Pat Bamford was at the back post in Sydney last week, the ball was coming to him, the goalkeeper was going away. Thousands of fans had travelled thousands of miles to see him score this goal, and the frustration and anger resounded around the world when he didn’t.
Bamford kicked the ball straight at the keeper and an unsympathetic match director chose a closeup angle of his face so that, after he missed the chance, nobody missed his eyes rolling, his mouth twitching between laughing and despairing. There he was, the £7million goalscorer who can’t score a goal, where we could all get a good look at him. Dickhead.
Football builds its mythology and its marketing around the idea of loyal fanatics putting on replica teamwear and crossing oceans and continents to march on together with the beloved lads they dream of being and dream of bringing glory to their team, but its machinery now works another way. Buying a ticket to a game buys you the right to shout whatever abuse you like at the players, even if they’re playing for your side; following them on Twitter gives you the same right around the clock. Television, when it goes for its closeup of a player dizzy from his own mistake, isn’t inviting you to sympathise with someone whose name and number might be on the back of your replica shirt. Here’s the lad you like, it says, and he’s having a bad time; look closely at his face, it says, and call him a dickhead.
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There aren’t many fans around ready to commiserate with dickhead Bamford while he’s struggling to score. I wonder what it’s like for him; after that miss against Western Sydney Wanderers, that came after the miss against Manchester United that came after the miss against York, he looked near the end of his tether, where it’s not only difficult to score, but difficult to find a new expression to wear when you don’t. Is he scoring in training, or is he failing there too? When did he last put a ball in a net, and what’s the net effect when he can no longer do the thing he’s spent his whole life learning how to?
Let’s say Bamford started training seriously when he was ten years old. Fifteen years later, after a £7million transfer, while £20,000 goes into his bank account every week, he can’t score goals anymore. Does the dislocating impact of imposter syndrome set in? Awkwardness and guilt, feeling like he isn’t earning all that money? Does he leave the car in the garage and get the bus the long way out to do his weekly shop at Aldi, until he can justify his Waitrose wages? Not until I score again, he thinks; no more truffle pesto until I score again.
I don’t think anybody cares how tasty Pat’s pesto is at the moment. Fans have an innate understanding of football-induced trauma, but now the players are seen as its causes, rather than as fellow victims. You can still make a Leeds fan shudder by reminding them that a recording of the play-off semi-final is lurking behind a menu on their smart TV; they’ll tell you in hushed tones that they don’t feel brave enough to watch it yet. It’s like a soccer snuff movie, the sort of thing you see on LiveLeak, but despite our closeness to the subjects — Leeds United players — their distress is as abstract as a dashcam recording from a Russian motorway. It’s not for their sakes that we won’t watch the match again; we’re not remembering Gaetano Berardi bruising his fist against the tunnel after his red card, or Kalvin Phillips inconsolable at the end of the game. We’re remembering our anguish, not theirs, and theirs isn’t relevant to how we feel about going through it again, even though it happened to them just as it happened to us. What happened to the players wasn’t important, even though without the players we’d have nobody to play for our team.
There’s a part of football fandom now that resembles Formula 1 fans who don’t watch it for the tactics, the strategy or the skill, but endure those boring parts hoping for the excitement of a crash. Violent tackles and horrible injuries go viral no matter where the match was being played, who the teams were, whether viewers understand the language of the commentary; we watch thirty abstract seconds, and there’s no humanity because there’s no context, it’s just two figures in football kits, like the red versus blue of basic Subbuteo, hurting each other. Without the humanity, there’s no sympathy, and it forms a habit, so that one day you look at some clip in a tweet, and realise that’s a player from your own team, and you that you don’t care much, as long as your club has a replacement.
The cause of all this is money, and the way fans pay it and the players receive it, and how that screws the relationship. As ticket prices rise and TV subscriptions multiply, fans have to work harder to watch their team, and watch the players on the other end of all their money fail to do simple things like scoring goals. You don’t want to support them anymore; you want revenge, and you certainly don’t want to hear about them ‘hurting’ or going through a bad time because fans are shouting at them. What have the players got to feel bad about? If they don’t want to hurt, they should score.
With so much of football now given away — the old stadiums; their names; the front, back and shoulders of the shirts; the club colours; even the team’s names, now that Fenway Sports Group are trying to register ‘Liverpool’ as a trademark; and most of all the money — all supporters really have left that is theirs are emotions. So it’s no wonder we’re so fiercely protective of our emotions and contemptuous of the players’, because when Pat Bamford’s face shows his agony after missing an easy chance, not only is he taking our money while not doing his job, but then he’s stepping on our territory, pressing his violinist’s fingers against the strings of our nerves and emotions, the only things that are left still belonging to the fans.
Footballers are obviously integral to the game but they’re now strangely unwelcome within it. If they over-celebrate, they’re passion merchants. If they cry, they should think about their money. Our reactions, when we see a player showing the same emotions as a fan, are like those of a child who hasn’t learned about sympathy yet, confused by seeing someone else crying; we stop in our anger or our tears, stare at the person angry or crying with us, and think, what has this got to do with you? I’m angry because you missed, but what have you got to cry about? Dickhead.
When longing for the days before football changed, when you could have a pint with Jack and Billy on a Saturday night, fans often wish the players could be more like us. But the way the game has changed means we can never let them forget that they’re not like us, and in the modern game, we don’t seem to want them to be. We want a team of players who care, but not who care the way we do. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)