in praise of fickle fans
Among sports fans there's an unwritten rule that you support your team no matter what. Diehard sports fans brag about sticking with their team through the worst of times, as if this masochism is something to be applauded. And they reserve all their contempt for the fickle "bandwagon" fans or the others who jump ship. But sports would be much better if fans were a little less loyal.
I grew up dribbling a soccer ball in the street and watching FC Barcelona play. I remember being transfixed as Messi, Iniesta, and Xavi danced circles around defenders. They were on top of the world back then, and in hindsight their existence felt almost unreal. They played with a tiki-taka passing style and a coherent possession-based footballing philosophy. And they were good. I watched them hoist European silverware more times than I can count.
Their rivals were Real Madrid, a club with a completely contrasting approach to the game. Madrid were the team of the Spanish crown (real means royal in Spanish), and they signed the biggest names, like Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, and Cristiano Ronaldo to their team of galacticos, or 'superstars'. In contrast, the Barcelona players were mostly Spanish and brought up in their in-house youth program. They were humble and unassuming, not the kind of showmen that Madrid tended to court. FC Barcelona had a notably noble image—for many years they didn't play with a sponsor on their jersey (unheard of at the time) and served as a source of Catalan pride and a symbol for the independence movement. I was smitten; Messi & co felt like the good guys, not just playing good football but doing something more in the process.
If you watched FC Barcelona play today you'd hardly recognize them as the same team. Nobody fears them anymore. They haven't seriously challenged for a European championship in many years. The squad is made up of expensive signings, and they don't play with any semblance of a footballing ideology anymore. Their shirts are plastered with the same corporate sponsors as everyone else and they've even sold the naming rights of their stadium to Spotify to try to get out of debt. To top it all off, Barcelona's been mismanaged financially so poorly they even let Messi—the best player in the world—go for free, because the club couldn't figure out their taxes.
But the club is still as popular as ever. The stadium is filled almost to capacity every single season. Jerseys still fly off the shelves and fans flock from all over the world to see them play what can at best be described as mediocre football. I find it hard to believe that people can root for a club so blindly; the club's precipitous demise has been hard for me to watch. Seeing the current management mistreat its players and run the club into the ground fills me with unspeakable anger and sadness.
Of course, Barcelona is far from the only club that has changed drastically for the worse like this. In fact, most of Europe's top clubs have been bought by ultra-rich foreign investors over the past few years. It's especially in vogue for oil-rich Arab sheikhs to use successful football clubs as their personal pet sportswashing projects. Clubs are now subject to the whims of a select few members of the elite who know little to nothing about football, which has led to ballooning transfer fees, constant coach firings, and generally ill-advised decisions bad for football and fans alike.
The 2022 World Cup this past winter felt like a culmination of all the bullshit and corruption transpiring in football over the past decade. Qatar, a country with no footballing culture and a long history of human rights abuses, won the rights to host it after a coordinated campaign full of corruption, despite being utterly unfit to host a tournament of this magnitude. Hundreds of migrant slave laborers died constructing the World Cup stadiums, but Qatar used its financial might to snuff out any protests.
It doesn't have to be like this. Fans of Bayern Munich, the top club in Germany, have made their voices heard. They've demonstrated their opposition to the club's sponsor Qatar Airways (also a sponsor of FC Barcelona) not just in games, but also at board meetings with the club. Whether their work succeeds in effecting change remains to be seen, but at the very least their efforts show fans of other big football clubs that not all is lost.
Now, I'm not saying we should just support winning teams and jump ship whenever they lose. And don't be like those idiots who post videos of themselves burning jerseys at the drop of a hat. I do think there is merit to sticking with a team; success is so much sweeter if you've built that personal connection with your team over many years. But I do believe we can and should at least do something when the teams we love don't do things that uphold their (or our) values, like petition the directors, boycott the games, and, in extreme cases, withdraw our support. Our actions might seem like drops in a bucket, but I naïvely still believe that sports would be better off if clubs had to deal with empty stadiums every time they decided to put profits before the fans.