Geeks and football: ‘We’re not so different, you and I’
Andrew shows us it's really not that hard to love both Game Of Thrones and The Beautiful Game...
This article contains spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War and a 1997 Tayside Derby.
There is an assumption that the overlap between nerd and football fan is so small as to be insignificant, that the two tribes are distinct and separate entities at best and long-term enemies at worst. There are the geeks and the jocks, the folk sitting by the bleachers and the ones cutting about on the field.
Visual shorthands for both are clear and established, and don’t flatter anybody. The battle lines are drawn at school and from these formative years the two groups presumably drift apart, happy to see the back of each other.
Instead, one group ends up hanging out in Milton Keynes wearing replica outfits to delineate their fandom, and watching a group of millionaires try to defeat another (after paying through the nose for the privilege even though you have absolutely no control over the outcome).
The other watches football, which is basically the same but only lasts around ninety minutes.
It’s not as simple as that, obviously, but what generalisations are for. There’s a breadth to geekiness that encompasses so much more than genre-fiction fandom. The fact is that there is a lot of overlap between being a football fan and a geek.
From an outsider’s point of view, both can seem ridiculous. The oft-trotted out quote about twenty-two rich men chasing a bit of leather around some grass is an accurate but emotionless description of football, while a casual observer could look at a remarkably acted scene from Infinity War and say ‘It’s a man with a ludicrously deep voice emoting to a CGI rodent about how his family have died in increasingly unlikely circumstances’. Yes, this is technically true, but emotional investment turns absolutely everything into something meaningful.
Seeing football live is similar to the benefits of seeing films in the cinema as opposed to on telly. The communal element and reaction of the crowd shape your experience. Then there are the snacks associated with these locations, but let’s not get sidetracked by the eternal war between popcorn and Bovril.
Football is notoriously difficult to make cinematic, but if you punched the air during your favourite franchises’ biggest hero moments, you can relate to someone doing likewise as Leigh Jenkinson’s second free kick ripples the back of the net as St Johnstone coast to a 7-2 victory against Dundee on New Year’s Day. The appreciation of a story well-told evokes similar feelings to a game well-played, and the way St Johnstone are defending at the moment makes watching Gravity feel like a light breeze on a summer’s day.
Because of this level of devotion, we see passions being catered to in similar ways with journalism, literature, forums and games. The DoG writers’ Fantasy Football league is a prime example of this middle ground between fandoms; the very concept of Fantasy Football has overlap with role playing games, in that players use stats and specialist knowledge to drive the story along. The more involved Fantasy Football games – such as the legendary stealer of time Football Manager – now allow you to choose between statements that shape what happens next and what sort of manager you become. It’s like Fable but with tracksuits.
Mixed in with this is an obsession with stats and trivia that pervades both cultures, the sort of mind that memorises football squad numbers and Doctor Who production codes or that ranks logos and fonts (France ‘98 Nike); the sort of fan emblemised by Statto from Baddiel & Skinner’s Fantasy Football League (1992 – 2000).
That show became associated with Nineties lad culture, and its this sort of connection that separates the two audiences in public consciousness. Words like “hooligan” and “casuals” aren’t associated with geeks, and there’s a classist bent to the stereotypes about football fans (the origins of the English league cluster around industrial hubs and mill towns, so even if it’s forty quid to get in now the foundations of football are as a working-class game).
You see ugliness rearing its head across both geek and football culture, with the recent Women’s World Cup producing predictable gatekeeping, approaching the levels of vitriol you’d associate with female-led reboots. Both football fans and geeks can also perceive criticisms of their allegiance as criticisms of them as people and defend objectionable things as a result.
Geek culture is based largely around finding your tribe, a group of like-minded people. The story we see time and time again is of bullied kids finding refuge in this sort of group, a minority against the sport-obsessed idiots who’ll be working in shitty retail jobs when you’re writing for a living.
This is all very simple, and that’s why it’s a story people are increasingly rejecting. Retail is harder than it looks. People have to eat. Jocks have hopes and dreams. A lot of authors also work in retail.
Also, it’s harder to play the persecuted minority card when pop culture is hugely geared towards us. They’re making another Batman film. A Song Of Ice And Fire just finished on telly. Marvel spent over a decade telling a story where Errol from 15 Storeys High plays a major supporting role. Picard has his own series. People can complain that football is on TV all the time, but also that superhero movies dominate cinema.
You can be enthusiastic to the point of tribalism about anything, but there’s a significant difference between acknowledging that football isn’t for you and dismissing everyone who enjoys it.