Generally speaking, a society’s attitudes to any given phenomenon liberalises over time. People begin to dip their toes into hitherto unchartered waters, creating a frisson of panic from the side lines. Prophesies of impending doom abound. But as more people take the plunge, these concerns are often exposed as overwrought. The moral fibre of humanity does not collapse, people are able to carry on with their lives unobstructed and we all generally chill out a little. Like a bonfire of the anxieties.
In the digital age, where the majority of humanity is woven together so intimately, we have also become notably more performative as a species in recent times. The invention of the photograph immediately predicated the ‘dandy’ craze in the 19th century. Fashion instantly became more outlandish as people interacted more consciously with their own image. The internet, and especially social media, has set off a kind of emotional dandyism.
The ability to share our impressions instantly with a vast audience invites us to subconsciously compete with our opinions. We are very aware of how they ‘play’ in the online theatre and we dress them in accordance with our online imagining of ourselves. Nowhere is this truer than in online football discourse. Were we to keep more of our thoughts confined to the silence of our skulls, it’s difficult to believe that we would adopt such aggressive lines of thought.
Given my twin assumptions that i) society generally follows a pattern of gradual liberalisation and ii) a good portion of our species has recently entered a Vaudevillian phase, it’s curious that football fans are becoming increasingly puritanical about expressions of happiness in the sport. The instinctive policing of celebration is one of the more po-faced and unwelcome strands of online football interaction, to my mind. It seems a faintly ridiculous thing to do in a pastime designed solely to entertain.
Especially when the consequences of players or fans celebrating, however vociferously, are so, well, inconsequential. I think this is partly a symptom of the need to adopt “positions” or “angles” on things that once would have passed through our craniums unformed, unloved, undernourished and forever discarded to our subconscious recycling bins. Now, once adopted and broadcasted, one’s “take” must be defended resolutely.
The surveillance of celebration is not just an online phenomenon, propagated by the swift to anger. Television pundits and newspaper columns are also hoisted on this skeleton. Shortly after Arsenal defeated Wigan on penalties in the 2014 F.A. Cup Semi-Final, the usually slow to anger Roy Keane (!) pithily dismissed the level of happiness exhibited by Arsenal players when Santi Cazorla slotted home the decisive spot kick. ‘These Arsenal players need a reality check’ he spat. ‘Last season they celebrated finishing fourth and now they celebrate beating a Championship side on penalties.’
As a starting point, one must ask ‘why on earth does it matter?’ Even if the “scenes” offended Keane’s personal sensibilities, what possible consequence could something so trivial have? Keane was probably trying to make a hackneyed point about the team’s “winning mentality”, which is a nebulous concept, usually adopted as a leaning post in lieu of more forensic analysis. Quite often it’s simply shorthand for ‘I don’t know what the issue is and I don’t want to admit it.’ That Arsenal went onto win the cup that year and duly retained it surely exposed Keane’s implied criticism as folly.
It seems a trifle odd to adopt a spectrum for precisely how vociferously one is allowed to celebrate in the emotionally charged arena of football. During the last week alone, Liverpool have been criticised for over celebrating a stoppage time winner in a league fixture and for appearing overly pleased with themselves for qualifying for a domestic cup final. It shouldn’t need explaining that professionals that have poured entire adolescences and careers into success might be happy to qualify for a domestic cup final, or to score a last gasp winner away from home, or prosper in the pressure cooker situation of a penalty shootout. Especially when the criticism for failure in those scenarios would likely have been keen.
It shouldn’t need explaining that fans that pay lots of money and expend gargantuan effort to tap into the sport’s escapist properties might want to, well, escape in this happiness. Because what else are we really getting out of this enormous investment but these fleeting moments of relief and immense satisfaction? There is plenty that is frustrating, mundane and routine about football. Those things are all woven into its curious tapestry of attractions.
Its relentless continuity provides stability and comfort in a way that real life doesn’t. Real life disappointment and tragedy can be irrevocable and life altering in ways entirely beyond our control. Football’s routine is reassuring because it is not fragile or threatened. As Nick Hornby pondered in Fever Pitch, if you lose the cup final in May, there’s the 3rd round again next January. Football is life with stabilizers on, it’s life affirming because of the emotion it produces, but we know that it isn’t really important. The consequences of its mischief are not dire or tragic in the true sense of the words.
It’s a safe haven for us to experience the full gamut of human emotion. Why wouldn’t one want to lose oneself in this quilted reality? It’s difficult not to conclude that we are taking it a bit too seriously. Celebration has become such a keenly studied aspect of the game that players feel bullied into refraining from doing it in certain situations so as not to offend. It seems a shame to oppress a sport designed for our entertainment into forced solemnity.
A lot of this mean spirited scrutiny of celebration is also borne of self-preservation too. It’s a kind of envy forged into a stick with which to beat our rivals and belittle their achievements. That’s not new or particularly concerning. It’s childish, but pretty much everything that is great about the game is childish really. I will never forget an incident at a Wimbledon v Arsenal match at Selhurst Park in 1992, when a 20 man brawl broke out and persisted for several minutes. Everybody around me clambered to their feet, urging their team on in this bout of fisticuffs. Some shadow boxed along in time, willing the Arsenal players to a pyrrhic physical victory. (We lost the game 3-2).
A woman in front of me, sat alone, wide eyed at what was going on around her, just began to laugh uproariously. In the heat of the moment, my initial reaction was one of offence. How dare she laugh? Can’t she see how serious this is? How those Wimbledon thugs have wronged the men in red? Then I caught myself and looked at it through more neutral eyes and I understood it. At 8 years old, here I was stood amongst a throng of adults behaving unabashedly like 8 year olds themselves and nobody cared. I realised she was right, this was very funny and that always stayed with me.
I’ve no issues with admitting that I am that much more anxious about derby matches in the age of social media and the online forum. I can studiously avoid colleagues and friends that are Chelsea fans this week, but there is no hiding online. I genuinely believe that this will continue to heighten rivalries in football, if indeed it hasn’t already. I think this to be a good thing, and I’m at pains to point that out because I am almost eye rolling at myself for writing another thinkpiece grumbling about the effects of internet discourse on football.
At this point, I’m minded of one of my favourite quotes from the British sitcom Peep Show, when Mark laments his friend Jez’s “lazy cynicism”, adding that his “sneering, ironic take on the world encapsulates everything wrong with a generation.” The practice of derisively deconstructing celebration and how emphatically it is executed is one that continues to baffle and one that, in my opinion, seeks to dilute so much of what is great about being a football fan.
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