Kick wifi out of football?
Fans live-tweeting matches from the stands isn't to blame for the sanitisation of the game.
Where do you stand on the question of wifi at football matches? To be honest, I’d never have imagined that wifi was an issue that necessitated taking sides. I know where I stand on fans getting nicked for offensive chanting or persistent standing, or the imposition of ‘bubble match’ restrictions on travelling fans. But wifi? It’s a bit like asking where we stand on hot dogs or Bovril. It’s not a life or death issue, is it?
Well, some PSV Eindhoven fans beg to differ. At PSV’s opening game of the season, fans staged a protest against the club’s plans to improve wifi access at the Philips Stadion. Supporters unfurled a banner declaring: ‘Fuck wifi – Support the team.’ When I first saw the story headline I was a bit nonplussed. What harm can wifi access do? Manchester City recently announced that it was introducing free wifi for spectators at the Etihad. What’s not to like? Well, after conducting a bit of background research I started to see why the Dutch fans were angry. They see wifi as a nasty modern distraction from the important task of giving their team loud vocal backing – part of the creeping gentrification of football. As I’m a bit old school myself, I have some sympathy with their concerns. I see football fans as active players in the drama – the proverbial Twelfth Man – rather than passive consumers. A large, noisy football crowd can lift their team and intimidate the opposition. There really are few more spine-tingling experiences than being in the midst of a bouncing, boisterous football crowd in full voice.
I understand that the football authorities want to pacify football crowds, but I’m still not convinced that wifi is the enemy. I’m a big fan of Twitter, but I don’t live-tweet at the football. Not when I’m watching my team. It’s not a matter of principle; it’s just that I worry that I’ll smash my phone if we score while I’m on Twitter. Too trembly to tweet. So, the smartphone stays firmly in my pocket until the fat lady sings.
There are times, however, when wifi access in a football stadium wouldn’t go amiss. For example, I might need to know the score at another match or – whisper it – check the train times if I fancied nipping out early. Sometimes it would be great to see a replay of a particular incident. One of my pet hates is the Premier League rule preventing clubs showing replays of controversial incidents on their big TV screens. I appreciate that the authorities don’t want to further infuriate fans after a decision has gone against them. But, these days, video clips of these incidents are instantaneously circulating around the Twittersphere. Everyone knows whether the ref made a howler except those wifi-starved fans who are actually at the game. It doesn’t make any sense.
While I hate piped music and much prefer fan-powered atmosphere, the unwritten code of ‘proper’ fandom feels too much like moral dogma. I tend to balk at the fundamentalism of self-proclaimed ‘proper fans’, who insist that there’s a ‘correct’ way to support your team and that anyone who violates these principles must be a ‘plastic’ Johnny-Come-Lately. Take, for example, the European-inspired ultra groups such as the Holmesdale Fanatics at Crystal Palace. They’ve won plaudits from rival supporters for giving Palace non-stop vocal backing. However, some traditionalists look down sniffily at the drums, flags and choreographed displays. They see ultras as ‘cringey’. Flags and drums aren’t the way we do things in Britain, are they?
Football fandom, with its chants and rituals, can resemble a secular version of religious devotion. It’s easy to forget that, ultimately, football doesn’t really matter. It’s just a form of entertainment. Much as I love it when the crowd gets the stadium rocking, there are times when I feel that the players ought to do their bit to entertain us, the paying punters. God knows how many turgid games I’ve had to endure. But sometimes we just can’t help but start chatting about stuff other than football. Heretical as it sounds, I’ve found myself nattering about all sorts of things at the football – music, politics, films or holiday destinations. The modern metrosexual man is as comfortable discussing recipe ideas and grooming products as he is debating the merits of gegenpressing. I’ll hold my hand up here: I once found myself discussing the best method of cooking sea bass. Yes, at a football match. So crucify me.
The point is that football is a social ritual as much as it’s a form of pseudo-devotion. It’s an escape from the daily grind. You go to meet your mates, down a few beers and have a bit of a laugh – or a moan. If the game’s a bit dull and the conversation turns to the latest American TV series on Netflix, so what? Is that any different to trading banter with rival fans on Twitter during a match? Sometimes the Twitter banter is more entertaining than the game itself. So, leave wifi alone. If we really want to stop the sanitisation of football, let’s campaign for the right of fans to stand if they want, drink alcohol in the stands and sing whatever they bloody well like.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. He will be speaking at the debate From Yid Army to Green Brigade: free speech for football fans? at the Battle of Ideas festival, held at the Barbican in London on 18-19 October. Get tickets here.