It is a truth universally1 acknowledged that anyone who says sports aren’t political also says things like “I don’t have an accent” and “Life would be better if people stopped making everything about their identity” and “We should always assume the best of intentions and be less sensitive”.
For the rest of us who have always known that absolutely everything2 is political (being different from society’s default view of what a human is helps you reach that conclusion pretty fast), the process of engaging with the aforementioned crowd is a soul-sucking one. We have to pick our battles carefully, make sure we have the time and the energy to explain why things that have “always been just fine” may be incredibly harmful to people who look like us. We have to know that someone we like (and were maybe just starting to trust) will ask us to spell out in small words what we mean when we request our humanity be respected, and that we might lose friends over this.
And that’s an everyday process for those of us who live on the fringes of a fandom.
This is what the fringes of a sports fandom look like: It’s a space where camaraderie over a shared interest exists, but is often overtaken by curiosity (and sometimes hostility) about your presence in a sphere made up almost entirely of people who look like each other, sound like each other, and in some cases, vote like each other.
The fringes, despite being vast, can be an incredibly lonely space. They are constructed entirely on how its denizens don’t look and how they don’t fit. After all, while fans who live in the epicentre all look like one another; fans in the fringes are different from both the centre and from each other,3 and everyone on the fringes clings to their own personal justification masquerading as charming stories to explain why exactly they deserve a space in the fandom.
Sound unfamiliar? Congratulations on being in the epicentre of a fandom!
Don’t get me wrong; it’s a beautiful place to be. And when the fringes and the epicentre share the room, all joining in a chorus of voices singing their affection for a team, we remember just how wonderful football fandom can be. Fandom, after all, allows barriers built on identity to become more flexible, to carry less weight when your team walks onto the pitch. The “them” in that moment isn’t you, it’s whoever’s wearing the wrong colours, whoever’s sitting at the other side of the stadium or bar, whoever’s singing the wrong song. And that warm glow is perfect right up until it disappears.
It always disappears when you’re on the fringes.
Because fandoms, especially ones where identity is so firmly rooted in power (be it whiteness, cisness, maleness, heterosexuality, or any other number of things) will always remind you that diversity is tolerated—even something to be celebrated when it’s useful—but when push comes to shove, the fringes will always remain the fringes.
Let’s take the most egregious example of this: Italian football. Serie A has had an overt racism problem for a very long time, and things haven’t improved at all recently.4 Black players in Italy have spoken out about the atmosphere created by the media and by fanbases that insist on defending racist actions. Even more incredible is the league’s reaction to allegations of racism, from using facial recognition to identify racists,5 and whatever this campaign is trying to achieve. Beyond the horrible working conditions for players6 and the league’s refusal to see it as a problem, all this does is reinforce to fans of colour that, when it comes down to it, the fandom they’re supposedly a part of is perfectly fine with treating them and the players that look like them as though their humanity is worth less. The fringe remains the fringe and the fandom’s epicentre makes sure of that.
Slightly less overt is the Premier League fan experience. The Manchester derby saw racist and violent incidents which were immediately denounced by both clubs. But a lot of fans from other teams were up in arms at the lack of on-pitch actions taken by Raheem Sterling,7 a City player who has spoken about his experiences with racism extensively in the past. The problem with being on the fringes is that no one lets you forget it, even when you’re one of the best players in the country. Sterling did no less than any other player on the pitch, but by virtue of his race and his previous statements, he was immediately dubbed a hypocrite for not taking action.
Then there’s things like the Rainbow Laces campaign, which is deliberately constructed to welcome LGBTQ+ fans and let them know they belong. It would be a great endeavour if those LGBTQ+ fans didn’t have to deal with homophobia and transphobia from the rest of the fan base,8 and watch as clubs do next to nothing while overtly queerphobic chants (like the Chelsea “rent boy” one) are being sung by their fans.
Fan identity is complex and what pushes certain fans further into the fringes on any given day varies. Héctor Bellerín voiced his anger about the Tory leadership on the day of the UK election and urged fans to go vote, something Arsenal didn’t seem to object to. But just days later when Mesut Özil made a statement condemning China’s treatment of its Uighur population, the club released a response making it clear that the opinions he was sharing were his own and did not reflect anything about the club, or its business interests in the country. Even more ridiculous was the fact that Arsenal followed a statement about remaining apolitical with a message in support of the Armed Forces. Because as we all know, war is the least political thing of all.
It’s waiting for that other shoe to drop, for the fragile trust to be broken, that really defines living in the fringes. Take the addition of new players to the club, for example: Will the general goodwill that Liverpool fans displayed to Muslim fans when Mo Salah joined the team extend to Asian fans now that Takumi Minamino has joined the squad? Or will Asian fans need to prepare themselves for the well-meaning but still racist descriptors (“hard-working and disciplined”, anyone?) that trail behind Asian players? Will the already taut elastic band of who’s allowed in the fandom expand further, or will it shrink at the introduction of more “identity politics”?
The thing is, things have gotten better. The epicentre does try to make sure the most egregious offenses are denounced. Prominent fans and pundits opine on overtly racist and homophobic incidents on and off the pitch, they call out “the bad eggs” and on the worst days, they wring their hands and tell us “these are not real fans.”
Which for a lot of us sounds very similar to claims we hear from politicians and the news and our well-meaning neighbours that “this is not who we are.”
Here’s the thing no one in the epicentre wants to think about: The people making the monkey noises at black players, who rely on transphobia and homophobia to belittle the other team’s players, are absolutely secure in the epicentre of the fanbase, unlike so many of us who spend our days calling them out. Just like the people who vote against “identity politics” and for nationalism, who ask us where we’re from because they can’t believe the answer might be “here”, are absolutely built into the fabric of Western nations.
The fringes of fandom have always existed, and they’ve always felt this way. But as the politics of our time become more and more fraught, fandom has begun to serve as a daily reminder of just that for anyone that is marginalised.
Power, as always, continues to rest in the epicentre. It remains up to those close to it to agitate for change.
1 It’s funny because I wish it were true.
2 Yes, everything.
3 The Anna Karenina principle, if you want to get both Tolstoy and statistics involved.
4 It’s probably gotten worse, let’s be honest.
5 If your answer to any societal problem is “facial recognition”, you should find something else to work on.
6 Seriously, no job is worth sitting through racist abuse.
7 This was compounded by his not saying anything during the Bernardo Silva tweet incident.
8 And sometimes, racism “against” that homophobia, too: some fans like to comment on tweets about supporting queer fans and players with anti-Muslim and anti-Arab vitriol, which they claim is in anticipation of homophobic comments.