What is Football Fandom?

That isn’t some deep philosophical question, it’s more rhetorical and something I’ve been racking my brain over for some time. My relationship with football fandom is weird, to say the least. I have a favorite team, two or three even, but am I a proper supporter? Probably not. I love them all – the Seattle Sounders, Liverpool FC and Norwich City – don’t get me wrong, but does my life revolve around those clubs as it does for other people? No. No, it doesn’t.

As an aside, no, this wasn’t inspired by those “support yer local, lad” brain geniuses you come across on Twitter, it’s something I’ve been grappling with since I was about six or seven years old.

Football has been pretty much a constant in my life since I was a toddler; playing with friends and family members was my favorite pastime, but I never had that one beloved team, at least not at that age. I remember sitting in a relative’s living room, cheering on the German national team and Lukas Podolski at the 2006 World Cup – I was an impressionable six-year-old after all – but am I a Germany fan? No, far from it, actually. I couldn’t care less about the German men’s national team, hell, I couldn’t care less about Germany as a country. I live there, I speak the language, but do I feel German? Honestly, I don’t know. Patriotism, nationalism, or whatever you want to call it are foreign concepts to me. I’m a firm believer that borders are mere tools of oppression to keep groups of people separate from those bad outsiders; national pride is something I rarely feel.

What about muh local, Dynamo Dresden? Well, that’s an even more complicated relationship. At age 8 or 9, I first started hearing about them, from friends, my grandpa, and his buddies; I even went to a game when I was 11 – a 4-0 win over Union Berlin – something I don’t usually do because of my severe social anxiety, but do I support them? I guess I do, but equally, I don’t. When people ask about my favorite Bundesliga team, the answer is always a variation of “Dynamo Dresden, but…”.

I’ve written about this before (and I’m sure I’ll write about it again in the future) but Dresden fans are a unique breed. A passionate, ragtag bunch with thick, almost unintelligible dialects. They sound quite loveable, don’t they? There is one major problem, however. Racism. Racism and even outright fascism are rampant in Saxony and other former GDR states. Dresden isn’t an exception. Chemnitz, a club closely associated with Dynamo, Lok Leipzig, and Hansa Rostock, both former East German powerhouses now languishing in the lower leagues, have to deal with the same scum in their ranks. But Dresden is the club I know, the club I should support; after all, the majority of people in my immediate surroundings all have a soft spot for the club. Yet I cannot bring myself to pretend I’m a fan. There are just too many things that rub me the wrong way.

Can a leftist really support a racist club like Dynamo Dresden? (Diego Diaz/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images).

From the Love Dynamo, Hate Racism campaign, which is the textbook definition of performative, doing-the-bare-minimum bullshit, to the club doing nothing to get rid of the vermin festering in the stands. It’s just not on. To say that these people are “not real fans” is just a lazy excuse to shift the blame and pretend that it’s none of your concern, when you, as a match-going fan or organization, have done absolutely nothing to call these people out. The “these are not real fans; real fans wouldn’t racially abuse players” sentiment gets trotted out every single time an incident concerning racist, homophobic or transphobic abuse transpires. It’s trite and doesn’t help anyone. Most Dynamo fans will tell you that they are, in fact, not racist and, you know what, maybe they’re right. Maybe they’re not hurling abuse at black players, but that doesn’t mean they are free from sin. Often, it’s subconscious, covert racism.

Last season, Dresden were on the road away at Magdeburg. It’s a heated rivalry. The two most successful former East German clubs squaring up in the “Elbderby”. Dynamo are 2-1 up late in the game. Striker Moussa Koné, who has since departed, misses a penalty and Magdeburg go down the other end and equalize even though Dresden tried clogging the defense with ten men. Later on social media, one person is singled out. Koné. Despite putting in a man of the match display, capped off with a goal, he is the one who gets abused. Not the nine or ten white players who failed to defend a straightforward counter-attack. No, the one black player.

Criticism is fine, everyone should get stick for missing a penalty, but it’s obvious that it wasn’t just about the penalty. He had other insults flung his way during his stint with the club as well. “Lazy” and “wasteful” to name just a couple. Koné was the most prolific striker Dresden have had in a good 2 or 3 years and he regularly gave his all, running around like a man possessed for 90 minutes and pressing the opposition. It’s obvious to anyone with a bit of social cognizance that these racial stereotypes are perpetuated because of a subconscious or even conscious indifference or contempt towards black players.

Enough about Dresden. The next stop in my strange journey through the world of football fandom came in 2010. Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund were the neutral’s favorite as it were, and for me, it was no different. Robert Lewandowski, even though he didn’t feature as much as he would in subsequent campaigns, was the first player I ever came across that made me stop and think “yeah, this guy is my favorite player in the world”. I fell in love with Lewandowski and that Dortmund side but am I a Dortmund fan? No. I wasn’t even sad when the Pole joined Bayern. Weirdly, I adored the Schalke teams of the early 2010s, too. Huntelaar, Farfán, and Raúl were amazing and back when friendship books were a thing, I even scribbled down Schalke as my favorite team at one point. Nowadays, I couldn’t care less about them.

