Thanks to the wonders of technology, it has become a lot easier to follow and support one’s favourite
sports team. For those that follow the English Premier League, there is a veritable smorgasbord of football on the television screens almost 24 hours a day. In fact, if one is resident in South Africa or Zimbabwe there is a dedicated 24-hour Premier League football channel.
I have lived in the two countries noted above and one of the observations I’ve made is around the
supporters of the Premier League teams. Perhaps due to the strong British influence in both countries, the English league is definitely the most popular among all the European leagues. It is quite amazing to see the levels of excitement when one of the “Super Sunday” games are on tv – the reactions of the
supporters packed into a pub can rival that of any fans at the various stadia in England. Sometimes the reactions can go just a bit too far though.
So why do fans support the team they support?
Arguably the two most popular teams in Zimbabwe and South Africa are Liverpool and Manchester United. In the late 70’s and throughout the 80’s Liverpool were the most successful English team and prior to the advent of satellite television, there was a programme on television called The Big League that would screen one game a week. As Liverpool racked up the wins and the trophies, they were typically the featured match each week. As a result, the number of Zimbabwean and South African Liverpool fans probably number in the tens of thousands. It’s interesting to note that (broadly speaking) a lot of the Liverpool fans I’ve met are either from a household where the parents supported Liverpool and the kids (by default) became fans, or the children of that era watched football and picked Liverpool as “their” team from that point on.
Fast forward to the 90’s, the advent of the Premier League and the emergence of Manchester United
as the dominant team. Similarly to Liverpool in the 80’s, the success of the United team meant that they were frequently on television which also served to increase the fan base. A lot of the Manchester United supporters I know fall into this category – football, for them, started in 1992. Some of them know the
team of the 1990’s with Ince, McClair, Hughes, Beckham, Keane, Cantona, Giggs, Bruce and Pallister. Others will know the team of the 2000’s with Rooney, Ferdinand, Giggs, Vidic, Cristiano Ronaldo and Van Nistelrooy.
The arrival of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal in 1996 saw a dramatic increase in the number of Arsenal
supporters. I would be hard-pressed to name a single Arsenal fan during my high school and varsity days (1990’s in case you were wondering), but they now seem to be everywhere. The key driver, once again, was the success of the “French Connection” team with stars like Henry, Anelka, Vieira and Petit playing alongside Bergkamp, Adams, Overmars et al.
The Russian revolution at Chelsea brought in mega riches via Roman Abramovich and with it the ability
to buy success. Money was not the only reason Chelsea became champions – they were ably assisted by Jose Mourinho and his winning mentality. However, the fact that Chelsea became champions was a huge factor that drove an increase in the number of fans.
For those who enjoy watching football, the lure of a watching a very good team playing an exciting
brand of football is irresistible. The various incarnations of the Manchester United teams were renowned for playing some swashbuckling and attacking football. Arsenal’s teams of the early 2000’s were a joy to behold as they played a possession-based and counter attacking game that was enticing to
neutrals as it was to the diehards.
Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle team of the mid-1990’s was also a fantastic attacking team to watch.
Many fans still remember the thrilling 4-3 games played against Liverpool as well as the talents of Ginola, Asprilla, Beardsley and Cole. I feel that this could be a possible reason why some supporters have added Newcastle as their favourite team.
A lot of South Africans support Manchester United as one of their sons, Gary Bailey, was a
goalkeeper for the club in the 80’s. Now a pundit on the Supersport TV channel, among other things, Bailey is still a popular figure and still very passionate about Manchester United.
I’ve certainly noted an increasing number of Manchester City supporters recently and the influx of money at the club does not appear to be the sole reason. African supporters certainly enjoy supporting those teams that have African players and Manchester City have the Toure brothers. There are a lot of Chelsea fans as well, drawn by the African influence of Didier Drogba, Solomon Kalou, Michael Essien and Jon Obi Mikel.
The not-so-visible connection
Then there are those people who support a team that few others do, and I fail to see the visible
connection. One guy I know supports Everton – he’s not from Liverpool, he has not lived in the UK, he doesn’t have any family ties to England and has followed them since before they had any foreign stars playing for the side. Go figure.
People watch football for various reasons. Personally I love the tactical battles, the vision of a perfectly weighted throughball, the excellent timing of a slide tackle, a ball tipped over the bar by the goalkeeper or watching the football ball nestle in the top right-hand corner.
What’s your reason?