It is exciting to be a soccer fan, especially when your team is winning. It’s hard when you are on the losing side. But for good or bad you are stuck with your team. You can kick back or forward and have a fun day at a Ripper Casino. And as fans, the game definitely has a hold on you. But how did this come about?
The beginning of football
Undoubtedly football is the most loved spectator sport on earth. The experience of being a fan is often passed down through generations. It goes right back to where it began many years ago in Britain, around 150 years ago. In Britain all those years ago our ancestors fell in love with the game and were the initiators of the fan culture that we see today when they developed allegiances to individual clubs. However, “fandom” goes back even further, long before we had ever heard of the word soccer.
Football has always been popular going way back to ancient games in China, Rome and Greece. In Britain there was such a thing as medieval football “games” and then games that took place in public schools, which eventually led to association football. Football in its earliest forms inspired many to become quite fanatical in their enthusiasm for the game. Eventually with the formation of the Football Association the Laws of the Game were established in 1863.
In the 1880’s football really became popular in Britain. Social changes made it possible for working people to enjoy new pastimes. But the term football “fans” didn’t really take hold until the beginning of the 20th century. The word originates from America and is a shortened form of the word, “fanatic” used to describe baseball enthusiasts.
The emergence of soccer fans
The word “soccer” has its roots in 1880s England and was later adopted in the US. And by 1910 the New York Times was regularly referring to “soccer fans”. But the rise of soccer as a spectator sport was really propelled by the working class and especially by immigrant workers.
In 1950 the US national team won in the World Cup Finals against England. And in 1951 Life Magazine published “the great spectator sport” about British football. They wrote “Crowds are football’s most overwhelming feature” and “In Great Britain, some two million people, carrying fish and chips and thermos jugs, flock into stadiums each week.”
It was in this post war golden age that there emerged the image of the traditional football fan, wearing scarf and hat in his team’s colors. Most were male, and would arrive at the grounds ready to sing along with the crowd as they watched the game. Win or lose they would always be the next match.
Outsiders and certain sections of society were baffled by the spectacle and didn’t really “get it”. This was initially a working-class sport. By the 1970s, England was witnessing many incidents of violence and disorder and criticism of and contempt for football fans became widespread. But things improved in the 1900s and 2000s and the games became more hospitable, with less hooliganism.
However, it was also the beginning of the disappearance of the traditional football fan. As the game attracted more money and international TV right, together with the introduction of the English Premier League, many working-class fans could no longer afford the prices.
Fans’ experience in the US during the 1970s and 1980s was very different from that of Britain. They were enjoying games with some of the best players, like George Best, Pele and Franz Beckenbauer, often drawing crowds of more than 70,000.
After a low ebb interested in soccer was rekindled when the US hosted the World Cup in 1994. Incredibly it was watched by a TV audience in the US of 145 million. And later, in 2014 when Brazil hosted the World Cup the US TV audience had reached 291 million.
The new wave of soccer fans in the US is partly due to increased visibility and the influence of European soccer leagues. More TV coverage meant that soccer could compete with more traditional US sports and fans began to align with foreign clubs and the culture associated with soccer mad Europe.
Another important reason for the surge in soccer fans was the quality of the world soccer league, with big names like David Beckham joining the LA Galaxy in the late 2000s. Now clubs began to introduce soccer fan culture – scarves, tifos.
Today we see a generation of fans who have grown up watching the game. They expect high quality soccer as their knowledge and awareness has grown. Today attendance at MLS is higher than that of any major US baseball, hockey or basketball team. An example of this is Atlanta United when played their first game in March 2017, attendance was 55,297.
The changing nature of being a soccer fan
Today you can be a soccer fan without ever actually going to a match. Media coverage today is so extensive and so available that it is possible to follow the game from home, from a bar, or from the office. The media has enabled the football fan.
During the 1800s in Britain, it was the growth of newspapers that nurtured and encouraged football and increased its popularity. When radio and TV came along it was possible to be involved from afar. Now with the internet and social media coverage of football has extended even more. It is likely that a 19th century football fan would find it difficult to recognize a 21st century fan as having a shared interest.
In this era, the majority of football fans don’t go to matches. The attendance for English Premier League games in 2015-2016 was around 36,500, whilst the average UK TV audience the same games was 800,000. The global audience is probably around three billion, according to the Premier League. And that is without taking into consideration social media.
But there are still fans that do go to matches, but they are in the minority. Fans are still predominantly male but studies have shown that today a third of football fans are now women. Shirts are still fashionable but gone are the hats and scarves. Singing and chanting are still part of the atmosphere and the result still matters causing huge expressions of emotion and the build up to the next match.
Some things do not change. The connection to our ancestors and the relationship to football continues. Soccer fans have an interesting history. It covers many things both social and political. It covers the history of the media and of the game itself. Ultimately it is the history of how fans support their teams, winning and losing, and returning time and again.