Why tribalism hysteria is the biggest threat to fans for a generation.

By Ste Tudor | 16 June 2020
Ste looks at how tribalism is to blame for so much.

Debates for and against the 2019/20 season being null and voided have long been null and voided.

Ultimately, so overwhelming were the financial and practical necessities that a bastardised version of football will commence this week and arguments over whether it’s safe or proper to do so during a global pandemic will give way to a nation commentating on the surreal spectacle that awaits us.

Games will be played behind closed doors. Players will be encouraged to turn away when tackled and instructed not to celebrate at close quarters. Substitutes will be stationed two metres apart, wearing masks. It will be football, just not how we know it.

Resurrecting the truncated campaign with most of the country still in lock down is unquestionably a far from perfect solution but then no perfect solution ever existed. Scrapping the season brought with it the baggage of fundamental unfairness along with economic fragility for many clubs. Proposing a PPG (points per game) model was accompanied by the probability of damaging legal consequences. Advocating that we move hell and high water to find a way of fulfilling the 92 remaining fixtures before the end of July – when all manner of further complications would come into play – presented a logistical nightmare and furthermore came attached with serious ethical concerns.

So naturally and entirely understandably we all argued about this and often fiercely so. Of course we did. Football fans are a highly opinionated and passionate lot who will row for three days solid about whether a player intended to stamp on an opposite number or if it was a mistimed challenge. Here the future and well-being of our national game was at stake.

And so it rumbled on – and on and on – and that this far-reaching and often bitter dispute has now come to pass will be a blessed relief to some. They will hope that we can all move forward and in many ways it is easy to empathise with that view because the discord was getting tiresome, with the same points being raised and the same points being debunked. It was becoming cyclical. A recent newspaper poll showed that 48% was against football returning in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. 47.7% were in favour. That’s much closer than the referendum vote and within the football orbit it caused nearly as much rancour.

Yet before we leave all the aggro behind and either enthusiastically or half-heartedly embrace the resumption of competitive action we really need to take one last look back; to rake through the ashes of a thousand Twitter transactions and polemical think-pieces that have been prominent these past few months and highlight a development that should deeply trouble each and every one of us.

Because after fighting so hard to gain a voice and fighting inch by inch to gain the respect of the general public it appears that football supporters have now been demoted to the abyss once again; thrown back into the caricatured hell we found ourselves in during the seventies and eighties. We are dismissed as being one-dimensional. We are considered incapable of independent thought.  

How did it come to this? How did a generation’s worth of fanzines and tacking issues and changing perceptions be so fundamentally wiped out in such a short period of time? How have we found ourselves cast back into the margins of society again? Separate from them. Different to them.

The answer in short is tribalism, the buzzword that journalists have got themselves into a tremendous tizzy about of late. More accurately, it’s due to their hysterical over-reaction to a problem of their own making.

But we’ll get to that very shortly. First though, here’s an example of the repercussions of that hysteria: a tweet put out on 3 May by Ollie Holt, the Chief Sports Writer for the Mail On Sunday.

‘Those most in favour of voiding the season appear to be fans of Everton and Manchester United. I wonder what the connection could be. Wracking my brain’.

The flippancy of the tone should not detract from what one of the most influential voices in football is insinuating here. He is insinuating that when debating where football fits into an unprecedented crisis that has brought the world to its knees: a pandemic no less, with a substantial death toll that has seen us hide terrified in our homes for months on end while the economy is decimated, depriving so many of us of our livelihoods: that all we care about during this horrendous and scary distortion of our lives is the opportunity to enjoy some cheap lolz at the expense of Liverpool being denied a title.

That’s all we amount to, you see. We’re not intelligent, sentient and reasonable human beings, concerned about the safety of players. We don’t possess an ethical framework that finds it repugnant that a competitive sport should prematurely return largely so the Premier League can get its hefty TV pay-out. We cannot criticise the ridiculous compromises required to get football back up and running – a reanimated corpse of a season that has scant integrity – nor can we comment that football means very little to us right now because frankly we have infinitely more important things on our plate, namely ensuring this month’s mortgage is paid and that our elderly relatives are okay.

This is the age of tribalism so to Holt and others we are not fully formed human beings but simply ‘fans’ in the most basic of interpretations. Furthermore, we are sociopaths who use Covid-19 as a convenient excuse to point-score over a rival.

It is a shameful tweet; truly an abhorrent sentiment and one worth remembering when he next writes a pious article about the significant worth of supporters and how the authorities take us for granted.

Yet Holt was far from alone in dismissing sincere opinion for childish club bias and across the spectrum a narrative formed that posited that only those rooting for a conclusion to this season merited being listened to. This irked me immensely. This irked me two-fold.

Firstly, not only was this complete disregard for half the population’s opinion (see poll from earlier) an outright insult but it was erroneous too. My two best mates are mad keen Liverpool supporters – match-goers both – and each were revving up for a celebration to end all celebrations prior to the coronavirus taking hold. In recent weeks however, one has confided that he has barely thought about football since March. The other, having seen a loved one succumb to the virus, believes it is morally wrong for football to return at this point or indeed anytime soon.

