The year the football fan fought back (in a good way)

FFT Columnist Neil Humphreys reflects on the year gone by and lessons (hopefully) learnt in 2014.

This year may be remembered as the year of tipping points, a series of volatile moments that turned us all into Popeye. We blew on our pipes and sputtered: “That’s all I can stand, I can’t stands no more.” We didn’t swallow spinach, punch brutish men with beards and chase gangly women, but we found our voices.

This was the year the football fan fought back.

Of course, the supporter didn’t triumph. Let’s not be silly now, the barriers to any sort of equitable relationship between the glory game and its masochistic followers are nigh on insurmountable in such a tightly controlled environment. But tiny, positive steps were taken. The year 2014 witnessed plenty of disaffected groups raging against the machines of greed (the English Premier League), corruption (FIFA) and incompetence (Singapore).

And it all started with a banner.

In March, Manchester United supporters defied their Great Leader sitting in the director’s box by mocking his successor. The banner called David Moyes “The Chosen One”, but he was the anointed one, selected by a benevolent dictator who refused to relinquish control. Irate Red Devils contemplated the unthinkable. They rebelled from within. They went for the banner.

Moyes’ ludicrous “Chosen One” banner typified all that was going wrong at the spiraling club. Like the last days of the Roman Empire, hedonism and hubris ruled the minds of the few and alienated the disillusioned majority. Debts ran wild and Sir Alex Ferguson’s final decisions went unchallenged. He publically backed the asset-stripping Glazer family and reined in his spending. They reciprocated by granting him full control of his own succession policy. He appointed a man in his own image – from 1986. In 2014, however, Moyes was a mouse among men. Absentee American loss-makers and wide-eyed, gullible Glaswegians were running the asylum.

The arrogance of the banner, dripping in the religious imagery of a chosen one being ordained from on high, symbolized how out of touch the Old Trafford rulers had become. So the fans sent a plane across the stadium that read “The Wrong One. Then stewards were sent to guard the Chosen One banner. A global empire appeared threatened by a handful of mouthy Mancunians armed with car keys and marker pens. It was hardly a revolution, but it was no less glorious.

And it was infectious.

Fighting for the cause

In August, supporters took to the streets. They marched towards the London headquarters of the Premier League to protest exorbitant ticket prices. Chelsea charged £50 for seats so high inside Stamford Bridge they should’ve come with oxygen masks. According to a Football Supporters’ Federation survey, nine out of 10 fans insisted that tickets were too expensive.

The march was always doomed to fail. Simple supply and demand keeps ticket prices beyond the reach of disillusioned working-class supporters now priced out of their own sport. But a noble few defied the economic arrogance of the game’s overseers. Others followed in their footsteps.

At the World Cup, Brazilians shared their frustrations of supporting Corinthians and Flamengo for decades only to be priced out of their own stadiums for the tournament. Corporate sponsors and the predominately white middle classes took the seats disenfranchised locals usually filled to watch their domestic competition. So they protested against the prices, against FIFA's annexation of their towns and cities, against the closure of their businesses and against their own Government for subsidizing an international tournament at the expense of basic education and healthcare services.

If nothing else, the Brazilian people deserve credit for forcing Sepp Blatter into temporary hibernation for most of the tournament. FIFA's mouthpiece was essentially mothballed. He was silenced by the uncertainty on Brazilian streets. He couldn’t entertain the possibility of being photographed by the “Blatter go home” graffiti that covered the crumbling stonewalls of Sao Paulo.

But the damage was done nonetheless. The unfortunate juxtaposition of FIFA's gleaming black motorcades passing the decaying slums of the Rio favelas was too striking an image to be ignored. Saddling another emerging economy with debt and a sprinkling of white elephants before scuttling away with billions in profit was a cash grab too far. The hypocrisy had taken its toll.

From the Brazilian street artist with a spray can to the English and German football associations and whistleblowers within FIFA's highest ranks, everyone seemed less scared of Blatter’s bloated house of horrors in 2014.  FIFA will endure. Blatter may not.

The same could be said for Singapore football and Lions coach Bernd Stange.

Time to care again

In England, they marched. In Brazil, they faced down riot police. In Singapore, they contributed some really cutting comments on Facebook. But the mere existence of the dissent was encouraging enough.

For many years now, the greatest impediment to Singapore football’s evolution hasn’t been anarchy, but apathy. Indifference already threatens to suffocate a dying S-League and its decision to reduce the number of teams and impose an age cap might have passed by unnoticed, but for a few factors.

First, a private conversation between officials and Tanjong Pagar players went viral, sparking a spirited public debate about the perilous state of the S-League not witnessed for years. Second, the Sports Hub’s perennial pitch problems caused a nationwide loss of face. And third, Aleksandar Duric’s retirement at the remarkable age of 44 highlighted not only the pointlessness of the age cap stipulation, but the alarming lack of talent coming through the S-League to replace his Suzuki Cup-winning generation.

Marina Bay Sins

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The subsequent Suzuki Cup debacle on home soil was the rotten cherry on a rancid cake.

This time, Singaporeans played Popeye. They couldn’t stand it anymore; a national competition reduced to a joke and further handicapped by reactionary rule changes; a stadium surface fit for sandcastles and a humiliating home defeat against Malaysia. It was too much. They didn’t have the answers, but they demanded them nonetheless. They cared again.

Singaporean supporters ended 2014 in similar fashion to those Manchester United fans heading for the Chosen One banner in March. They staked a claim for ownership.

The fans stood up in 2014. Hopefully, they won’t be ignored in 2015.

Neil Humphreys is the best-selling author of football novels Match Fixer and Premier Leech, which was the FourFourTwo Football Novel of the Year. You can find his website right here.