How Did Football Fan Culture Become So Toxic?

Fifteen minutes on Twitter, TikTok, or even YouTube is enough to cause you to lose hundreds upon hundreds of brain cells and on the footballing side of this platform that number is firmly in the thousands. Even worse you might find out someone abused a player based on his skin colour again or someone wore another 97 shirt to a Liverpool game.


It feels like the transition from a match-going experience and qualified journalists and pundits offering their analysis and opinions to a sort of online Lord of the Flies-type island has been completed over the past few years. A decade of the Lionel Messi versus Cristiano Ronaldo debate has embittered fans and has led to the creation of countless vile pages that title themselves as comedy accounts, despite their particular brand of humour consisting of hate thrown at opposing teams and players, veiled as somehow being funny.


The things we used to laugh at a few years ago are now the norm. Every debate between two footballers has become a mini Messi versus Ronaldo and you could even envision this happening at Sunday League level. The main shift in football fan culture has come with the advent of social media and has seen the experience of football become diluted and perverted.


Before the era of online highlights, the only way to get in touch with the beautiful game was either to go to a match, to watch it on TV or to watch the highlights after the game. These highlights were usually accompanied by a varying degree of pertinent commentary and were meant to give an account of what happened and not to follow or force any narrative. Nowadays, you can find compilations of the worst moments of a player’s game set up by rival fans or meme accounts that make them look hopeless, when in fact, analyzed as a whole the player in question had a pretty average game for his level.


The Fallen Giants of European Football


The main difference between now and a few years ago when these kinds of behaviours were derided are the content creators who capitalize on this tribalism. Arguably even worse than the imbeciles who enjoy this type of content, these creators have cracked the algorithm and realized that to go to the front page of any platform you need engagement. This magic word, engagement, has become the currency of online media and was usually garnered through qualitative content. However, these lazy and dense would-be influencers have seen that quality content takes time and research and have decided to employ bad content on purpose since the old adage of “Bad publicity is still publicity” is still true.


If you want to chase clout online you should not waste time looking for the next gem on fbref or try to explain why a back three is more versatile than a back four. No, all you need is your phone, a hastily written script and the cheapest hooks you can find. You can plaster your face on the banner with a cretinous expression on your face, you can impersonate a footballer and just be vague enough in your denial of this impersonation to have some plausible deniability or if even those things seem to hard just put the most bovine opinions out there. To bring up a recent one I saw on this platform: Steven Gerrard is a better player than Kevin De Bruyne because he didn’t get injured in the Champions League Final.


The main media outlets and larger internet publications have not been saints in this respect promoting some of these people to their shows or videos, with formats that increasingly create a space where heated debates over the daftest opinions are given the main attention. Now we are in a space where everywhere we turn we see vulgar and senseless content which self-propagates and creates in turn other people who wish to create a platform through this or football fans for whom the enjoyment of the game boils down to laughing in other people’s faces.


This not only drowns out all the interesting accounts out there who actually put in the work and are run by decent and interesting individuals but also encroaches on them. A series that provides analysis on bright prospects from any of the top 5 leagues will invariably gather comments from fans of the other leagues using braindead terms like “Farmer’s League” and fans from within the leagues calling the players on the list various types of merchants.


The much-maligned AFTV, which soured the perception of one of English football’s most prestigious clubs in the eyes of many fans, has basically metastasized sending its poison out into the world. Now whether it comes in the form of copycat fan tv accounts or independent creators this poison permeates every level of football. Of course, I am not saying AFTV is the main reason for this, TalkSport exists after all, but their success has been copied and envied by many.


The European Cup: The Early Years


We can simply look at the numbers in terms of followers of such accounts and the numbers for genuinely brilliant creators like Tifo Football or HITC Sevens. By creating quality content about unpleasant topics like the corruption in football or more niche terms like football in Lithuania, their growth as platforms is stunted and they are deemed boring. The vast majority of football fans are normally sensible people, but idiots are usually louder and their idiocy drowns out the majority.


What football fans don’t understand is that you can still love your club even if you point out its flaws, whether it is signing duds, being a vessel for sportswashing or just being somewhat crap. Alternatively, you should still be able to love your team and acknowledge the merits of others. As a Manchester United fan, I have no trouble admitting Liverpool have been excellent over the past few years under Jurgen Klopp, but this doesn’t get you clicks. Saying they are bottlers does.


This brings me on to my final point: is it any wonder that racial abuse and fans wearing shirts alluding to club tragedies are present? Why is everyone getting outraged over death threats to fans and footballers and online racial abuse when this is the environment that fans basically exist in?  To end I can only recommend you follow genuinely intelligent and creative football people and the next time you see a bad take ignore it. This is what those who create this space of hate deserve, to be ignored and forgotten.


By: Eduard Holdis / @He_Ftbl

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / FEP / Icon Sport