Fan (fan) n.: A person who has a strong interest in or admiration for a particular sport, art or entertainment form, or famous person.
During Sunday’s brilliant, almostthisclosetoawin El Classic, I Tweeted that I had heretofore thought it impossible for me to hate Wrongaldo more, but I was wrong. It wasn’t just the repeat of the “calm down” gesture that he made after scoring their first, or the way he grinned and winked at the camera. It the “Oh, my poor widdle shoulder” bollocks, etc. Argh!
Now. To RM supporters, his gestures were brilliant, those of a great player making opposing fans understand exactly what the deal was, and they were genuinely concerned about his shoulder.
Recently, as the entire world knows, even folks living under assorted and sundry rocks, Lionel Messi had a shouting match with David Villa. No, this piece isn’t about that long-forgotten hooraw. But some of its roots exist in an adjunct that has been turning over in my fevered little brain, that found its voice in the form of a question: “What if we still had Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and he was the one screaming at David Villa?” And further, does like/dislike color perception? Seems obvious that it does, or does it? Can we ever get beyond how we feel about a player as a fan?
I didn’t get many responses to my “What if Ibrahimovic?” question, but the few that I received admitted that he would, of course, have been scorned, vilified and all of that business that fans do to an “unpopular” player. Recall that Messi’s outburst was attributed to his drive, his striving for perfection and frustration at the efforts of mere mortals as they fall short of those standards. Yea, verily, his screaming at Villa was good said many, including our very own Isaiah, in a much-lauded post.
Yet Ibrahimovic would bring about a very different reaction. So all of this and a great many other things got me thinking about the nature of fan support, and the short journey from fan to “fanatic.”
There have been incidents in the news recently that have tested, and brought to light fan support, and not just the Messi/Villa incident. The John Terry verdict is another example. For the unfamiliar, during a match between Chelsea and Queen’s Park Rangers, Terry and black player Anton Ferdinand got into a verbal altercation. Terry called Ferdinand a “black c***.” The case went to actual trial, in which Terry was acquitted.
Then the FA got involved, held another hearing on the incident in which Terry was found guilty, receiving a punishment of a 4-match ban/220k-Pound fine. And people leapt to Terry’s defense. Why? Was it the seeming unfairness of the decision after a real court found him not guilty, or an admiration for the player, a stalwart for club and country? And why is that support sufficient, prima facie, to override what was in fact an awful incident?
The USADA recently released its evidence against 7-time Tour de France winner (right now) Lance Armstrong. It was impossible for me to not dance a mambo of joy. They got him! Yay! Others still rally to his support, using terms such as “witch hunt, railroading” and the like. Armstrong and his LiveStrong foundation have done wondrous things for cancer support and research, none of which in any way dilutes the outpouring of bile and disdain for the cyclist, who is, rather inescapably, a cheat. All 7 of them. Booooo, right? Even in this case, which appears to be as cut-and-dry as anything, it depends on what side of the saddle you sit.
Bringing matters closer to home, in the recent match vs Sevilla, neutrals or supporters of other Spanish clubs said that we got a gift, that Sevilla was playing against a 12th man in the match referee. Further, that because Fabregas unsportingly exaggerated the hell out of that brush from Medel, he was sent off. Cules say no way, that no gifts were given, that we earned that win. Further, Medel was stupid in lashing out at Fabregas and earning the straight red that sent his side down to 10, facilitating the freedom of play that allowed us to come back for the win.
Now recall that the very next day Di Maria earned a penalty for his club, and the same people who defended Barça labeled Di Maria a dive and a cheat. Is this deal really as simple as us vs them, as fans band together in that tribal way that is reminiscent of warring nations? “Our country, right or wrong,” saith the devoted fan. Di Maria is a diver, Fabregas isn’t. Old Busquets was a “gamer,” who would do anything to win. Pepe is a cheat and a thug. Or Busquets is a chet and Pepe the “gamer” would would do anything to win. All depends.
