Xenophiles: Sports Fans

Wednesday, 23 July, 2014

Words by Bren Carruthers
Illustration by Heath Hipwell

If you’ve caught any of the FIFA World Cup over the past month, you will have already seen them. Loud, screaming, barely clinging to a rational world—they are the crazed sports fan. It may seem strange to think of the sports fan as a foreign, unusual subculture, given that Melbourne is the self-proclaimed sporting capital of the self-proclaimed sporting nation, yet it is impossible to deny that there is so much hiding under the coloured face paint of the fan that goes unrecognised and unnoticed.

When national teams come together at an event like the FIFA World Cup, there is inevitably an uncomfortable confluence of competition, nationalism, and venom, the nature of which differs from country to country. In Germany, for example, match celebrations tend to be very muted, even after a win, reflective of the self-conscious national feeling in post-reunification Germany. Other rivalries are fierce, and are already quite prolific within Australian soccer, with clashes between fans of different heritages a primary reason for the formation of the A-League. But nationalistic fury is not just seen between traditional national or ethnic rivals, but also within national teams themselves. Despite being a locally born orphan, in his role as a striker for Italy Mario Balotelli has received endless vitriol from his own supporters, who are quick to suggest that there is “no such thing as a black Italian”.

Despite the ugliness of single-minded nationalism, there are elements of hope. Palestine’s recent success in qualifying for the Asian Cup, to be held in Australia this January, will go some way to affirming a sense of communal belonging and identity, regardless of Palestine’s brutally contested status as a sovereign state. There’s no doubt that, come next year, Palestine will be roundly supported by the soccer community, as both a sporting and a political underdog.

But of course, sports fandom isn’t simply an exercise in patriotic flag-waving. Dave is a fan of his local soccer club, Ipswich Town, a middle-sized club based in England and playing one level below the Premier League. For him, the club is the pivot upon which his life turns. He has made himself somewhat of a local celebrity with his eternally optimistic phone conversations on BBC Radio Suffolk, and a few years ago, he even invested in an old minibus in order to get himself and other fans – particularly ones with physical disabilities – to games right across the country.

“I don’t know why I do it”, he says with half a chuckle. “We’ve been stuck in The Championship for thirteen years. But I do love it. It’s always been in me.”

Sadly, however, Dave simply doesn’t have the money to make it to every game these days. Skyrocketing fuel and ticket prices have forced him to strip back his following. When ten years ago he could make every game, the Global Financial Crisis has demanded that he be more selective in his choices. In Australia, the situation is similar, regardless of the sport at hand. Alex is a passionate third-generation Essendon supporter.

“When I was a kid, it was totally possible. If money wasn’t too tight, Mum and Dad would even take me to Perth for the West Coast game. But these days, even by myself, it’s just impossible. Too much travelling, too much time, too much money. Much cheaper to buy a slab and watch it on Foxtel instead.” Sadly it seems, when once active sports fandom was once the domain of the everyman, it is now an option only open to a privileged few with enough life flexibility and spending capital to pursue. And of course, when there is a possibility of money to be made, there will inevitably be someone there to make it.

The Fanatics, which once began as a loose group of fellow-minded sports fans wanting to group together for major sporting events, is now a booming business and major tour operator. The company now organises everything from sporting events, to European tours, to ANZAC tours of frontline battlefields, fitting uncomfortably with the idea of fanaticism and fandom. The Fanatics prove that even national pride can be commoditised, packaged up, and sold as an ‘experience’. Other countries have similar organisations – England’s Barmy Army, New Zealand’s cricket-following Beige Brigade, and Canada’s soccer-mad Voyageurs.

But despite the encroachment of commercial interests, what lies beneath a passionate sports following is a sense of community and belonging. One of Dave’s great prides is taking a prime role in fostering a partnership between Ipswich Town and Fortuna Düsseldorf, a club of similar size and history in Germany. Each season, each club welcome a contingent of fans from the other team for a matchday and a few drinks. Little more binds them but camaraderie and goodwill.

“Most of our fans don’t speak a word of German”, says Dave. “But that just makes it that much more special. There’s no other way to make friends like this.”