An Arsenal-supporting friend of mine recently told me that he didn’t watch their 1-1 Champions League draw with Paris St. Germain all the way to the end. “I felt bored and left the pub after 65 minutes,” he explained. Whether the ennui was caused by Arsène Wenger’s familiar failings in Europe or a sense that the result didn’t actually matter in the grand scheme things - it’s only the group stage - I don’t know.
But his disinterest in what would have been a must-watch a few years ago chimed with similar expressions of football fatigue that I’ve heard from friends on social media and in real life. One said that his passion had dwindled and that he was considering not going to matches of his beloved Borussia Dortmund anymore. Others claimed to not be sufficiently entertained enough by the Champions League, where some matches were either considered extremely one-sided or not exciting enough for neutral viewers.
I wrote about the popular complaints of UEFA’s top competition last week but I’ve since come to the realisation that this is an issue that’s much more deep-rooted, not restricted to gripes about the format of the Champions League or worries about greed and rampant commercialisation. Something bigger, more personal is at play here: a maelstrom of feelings whipped up by loss, disappointment and perhaps even betrayal.
Part of the problem, I suspect, is simply generational. Like most of the people I mix with, I grew up in the 1980s, a pre-digital time when football was not widely considered cool and fun but rather sport’s equivalent of B movies or smutty magazines - a guilty pleasure, to be sought out at places where normal people wouldn’t venture. Following your team, as Nick Hornby explained in Fever Pitch was hard, unedifying work, passion in its original Latin meaning: a form of suffering. Deep down, old-timers like me now miss the days before comfortable, covered stadiums and 50 live games available to you at a push of a button.
It’s no longer our game because it’s everybody’s, commoditised into easily digestible bits with a strawberry-flavoured topping. Football has become so mainstream, so ubiquitous, that the expression of boredom or emotional detachment feels almost like a natural response. (See also: Star Wars).
We find it hard to get truly excited anymore because we’ve been excited for a very long time, with sharply diminishing returns. To slow down, to tune out, to move on (a little) makes perfect sense for us.
The second reason for the rising apathy also affects younger supporters/consumers. It is do with skewed expectations. Once upon time, those who loved football, did so in the full knowledge that football, as a form of entertainment, was quite often rather poor. For starters, you only actually saw the world’s best players once a year, if at all. Most of the games were painfully dull, devoid of real brilliance. It didn’t matter though, because you didn’t watch football to be entertained. You watched out of a sense of duty to the unfashionable, uncouth game you had adopted. You paid your dues, looking past all the surrounding ugliness - the racism, the mullets, the aggro - or poked fun at it, by way of ironic self-defence.
But now that much of football has become rather stylish, beautiful and competent - courtesy of a concentration of talent at the best clubs and Cristiano/Messi hat-tricks on tap - we seem to have forgotten about the game’s strong capacity for still being shit, especially if you don’t have an actual interest in the match being played.
We switch on with a strong sense of entitlement, expecting that football will deliver dramatic storylines, plot-twists and epic battles every bit as exciting as the scripted entertainment available on demand. But the game’s propensity for low scores can still produce plenty of uneventful, turgid dross, dour fare for all those not emotionally invested.
Somehow we seem to have forgotten that football can be like that. And we feel short-changed and cheated as a result. It’s not exclusively our own fault though. If you sell football primarily as a form of entertainment, people will increasingly be let down if said entertainment is not forthcoming.