Last Saturday, Arsenal’s Emmanuel Eboué was booed mercilessly by his own team’s fans during their game against Wigan. Such was the vehemence of the jeering, that it prompted Richard Williams to write on the Guardian SportBlog that, “It was the self-expression of the new breed of football fan, with his £1,000 season ticket and his increasing sense of entitlement…it is nasty, and it needs to be stopped.” Within hours, the article had become the most commented-upon on the Blog. The verdict was far from unanimous, and fans of every shirt had all kinds of opinions. So how are we to judge the reaction of the crowd towards Eboué? In order to answer this, we must address a broader question: what are the rights - and the obligations – of the ticket-buying crowd at a football match?
The mere purchase of a season ticket, even one that costs £1,000, does not, of course, guarantee to the buyer that they will be watching either high quality or successful football. And football being a game of passion, the first thought of the watching fan when things aren’t going well for his side is probably far more visceral than “You’ve got to do better than this – do you know how much my ticket cost?” But if that £1,000 price tag were reduced to £100 (or a £500 one to £50), yet the standard of football on offer remained the same, we’d have to expect fans to be at least a little happier. On that basis, we must admit that it’s not entirely unreasonable to factor ticket prices into fan dissatisfaction at least a little.
More important than the financial “investment” that fans are making when they pay to see their team play, is the emotional one. By purchasing a season ticket, fans enter into a loose form of contract with the club. The club, for its part, will provide entertainment in the form of a chance for the fans to see their side “live”. In turn, the fans will to provide support and encouragement to the team. In this way, we may say that the “contract” is mutually beneficial – the crowd gets to see its heroes up close, and the team reaps the benefit of a supportive crowd.
Supporting the side takes many guises, and includes both “positive” and “negative” types (in football, intimidation of the visiting side is arguably as important as support of the home team). Thus we find singing in praise of the team and/or individual players, jeering of opposition players and drowning out the cheering/jeering of visiting fans.
Fans may, of course, turn on their players when things aren’t going well., and we will address this issue shortly. Generally speaking, however, we may safely say that the main obligation of the football crowd is to protect the interests of the team.
Since these obligations extend to all fans of all clubs, we might consider them “rights”. In accordance with our tradition of free speech, jeering, booing, and criticising are permissible, although naturally there are exceptions. Fans’ rights do not, of course, extend to criticism on the basis of, say, skin colour or sexual orientation. However, they may include mockery regarding, for example, on-pitch performance and shirt colour.
Crowds jeer their opponents because it works. They suspect that the singing of songs aimed at encouraging an individual improves that individual’s performance, so they do it. Conversely, they suspect, and have doubtless seen that, while some may thrive on it, many opposing players are adversely affected when targeted for abuse. Crowds therefore know that it is counter productive to employ the same tactics on their own players.
As a result, loud criticism by fans of individual players on their own team is rare (which is why the Eboué case received such attention) – in cases of displeasure with an individual player, the crowd might instead target its wrath at the manager (who picks and deploys the players). Alternatively, the fans might sing the praises of a player on the bench whom they consider a superior alternative to the one with whom they are dissatisfied. A recent example in the US, showing what many considered to be both the acceptable and unacceptable sides of crowd dissatisfaction with a player, was when the fans of the Cleveland Browns football team, unhappy with the incumbent quarterback, Derek Anderson, chanted the name of their hoped-for replacement, Brady Quinn (acceptable), but later cheered a season-ending injury to Anderson as he was helped from the field of play (unacceptable). Like Alanis Morissette, I’m not an expert in what constitutes true irony, but the fact that a couple of games later Quinn himself suffered an injury that ruled him, too, out of the rest of the season might qualify.
So how does this all relate specifically to the Eboué situation? He was heavily criticised by the crowd that day - but acceptably, or not? Why did the Arsenal fans boo him? Those posting under the line on the SportBlog gave two main reasons: that he’s a “diver and a cheat”, and that he’s “crap”. The former doesn’t stand up. Fans do not, in my experience, boo their own players when they cheat – indeed, while they may be embarrassed in private, at matches some may even revel in it. It helps, of course, if he’s a good player. Skill, productivity, a good work ethic, even likeability, all contribute to encouraging fan support for an individual – or at the very least to protecting him from abuse. If, however, his performances are perceived to be to the detriment of the side, everything changes. He is no longer guaranteed the support of the crowd, whose main obligation, as I suggested earlier, is to protect the interests of the team. If the player in question happens to be a diver, lazy, and unlikeable (as some bloggers contended is the case with Eboué – I personally have not seen him play enough to comment), then abuse is likely to come his way the quicker.
“50,000 Geordies can’t be wrong” I once heard Kevin Keegan say. We’re all aware, of course, that the herd instinct and self-interest of a crowd mean that 50,000 people can be wrong. Perhaps, as some bloggers suggested, there are too many Johnny-Come-Lately “Tarquins” in the Arsenal crowd, meaning a lessened understanding of the game among those in the stands. Perhaps 20 years of success have resulted in too-high expectations from those watching. Nevertheless, if the crowd were booing him in order to express their belief that he was harming the team, even if they were wrong to do so, they were within their rights. Our advice to Mr. Eboue must, therefore, be to suck it up. To his credit, it appears that may be exactly what he is going to do.