Football has always been a matter of faith of dreams. In a world of franchises, in a hard-nosed, material age, there are still people who are prepared to commit significant parts of their lives and incomes to following a team who will never win major honours and give their supporters bragging rights in the pub, yet there is always the hope that one day a moment will come.
The English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote:
“. . . It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith”
Football supporters have an irrational fondness for the characters they follow on the pitch week by week. By the standards of those at the top level, where a single player may earn as much in a month as a lower league club might pay its entire staff in a season, the players they may follow may be mediocre mid-table journeymen, whose prospect of ever playing on the international stage are very remote, yet they will be invested with extraordinary talent and aspiration by the supporters of the club.
Given the dominance of soccer by a handful of big clubs, and a realisation that the majority of clubs have no prospect of winning anything, being a football supporter seems to accord with Coleridge’s ideas concerning the “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”
What else other than a willing suspension of disbelief would prompt tens of thousands of people each week to attend matches involving clubs whose prospects of silverware are minimal, clubs for whom avoiding relegation is deemed a success. The triumph of Leicester City in 2016, though, is the exception that proves the rule, the exception that gives hope to others. Of course, after one season of variation, the handful of clubs who have dominated English soccer re-established their dominance, but Leicester showed they were fallible.
There are grounds that are full every Saturday, there are others where the empty seats are plentiful. It demands an act of faith to commit oneself to following a club who will almost certainly never be triumphant at the top level and but there are many people who are still willing to make such a commitment. Among those whose diet of football comes through a satellite dish, among those who might have watched the broadcast matches of the European Super League, how many have any conception of what real football is like?
Coleridge talked about “poetic faith.” The clubs who would never have been considered for the franchise football are teams that inspire a poetic response among supporters. Such clubs offer community, identity, tradition, a sense of place, personal engagement, shared joys and sorrows, moments that are local and personal, moments that could never be experienced through a satellite dish.