Yesterday Kristian Jack mentioned that someone Tweeted him to ask how he should go about picking a European football club to support. It kicked off a lively discussion over here at Footy Blog HQ, and revealed there are as many schools of thought on the matter as there are clubs to choose from.
I’ll begin by saying this is an old, controversial topic in North American circles, and the subject of bitter cultural debate. Each approach comes with their advantages and their weaknesses. Before we get into them, let’s agree on the Two Principle Commandments of supporting a football club.
I. Thou Shalt Not Support More Than One Club Not Separated by a Domestic League or at Least Three Divisions.
II. Thou Shalt Not Switch Teams, Ever. You Are X Until You Die.
Upon these hang the law and the prophets. And this is why no one should ever, under any circumstances, publicly declare for a club unless they’re absolutely sure they’re happy with their choice. Okay, how to pick a football club? Here are some options for how to go about making your choice…
1. Support your local team
The growth of Major League Soccer in the US over the past several years has been remarkable, and Canada is now home to three MLS clubs in each major population centre. This means there are fewer understanding pat-on-the-backs for soccer supporters on this side of the Atlantic who chose to bypass their local option for a better European team.
While only the hardcore USA-A-OKAY crowd would encourage you to refrain from watching European football altogether, many would make the not-unreasonable case that soccer can be enjoyed as a neutral, without the need to pick one team and follow them along their merry little way. You’ll learn a lot more this way, be less of a partisan jerk, and never, ever be disappointed (or elated by an unexpected cup run, sadly).
However we’re a tribal species, and odds are the “neutral” will eventually pick a subliminal favourite after months of watching Champions League or domestic league fixtures. Then the day will come when you want to buy a kit, and you’re stuck with a team you didn’t consciously choose to support, which means you might find a better fit down the line and kick yourself (don’t tell anyone though, remember commandment II). Which brings us to option two:
2. Watch a lot of football in different leagues and divisions, pick the team you like the best
This seems to me to be among the better options, but it comes with some significant drawbacks. Here’s one possible scenario to illustrate my point. Athletic Bilbao have been very, very interesting to watch since Marcelo Bielsa’s tenure began this season. No doubt they have gathered some admirers of late, and possibly even some bonafide fans in love with their compelling style of late which has led to an impressive run in the Europa Cup.
But when happens if/when Bielsa moves on? Perhaps Bilbo Baggins will roar on to Mordor without him, but chances are they’ll go back to being the same old Bilbao, doing their thing while perpetually staving off relegation. So you’re stuck with a not very interesting club anymore. Then you start sniffing around their history and you’re a bit suspicious of the Cantera policy. But remember Commandment II! This is your club now buddy, you’re stuck with it.
This is why you see many angry Chelsea supporters who climbed aboard during the Mourinho era, and why Napoli supporters who joined up for the Three Tenors will be stuck watching a lot of Serie B in a few years’ time when they disappear and Aurelio de Laurentis finally makes a good movie and gets on his bike, riding into the sunset.
The other problem with this approach is the “Where were you when they were shit?” accusation, but chances are those doing the catcalling are Manchester United/Liverpool/Real Madrid/Barcelona/Bayern supporters. Which brings us to the less-romantic of options…
3. Pick a team because they’re quite good and they win things and stuff
This is both the most widely hated option and by far the most popular. You will quickly discover, for example, that all of Manchester United’s estimated 500 million-strong fan base first came to support the club because of the Munich Air disaster, George Best, and Sir Bobby Charlton’s comb-over. It’s fair to say that at least some of them are lying.
This is the most popular option because everyone loves a winner, obviously. If you support Charlton, the only trophies you’ll be lifting will be the kind you get for promotion to the Premier League. If you support Barcelona, you will be alive to see their next European Cup win. Not only that, but you will get to watch several games, live on television, each week. You will follow a team in a title race. No using a Tune-In app on the way home from work in the hopes BBC London might have updates on Leyton Orient’s Johnstone Paint trophy game for you.
And this is this least popular option because you will almost certainly be considered a plastic, the very scum of the football universe, for taking it. You hunted glory but you won it cheaply, like machine gunning moose from a helicopter. That’s harsh yes, and chances are some of those making said accusations are projecting based on their own reasons for supporting a football club. But it’s grounded in some truth. Following a football team is in part about suffering. Or at least it should be.
United may have had Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scoring an injury-time winner to earn United their first European cup in thirty years and secure a historic treble, but that will never, ever match the sweetness of the on-loan goalkeeper Jimmy Glass coming up to score and keep Carlisle United in the football league. Like a fine single malt scotch, glory has to age and mature in order to taste great when (or indeed if, if) it arrives. Unfortunately that means staring at wooden barrels for 18 years.
4. Don’t go on results—go on history, fan base, etc.
This is a good option for those who want to avoid the “glory-hunter” accusation which almost all fans of good teams will face at some point in their fandom. If someone accuses you being a “tiki-taka fascist” by a Real Madrid fan for wearing the Barcelona colours for example, you can talk about the team’s history in relation to the Franco regime, and the impressive feats of Zoltán Czibor in the 1959 double, and they will grumble and walk away.
This is the thinking man’s choice. Always had a soft spot for old Dixie Dean highlight reels on YouTube? Everton’s your team! Like angry, socialist, non-conformist fans? Why not give St. Pauli a look?
Still, there is something a little “astroturfed” about this as well, although not in the same self-interested way as option 3. You looked through some history books and made an arbitrary choice. Part of the unofficial rules of football fandom leave room for happenstance, destiny. That’s why it’s so easy to appreciate the opening scenes of the Fever Pitch film, where a disinterested boy goes to Arsenal with his dad and falls in love. He was taken there, against his will. But in hindsight it was destiny. And so we have…
5. Go based on your roots
Does your dad have a football club he likes? Go with that. Even if you found this out at twenty-five years of age, you can always reverse engineer a Luke Skywalker-esque line about how you were Torquay like your father and his father before him.
If he (or your mum) don’t have a football club, don’t like football, are baseball people really, which is when they watch sports, which is hardly ever, then go to your family tree. If like me your family stretches back very far in a country with almost no stable club history whatsoever, find out when they made the original move.
For me, it was Birmingham. And hey look! A Whittall Street mere blocks away from Villa Park (just don’t pay attention to the Whittall Street STI clinic). So done and dusted. The only problem is if your family is originally from Gillingham. Good luck with that.
So there you have it. There are several variations on each of these approaches will you can regale us with below. My advice to you is to take your time. Once you commit, there is no going back. And you are allowed two only within the narrow confines of Commandment I. Good luck! And let us know how it goes.