Fan till I die? The meaning of being a football supporter

Sunday 30 October, 9.45am until 10.30am, Café

A woman sees an old man sitting next to an empty seat at the FA Cup final and asks why he is alone, to which he responds that it’s his deceased wife’s seat. When the woman asks why he didn’t invite another member of the family, he explains they’re all at the funeral. An old joke, but achingly familiar to any serious football fan (and those that love them). From Bill Shankly’s famous quip that football is more than a matter of life and death through to Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch and the alleged ‘baby boom’ effect in World Cup host countries, football fandom is known to excite great passions. But is it worth it? Or is obsession with football an unhealthy condition?

The energy fans put into football is even stranger, perhaps, when one considers the likely disappointment for most fans, who will rarely see their team win the league, a trophy or even successive games, and could well see them relegated or, in these recessionary times, even go extinct. Yet obsessive support and devotion for unsuccessful and small, local clubs is often hailed as a greater mark of honour than ‘glory-hunting’: how many southern-based Manchester United fans claim they just so happen to have a great-grandfather from Old Trafford? More recently, the notion has been taken even further with supporters’ clubs such as AFC Wimbledon, Man U’s ‘Green and Gold’ anti-Glazer protests.

Has football always provoked these displays of seemingly crazed devotion, or is it a much more recent trend? Is the violence and verbal abuse associated with football hooliganism an inevitable extension of these passions? And does supporting your national team equate with an irrational patriotic loyalty to your country, right or wrong? Has football’s transformation from working class pastime to the national obsession damaged the beautiful game? Is there a particular type of person prone to being a football obsessive, and do they need to get a life?

Listen to session audio:


David Goldblatt
writer, broadcaster and teacher; author, The Ball is Round: a global history of football and How to Watch the Olympics; regular writer, Prospect magazine

Syd Jeffers
senior lecturer in sociology, University of East London; Arsenal supporter

Richard Stubbs
educational consultant; former teacher; advocate, Greenwich Advocacy

Stefan Verwer
director, Lokaalmondiaal and Coolpolitics; editor, Africa United: the road to 2010

Tom Watt
writer, actor and broadcaster

Geoff Kidder
director, membership and events, Academy of Ideas; convenor, IoI Book Club; IoI’s resident expert in all sporting matters

Produced by
Geoff Kidder director, membership and events, Academy of Ideas; convenor, IoI Book Club; IoI’s resident expert in all sporting matters
Richard Stubbs educational consultant; former teacher; advocate, Greenwich Advocacy
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