A while ago today – the same day I finished reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail – I saw this video that Match of the Day shared in which an inconsolable fan of Arsenal FC sounded like he was crying.
He said, amongst other things: “I’m just heartbroken”. This was after he saw his team, who lost to Brighton and Hove Albion recently after a dreadful run, “capitulate”. He also reported that the atmosphere was “horrible”.
The most interesting thing about the video – more notable, actually, than his declaration that he felt for the side’s often-criticised manager Arsene Wenger – was the sheer emotion in the fan’s voice over what many would write off as nothing more than a game.
While I possibly have more than a casual interest in the sport (by which I mean football, not Arsenal-baiting), I am not engulfed in feverish fits of football-mania, despite my frequent watching of Match of the Day, although I have developed a habit of tournament-watching every few years from which I have experienced withdrawal symptoms. (I am not even sure I’m joking with that last comment.)
In all seriousness, football can produce in humans some pretty strong emotions. In October I travelled to Southampton to see the side play Newcastle: my first live game in years and my first ever Premier League fixture.
I was struck by the hatred, anger and stupid things that fans who surrounded me hurled at their opponents and the referee, even though none of them seemed to do much, if anything, to provoke such outburst. Yes, some people certainly treat people as if it’s life or death.
Arguably, football can sometimes be a matter of life and death, serving as a kind of life-giver as well as provoking terrible violence which does sometimes literally result in death.
During a Christmas Day ceasefire in the midst of the First World War, both English and German soldiers, usually more pre-occupied with trying to kill each other and win battles, played a game of football. This gives us grounds to pause and consider how much the sport can symbolise.
Many would call football ‘The Beautiful Game’ and the match during the Great War is an example of how sport can be used for good, as well as happenings such as football-related charity events and other constructive work.
At the other end of the scale is the many examples of football-related violence between footballers. Then there are particularly horrible cases of aggression from some (but not all) fans: nasty chants, hooliganism and even stabbings. It could be said that football often sometimes brings out the best and worst in humans.
The reaction to the aforementioned video of a crying Arsenal fan, including my own private response prior to writing this, raised in my mind many issues and questions.
Among them were the following: Is it okay to laugh at the dramatic, strong misery the fan conveyed to the public? Was it acceptable for him to get so upset over a matter that was strictly football-related? And how important is football?
At least one commenter in the video’s Facebook discussion section called the fan “pathetic” and spoke of greater tragedies in life such as those facing poor souls in children’s hospitals and their respective families.
Some basically compared the troubles of Arsenal, or at least their weighty emotional impact on that fan, to ‘first world problems’: issues the more fortunate of us complain about which the inhabitants of less fortunate countries, those particularly struck by disaster and injustice, often consider to be, to put it mildly, the least of their worries.
One thing that I also thought of while scrolling through the Match of the Day Facebook feed was the sobering recent death of Italian footballer Davide Astori.
Another point to emerge from the viewers was the fact that Arsenal are far more fortunate than many other football clubs, even those within England.
There is an element of truth in most of the opinions and facts listed in the above.
To indulge in cliché and perhaps put it bluntly: it’s not the end of the world and many are worse off than the supporters of Arsenal, their supporters or even their beleaguered manager.
However, the troubles of Arsenal FC are, I believe, relatively significant and perhaps even things more deserving of emotional response than some may believe. I say this even while recognizing that to react so strongly that we are “heartbroken” is probably inappropriate.
I write the following as someone who does not at present believe in objective ethics (even if, given the language used here, it may seem as though I do), and does not possess all the answers even in theory, but still inevitably feels strongly about a number of issues without seeing myself as a ‘Social Justice Warrior’ (a disparaging term popular among some in the American right-wing media).
The abundance bigger sides in the world who either underperform despite accumulating massive wealth or only perform adequately because of their huge, arguably underserved financial clout is horrible.
I believe this probably partly, but not only, because I am the son of both a hard-working nurse, one of many who earn much less than a footballer and another conscientious person who, to put it mildly, is not a fan of Manchester United and their almost imperial, greedy, perhaps arrogant grip on a significant portion of the footballing world.
The recent difficulties of Arsenal and their spectators is symptomatic of wider problems with not just football or its economics but modern life.
These problems mean that some people are paid masses while others starve, and supporters invest a huge amount of emotional and financial capital into a system, by no means aided by the press surrounding it, which inevitably fails to yield returns which are adequate given all that has been invested.
As a result, emotions run high, either in anger about the importance attached to particular people involved or the sport in general, or frustration about how overplayed players, managers, board members or referees are failing to live up to their immense price tags.
Another consequence is that the trivial becomes god-like in terms of how important, special or all-encompassing it is perceived to be, while matters of extreme importance are deemed less significant.
I say this with all due respect to football and to those who are struggling or working harder than even the least fortunate Premier League clubs and could not care less about it.
We should have sympathy – or empathy if possible – for all who suffer injustice, even if there are other injustices that are far more or far less severe than any particular situation one might bring up.
We should also endeavour to put things into proper perspective or continue doing so if we are already.
Placing things in their proper place and responding appropriately are forms of justice and compassion in themselves.
Life isn’t just a pitch, but it’s still important to some, and the ramifications of many of football’s problems, and their need to be solved, extend far beyond the realm of sport.