Like a lot of the best things in life, FreeDarko confused the hell out of me when I first encountered it. In fact, several months into my readership, I still only understand a small fraction of it, and not just because it's about basketball. Nonetheless, it's fun to see something you only kind of understand being refracted through a strange lens, a misshapen psychedelic image of it being cast on the screen.
(In homage to FreeDarko, this post will be sprinkled with seemingly random Flickr photos.)
The jumping-off point of FD is the notion of 'liberated fandom', whose spirit was helpfully defined in a recent post as "Fuck where you live, who raised you, what's on TV the most. Make an exhaustive survey of the league and cling onto what moves you, even if it's a lost cause. That can be individuals, a team, or a subset of individuals on a team".It is a resonant and seductive idea, and has one wondering whether it can be applied to football.
The absurdity of deriving a goodly proportion of my enjoyment of football from the fortunes of a team which I've never seen play other than on the telly and who come from a city and country to which I have no connection, has struck me more than once. There is no particular reason to support them other than because my dad does (that's the how) and because I always have (that's the why) (and what does "support" mean here, anyway? Not to, like, totally blow your mind or anything, but aren't they supporting me more than I'm supporting them?). There is nothing substantial tethering me to Arsenal, and nothing about the tenuous ties that do bind me to them that wouldn't be present were I to follow any other club. The older I get, the more irrational it appears.
There is a progressive narrowing of the definition of fandom. When Saturday Comes' website yesterday posted an archive article about an advertising campaign for Sky Sports' Premiership coverage. The writer bemoans the depiction of a football fan as "someone who has abandoned reason", adding "the new stereotype suggests that you’re not a real football fan unless you’re incapable of conversing on any other subject". The piece was originally published in 1997, but its "howl of pain" is as appropriate today.
A product of this is the type of discourse that make the likes of 606 and many club-specific websites the kind of intellectual and spiritual black holes they are. Their essence is one big "my dad could beat up your dad, and by the way, your mum's a slaaaag" argument (though 'argument' suggests a dignity somewhat lacking) which raises any perceived slight into a gross injustice and every inconsequential victory into a triumph which exists, it seems, merely to validate the continuation of the playground stand-off.
Such vicarious boastfulness was part of the daily banter at the single-sex school I attended, fuelled by ignorance, playful bravado and the knowledge that there were no girls looking on and marvelling at our astounding level of emotional retardation. Then I left school and saw that the world was a mite too big and beautiful to be reduced to a little blue marble of hatred (of course, this reality didn't dawn on me all at once, and is still revealing itself to me now, as it no doubt will until The End). It contains more than can be captured by the throbbings of the teenage mind, or the pages of the NMfuckingE.
I think it's taken until my discovery of FD's handy two-word encapsulation for me to realise, but I believe I've been inching along the road towards liberated fandom for some time. It may be in small ways, probably laughably trivial to Bethlehem Shoals and company, but they feel significant to me (and hey, isn't that what matters?). There was the time I first encountered the famous Danny Blanchflower quote you see on the left-hand margin of this page, and how it struck me as as true and beautiful as anything I'd ever read. There was the odd feeling of lack of revulsion whenever Gianfranco Zola did something amazing in a Chelsea shirt. There's the strange emotional compromise whenever Robbie Keane scores for Spurs.
Last season brought it home. Even through the agony of Arsenal's season oozing into Eduardo's sock, I was somehow able to appreciate the battle between Chelsea and Man Utd to see who would become Kings of the Universe. By rights I should have been driven, as I believe the hip kids say, bat-poop insane by the inexorable march towards the execution chamber where the only choice would be the gallows or the chair. In 2007, I rejoiced at the averting of a Chelsea-United Champions League final with 007 seconds on the clock, for surely the world would have turned in on itself and shot through the resultant black hole to a universe whose inhabitants regard the Book of Revelation as an opera buffa. Last season, however (I think we can say "last season" now, can't we? We're currently in the twilight zone where it's impossible to say "this season"), even though Chelsea-United was the least desirable outcome of the semi-finals, and despite my loud announcements to whoever would hear me that I would simply refuse to watch the game, I watched it and enjoyed it. Maybe it was an acceptance of the futility of resistance, and that no matter how hard I wished, both teams couldn't lose. Maybe it was the chip on each shoulder balancing each other out perfectly. Whatever, I felt no bitterness, and appreciated the match for the good one it was (just don't try to tell me it was a classic).