As for fellow Manchester City supporters, whenever I have put forward a claim – via social media or on podcasts – that the 2019/20 campaign should resume at a safe juncture I have been shot down many times over by vociferous counter-arguments; passionate and earnest in nature. Not once has Liverpool FC been mentioned.

The other reason this dismissal of the null and void camp so agitated was because even its basic tenet was flawed.

Let’s say they’re right, Holt and the rest. Let’s say fans are only capable of advocating in self-interest, driven as they are by tribalism. Then let’s weigh up the motivations at play.

It is fair to suggest that the majority of Liverpool fans wanted the season to resume and it’s a season that will inevitably result in the Reds winning their first ever Premier League title; a much-coveted holy grail to the club and fan-base. The dream of winning the league has utterly consumed them for two years now. Lifting the trophy will mean absolutely everything and more to them.

Now let’s focus on the journalists. Because is we’re only driven by self-interest the same principle should equally apply to them too, right?

It’s fair to suggest that the majority of football writers wanted the season to be concluded. It’s also fair to say that many of them have greatly struggled in recent months with hardly anything to write about. Many have been furloughed. Some have been laid off. A return of Premier League football would put their industry back on its feet and ensure they no longer have to pitch ‘On this day’ content for scraps.

Now let’s assess the supposed motivation of Liverpool’s rivals in calling for the season to be scrapped. It would afford them the chance to momentarily turn into Nelson Muntz from The Simpsons and tweet ‘HA HA’ to teenagers with accounts called ‘FirminoRockz27656’.

If the tribalism doomsayers are correct and we are all driven by personal agenda these days then who has the most to gain? More pertinently, who has the least?

(A side-note to Liverpool supporters – I get it. I really do. Prior to Covid-19 we called you the ‘Unbearables’ and we dreaded the prospect of you winning the league. We became a little obsessed with that if truth be told. So I guess it’s understandable that you still think we care about you lifting the trophy but honestly that’s no longer the case.  Because that was when life was normal and now it’s anything but and now what consumes us is making ends meet; and ensuring our elderly relatives are safe; and half-dreading the supermarket shop for fear of contracting a virus that could conceivably kill us.

In our heads you won the league a long, long time ago and it is established and accepted. Furthermore, as much as we enjoy your turmoil we have already had our fun; had our fill. When the league season was postponed we laughed and we laughed because the only thing that could stop you winning at that stage was a global pandemic and then unbelievably one came.

But then the awful reality of that pandemic hit home and now, if we ever think about football at all, we think of our own teams or the game at large. You are not even a blip on our radar.

As annoying people say on the internet: I hope this helps.)

Angered at the trope that only those who wanted the season null and voided were acting in supposed self-interest I tweeted something to that affect in mid-May. Here are three replies I got from Reds.

While other fans use deaths as a camouflage for their bias, we just use fairness

Yet to see anyone wanting it voided give an actual reason for it, other than using the pandemic as a reason when deep down they selfishly care more about us not winning it.

The fake concern for “people’s lives” is disgusting.

I could quite happily go to town on these replies, writing a thousand words on the middle one alone. In fact, no: I would simply repeat his line ‘other than using the pandemic as a reason’ over and over. Other than using a PANDEMIC as a reason.

It’s the latter sentiment I’d concentrate on. So entrenched is the belief these days that tribalism shapes our opinions that it is apparently inconceivable that a City, United or Everton supporter might be more concerned about lives being lost than enjoying some cheap bantz aimed at a rival.

On seeing that reply an awful realisation struck: that we truly are all the way through the looking glass.



It’s time to finally tackle the elephant in the room. So let’s get into this.

Before we do so, let’s first acknowledge that tribalism exists. Of course it does. Every week the Premier League soap opera churns out a few more dramatic storylines and it is absolutely not a coincidence that fans of one club think the referee was incompetent for disallowing a clearly legal goal for their side while fans of another club make forthright claims that their team didn’t benefit from VAR but rather justice was done.

Bias is everywhere online, especially in the days following the latest round of fixtures. It is pervasive.

It is important however to put this in perspective. To accept how relatively harmless this is and more so, how normal it is.

Of even more importance it is necessary to cede that this bias has always been prevalent in football. It’s just that back in the day folk would air their ‘tribalised’ views in the pub or over the breakfast table. Now it’s across the point-scoring playground of Twitter and maybe it’s because everybody has a public voice in that regard that bias seems to be more commonplace than before. In reality, it’s not.

That however is not a view shared by several prominent football journalists. They would have us believe that ‘tribalism’ in football is a new and worrying phenomenon; a blight no less on the modern game. They wring their hands about it. They write long and po-faced articles about it. To their minds tribalism represents the slow demise of discourse and reason.

It is claimed that everybody is too invested in the best interests of their football club these days to see sense; everyone is trenchant and triggered.