But it isn’t just country. WithIN a country, there are popular and unpopular states. The tourism board in the State of Alves has just hired a new public relations consultant. The State of Song isn’t a very good place to be right now. The State of Puyol is and always will be. The State of Busquets made a gift to the other warring nation of Sevilla, which successfully assaulted the States of Song and Valdes. Damn those two. Why can’t they secede from the Union of Barça, or go to watch from someplace where they can’t damage the efforts of our glorious warriors?
Perception colors reality. Errors morph into excess zeal that is to be forgiven, which morphs into “that’s what great players do. If they didn’t try, they wouldn’t be great.” It all depends upon who did what.
So Ibrahimovic, in yelling at Villa, would be a douchebag of the highest order. Some could say that he has the same drive for success that Messi has, is the same kind of supremely talented player that must coexist with mere mortals in order to show off his greatness. But his lack of popularity doesn’t give him that same “right” to actually demand excellence.
In other words, fans aren’t very rational, even as their behavior makes perfect sense in the context of what they believe, and its tribal nature.
Going deeper into this notion, what about fan perception of certain players also affecting popularity, i.e. Messi can do no wrong because people love him, where Ronaldo is a vain, preening git. Messi scores a goal, makes the sign of the cross to say “This one’s for you, grandma,” then runs to hug his teammates. Ronaldo scores a goal, strikes a post and sticks out his chest, waiting for his teammates to come to him to begin the celebration …. unless he is “sad,” then there is no celebration. And yet, there are people who have nicknamed Messi “Troglodyte,” who suggest that the post-goal gesture, once heartfelt, has simply become a rote expression every bit as vain and empty as Ronaldo flexing his thigh muscles. It all depends on what side of the aisle you sit. I confess that it pains my very soul to admit, through teeth gritted so hard that calcium dust is the result that he is an excellent footballer, because of my views of him as an FCB supporter. Is that wrong?
At the time of the Messi/Villa incident I noted that Ronaldo probably smiled a little bit, as just a sliver of the aggressiveness that makes superstars what they are, shot through Messi’s controlled exterior. Little did Ronaldo know that it would be perceived as something different, because this was Messi. He was popular, and therefore, like the angelic little brother who would break a glass then point to a sibling, him doing wrong is beyond the comprehension of his fans. So there are many, many other reasons, and people find ways to note that this yelling is good and right and healthy.
The beauty of being a fan is that you/we/they are right. Because right is a subjective evaluator in fandom. 2+2=4. This is objectively right. But it’s subjectivity that makes things fun.
Would Messi be as popular if his personality were more like Ronaldo’s? Or Neymar’s? Look at Neymar, who is beloved in Brazil, even as he fights, impregnates, refuses to pass balls and gets coaches fired. “He is ours. You don’t understand.” Would cules be saying the same thing about Messi were his demanding, aggressive superstar side even more on display, and forgiving him everything?
I love FC Barcelona. The players, for me, are instruments to the club’s glory. Messi scored 70+ goals? So what, if those goals came without the club winning major silver. When I do match evaluations, and rate Messi as something other than a being that strode down from Olympus, I invariably get stick, which I am more than used to, because I understand. How can some scribe criticize an icon? I see him running at 4 defenders and ignoring the open man, while the Messi fan sees that had he been able to beat that last defender, he would have been in on goal, and almost certainly have scored. So close!
It’s what makes evaluations of players such as Messi almost pointless. In my day job, I am music editor (among other hats) at the Chicago Tribune. In discussing a Bruce Springsteen concert review and whether we should send a writer (no-brainer), I suggested that there wouldn’t be much point, because Springsteen is review-proof. That is, it doesn’t matter what he does or how he is. His fans love him, and that’s that. The same is true of Messi, just as it is true of John Terry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo. And those qualities color what we do, and how we accept the actions of our heroes.
Is this right or wrong? Neither. It just is. Being a supporter feeds a need for passion that people have. It uplifts, exhilarates, depresses, saddens then repeats that cycle. It’s a beautiful thing. But the next time something happens to someone, ask yourself …. “How would I react if it were Messi, or Iniesta, or Xavi, or Ronaldo, or Ibrahimovic?” If you take a real look at that question, the ensuing discussion inside your own head could be a lot of fun.