Message understood

Unconvincing and offensive portrayals of football fans

There was no escaping football this summer. If you live anywhere near a major town you will have seen the huge billboards featuring text taken from the new Sky advertisement for its coverage of the 1997-98 season. “Football is our life,” says one, above a picture of two fans, one celebrating, the other with head in hands. “Football is our religion,” says another, over a picture of fans sitting on a fence overlooking a ground. The TV commercial from which the posters are derived only lasts a minute or so but it’s one of the most disturbing things ever seen on satellite television, weirder even than the 24 hour shopping channel or episodes of Scooby Doo dubbed into German.

Monochrome close-ups of Premier League stars staring moodily into the lens are intercut with Sean Bean, star of the worst football film yet made (you may know the title) striding about, declaiming lines intended to strike a great big booming chord in the heart of football fans. Football, you see, is “ecstasy, anguish, joy and despair. It should be predictable but never is. It’s a feeling that can’t be explained”.

The clincher comes at the end. “We know how you feel… we feel the same way.” If only they did – then Sky would have to close down its entire operation and publicly apologize for having been the driving force behind football’s grotesque kowtowing to television over the past five years. Instead it was left to a grafitti artist to add a ring of truth to one of the posters by adding the words “…about money”.

Where to begin to describe the awfulness of this advertisement? Firstly, there’s the patronizing message – Sky, involved with football for all of five years, would have us believe that it understands the essence of football fan culture; something built up over a hundred years can be reduced down to stock images of men in replica shirts shouting and kids with painted faces.

Worse than that is the image of the fan as someone who has abandoned reason. This is a thread that has run consistently through the media depiction of football fans in the past few years. Innumerable advertising campaigns depict that new stock comedy character, the football nutter – sleeping in his scarf, painting his house in club colours, wearing his shirt 24 hours a day, naming a kid after a promotion-winning team. Every advertising agency now seems to want to catch on to football obsessiveness just as completely as they abandoned football altogether a decade ago in favour of the then fashionable American variety.

Obsessiveness has become a defining image of the fan, a badge of authenticity to be seized upon by any celebrity or politician keen to show that they’ve got the common touch, who will happily gabble on about how they would pack in their careers tomorrow for a chance to play centre forward for their favourite club. Of course some fans are only too aware that that football plays an unhealthily large role in their lives but to have this ailment appropriated, glorified and advertised back to them with such blatant insincerity feels like manipulation of the highest order.

For years, of course, the media seemed happy to suggest that if you were a football fan, you were abnormal. Now the opposite is true: the new stereotype suggests that you’re not a real football fan unless you’re incapable of conversing on any other subject.

This has understandably produced a reaction amongst those who happen not to like the game, in some cases, turning otherwise tolerant people against football fans, in the belief that all such people subscribe to the views in the Sky ad. In others it has reawakened an image of us as grunting knuckle-draggers which might have been understandable, however inaccurate, in the wake of Heysel.

As well as this reaction, the propagation of football as a commercial substitute for religion will create a hype monster that is sure to burst. Already there are stories of ten year olds who support Man Utd or Liverpool in order to stay in playground conversations but don’t actually bother to watch the matches on TV.

Meanwhile Sky subscriptions have gone up again, and they have started to charge for Sky Sports 2, which was previously ‘free’ to those who bought the other two channels. They make sure that their audience will pay for it, of course, by moving England’s key World Cup games there from Sky Sports 1, the home of the Premiership. They will then, doubtless, spend the money on more degrading commercials, adding insult to extortion.

While the game undoubtedly needs money, English football is now as unbalanced as the fans in the adverts, with all control in the hands of people who hadn’t managed to stay awake for a whole match before Italia 90, and will turn their backs if there are no more profits to be made.

Sky seem to believe that the whole of British football history has been one glorious progression leading to their arrival, that their involvement represents the pinnacle of football’s achievement. What luck that our little game, struggling along as the most popular sport in the world, should have attracted the attention of the benevolent Mr Murdoch.

From WSC 128 October 1997. What was happening this month