It always used to infuriate me when a football game was described as “a good one for the neutrals”.
Who were these neutrals? Why do we care so much about serving up a game which was deemed worthy of these apparent VIPs?
And while we’re at it, who are these people at football games who applaud when the attendance is read out? You’re basically congratulating everyone else in the stadium for getting there on time. Anyway...
I always believed that if you didn’t have some form of emotional investment in one of the teams, the whole thing lost some of its charm. During the World Cup, I would find myself siding with a team because I liked their kit or I had a contrived connection with one of the countries. I once spent two hours in Canada for refueling so I'm practically Canadian.
But now the concept of being neutral seems like utopia and it’s all because of my five-year-old son. During last year’s World Cup, every step of England’s route to the semi-final was enjoyed and savoured by my son. Me, his 44-year-old dad, still emotionally scarred from the agonies of previous campaigns, watched games from behind a cushion.
When England bowed out, the disappointment was felt throughout the nation yet my son’s reaction was simply: “The Croatian fans will be happy.” To see such good sportsmanship in one so young brought a lump to my throat.
During the tournament, he’d grown attached to the England players in the way we all did. Oblivious to their club connections and respective rivalries, he loved seeing Harry Maguire, Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford but his favourite was undoubtedly Harry Kane.
The sight of the Spurs striker on TV would be greeted with huge excitement. My youngest son, while not as clued up on football as his brother, was swept along on the same wave to the point that he identified the England team as simply “Harry Kane.” If he was asked which team he supported, he’d always say “Harry Kane”.
It’s a similar story at club level too. A child may have no interest in Paris Saint-Germain but they want a Kylian Mbappe shirt. Likewise, fans of Cristiano Ronaldo wanted a Juventus shirt as soon as he left Real Madrid - there was no loyalty to the club but loyalty to the player.
Jerry Seinfeld famously pointed out (see video below) that when a player leaves one club for another and they get booed by their old fans, they’re basically booing clothing because the person wearing it is still the same one they cheered.
Of course, as this generation of fans grow up they could develop loyalties to certain clubs but life in the neutral bubble has a real appeal. You will never see your team lose, you’re able to enjoy a game for its technical quality and admire players based on their skills rather than who they play for.