How did we become soccer fans?

The irresistible rise of the world’s most popular sport

Manchester United play FC Barcelona at FedEx Field in front of 81,800 fans, July 2011, photo Mobilus In Mobili

Being a soccer fan is both a privilege and a burden. When you’re winning, it’s the best thing on Earth, and when you’re not, it’s the end of the world. And the thing about being a fan is, whichever way fortune swings, you’re stuck with the game and your team for life. We fans have come to accept the great hold “the beautiful game” has on us. But how did this happen? How did we become so entirely wrapped up in association football? How did we become soccer fans?

Football is the most popular spectator sport on the planet, and for much of the world the experience of being a fan is a tradition that has been passed down through the generations. We can trace the lineage of fandom through Latin America and Europe, and back to Britain, where it all began, 150 or so years ago. There, our soccer-supporting ancestors discovered and embraced the emerging game, developed affinities for individual clubs, began to chant and sing, and helped initiate the fan culture that exists today. But the roots of fandom were established long before the association game was invented — and long before football was known as “soccer”.

People have been fanatical about football ever since feet and balls were first introduced to each other, from ancient games in China, Greece and Rome, through Britain’s violent medieval football battles, to the (slightly) more refined public school games and, eventually, the codified sport of association football. In vase paintings, ancient poems and old chronicles, there is evidence of football fanaticism that predates the formation of the Football Association and the creation of the Laws of the Game in 1863. Even in its earliest forms, soccer was able to inspire savage enthusiasm.

Football fever really took hold among the British public around the 1880s, fueled by social changes that allowed working people the time and means to pursue new pastimes. Although their fanaticism was rapidly being established, these enthusiasts weren’t labelled as football “fans” until the early 20th century. Before that they were “spectators” and then “supporters”. The term “fan”, as a contraction of “fanatic”, has US origins. It was first used to describe keen baseball spectators in the sports columns of US newspapers in the 1890s. A 1900 edition of language journal Dialect Notes includes the entry: “Fan, n. a baseball enthusiast; common among reporters.”

The term “soccer” originated in England in the 1880s, used by students at Oxford University as a slang abbreviation of “association” football. But it was adopted in the US as a useful shorthand to distinguish the association game from gridiron football. The New York Times first made reference to “soccer” (or “socker” — initially used interchangeably) in 1905, following a visit from English touring side the Pilgrims, whose players had connections to Oxford University. The New York Times can quite reasonably take credit for popularizing the term “soccer”. By 1910, the newspaper was regularly referring to “soccer fans”.

But the US had been slow to embrace soccer. Association football had been played professionally in the US since 1894, when the short-lived American League of Professional Football (ALPF) struggled to attract fans. The American Soccer League (ASL), formed in 1921, was much better attended, with crowds of several thousand turning out to watch — helping soccer to rival baseball in popularity.

The growth of soccer as a spectator sport was driven by the working class, and in particular by immigrant workers. Games between top US teams such as Bethlehem Steel and Fall River Rovers could attract crowds of more than 10,000. Women’s soccer also gained popularity, particularly during a 1922 tour of the US and Canada by the influential British side Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, who also attracted five-figure crowds. But the decline of the ASL, during the Great Depression, saw soccer slide back into obscurity.

When the US national team defeated England at the 1950 World Cup Finals, in a victory that would come to be regarded as one of the most famous in the history of the game, Americans reacted with apathy.

However, in 1951, Life magazine published a major feature on British football, which it called “the great spectator sport”. “Crowds are football’s most overwhelming feature,” said the magazine. “In Great Britain some two million people, carrying fish and chips and thermos jugs, flock into stadiums each week.” Alongside some wonderfully evocative photographs showing crowds of fans passing fog-draped pubs, steel mills and shipyards, the magazine emphasized the working-class appeal of the game, and explained how football’s popularity stretched well beyond those who filled its grounds.

Seattle Sounders fans, photo Nicole June

It was during this post-war golden age of British football that the enduring image of the traditional fan emerged, wearing a woolen hat and scarf in his team’s colors, with a rosette pinned to his chest, and a wooden rattle in his hand — and in later years wearing a replica shirt. He (and the majority of fans at this time were male) would arrive at his local football ground and hand over a paper ticket stub before pushing through a mechanical turnstile, then make his way to the standing terrace. There, he would sing and sway, and ride an emotional rollercoaster that would rise and fall with the ebb and flow of the match. And afterwards he would head home, his mood altered for better or worse by the result of the game. A win would make the next week of work easier to contemplate. A defeat would make it a slog, but there was always the next match to look forward to. There was always the next match.

This routine might have baffled outsiders, who failed to understand the vital importance of football. And football fans had long been viewed with bemusement and derision by sections of society. Initially there was a broad class divide. Football was the working-class game, and those of a higher standing who did not feel its popular appeal were wary of noisy groups of football fans, who were at best boisterous, and at worst hooligans. In England, in the 1970s and 1980s, high-profile incidents of disorder and violence led to the general vilification of football fans. The contempt with which fans came to be regarded would have tragic consequences, leading to a series of wholly-preventable disasters, culminating at Hillsborough in 1989, when 96 fans were killed.

