During my years as a football fan, I’ve learned that I watch football differently than many. The norm, as it were, seems to be that you choose a club (or perhaps one club per league) and you follow them through good and bad. Often this decision is made as a result of proximity to the club, or cultural connections, or personal history. You grew up watching the club, or they are your local team, and you support them through wins, losses, managerial changes, and complete overhauls in personnel.
However, there are those supporters, myself included, who have not formed hard ties to one club. Those fans often don’t have these ties to fall back on when choosing who to watch. This provides a certain freedom to choose a team, or multiple teams, somewhat at random.
For example, some people might watch Tottenham Hotspur because they live in North London, or their parents love the club, or because they enjoy the club’s management style or their tendency to promote talent from within the academy, or their recent transformation into one of the top contenders in the Premier League. I, however, make my choices based on individual players—when speaking about this in television, book, or video game fandoms I like to refer to it as character-driven fandom versus plot-driven fandom. I fell in love with Spurs because I was fascinated with Gareth Bale’s ability to outpace some of the best players in the world. Now, I continue to tune in every week because I adore the way Dele Alli holds his arms when he runs. I am captivated by Vincent Janssen’s style of play and the way he wears every emotion on his face, for better or worse. I love the way Christian Eriksen crosses the ball and how he’s quietly become the driving force behind the Spurs offense. I admire the understanding and instincts that drive the defensive partnership of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld.
Most of all, I love the camaraderie among the entire Spurs team. I’ve enjoyed following the ever-growing friendship between Eric Dier and Dele Alli and look forward to getting tiny glimpses of it on the pitch, in interviews, and on the latest Spurs TV video. The dynamic of the club—all the way down to the controversial goal celebration handshakes—draws me in. Seeing their personal connections to each other makes me feel more connected to them. It increases my fan investment in them as players and people.
So when transfer rumours pop up that threaten to tear apart the on- and off-field dynamics, my emotions run high. The speculation surrounding Eric Dier held me on an emotional rollercoaster for weeks. I’ve historically been a fan of Manchester United, as well as a Spurs fan, so I fully believed he would be an improvement to the squad, and maybe rekindle some of my interest in United. On the other hand, my appreciation for Dier is as part of the Spurs system. His loss would severely impact the team I’d come to love. I’d still faithfully follow Spurs and love every moment of watching the club, but something would feel wrong without Dier in the mix, even if I still got to watch him play regularly.
For fans who view the game this way, each transfer means a Big Choice—to follow the player or not? Generally, although I come to a club because I’ve formed an attachment to one of their players, I grow to appreciate the squad beyond that individual. I started following Real Madrid after the David Beckham transfer, but found myself caught up in the friendship between Beckham, Iker Casillas, and Sergio Ramos. When Beckham left, I remained a Madrid supporter because I’d grown to love the defensive partnership between Casillas and Ramos, particularly the way they communicated with one another so easily.
It can be equally difficult to follow a player you love to a club you do not like. This happened for me when Jasper Cillessen moved to Barcelona. Generally speaking, I do not want Barça to do well, as I’m not a fan of many players at the club, and tend to think their “more than a club” mentality feels a bit like an empty moral high ground. However, it’s awfully difficult for Cillessen to do well without his club also doing well. And as the second choice keeper, his only prayer of more minutes is to help the club succeed in cup competitions, so my feelings become even more complicated on the few occasions I do see him play.
Then there are times when players leave, and no one particularly compelling replaces them. In these instances, I’m forced to ask myself if I want to keep exerting time and energy to support this club. For instance, at Manchester United, the turnover in management means the squad looks very different than it did even a few years ago, and I’ve formed very few strong attachments, and even some strong aversions, to many of the new players. United was the club that brought me into football fandom, but I often find myself choosing to tune into a different match as my interest in teams and leagues expands.
More often, however, I keep my connections to clubs, but still want to watch my favourite players after they move on. This is generally fine if they move to a club I already support, but when they move to a club—or a league—I don’t watch, I have to decide whether I want to take the time to support yet another team and watch yet another match every week. This can get exhausting. The rumours surrounding Janssen’s potential move to Ligue 1 have brought me to an emotional tipping point, and not only because I derive great pleasure from watching Ericksen pass to Janssen. I already watch multiple teams in England, Spain, and Italy and have no idea how to fit yet another league into my life, but don’t want to give up following Janssen’s career. That’s when I, and others who form such attachments to players, need to ask just how important these bonds are—can they be broken? Do I need to prioritize my time? My own well-being? Or is watching this individual important enough to me that I will make the time each week to watch him play?
But sometimes watching that player is no longer an option. Sometimes he’ll move away from one of the televised leagues into a league with little television or media coverage. When this happens, I often feel as though I’ve been disconnected permanently from a (sometimes integral) part of my football fandom.
When Iker Casillas moved from Madrid to Porto, I missed his involvement in my football fandom on a weekly basis. I wanted to stay connected, but watching Portuguese Superliga matches in the United States is incredibly difficult. Suddenly, following one of my favourite players requires hoping that Porto would continue to do well in the UEFA Champion’s League. I’ve been able to readjust my expectations and I treasure those rare days that I can watch Casillas play again. But I still feel as though I’m missing an important piece of my love for football as a whole, especially as part of my appreciation for Casillas was his partnership with Sergio Ramos.
Ultimately, I’ve chosen to stick by a few teams and a handful of key players, taking the opportunity to catch other players I like as time and energy arise, but it’s an exercise in schedule balancing and careful decisions that those fans who have strong connections to teams rather than specific personnel don’t have to face. I’m still watching Manchester United—I feel like I shouldn’t just abandon the club I’ve followed for a decade just because they don’t excite me anymore—but they’re definitely not my top priority. Instead, I’d rather give my weekend to Spurs, to Real Madrid, and to Stefan DeVrij at Lazio and Dries Mertens at Napoli because those clubs and those players bring me joy.
This way of following the game can be stressful. But it’s also a way to truly connect to the game. Following players from team to team and league to league has broadened my connection to football and deepened my love of the sport, and, ultimately, I can’t imagine watching the game any other way.