Supporter Culture: The Roots Go Way Back
To the Italians, football is theatre. It’s so deeply ingrained in calcio, that it’s in the language that is used. This allusion is sadly lost in the, mostly Anglophilic, world of football in the US. This isn’t to say that we’re too dense to appreciate the artistry and nuance of the performance, the roles, or the movement - we just don’t use the same language to describe what we see.
Going to football matches is the same as going to any theatrical production. There are clearly defined character roles which are all part of the show. There are protagonists, your club. Antagonists, the opposition. And forces at play who affect the outcome beyond the control of the actors, the match officials. Football is essentially a morality play. Digging further into the theatrical concept, one needs to look no further than Ancient Greece to fully understand football, when your club wins it is a comedy. When your club loses, it is drama. But that isn’t the only device pinched from Antiquity.
The one theatrical device from Ancient Greek theatre which has carried over into football is the Greek Chorus. The role of the supporter section, very much, follows the concept of how the chorus functioned. The supporters exist as a way of translating the story being told on the pitch to the crowd. The supporters are a character that exist between what is happening on the pitch, and how it is understood in the crowd. The supporters, through their chants and songs, lead in defining the atmosphere at the ground. Taking this further, the supporters are constantly commenting on the action unfolding before them. Either in jeering opposition players or yelling tirades at the match officials. Singing praises of their own club’s players. That running commentary continues to shape the perception of those, outside of the supporters’ section, who are watching the match. In that way, the supporters act in representation of the crowd.
The Greek Chorus was known, especially, for their uniformity in singing and speaking. Much in the same way that supporter groups have their songs and their chants. The solidarity of voice. The power of the singular voice, no matter how many parts, pushing your club on to victory. Or lifting them up from a dire performance. Willing them on to overturn a deficit. Creating a hostile, unwelcoming location for your opposition to step into. Creating an imposing environment where the match officials know that they’ll be constantly scrutinized and harangued for judgments going against your club. The power of the single voice is integral to the supporters, as it was to the chorus. However, this voice could be fractured and contrary. This would be epitomized by different groups, supporting the same club, chanting or singing different songs. Or the groups, supporting different clubs, chanting and singing, at each other. Mimicking a dialogue like what we, as the crowd, would have. A veritable Strophe and Antistrophe.
Further in the roleplaying of the chorus is the exaggeration. It can take the form of arms thrown upward in apoplexy. Or jumping around in euphoria when your club scores. These actions send a signal to those who are in the crowd how to react. It narrates the action on the pitch and adds a bit of chutzpah to moments of contention or delight. They are the valve for the venting of frustration when your club underperform. Or blow a 3-0 lead. But the supporters are also the beacon from which all celebrations reverberate. The supporters lead through their active participation with the actors before them. And in doing so, they act out the catharsis of the crowd.
There are times, though, where the supporters sometimes find themselves on the wrong side of accepted supporting. Creating a dialogue through dissonance. Noticing your club, or a player, is starting to experience a dip in form, is a great example of this. It is here that the supporters as chorus speak for the crowd, before the crowd is fully aware of what is happening. Expressing the exasperation and frustrations and the criticisms, that run ideally counter to the cheers of their peers. Or, in a similar vein, as Tim Parks explained in A Season With Verona, “The team had left the field to whistles. They returned to the kind of cheers and chants that are shouted against the grain through gritted teeth. Duty chants. We have to support you, we’re going to support you, but you don’t fucking-well deserve it.” In this way, the supporters as chorus represent the all who are watching the match. The supporters represent the way the crowd thinks. Whether it is how they think, currently. How they thought, in the past. Or how they may think, in the future. The supporters, as a character, represent and embody the outward expression of all these ideas.
Another facet of the Greek Chorus that has carried over, is cosplay. In Greece, the chorus wore masks to identify their singularity. Amongst supporters, it’s the wearing of your club’s shirt, or color. And even, in some cases, wearing costumes within the color scheme of your club. For all the criticisms of “full kit wankers” and the like, think about how often you go out wearing something that represents your club. It’s still a form of cosplay. You’re still in the role of the supporter, the chorus, you’re just wearing your mask in public.
As the supporter culture has evolved, so too have the theatrical devices used. A lot of groups now utilize pyrotechnics for establishing the ambiance of their home ground. Smoke grenades and flares are two of the most easily accessible and recognizable forms used. In some cases, however, the scale of usage of these devices, overshadows the match taking place. Thereby drawing the attention away from the match unfolding on the pitch. But, there are many groups who practice restrained usage of pyrotechnic devices, namely saving them for a goal celebration, or for something special before the match starts.
To build off the previous, something else that seems to get lost in the modern supporter culture, is that being a supporter is a role. Being a part of a supporter group is a role. At matches, the supporters are merely a character, like the players on the pitch, or the match officials. They share a similar level of importance to that of any other character before them. Unfortunately, there are several groups who see themselves as being a bigger part of the production, or even an attraction themselves. Thereby implicating that they as supporters, with the jocularity which they bring, are more important than the match itself. The choreography of dances, displays, and chants; it is treated as being of higher importance than watching and reacting to the actors and play before them. Characters are not supposed to be self-aware or self-important, it disintegrates the suspension of disbelief which makes theatre work. During those 90 minutes of play, that suspension of disbelief is what makes the match experience work. All parts working together, in harmony, to create something greater than themselves. If one of the supporting parts, either the supporters or officials, try to take a greater role, it undermines the importance of the struggle betwixt the protagonist and antagonist on the pitch. The story the match is telling. Additionally, when the chorus becomes self-aware, it loses the power of its voice. And for that there is retribution, in whatever form it comes.
That intertwining of football and theatre, even if subconsciously, is integral to the engagement of support. Being a part of the collective reaction, when your club is hard done by, or when your club scores the game-winner at the death; those are important. They help draw you in. And being able to be a part of the choral response to feeling aggrieved because the ref or linos missed a call, the line between the reality and the art dissipate. Being surrounded in a crush of hugs after the above-mentioned winner, the line between reality and the art dissipate. Because being with fellow supporters, that solitary voice has the command to influence matches. To impose its will on opposition clubs, through the force of support for their own. To make a normally whistle-happy ref fade into the grass. It’s all active participation in the show. And that is where the role of supporter is integral.
Having now established the importance of supporters as a role in a greater production, this opens the door for exploration and discussion of other concepts. We can build upon the Fourth Wall that exists for those 90 minutes. Also cast a skeptical eye toward the concept of authenticity. And its usage as a weapon to denigrate the credibility of other supporters. As well as the co-opting of football as a device to act out on societal/cultural tensions. Additionally, discuss the concept of brotherhood, and a shared experience, as a counterpoint to the exclusivity. And ultimately look at what it is about supporting a club, that resonates so deeply. Not just on a group level, but on an individual level as well. And from this, ideally, the discourse on how best to nudge the culture toward evolution will come.
- Eric Major