According to a survey, it was found that more than 65% of Europeans identify themselves as a supporter of a sports club. That’s almost 400 million people in Europe alone. And even though I am in no way a European, on a global scale I contribute to this statistic too.

I am an Arsenal fan and will be one for the rest of my life, and honestly, I love that thought. In the ever-changing world where one’s opinions, friends, careers, or political inclinations might change, for a sports fan, their club and loyalty to this club remain everlasting. It is a constant in the shifting sands of my life and it has provided, shaped, and expressed a strand of my identity, which I am very proud of.

The question though is why do fans have such a passion and desire for their teams? Why take extreme measures like face painting, wearing the same clothes every single game, or traveling hundreds if not thousands of miles to watch their team play? What’s the reason you’ll see fans of the same team gather up together to watch a game, celebrate when their team scores and get frustrated when they don’t, telling the players how to play better from the tv screen?

Allow me to explain.

Humans are a tribal species. Sure, there’s the occasional hermit living alone, but most of us live in groups, we have our own ‘tribes’—the people with whom we feel the most comfortable around. These are the ones with whom we have something in common and who share our passions and values.

There are many psychological and social factors as to why fandom reaches the highs that it does in people’s lives. The factor that I most found amusing is what I like to call ‘Self inclusion’. 

Read the following sentence: “The Arsenal game last week was crazy. We scored 4 goals and our captain scored a hattrick.”

For many of you, this statement doesn’t sound crazy because you’re exposed to statements like these. When fans talk about their teams and their teams are winning they refer to these actions by saying ‘we won’ or ‘you guys lost’

Sports psychologist characterize this with two simple acronyms:

when your fav team wins, you BIRG: Bask in Reflected Glory

when they lose, you CORF: Cut of reflected failure.

When your team wins you BIRG. When your team loses you CORF. Most fans are either BIRGers or CORFers. But these aren’t the only two bases on which you can categorize a fan.

Many teams will go years and even decades without winning titles and still have large fan bases. This is because fans commonly believe that to achieve true fandom they must remain loyal to their teams under any circumstances even if that means losing constantly or going 65 years without winning the league (sorry Spurs fans).

You’ll often see mobs of football fans in sports bars chanting their team’s name and having a good time. The problem begins when this ‘enjoyment’ takes a wrong turn.

For example, if it’s a game between arch-rivals of the same city, it’s a matter of pride. The team which wins the game holds bragging rights and the next time the two teams face each other, they are the supposed winners. Many a time, casual banter and groupism can lead to riot-like scenarios.

Fireworks are a common site during the Eternal Derby between Red Star Belgrade and Partizans FC

As mentioned earlier the ‘self inclusion’ which gives them enjoyment and the love for the club or team can also be very dangerous when it gets out of hand.

There are people who base their lives around the club and the club’s history, to such a degree that a comment about the club is a comment about themselves as a person. Insult the club and you insult them. 

Fans of Celtic FC and Rangers FC, arch-rivals in Scottish Football, would count words in a newspaper dedicated to their club and then count the number written on the other club and actually ring up the newspaper office to complain if their club didn’t get as many, protesting of bias. That’s how extreme it can get.

From mass riots to nonstop chanting this leads to the phenomenon of ‘deindividualization’; meaning that the actions go unknown despite the consequences. This is because the larger the group, the less each fan feels accountable for individual responsibility.

Combine tens of thousands of such fans and a sporting event can quickly escalate into a dangerous situation.

The most popular yet disastrous example is the Heysel Stadium Disaster during the Champions League final between Liverpool and Juventus of 1985. Half an hour before the game began, there was a verbal argument between the Liverpool supporters and the Juventus fans.

Heysel Stadium Disaster (Brussels 1985)

This ‘verbal’ banter soon escalated to chaos and the Liverpool fans charged at the Juventus supporters, breaching the fence that separated them. Trying to move away the Juventus fans ran back on the terraces and away from the threat into a concrete retaining wall. Fans already standing near the wall were crushed; eventually, the wall collapsed, allowing others to escape. Many people climbed over to safety, but at least 39 people died, and more than 600 were severely injured

This is as high as it gets. When one’s fandom begins to cause violence, and mob mentality takes over to create ruckus it is called tribalism. To clarify here, I am against tribalism which leads to chaos and disruption of peace. I am in no way against being a part of a fandom or showing love for your team. If you think about it, what is the one thing you find common all over India? It’s the love for cricket and the passion that comes while supporting the National Team. Across gender, caste, religion, language, and geography, it’s cricket that unites us as a nation. Even if you dislike cricket you still find yourself glued to your sofa when Dhoni ‘finishes off in style’ and jump around in joy when you see India lift the World Cup.

For a world that is divided, a world where it is getting increasingly harder for us to open ourselves up to people who are different than we are, then this is what’s left that can bridge those differences. Why do fans get together in bars all over the world? Every moderately sized city has a bar or cafe where these guys hang out and watch a good game. Here you are, sitting around people who see the world completely differently but you’ll high-five them after a goal is scored, you might hug them after the championship final or you might debate with them on social media in a civilized way because you both have a shared love for the team. 

It’s one of the few things in society that remains which bridges our divides, and in that way our fandoms are really important.

Even if it is just for a couple of hours on Sunday.

Sahil Pawar


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