I don’t review books on this blog, but Nick Hornby’s ‘Fever Pitch’ is so darned awesome that I was compelled to write this review-cum-post. I am not much of a book reviewer so I am not going to present a critical take on Hornby’s delightful book which chronicles his life as an Arsenal fan from the time he was ten. In its heart warming directness and it has kept me hooked from the time I started reading it last week. The book was written back in 1992 and I have known about it since 2003, and got around to reading it only now. That way, I am perhaps behind the curve but every observation of his about football and its fans are timelessly relevant because, of all things, ‘Fever Pitch’ is not strictly a football book. Part social commentary, part sports fan memoir, part the story of an obsession and part self deprecating comedy cum autobiography, Nicholas Lezard was bang on in his review in GQ when he said ‘whether you’re interested in football or not, this is tears-rolling-down-your-face funny, read-bits-out-loud-to-complete-strangers funny, but also highly perceptive and honest…’
As I delved into the vicissitudes of Hornby’s quarter of century worth of a journey following Arsenal’s fortune, there was one question hammering away at the back of my mind – why do we become football fans? And the other question that Hornby explicitly explores – what keeps us rooted to the clubs we choose? Hornby of course has a book worth of amazing insight into that question but I would like to also present my two cents here of what it means to be a football fan and why allegiances often forged casually to begin with become deep set bonds even before we realize it.
THE PERSPECTIVE PARADIGM
I believe it is all about perspective. On a lovely and intelligent young football fan’s twitter page, I came across this. A Dennis Bergkamp quote which said – When you start supporting a football club you don’t support it because of the trophies or a player, or history, you support it because you found yourself somewhere there; found a place where you belong.’ (A football club is like a horcrux then. Pardon my Harry Potter reference here.) The line is to a great extent true but I think the most important thing being a fan tied to a club/team provides you is perspective. And as any watcher of Akiro Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’ (or for those in the more mainstream movie scene ‘Vantage Point’) will testify – perspective provides its own reality. It is confusing and impossible for us to take in the ‘big picture’ if we keep running around all over the place.
Suppose you support Arsenal this season and on a whim decide to support Chelsea the next. You are seriously reducing your chances of complete and intelligent appreciation of the game for whatever purposes you are following it – entertainment, or a metaphorical take on life or a breeding ground for your own life philosophy. Imagine changing seats every 20 minutes during a classical dance performance or taking a painting and looking at it from 10 different angles – it is going to be too much information for your brain to really process into anything that manifests in your personality or life. Good or bad, we need a vantage point in life. It may not always be the best view, but the key issue is that it is a consistent view. You assimilate and absorb, doubtless coloured by your judgement based on your vantage point and the view from there, better. You don’t (in fact, shouldn’t) support a team just because you want them to be the best or win all the time. That’s physically impossible. Neither should you summarily avoid a team saying they are poor. Selective bonding will never give you any lasting joy. And that’s why the point about treating it as a vantage point is important.
THE ‘MATRIX’ PROBLEM
It might sound ridiculous to suggest that you should take up a position to observe the world but believe me it is otherwise not humanly possible to truly take a 360 degree ambivalent view. (If you say you can do that, I would like to see your Buddhist Zen Monk ID please.) For some people it may take the form of religion, spiritual leaders, political leaders or other anchors (and these may overlap too) but every one needs that vantage point, that perspective. For us football fans, it is our club. We analyze everything else through that lens. The problem arises when we lose sight of the fact that our view indeed is tunneled by the emotion we feel for our respective clubs or teams and start believing our view to be THE reality (Let’s call it ‘The Matrix’ problem, shall we?) and we cross over from being fans to annoying fanatics or fanboys or bandwagon riders with sports equivalent of one night stands.
Hornby writes at one point in ‘Fever Pitch’, ‘Many fans express anger, against their own team or the supporters of the opponents – real, foul mouthed fury that upsets and saddens me. I have never felt the desire to do that; I just want to be on my own to think, to wallow for a little while, and to recover the strength necessary to go back and start all over again.’ How I interpret that bit is that as a true football fan, there is nothing wrong in being the diligent and dedicated supporter but we have to constantly remind ourselves that what we have is our vantage point.
Vantage points are not good or bad, they just happen to provide different perspectives. In the case of an honest fan, he/she will always think of what happens when the proverbial boot is on the other foot. And that’s why he/she will try to understand why the other fans support their clubs to augment his/her own reality. That’s how life is. You are not born with a cosmic understanding of the truth but you have the desire to get to it. So you take up your own vantage and select your own anchor. There are, I repeat, no good or bad vantage points – whether you support Liverpool, Levanthe or Luton Town.