manchester United and Chelsea saw a collective gust of steam burst forth from the ears of football followers nationwide, simultaneously mourning the death of the game and castigating such a brazen disregard for the most rudimentary standards of footballing loyalty.
Before I continue, let me say that I am by no means a fan of such novelty attire, and would rather get booted in the face at point-blank range by a vintage John Arne Riise thunderbolt than even consider committing such a crime against footballing mores, or fashion for that matter. The whole point of attending football matches is the thrill and excitement of watching your team battling it out against an opposition who, for ninety minutes at least, are your most immediate adversaries; from the euphoria of victory to the despondency of defeat, the range and extremity of emotions we experience on matchdays, largely absent from our everyday lives, is what makes football so appealing, so addictive. Going to a match rooting for both teams – treating the occasion as more of a fancy dress exercise than a chance to see your favourite players in the flesh and showing your support – renders the whole purpose of football redundant, and is anathema to the very notion of competitive sport.
Nevertheless, with Halloween lurking menacingly around the corner, I have opted to put on a fancy dress costume of my own in the form of the devil’s advocate. These cursed souls who are seemingly doomed to suffer in footballing hell for their foolish misdeeds – forced to endure an interminable loop of Michael Owen’s torturously, robotically monotonous voice listing all their wrongdoings and endlessly harrowing clips of Emile Heskey in front of an open goal – deserve to be cut some slack, and for better or for worse I have attempted to conjure a few (admittedly shaky) arguments in defence of the transgressors so that they may stand a miniscule chance of avoiding relentless torment and unimaginable pain in the footballing afterlife.
Firstly, while wearing hybrid jerseys may be foolish, we cannot deny that it is an incredibly brave thing to do. We applaude and cheer acts of courage and valour from the players on the pitch, yet the bravery to immerse oneself in the hostile atmosphere of a football game dressed in such a garment is greeted with vitriolic abuse and unanimous ridicule. To even dare to show one’s face in the stadium and to then stomach the opprobrium from one’s fellow supporters demonstrates a level of fearlessness that is surely to be commended.
Which neatly leads us onto the next point; although these duel-kit pioneers were indeed on the receiving end of plentiful verbal taunts, they did manage to emerge from the games with their limbs intact and their faces unspoiled. While not a defence of the individuals per se, it is an indication that the matchday has become a friendlier and more welcoming experience for football fans. During the pre-Premier League era of football in the 1970s and 1980s, even the so-called “shirters” – those wearing the shirts of their team to football matches – were derided; turning up to a game in the colours of both clubs, especially at a time when football violence was at its peak, would have been unthinkable. Of course, wearing a replica jersey is the norm for the modern football fan, and the fact that someone can feel comfortable attending a match in a 50:50 combination at least shows that the dark days of aggressive, dangerous tribalism in English football have been replaced by a culture of relative inclusivity and cordiality in the game.
My final point is the most troubling one of all, as it questions one of the most fundamental stipulations of being a football fan – why should we be expected to be monogamous, married to one club “till we die”? Most serious football supporters don’t choose to support a team – a team is chosen on our behalf from an early age by one or more parent, who themselves went through the same process with their own parents, and so on and so forth. We are then brainwashed into expressing undying love and loyalty for this team, blissfully unaware that we never actually enjoyed the freedom to make a choice of which team to support in the first place. But what if our parents support different teams? Surely following two clubs in this regard is understandable? Ignoring the familial issues with footballing monogamy, let’s suppose that a supporter of, say, Arsenal finds a job in East Anglia and develops an affinity for Norwich City over a number of years. Is he then not allowed to identify himself as a Norwich City fan, despite his liking for the club, just because we as fans are expected to adhere to a one-club philosophy? Ultimately, we are oblivious to the backgrounds of the two photographed fans, and they may have sound reasons for expressing their support for the two sides who happened to have been playing each other that weekend. Why, then, should they be criticised?
Let me finish by making it explicitly clear that I am still in my devil’s advocate costume here, and that the arguments that I have proposed are merely a means of stimulating a debate on a pretty trivial topic. However, if these fans are happy to display their two-team tendencies through their shirts, then let them do so, and let’s save our anger for the true roots of football’s evils.