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Boos brothers: Why football fans criticise their heroes

Do you remember the time Gareth Bale called Cristiano Ronaldo a preening tosspot? Or the time he shot the Mayor of Madrid? No? Well, Real Madrid supporters apparently do.

Because surely, surely, the man whose headed goal won Los Merengues the fabled, long-awaited Decima isn’t being abused by the club’s fans for something so transient as a brief loss of form.

The Welshman has had his commitment questioned, car vandalised and decision-making jeered by the Madrid ‘faithful’ (to use the term loosely). The booing he received for shooting when 2-0 up against Espanyol instead of squaring the ball to Cristiano Ronaldo is the most famous incident, and also the one that arguably began the dramatic inquest of recent months.

Never mind that Bale passes to Ronaldo far more often than the other way around. Never mind that Ronaldo often looks noticeably miffed when his team-mate scores. Never mind that if you watch the clip again and pause at the moment Bale shoots, you can see he probably makes the right decision.

He has a good chance of scoring, whereas the pass to Ronaldo would require very exact weighting – and if it wasn’t, Bale would instead have been accused of bottling the chance.

But this isn’t all about Gareth Bale. Even modern greats such as Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo felt the entitled wrath of Madridistas. And for once – and don’t tell them this – it isn’t all about Real Madrid, either.

Transfers and transactions

It happens in pre-season friendlies, it happens at half-time after a goalless 45 minutes against a scrapping underdog, and it happens all over the world. For today’s fans, booing your own team is de rigeur, the 21st-century rattle. The reason, as ever, is simple: money.

As ticket prices continue to rise and sponsorships become more important to clubs than their seat-filling lifeblood, it’s no surprise that matchgoing fans feel more like customers than supporters. They haven’t been equals for some time – since footballers turned professional, in fact – but there was at least a sense among supporters that they mattered to the club they love. It’s hard to feel that way when taking a family of four to a Premier League match can easily set you back hundreds of pounds. That makes going to the football a financial chore, another itemised bill to place alongside the rent and petrol receipts. A transaction.

Even so, it’s interesting to see the boo-boy culture growing in the UK. The British tradition of quiet disgruntlement, rather than outrage, is giving way to the millennial attitude of entitlement, especially when parting with cold hard cash. Why wouldn’t you boo your useless team? They owe you.

Booing this way only really happens in sport – arguably only in football – and part of it is surely down to being in a group. That doesn’t just create a sense of belonging, but also anonymity which you don’t get when faced with the prospect of complaining mano e mano (or ‘moano e moano’). It’s all right, we’ll pick out the weevils. Yes, the cab driver snarled racist slurs all journey, but we should really tip anyway. Did that young player just misplace a pass in the 10th minute of the game? BOOOOOOOOOOOO.

Class act

The claim (between bouts of booing) that it’s a form of protest doesn’t really stand up. Protests express anger or disappointment but they’re also meant to do something – something positive. Even those marching against a war-mongering despot do so in the hope that it will effect change for the better.

Booing your own team, on the other hand, will only make them perform worse. There’s no incentive to prove the opposition fans wrong or feed off the abuse; you’re just hearing that your own supporters hate you. Oddly, that doesn’t help.

The questionable decision to jeer players isn’t down to class or intelligence, either. Far too often, football fans are wrongly depicted – especially from those outside the sport – as working-class muppets who probably only boo because it’s the most syllables they can muster together. That isn’t the case.

Again, it’s the sense of entitlement that comes from parting with so much of your hard-earned wages to watch one team perform better than another team, even though that in itself is a gamble.

As for the class argument, nonsense – it’s no secret that Arsenal’s support, well known for its tendency to voice complaints when angered, is leaning increasingly and inevitably towards the well-off end of the scale, and Real Madrid fans are more likely to come from the ‘better’ half of the city. (It makes you wonder, actually, what the thousands of football tourists in the Bernabeu make of all the hanky-waving when the home side are strolling towards victory).

High expectations

Mutinous moaning has become more popular and more widespread. Even good teams in the midst of a successful season will experience it from a selection of supporters. A few examples plucked from memory:

  • Tottenham when drawing 0-0 with Wigan at half-time in the early days of Andre Villas-Boas, a month after winning at Old Trafford for the first time in decades (they’d go on to lose for only the fourth time in their opening 15 matches). 
  • Crystal Palace after losing heavily at home to Birmingham in March 2013, when they were fourth in the table, had taken 17 points from their previous 9 games and would soon be promoted to the Premier League. 
  • Bayern Munich when going down to Borussia Monchengladbach for their second league defeat of the season, and slipping to only 10 points clear at the top of the Bundesliga.

You wonder what they expect.

Of course, the jeering and whistling doesn’t come from all of the club’s fans, especially in Bayern’s case. Across football, the Boo Army are still the very vocal minority. There are far more supporters who back their side whatever the circumstances.

In this respect, Manchester United fans, for all their faults, bucked the trend under David Moyes. For the most part, supporters gave ‘The Chosen One’ time to turn things around; even Andy Tate’s infamous “YOU’RE A FEWELL!” rant came as March turned into April.

After the impassioned plea to “get behind your manager” from the retiring Alex Ferguson on his final day at the office, United fans did that, either through a sense of loyalty to the club or faith that whatever they themselves thought, the greatest manager in their history had made the right decision.

You’d expect it to be easier if you support a Big Club. For fans of a Big Club, failure is just success on a lesser scale. Many supporters of clubs in the fourth tier and below shake their heads in disbelief at the throngs booing their players, their manager, destroying confidence, undermining self-belief and belief in the club, all because their team is merely the fifth-best in the land.

But then, it’s not that simple. These fans suffer a Stockholm Syndrome of success. Having been given better, they expect better. And there’s that word again: ‘expect’.

Pay £50 at a restaurant and you expect a good meal. Pay £50 to watch a film and you wonder what the hell kind of cinema you’re in. Pay £50 at a football ground and you expect an hour and a half of entertainment culminating in a happy ending.

Which brings us back to money. There are many reasons why supporters boo their players and attack their players’ cars. But above all, fans aren’t idiots. They’re customers, expecting good service. Bale take note.