2012 has been one of the most remarkable years in the long history of Chelsea Football Club. From the sacking of Villas-Boas to the unlikely Champions League triumph in Munich to the demolition of Tottenham in the FA Cup final, followed by court cases and disciplinary hearings to the most recent managerial change – the sacking of club legend Di Matteo and the hugely unpopular decision to appoint Rafael Benitez as replacement. For fans, the year has been a test of resolve – like the thrill of a carousel ride. One moment you feel the body and mind delivering instinctive signals of emotive joy, the next the vomit from the kid seated behind lands slap in your face. So what defines a fan?
The most recent decision to replace Di Matteo with Benitez has caused Chelsea fans to vent their frustrations and anger through social media outlets and throughout pubs and workplaces across the globe. Along with this frustration concerning the ‘disconnect with the support base’ comes discourse surrounding who and what is a ‘real’ fan. This debate is ongoing, and exacerbated during dramatic moments in a particular club’s history. Some feel the need to advertise their allegiance, as if seeking approval for an identity they constantly seek to reaffirm. Some plaster themselves with tattoos, some keep their away ticket programmes, some continually mock opposition supporters, others mock each other due to their comments on particular players. The list goes on. Let’s try to simplify this.
As the global game, football is often seen as a mirror on society. It reveals a passionate and emotive response – a release that somehow gains legitimacy if associated with the beautiful game. It is this ‘living’ engagement that makes one a fan, or a supporter. It enables people to identify with one another, and identify with the ‘other’. It is about separation as much as integration. Generations follow the same team and continue to seek a belonging that reinforces their role as a ‘true fan’. This emotive response however, is as divisive as it is integrative. Just like any aspect of lived reality in a social setting, be it within a family, a community, a club or a nation.
Having supported Chelsea since I used to walk about in the 80s with Kerry Dixon’s #9 retro Le Coq Sportif strip (full kit of course) I’ve had ample experience of the fan experience. Being the best team was oddly not the initial draw to the club, it was the swagger of the style. The players in the 80s (Pat Nevin and Dixon aside) were not particularly good, but they optimized the lion on the badge. These days, if not in the family, it seems kids pick their team based on success and commercial exposure. I’ve experienced the wave of new fans following Chelsea since the 90s when Hoddle, Vialli, Zola et al began to deliver some real chance of success to the club. And into the 2000s when the titles (and Mourinho+Abramovich) were delivered. I moved to London specifically to attend home and away games, doing all it took to survive each week until the next match took place. It was about participating in as many experiences related to the club that mattered. I felt the nerve of being caught in the wrong back street in Nottingham one grim November, the elation of witnessing my first FA Cup final victory, the misery of a cold night out in Southampton having lost my way, in more than one sense. I considered myself an active fan. Over the years, my views have mellowed.
Moving away from London, chances to see Chelsea live are limited to the odd excursion (most recently ending up among the Barcelona supporters in the top tier of the Camp Nou to witness us reaching the Champions League final). Still, from afar, one has access to all the games online. Like human rationality in general, I sense that supporters will forever be split between the ‘success-based’ and the ‘club-based’ camps. The former set of fans I find more frustrating to deal with, but perhaps it reveals deeper characteristics related to unease and short-termism. These are the fans that slag a player off one week, and revel in his success the next. These fans are the ones who tell us we must back a player or a manager ‘no matter what’, as failing to do so shows our disloyalty. These fans buy the merchandise, attend the games, popularize the social media sites, slag off the opposition and in many ways become the public face and voice of the club. These fans are the ones who told us to ‘shut it’ when we expressed our displeasure of having AVB and Torres drag our team down, only to come out later saying how relived they are that things have moved on (the latter shortly I presume).
Then there are the fans who perhaps don’t voice their support as loudly, but make up the spirit of what initially drew me to the club some 30 years ago, and continues to hold a firm grip upon me. The ephemeral nature of football support is a lesson on how to face challenges, suffer, revel in the glory, and wake up each day knowing it will not change. Your shirt will always be the same. It is a lesson in life, how knowledge is gained and filtered through a myriad of experiences. It is each to his or her own as to how one defines a ‘true fan’ or a ‘plastic’. I don’t particularly care, and certainly do not see a fellow wearing Blue as an automatic friend. It may well be a quick avenue to that, but I’ve met some of the most heinous individuals who are supporting our club. Also some of my dearest friends. Chelsea will always be a big part of me, and I will continue to learn from the experiences the great club throws upon me. But like any aspect of life, one has the opportunity to choose their level of buy-in, and call that their form of commitment. Just like a family, a career or a philosophy one lives by to experience their own set of emotions.