Putting The Nature Of Foreign Football Fandom Into Perspective

So we’ve made it to the world stage. A video footage* of a brawl erupted not so long after Juventus triumphed over Real Madrid was uploaded on Youtube and various global media picked it up, including Daily Mirror from the UK. Football supporters throwing missiles against each other is hardly a news, but what got many people shaking their heads is it happened in Jakarta, thousand miles away from Madrid (where both teams played on Wednesday night) and the two warring sides were Indonesians. It didn’t even happen in stadium. It happened inside a local gymnasium where both sets of fans watched the game together on giant screen minutes before. They’re neither Spanish nor Italian. They’re Indonesians.

What was shown on the video is hilariously embarassing. It’s hilarious because even the most fervent native Juventus and Madrid fans would find it defying logic. It happened in wee hours on Thursday morning and the footage was filmed by somebody who positioned himself in the best angle to shoot it. Both sets of fans throwing whatever that can be thrown to the opposing side, including bottles, rocks, chairs, and, the most gagging of them all, a bicycle. A policeman tried to calm the heat to no success. For a few seconds, the situation chilled a bit before aggro took place again. Then one set of fans chanted the name of their favoured club as a war cry and one-sidedly proclaimed themselves as the victor. It would have made a very funny Monty Python parody video if it was only acting. I couldnt find John Cleese intervening abruptly at the end of the video because it’s not a parody. It’s real.

Fingers were pointing, seeking for some to take the blame. But while the concerning parties could find time to resolute this matter between themselves, the question that pops up is how could it happen? Yes, football fans who attend matches have a tendency to flirt with aggro and mild violence, but these people were not in stadium nor they were supporting something on behalf of their local identity. They were watching a TV broadcast before all hell broke loose. It’s understandable if some people find it amusingly baffling.

I never condone violence and i think it’s unacceptable, but i have to say that while i couldnt help but to gag when i watched the video, it’s hardly a surprise at all. I’ve been to more than one screening party (nonbar, as we say it here) where things were a bit warmer than usual because of the presence of opposing fans. It didnt always end with the similar ruckus like what happened in that video, but when large herd of people with clashing identities gathered under one roof, the potential of something ugly is always there. It’s a basic psychology that crowd mentality occurs in this kind of environment.

One might say why risking it by inviting two different sets of fans? It’s because the nature of football fans welcomes the idea. We, football fans, love to gloat and when we gloat, we want our "enemy" to be there to take it.

It doesnt matter if it’s only on TV. It doesnt matter if the teams we fancy are foreign and we’ve never actually watched them in person. Globalisation and internet have cut the distance short and subsequently a lot of people can identify themselves with their chosen identity. Something that European football fans take as given (by birth, family, or locality) is taken in a very different way by us. No matter how commodified it is and how perverse it might sound to some, being a fan of foreign football clubs is actually a justifiable token of pride. After all, fanaticism towards a certain identity is not exclusively a football thing. From One Direction to Apple, being fanatical is a regular thing to encounter. And dont let me start on the actual religion.

As i drowned myself deeper in the footballing pool, i grew skeptical towards foreign football. It’s not saying that i’ve lost interest - far from it (The Guardian’s football page is the first thing i check when i wake up every morning) nor that my enthusiasm has been compromised. It’s just these days i tend to channel my interest and enthuasiam proportionally. Having met a lot of footballers and attended games in Europe as perks of my job also helped to wane the enthusiasm a bit and place it in the right frame. (Of course i was happy to be in Old Trafford for the Manchester derby last April, but surprisingly, i wasnt as ecstatic as i thought i would be. This deserved another writing later).

But being on a moral high horse on this fandom of European football is something i’d like to avoid. Some people would disagree, but i think there’s nothing wrong with being a fan of foreign clubs. It’s a product of virtually borderless world. Many factors play their part in making one a fan of one of these clubs despite not being able to watch it live in person. It also comes with effort and price they have to pay. For a start, yes, they only watch the games on TV, but timezone difference sometimes force you to stay wake up when you’re supposed to be sleeping. You dont stay awake for something less than a dedication.

Traditional value of football fandom sees a football club as a spiritual institution whose following is generated by something that is god-given. Hence the old adage "you dont choose your club, your club chooses you". The given, spiritual nature of football fandom requires some precursors, including but not limited to physical proximity to the institution, regular frequency to attend matches, familiarity with the club and its apparatus, and knowledge of its history.

In a pre-internet era and the so-called period before Sky invented football in 1992, it was nearly impossible to follow a foreign club religiously. You could read the news and and learn the latest results, but it’s nowhere near how fans these days get themselves updated with developments from their clubs. "Support your local club" was not merely a moral campaign, it was a definitive logic behind being a fan of football clubs because you had to be there in person to experience every aspect of football fandom.

Time has changed since then. Thorough television coverage of modern football means that you dont have to be physically present to see how your team play in the weekend. Intensive online news reports provide an hourly update of your clubs. Social media emerges to cut the distance even shorter and provide a platform to spread rumours worldwide (something that back in the days might have been just hearsay among locals), giving impression to any overseas fan that their clubs were just stonethrow away in their backyard.

The most amusing of them all is how internet helps foreign fans to absorb the culture and sub-culture of their chosen clubs. The clearest indicator of this is how chanting terrace songs has become ordinary. Come to any screening and you’ll hear "You’ll Never Walk Alone", "Blue is the Colour", or "Glory, Glory Man United being sung flawlessly. I know some Indonesian Newcastle fans and the way they sing Blaydon Races would make St James’ Park’s regular attendants proud. It doesnt stop in primary songs only. Most Liverpool fans i know are able to sing "Fields of Anfield Road" (even i know the lyrics) and the last time i was in Man Utd screening, i heard some young lads sang "If i die on Kippax street....". I kid you not.

Same thing applies to fans of clubs from other countries. When they’re not busy calling each other "Merda", any Italian fans club here will sing their songs in a manner of them being sung in Turin or Milan. Both Real Madrid and Barcelona fans also do the same thing albeit in Spanish. I assume they all know the meaning of the songs they sing, but even if they dont, i guess it doesnt matter.

By knowing the history of their clubs and embracing the culture to the tiniest part, it’s just natural if some people take it even further. United fans call themselves "Mancunian" and when they attack Liverpool fans verbally, they call them "Scouse bastard". It also happens the other way around. Both are Indonesians. You do the math.

It’s just a minor example but it shows the scale of how local fandom of foreign clubs has grown. It’s not merely watching and cheering for the winning team, as most European fans oftenly accuse the Asian fanbase. We learn the history, we study the culture, and we start identifying ourselves as one of them despite the fact that we’ll never be truly one of them. But that besides the point that the plausability of forging a football identity has evolved into a form where it looks anything but artificial.

When you take everything into account, it would not look unreasonable to see two groups of countrymen clash against each other in the name of foreign identity. They stripped themselves of their primary identity (in this case, nationality) and donned club identity in which they see other who dont share the same colour as enemy. To ridicule their preference of identifying themselves with something foreign as a mean to battle each other is not a strong argument because when you think about it, the idea of fellow countrymen battling each other in the name of local clubs is just as ridiculous. Then again, football doesnt use common logic. It has its own.