Photo courtesy of Flickr.
Photo courtesy of Flickr.
It came to me in a vision, on a television, as it would have done to the Delphic oracle if she'd had only a Playstation to go on. My FIFA 12 Stoke City team—expensively pieced together using money supplied by a mysterious Arab consortium—was playing Manchester United in the 2019 Champions League final. Early in the second half, Edin Džeko (who, in the way of FIFA 12's hyperactive Premier League transfer market, had joined United from Manchester City), scored against me with a beautiful 25-yard shot that arrowed into the top corner. In a fit of magnanimity towards my virtual foes, I checked out the replay, ready to admire it all over again. And there was Mesut Özil, pulling the ball back from the left-hand side of the penalty area, into the path of the onrushing...
...nobody. The corridor down which Džeko had thundered was now Džekoless. Instead, Özil's reverse pass suddenly appeared to divert towards the goal of its own accord at the point at which Džeko's boot had previously hit it. Those who have zoomed in on slow-motion replays in sports sims will know that what looks like solid contact between player and ball can actually look as realistic as a movie saloon brawl. But this time, the game had done away altogether with the figure of the player, and the ball looked as if it was being guided goalwards by a miraculous and very precise wind.
It was, of course, a glitch in the game. But in one of those amazing mental connections so beloved of writery types, it reminded me of the goal scored by (and you'll have to forgive me for bringing him up again, but I hope you understand) Robin van Persie against Everton last December. I blathered on about it at the time, because it moved me. It moved me firstly on a human level. The pass from Alex Song, the shape that van Persie made as he arced his run and leapt to meet the ball, the perfect connection: all combined in a sequence that lit up your field of vision like the flash from an A-bomb. But it moved me on another level too, one which isn't easily separable from the first. It moved me because I'm an Arsenal fan, and it was the opening goal (the only goal, as it turned out) in a game marked by an Arsenal performance that had until then merely wafted a hand in the general direction of competence. It was pleasing for the way it scored, but perhaps even more pleasing for the fact that it was scored at all. The build-up was lovely, but not as lovely as the sight of the ball as it made that binary switch from being on one side of the goal line to being on the other. But at the same time, one couldn't help feeling profound gratitude towards the man responsible. For that moment, Arsenal was van Persie and van Persie was Arsenal.
It was like the replay of the goal Non-Džeko scored on the PS3. On some level, being a partisan requires an impressive level of detachment from the player occupying the shirt. The paramountcy of the result turns the players into wraiths, spiriting the ball around the field with the aim of a favourable outcome—as long as somebody scores, it barely matters who does it. A glitch in the fabric of reality could delete the player's corporeal presence, but as long as the ball is being satisfactorily manipulated, all is well. But still, they're human just like the rest of us, and they're wearing our shirt, so it's nice to believe they share our motivation. They must surely be dedicated to The Cause, even as the evidence piles up before the eyes of those who have followed the game for longer than ten seconds that the player's cause may not ultimately be the same as our own.
But it's hard for a fan to resist seeing the player as one of us, not least because for years, the system may as well have been designed to encourage that feeling. Due to football's restrictive labour laws, the club was king. Now those days are past, clubs find themselves having to audition for players as much as vice versa. Players can now pursue their ambitions to reach the top of their profession with fewer hindrances than ever. The key for the club is to try and align the ambition of enough players with the club's own, and let loose the magic. But some fans still tell themselves the lie that their star player joined them because, say, he had a birthmark in the shape of the Arsenal Tube station sign, rather than because the club promised him money and medals. When another club promises him more money and more medals, it's treated as if he's joined another country's army.
Fans of lower-league clubs tend not to suffer this way. Their teams are usually composed of young players possibly on their way up, older players certainly on their way down, and the countless others who spend their careers shuffling sideways between clubs willing to put them up for a year. To be a supporter of one of these teams is to acknowledge the fundamental absurdity of pro team sports: that they are a marriage of convenience (or inconvenience) between marketplace and tribal battleground. The players' careers are buffeted by fate as much as the supporters' passions are, and so there is, if not quite an automatic kinship between the two groups, then at least an understanding.
At the top of the food chain, however, fans are more sensitive. They have ideas about their club. It's not just a motley crew: it's a destination. The table is tilted in the big clubs' favour, and it would be rude of the players not to be grateful to roll on down. But if a club is just a vehicle for a player's lust for cash and glory, the dynamic changes. As much as it's a privilege for a player to join a big club, it's become a privilege for the club to have the player. The distance between the player and the supporter is thus more explicit than ever before. This disconnect prompts an ever-growing melancholy in the supporter of the big club. the supporter may alleviate it by invoking the club's long and proud history, or by pointing out the permanence of the club and its suporters' loyalty, or by figuratively waving around the club's riches in fans of high-denomination banknotes. But it's still there, as the supporter waits for the player to give the yea or nay. You're at the mercy of those you once expected to serve you like hired help. The fan of the big club is like a royal removed from the civil list.
Still, though, the player must pay at least superficial homage to the vestigial primacy of the club and its followers. He will tell us with varying degrees of sincerity that he admires the traditions of the club and subscribes to the manager's vision, and that he's committed to helping the club achieve success—leaving off the part about how he wants that success for his sake more than for the club's. This is the real tragedy of the fan. It's not just the helplessness: it's that the respective drives of the player and the supporter (which are so often opposed to one another) overlap just frequently enough to tantalise us with a vision of how things might be in an alternate world where players, fans and club were all made from the same stuff—a world often reminisced about as if it once existed.
So they continue, these expressions of faux-fealty by players. Even the most egregious type, the kissing of the badge, persists, although its currency is devalued each time it's performed. "How ridiculous that looks 6 months later when they’re at another club," as the bard of Birkenhead once said. But even as the cynicism towards it grows, it still has some value, or else no player would do it. There are still enough of us who thrill to the sight (even just a little). And it's not just the terminally deluded who get suckered in by it. Those who scoff in cold blood often find themselves drawn in, because it happens at precisely the moment when all of the bullshit falls away and the whole shambles seems to make sense. It may be that the sceptic is just turning a blind eye, but it counts as assent. It amounts to a cheap trick by the player, but it kind of works. Maybe Man City fans have it right when they "do the Poznan": maybe the fans should turn away from the pitch when a goal is scored, leaving the respective parties to celebrate in their own ways. Or perhaps the badge-kisser should be greeted with a cacophonous silence, an apt response to a player ghosting his way through the club like it wasn't there. But where the supporter can withhold, he often bestows, and so it goes on.