‘The game’s gone,’ lament so many football fans at the slightest whiff of a modern influence upon the sport they hold so dear. Whether it’s clappers placed on seats to generate a noisier atmosphere, craft beers served on the stadium concourses, or Tottenham Hotspur’s rumoured cheese room, many believe the soul of football is being lost to the ages.
It’s a melodramatic way to assess the way football has grown into the 21st century, but in a sport that has always been defined by nostalgia, by memories of bygone years and former glories, perhaps it is understandable that football supporters still cling stubbornly to the past.
The match-going experience has changed dramatically over the last 10 to 15 years. Every English football ground used to be full of the same familiar sights, smells and sounds – the scent of pies and pints borne across the stands, beer spilled stickily upon the concrete, someone shouting to sell programmes, a rattle here and there, and on a cold winter’s day the steam from hot cups of Bovril rising mistily into the air.
But as the amount of money surrounding the Premier League has burgeoned, and as football has become ever more a product than a mere sport, football fandom has evolved from the days of crammed terraces and swaying crowds. Once the preserve of the working class in the 1970s and ’80s, football is now beloved by those of all backgrounds and cultures. This change in how supporters view and consume football may be viewed as a negative by many who wallow in the pit of nostalgia, but the reality is that the sport’s bounding leap into the modern age has brought about a great deal of good.
Facilities have seen a marked improvement, with most of England’s top clubs now boasting stadiums that put to shame the rusty, wooden-seated, ramshackle ground of days gone by. Modern stadiums attract a wider spectrum of supporters, those who are willing to pay top dollar for comfort and style, for good food and hospitality. The idea of football matches being promoted as an ‘experience’ has become more and more prevalent, with tourists coming from all over the world to take in a game at one of England’s top clubs. State-of-the-art grounds help make this possible, and help to bring in valuable revenue for clubs.
Many fans would lament this idea, saying that football is more than something to be bought and consumed, but the reality is that clubs enjoy increased financial power as a result of this evolution. The reason Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United can spend such large sums of money on players is because they have grounds where supporters will be willing to splash the cash.
Roy Keane once condemned football’s ‘prawn sandwich brigade,’ referencing the increasing decadence which was beginning to drown out the earthier ideals of many who love the game, but the higher quality of football we now see is a result of the sport’s ability to appeal to a wider audience, to lure in those who may be turned off by soggy chips and lager.
Of course, the evolution of football fandom goes far beyond the mere stadium experience. Fans who watch on television now have more ways to enjoy football than ever before, whether it’s streaming matches on-the-go on their phone or tablet, or catching the goals as they go in on an app. Indeed, football betting has also developed with the passing of time. You can now bet in-play on your phone, consigning the smoke-filled bookies’, and the yellow betting slips lying torn on the stadium concourse, to the past.
Social media, too, has allowed football fans to become more immersed in the sport. Matches can be discussed online with fellow supporters, fans can engage with players past and present, and clubs can provide news and updates to supporters in a matter of seconds. Social media means fans can feel more involved in their club on the whole.
It would be remiss to suggest that all these advancements have served only to improve football. Social media can also lead to division among supporters, and vitriol towards players. Advanced technology and increasing ways to watch football means fans are less likely to pay to go and watch their team in the flesh. The upmarket improvements to stadiums means that tickets have become alarmingly expensive, pricing out a large proportion of football’s working-class background.
The key to bringing any sport into the 21st century is to strike the balance between preserving all that was great about years gone by, and having the boldness to introduce new ideas and bring modern thinking into the sport. In the opinions of many fans, football is yet to find that balance, and for as long as that remains the case supporters will continue to put on their rose-tinted spectacles and sink back into the golden memories of the way football used to be.
Published by Lavismichel Inkel