It should be said that some sympathy is warranted when determining how this trope first came to be because I’m aware from personal experience that if I pen an article not wholly flattering to Arsenal along come a small army of Gooners giving me grief online. A critical piece about Tottenham meanwhile brings forth a multitude of accusations concerning all manner of miasmic agendas.

I am small fry compared to the newspaper guys and I have a significantly smaller reach on social media too so I can only imagine how dispiriting it must be getting called a nonce every day simply for writing football content. It can’t be pleasant to say the least.

Yet if that explains the initial typecasting it doesn’t excuse it. It doesn’t excuse them for allowing their perception to be so badly warped that they extended it to all of us, gradually losing sight of the more accurate bigger picture and being informed only by the empirical experience of getting abused by fifty or so fans each and every day online. In short, @PogbaIsGod63521154 doesn’t speak for us and he certainly doesn’t represent the average supporter.

It is a blanket reputation that is reminiscent of what occurred in the seventies and eighties and that genuinely concerns. Back then, hooligans grabbed the headlines while the vast majority of supporters got their heads down, stayed out of trouble and just went to the game. Still, we were viewed as a single entity and lumped together as trouble makers. Thirty-five years ago the Sunday Times called football and its spectators ‘a slum sport watched by slum people’.

Fast forward to the present and the same broad tarnishing is happening again. Only now swap hooligans for trolls. Swap the threat of identity cards for the eradication of our very identity, thoughts and all. 

So they turned on us. There is no other way of describing it. A select few, influential journalists turned on their readership, bearbaiting by creating belittling buzzwords such as ‘fandamentalism’ and calling us ‘Trumpian’ and even ‘vicious rats’. They amplified tribalism to the extent where – unforgivably – all football supporters began to be tarred with the same brush for the second time. Demeaned and considered incapable of independent thought. Dismissed and disregarded just like our dads were in previous decades.

It is a situation that Manchester City fans – the target of the disgusting ‘rats’ jibe – tried to warn the rest of football about. Last summer, after a decade of being owned by a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family a small group of journalists suddenly woke up and realized that the human rights record in that region is abhorrent.

City fans were informed in no uncertain terms that they must similarly be appalled and when Blues objected to the deluge of negative press and fought back they were written off as being bots, shills or willing stooges of a sports-washing enterprise.

At no stage did it occur to these journalists that it was perfectly possible to simultaneously agree that the message was important but take serious umbrage with the messenger. For ten years many fans wrestled with the confliction of being furnished with success in large part thanks to an owner who holds great influence in a country that has a highly questionable ethical code. It is a quandary that men and women with infinitely more intelligence than these self-appointed arbiters of morality – and certainly more ethical standing – have come to terms with.

Then along comes a group of individuals who deigned to insist that we feel this way and act that way or else we were blind apologists of a state. Try telling ANY fan-base how to feel or think about their club and see where it gets you, and especially when the insulting behest comes from an industry that has very little trust and credibility left in the tank. It was not the subject matter that City fans took on. It was the journalist’s hubris and hypocrisy.

Regardless, the narrative was now formed; the paradigm that stated football supporters are no longer capable of rationality. It’s an immensely insulting assertion, made worse by the fact that it simply isn’t true. This past couple of days I have personally seen countless tweets from Manchester City supporters lauding Marcus Rashford to the rafters for his charitable ventures during lock down. When football returns these same individuals will be insisting he is over-rated. This is the way it should be.

Tribalism hysteria

There is a clear lineage from the treatment dished out to Blues last summer to the resent dismissal of a widely-held opinion that the season should be ceased. It is a lineage that began with the media taking a pious, supercilious tone with supporters and then running with it, creating a misconception that fans aren’t worth listening to because we supposedly only speak the language of bias.

It’s a dangerous misconception and it is a deeply worrying one and determining precisely how dangerous and worrying brings us to a comparative example that startles.

Before the example is given please consider how far we as fans have travelled in recent times and how little our voices used to matter. Before fanzines and supporter groups and fan media we were denigrated and demeaned by the public at large. We were viewed as depthless and delinquent. They were dark days indeed.

Okay, here it is.

The world is presently on fire, and amidst the coronavirus outbreak we are attempting to reset it for the better. There are riots. The Black Lives Matter movement is prominent as too are debates on gender issues.  There is discord and rancour.

From this discord and rancour think of the worst racist tweet you have seen. Or the most intolerant, most outrageous, most offensive thought aired by a relative or neighbour.  

How did it make you feel? Were you angered? Appalled?

Probably so and entirely rightfully so, but did you think that the person in question didn’t actually believe what they were saying? That they had an ulterior motive? Or were they at least given the base credit of being sincere?

In recent months thousands of supporters offered their considered view on the future of English football and proposed that the season should be scrapped in the middle of a global pandemic so that we can start over. Their opinion wasn’t even given the same respect as that of a racist and was disregarded by those who purport to represent them in print.

It is the exaggeration of tribalism that has led to this. It is that, not us, which should be silenced.