That was merely the most dramatic revelation. I had long been aware of how much I am fascinated by Cristiano Ronaldo's Cristiano Ronaldoness and by Didier Drogba's ability to violently dominate the final third like a power forward does the low post. That's not to say that they give me unadulterated happiness, but I can put just enough of my Arsiness aside to wonder at them like any normal human being.
If this sounds like a pretty pathetic stab at liberated fandom, then maybe you're right. I half-suspect that my willingness to occasionally look beyond the enmity and final tables derives in part from those trophyless rocky expanses between the precious seams of silverware of the Wenger era. When you see your team miss late penalties in cup semi-finals and throw away the league in the penultimate game of the season and lose a goal lead in a cup final and your biggest rivals amass insultingly large points tallies and another rival uses a cheat code to give them infinite transfer funds and your team lose a goal lead in another cup final and two other Premier League clubs win the Champions League before yours - when all that happens, and it's too much to take in, you may get a bit deluded and believe that there may, just may be value in things other than winning. The glorious, sometimes idealistic-seeming footballisticism of Arsenal has been a gift to self-righteous Gooners everywhere, and in my particular case, it may have had some kind of influence on my way of thinking about the game in general.
It's a pretty thought on a pretty, drizzly summer's day to believe that beholden fandom, to borrow again from the FreeDarkonians, is a prison, a primitive condition, blinkers that were they to be discarded would allow one to see all sorts of hitherto invisible wonders. How romantic it sounds to be able to regard the world through purely aesthetic eyes. The tribal instinct is doggedly strong, though. After all, it is flexible enough to be able to be directed towards a private football-based concern based thousands of miles away. Even were one to try to will it away, it resists. When you're like me and you dither and procrastinate, it barely even has to.
(I've come up with a theory, just this minute. I'm not sure I believe it myself, and it's a bit on the bleak side, so if you don't like that kind of stuff, you can skip ahead to the next paragraph. It goes thus: life is about disappointment: suffering it, getting over it, trying to avoid it, worrying about its arrival. Disappointment is unpredictable and painful, and pain is a law unto itself. Much of being a supporter of a particular team is about disappointment; think how often a fan wears their years of cumulative suffering as a badge of honour. And this goes whatever team you follow: a fan of a bankrupt Conference team would no doubt look at pictures of crying Chelsea fans last season and scoff at their self-indulgence, but these things are relative. Following a team is facing up to the inevitably of disappointment, but in a controlled and manageable way such that it will affect you for a while but will surely dissipate quite quickly.)
The thing is, even as I grow increasingly able to discern the many levels on which football exists, the sense of partisanship seems not only to maintain itself but to swell, at least if last season is anything to go by. I'm still not sure if this is absolute, though. It may have been a result of the drama of Arsenal's season, ridiculous even by their standards. It was a little bit of a shock - just a little bit, mind you - to note the (temporary) abject disappointment that the Champions League exit left me, and the (mainly superficial) sickness caught from Arsenal's league chances sliding bit by bit into the sea, battered by waves of draws against lesser teams. It's not that these feelings had never appeared before, just that they were a tad more keen this time.
Say you did decide to become some kind of pure soccer beatnik. You would need the information to inform whatever values you now apply to the game. You would need to be able to see the game through a clear lens, with no distractions. We are all, these days, somewhat expert at deciphering the media's mixed messages. Even so, to find enough objective material from which to disentangle some truth is a fraught business, even when concerning a frivolity such as football. Even when you hack through the thorny scrub of hype and bullshit and get to watch an actual match, you still have to be on your guard to avoid the continuous misdirection of TV production: the constant cuts and close-ups we're assured will bring us closer to the heart of the game, the expert punditry feeding us pithy slices of nothingness.
Is it true that, as the great philosopher said, "if something's hard to do, it's not worth doing"? Before you even consider the 'how' of liberated fandom, you must look at the 'why'. Is the tribalism of supporting a team "just because" really something to be looked down on, something from which to free oneself? Does it preclude one from perceiving football's multifarious realities? Is it a childish response to the chaos of the city, to hide under the bedclothes and clutch one's blanky?
I believe, for what it's worth, that the graph of my fandom will approach "liberated" but never quite reach it. I suspect that there is a happy medium between it and the more common variety - or, should I say, I hope there is. Maybe I am just chicken for not trying to relinquish my strange bond to a foreign football team, and maybe I'm cool with that. It's at this point that it would be wise to remind oneself of the absurdity of the world, and that the proper reaction to all of this is probably to shake one's head and laugh. If it's true that not all beliefs are equally valid, perhaps that is the most valid of them all.