That same year, I came across Liverpool. While randomly zapping through TV stations, I stumbled upon a sports channel that was broadcasting a Liverpool game; that’s when I fell in love with the Reds. Ironically, it was during Hodgson’s reign. But most of the early years of my fandom were spent playing as Liverpool on FIFA because there was no way of watching them week in week out. In 2015, I finally used my brain and realized that perfectly legal* online football streams exist and I have only missed a couple of games since.

2010 was also the first time I watched a women’s game. Germany against uhh. Yeah, I don’t remember anything about the game. It was in the summer of 2010, during the men’s World Cup. I woke up one morning while on holiday in Italy and a channel was showing the game. Alexandra Popp impressed on the day, that’s all I can recall. Her name has been stuck in my head ever since. Popp. It’s a great name, folks.

A couple of years later, things got even weirder. In 2013, my interest in football declined rapidly. I was more into wrestling and video game playthroughs on Youtube. Yet still, through FIFA, I discovered another new team I have since fallen in love with. Whilst playing with Beckham’s LA Galaxy, I came across the Seattle Sounders. They had wacky kits, a badass crest, and some really neat players, so despite not actually caring about football anymore, I got more and more interested in the Sounders, MLS and American soccer as a whole.

Then NYCFC and Orlando came along. They were linked with the likes of David Villa and Kaká, and in a fruitless attempt to be able to play with them on FIFA 13, I checked out the Creation Center (RIP) and found out about lower league clubs like the Carolina Railhawks and Minnesota United. The latter, especially, has since become one of the teams I have a soft spot for; I even recreated the 2016 NASL and its teams in the Creation Center on FIFA 15 a few years later.

I’ve since developed somewhat of an obsession with the lower leagues in the US, but again, I don’t have a favorite team. There are a myriad clubs I like – the Des Moines Menace, Tampa Bay Rowdies, and Indy Eleven come to mind – but tangible fandom still eludes me.

Railhawks fans making their voices heard (Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images)

The 2014 World Cup lured me back in. Van Persie’s header and the Netherlands’ dominant display against Spain made me remember how exciting football can be. But my love for the Bundesliga wouldn’t be rekindled until halfway through the 2017/18 season. As I got more and more into Liverpool and the Sounders, I also came across Norwich. They were struggling in the Championship after getting relegated the previous campaign and had just hired Alex Neil. Under Neil’s stewardship, they went on a run which culminated in defeating Middlesbrough at Wembley and beating Ipswich in the playoffs along the way. A magical journey that I like to reminisce about, even though I was only able to follow along in the form of highlight videos and Twitter updates.

In 2016, I stumbled across a stream of the A-League grand final. I had heard about the league before and I even occasionally played with Del Piero’s Sydney FC or Robert Koren’s and (briefly) David Villa’s Melbourne City on FIFA, but I had no idea what the hell a Western Syndey Wanderer was. And who’s this Isaías guy at Adelaide? And why are they playing in a cricket ground? Eventually, this seemingly arbitrary game was the catalyst for a love that persists to this day. But again, I don’t have a team. I keep flip-flopping between Melbourne City and the Wanderers, and sometimes Wellington Phoenix, but if you were to ask me which team I support, I’d shrug like the Partridge GIF.

This adoration of obscure, niche leagues has since become what the kids would call my brand. I’ve completely fallen in love with Asian football for various reasons, the Polish Ekstraklasa, and Russian football as well. I’ve been a football writer for almost two years now and I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that my knowledge of football exceeds that of the metaphorical Average Joe, but honestly, I don’t know what my expertise is. Is it Asian football, is it women’s football, German football, American soccer, or all of the above? My interests are constantly changing.

Let’s get back to the original question. What is football fandom? Back in January, former Bundesliga player Eren Derdiyok signed for Pakhtakor in Uzbekistan. Because I have known Derdiyok since I was a child, I have now become genuinely invested in Central Asian football. Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan – although I wish they were part of the AFC rather than UEFA – have piqued my interest. I’m not a fan of any club in particular, but do I have to be a fan of a club to be a, you know, fan? I guess I’m just a fan of football and…that’s fine?

I only follow a few – maybe 15, maybe 20 – “proper” – whatever that means – Liverpool supporters on social media because the discourse surrounding a club the size of Liverpool gets tiring quickly, whether it’s positive or negative. I haven’t really missed Seattle or Norwich or any of the men’s leagues for that matter during the enforced COVID-19 break because I have been preoccupied with learning more about women’s football. I also don’t own any merch; the only football kits I have ever bought are from a club that I’m not sure even exists called Monmouth Lights, Miami Beach CF from UPSL, and some Russian non-league club. Does that make me less of a Liverpool or Seattle supporter? Some would say so but at the end of the day, who gets to decide how I spend my time and money? It’s certainly not TopRed85 on Twitter, that’s for sure.

I think I’m perfectly content knowing that I’m just a fan, I guess. I’m just a dude who watches football and who sometimes gets that tingly feeling of excitement when his teams do well. I guess I don’t really know what football fandom is and I think that’s fine. You don’t need to have a club, you can just enjoy the game because at the end of the day it’s just 22 sweaty gals or guys kicking a ball around in order to accumulate revenue for an inhumane capitalist business enterprise. And what’s better than that? Just guys being dudes and gals being pals.

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