The transfer window is about to open, as fans of all clubs pray for that miracle signing who will turn their clubs fortunes around, or strengthen an already-dominant side. But as we wait to see where some of the world’s elite football talent ends up playing next season, a growing sect of fans is in the same boat. Because for an increasing number of young fans, they too are waiting to see which club they end up at next season. It’s 2022, and not every football fan supports a club. Welcome to the age of the individual, where the player is king.
Football fans have traditionally conducted themselves in a certain way. They choose a team based on locality, familial ties or perhaps even, whisper it, glory. Then they go to watch their team play at the ground or perhaps follow them on television. You hope they win, you hope they lift trophies, you hope they don’t get relegated, you hope they don’t get tonked by a bitter local rival. It is all fairly straightforward stuff, it’s only really been the kits and the players that have changed over the years.
But a different breed of football fan has emerged in the social media age. There is a growing number of supporters for whom the colour and emblem of the shirt is immaterial. For these fans, it is the name and number on the back that truly counts.
The idea of being drawn to a particular player is nothing new. Manchester United attracted no end of admirers in the 1960s due to the flamboyant and fragile genius of George Best. But these player-inspired allegiances used to serve the purpose of allying a fan with a particular club, with which they would stick even once said player had moved on. But the old lines are becoming blurred, and if Best were around today a large chunk of those he converted into Red Devils would have spent the subsequent years supporting Stockport County, Fulham and Dunstable Town.
Player power is a term thrown around often, usually to imply an athlete exerting increased influence for selfish purposes. But the term also serves as a handy catch-all for the way the perception of footballers has changed. Best was the first superstar footballer, and the Belfast boy stood out by virtue of the fact he was a celebrity in a sport populated with quiet, workaday types. Paul Gascoigne became a national superstar in the 1990s too, but once again his celebrity stood out rather than signalled a shift. It wasn’t until David Beckham transcended from curtain-haired free-kick-curler to “Brand Beckham” that the age of football shirts mattering less than the person wearing it was born.
That growth has continued apace, as individual players have attracted flocks of fans who will follow them wherever they go, irrespective of team. The Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi era has strengthened this trend. Some fans became so involved in the online battle to crown a “GOAT” that they ended up becoming more closely aligned with their chosen candidate than the clubs they supported, or even the teams the men involved played for.
Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain both reported massive increases in social media following when Ronaldo and Messi respectively joined them last summer. This sort of player fixation is not limited to these two stars either. AC Milan posted record numbers for both following and engagement upon re-signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2020. The effect can even extend to managers, if AS Roma’s increased social media metrics since hiring Jose Mourinho are any indication.
For long-time fans, such attitudes can be hard to relate to. The pursuit of success, and the emotional turmoil of your team’s failure, have been the currency of football for far longer than pounds and pence. But that too is shifting. The annual destination of the Ballon d’Or has become as hot a topic as the fate of any club trophy. Goals and assists have become the undisputed stage upon which all football must be judged.
So count yourselves lucky this summer. Even if your club does not purchase that world class central midfielder they’ve needed for five years, at least you don’t have to spend your break wondering which team to watch next season. You don’t have to throw out your collection of replica shirts and scarves and start over because your favourite player has moved to a different club. More fans than ever are choosing to support a player over a club. But sometimes, the old ways are the best.
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