clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Proximity does not equal authenticity: Arsenal fans come from everywhere

Apparently some people think your sports fandom should depend on where you live.

Petr Cech is shocked that people can be so provincial
Petr Cech is shocked that people can be so provincial
Michael Regan/Getty Images

I don't know if you saw this, but a couple weeks ago a visitor to this here Short Fuse - and to several other SBN Premier League sites - posted what could generously be described as a rant about what he considered the proper qualifications that one must possess in order to be a "real fan" and not just a "glory hunting c**t". Additionally, I was sent an email from this same individual, personalizing that same rant with details about my fandom that I have shared on the Short Fuse in the past and making the judge/jury/executioner case that I am, in fact, nothing but the aforementioned "glory hunting c**t". LOOK MOM I FINALLY MADE SOMETHING OF MY LIFE!

None of this bothers me in the slightest - I haven't laughed as hard as I did when I opened his email in a long time - but since that happened, I've been thinking a lot about what it means to be a fan of something. And specifically, what it means to be a fan of something half a world away to which I have very limited in-person access.

It used to be, back in Ye Olde Days, that one's sports fandom was almost exclusively a product of family and geography. If you were a kid in Brooklyn from the turn of the 20th century until the 1950's, you were a Dodger fan, because the Dodgers played in your neighborhood; your dad was a Dodger fan, and his dad was too. And if you were a kid on Chicago's North Side at the same time, you were a Cubs fan - the cities may change, but the story of fandom generally stays the same. As a kid, you like what your parents like, and generally by the time you're old enough to make your own choices, you're already a die-hard fan of whatever team you grew up watching.

In those days, also, media was much more limited - it's only in my adult lifetime that sports have been ubiquitous on TV. When I was a kid, there was one, maybe two nationally televised baseball games a week, there were several years when the NBA Finals were shown on tape delay hours after the games were played, and most people consumed sports on a daily basis via the newspaper and the radio. So, if you were a Dodger fan because your dad was, you didn't really explore other options, because you looked for Dodger news first in the newspaper and didn't really look to see what the Cardinals were up to.

That's not in any way exclusive to baseball in the 1940's and 50's, either - every team in every sport has a fanbase that radiates out geographically from the area in which it plays. And that's a great thing - it's really fun to see athletes doing charity work in the cities where they play, for instance, because it builds that connection even stronger, that "oh, he/she lives in my area and must really like it here" that makes people love their local team even more than they already did.

Nowadays, of course, there are any number of ways to become a fan of any number of team, which is remarkable and amazing and kind of unbelievably awesome. To get back to Arsenal for a second, I became an Arsenal fan after a trip to England in 1990, during which I went to several different teams' matches around the country; when I got home, an Irish guy I worked with decided that I was insufficiently committed to a team and brought me a stack of Arsenal games he'd saved on VHS and told me to watch them. After spending a weekend doing just that, I was hooked - it was Arsenal for me.

I then spent a lot of time, as did many people in the early 1990's, at bars at 4AM watching games (SEE MOM I TOLD YOU I MADE SOMETHING OF MY LIFE!) and hanging around newsstands on Tuesdays reading the English papers that I couldn't really afford to buy, in order to see the latest scores and info.

Part of being a fan of English soccer back then was absolutely its "otherness" - here was this thing that lived in the odd nooks and crannies of the American sports scene, that a small band of die-hards sought out and immersed themselves in as deeply as humanly possible. It was a thing that we had that nobody else had, almost nobody else knew about, and even fewer people actually wanted (yes, kids, there was a time soccer wasn't popular in the US! I know, right?).

I don't say that as a brag or a claim of superiority - I'm just pointing out that back then, it was hard damn work being a soccer fan in the US. I may not have gone to hundreds of games at Arsenal (My Highbury/Emirates attendance count is in the teens now, but in my defense the commute's kind of a bitch), but I have worked just as hard at being an Arsenal fan - and enjoyed it just as much - as has anyone born in London.

With the ubiquity of the internet (wow that was a lazy way to start this sentence! Sorry!), it's really easy to keep up on all things Arsenal, or whatever team you choose to follow and end up loving. And with the myriad entry points into soccer available these days (with the English and German leagues on US TV as well as MLS, every team in the world available to explore/play as via FM/FIFA, etc), I have very little patience for people who raise the drawbridges and say NO YOU CAN'T POSSIBLY LIKE THIS CORRECTLY BECAUSE YOU HAVE A ZIP CODE AND NOT A POSTCODE.

I fully understand that sort of punk-rock ethos of "this was ours before it was yours, and now it's not as good because you're here", but I reject that argument just as much in sports as I do in music. Those who think Americans are "glory hunting c***s" seem to prefer the days when teams played in heavy cotton shirts, with heavy leather balls, in stadiums that were barely fit for human habitation in a lot of cases, while being packed in like cattle (some stadia called the seating areas "pens"!) and fans were expected to make the best of it.

Thing is, those days are long gone - particularly for a team like Arsenal, with ambitions of winning both the league and the Champions League. To do that, in this day and age, takes a stupendous amount of money, and one way to get money is to make your product available to the widest possible audience, both in the local market and in other, further away markets. If Arsenal fans want nothing more than a cheap day out with their friends, then by all means lower ticket prices so everyone can afford them; problem is, then all of a sudden Arsenal can't pay the wage bill that it would take to win championships and Cups and things like that.

The game is not a small, provincial thing any more, and hasn't been since the 1980's; people all over the world can now watch Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United, or any team they want really, and become ardent, passionate fans of that team without ever setting foot in the country.

I know I will never convince those who think all non-London residents, particularly Americans, are fake Arsenal fans that we aren't; I'll never convince small-world people that the internet is actually a really good thing for Arsenal, and for every club, because increased visibility and reach allows more money to flow to the club from those far-flung fans. What I'm mostly trying to push back against here is the idea that there is a correct way to be a fan of a team, or that there's a set of criteria one must meet before being allowed to be a supporter.

Sports fandom comes in all shapes and sizes, and the idea that there is one "right" way to be a fan, and if you don't meet the set of unwritten rules you aren't worthy of being a fan, is repugnant and I will fight that idea forever. Geography doesn't matter. There are just as many passionate Arsenal fans in India as there are in Chicago as there are in London; those of you who live in London and are able to go to matches regularly are fortunate, but you're also not the stewards of a tradition that nobody else is entitled to share in.

At the end of the day, we all love this club, and we all want to see it win as much as it can. That's all that matters.