Things did change, and the reputation and treatment of football fans improved over the 1990s and 2000s, during what some call the gentrification of the game. But, while few mourned the gradual disappearance of the hooligan, the traditional football fan was also disappearing. As cash was pumped into the game — largely via global TV rights deals, driven by the launch of the English Premier League — the traditional working-class fan was increasingly priced out.

While British football fans suffered in the doldrums of the late 1970s and 1980s, US fans were enjoying the glamour and razzmatazz of the North American Soccer League (NASL). Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and George Best were among the big name draws, with crowds of more than 70,000 attending some of the biggest games. Interest in soccer dwindled during the 1980s, but was revived again in 1994, when the US hosted the World Cup. The tournament was watched by a cumulative US TV audience of 145 million, over 50 million more than that year’s Super Bowl.

Two decades later, the US TV audience for the 2014 World Cup tournament, in Brazil, had doubled to 291 million. In 2015, when the US women’s national team reached the Women’s World Cup Final, 26.7 million US viewers watched their team defeat Japan.

The new millennium’s surge in soccer fandom in the US was initially driven by the increased visibility and impact of European soccer leagues, particularly the English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga, in addition to Mexico’s Liga MX. Prominent TV coverage allowed soccer to muscle in alongside more traditional US sports, and allowed fans to adopt foreign clubs — and to adopt aspects of the fan culture present in soccer-mad Europe, and in much of the rest of the world.

Another driving factor has been the improved quality of Major League Soccer (MLS), which launched in 1993, but only really emerged as a competitive and noteworthy world soccer league in the late 2000s, around the time that global superstar David Beckham joined LA Galaxy. Now US soccer fans had clubs worthy of their support, and were able to introduce soccer fan culture — the chants, the scarves, the tifos — to US sport.

Now that MLS is almost a quarter of a century old, the US has a new generation of soccer fans who have grown up watching the game. Knowledge and awareness have increased, and the appetite for top-quality soccer has grown. When the newly-launched Atlanta United played their first game in March 2017, the attendance was 55,297. Atlanta’s average attendance is more than 46,000 — the highest in MLS, and higher than that of any major US baseball, basketball or hockey team. It’s also higher than Chelsea’s average attendance in the Premier League, or Valencia’s in La Liga, or Tigres’ in Liga MX.

Portland Timbers fans, photo Jerry Meaden

It is now entirely possible to be a soccer fan without ever attending soccer matches. This has been enabled by expanding media coverage of football, which has made it easy to follow the game and watch matches from our homes, in bars, or on the go, virtually anywhere in the world, via TV or the internet. The media has long been an enabler of the football fan. In Britain, the rise in popularity of football and the growth in circulation of newspapers were indelibly linked from the late-1800s. Newspapers nurtured and promoted football, increasing the game’s popularity, and football fans bought newspapers to read their coverage, expanding newspaper readerships.

Then along came radio and TV, and it became increasingly possible to follow football from afar. Further technological advances, notably the internet and social media, have expanded football coverage and extended the game’s reach. What it means to be a football fan has evolved and shifted to such an extent that a 19th century fan might struggle to recognize a 21st century fan as a fellow round-ball enthusiast.

In the modern era, the vast majority of football fans never go to games. Take Manchester United’s claim, based on a market research survey, to have 659 million supporters. Old Trafford’s capacity is 75,731. So, according to a back-of-an-envelope calculation, only 0.01% of the club’s fans can fit into their ground. While the average attendance for English Premier League matches in 2015–16 was just under 36,500, the average UK TV audience for those matches was 800,000. And that was just the UK audience. The Premier League says its worldwide TV audience is three billion. And then there’s social media. Real Madrid have more than 100 million fans on Facebook. The capacity at the Bernabéu is 81,044. Those fans who do go to matches are part of a vastly-outnumbered minority.

But fans do still pass through the turnstiles. The modern fan is still more likely to be male than female, although research shows that a third of football fans are now women. They may still wear a replica shirt, but the woolen hat and scarf have fallen out of fashion. (The rosette and rattle are now football museum pieces.) The turnstile they pass through may be electronic, with a plastic smartcard placed into a scanner rather than a paper ticket handed to an operator. Most likely they will sit rather than stand, in plastic flip-up seats that clatter when a passage of play brings fans to their feet. There is still singing, and the ebb and flow of emotion. And the result still matters, and affects the mood, until overtaken by anticipation for the next match. There is always the next match.

Some things never change, and the connection our ancestors had with football in Britain 150 years ago, or in Europe or Latin America over the past century, or in the US, from the ALPF, through the ASL and the NASL, to present day MLS, remains constant. This history of soccer fans is a social history, a political history, a history of the media, and a history of the game itself. Primarily, though, it’s a history of people going out to watch their teams, win or lose, then going back again and again.


Savage Enthusiasm is available on Amazon

Savage Enthusiasm: A History of Football Fans by Paul Brown is available now on Amazon

“An excellent read, rich in anecdotes and explanation” — Game of the People

“A very decent, impeccably sourced, primer on what has happened to fans down the ages” — When Saturday Comes

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