I suppose very few of you have seen This Is Us, the fly-on-the-wall documentary chronicling One Direction's rise to global superstardom. Well I have, embarrassingly enough (In my defence, it was at my cousin's behest and it was her birthday). It's everything you'd expect it to be; a chirpy, upbeat, well-polished piece of masterful propaganda. But there's this bit at the start that intrigued me. It seemed pretty innocuous but it sparked something in my noggin. It's this 3 minute clip of One Direction fans from all over the world talking about what the band means to them and how they couldn't live without them. Y'know, standard enough for a movie like this. But the way the fans discussed their everlasting love for and unwavering loyalty to One Direction, I couldn't help but be reminded of the devotion football fans pledge to their chosen club.
Let me explain, properly. I am a football fan. Quite a fervent one too. I've followed the game for the last two decades, read about it every day and support one of the game's most famous clubs, Manchester United. So I think I'm a good authority to discuss this. It's something you never really question; why you support the team you do and what it means to you. It's just de rigeur. We're sort of brainwashed aren't we? I mean, when you really step away from it and view it with a cold, investigative eye. This seems obvious to people who don't like football. Explaining to them why football fans are willing to spend thousands of pounds every year to follow the football team they've decided to like is an exercise in futility.
But let's get back to the parallels between boybands and football teams. Boybands are carefully marketed, highly airbrushed, uber-commercialised groups of men. As are football teams. Their fans pledge their undying devotion to them. Just like football fans. They produce a product of no real productive value. Again, just like football teams. They are handsomely paid but their shelf life is limited to a few years at the top and then sporadic comebacks and possible appearances on reality TV shows. Footballers' shelf life is probably a tad longer though there is no comeback for them. Though they can forge paths in other football-related careers such as punditry and coaching. And the reality TV show option is open to them. Just ask Lee Sharpe. They are whored out to companies and corporations by their managers and agents for television commercials, merchandise agreements, sponsorships and product placement. Just like footballers.
The way boybands interact with their fans is also remarkably similar to how footballers do. They know, or at least they're instructed to know, who butters their bread. The fans must be celebrated, glorified and indeed deified. They must be informed of how special they are in regular intervals. They must know how eternally grateful the boyband member is for the fan splurging €50 on a hoodie with their face on it just like the footballer must tell his adoring fans how much it means to him that they were willing to spend €60 on his club's latest home kit.
As much as we'd like to kid ourselves football is a product which is sold to us the "fans" in much the same way music produced by boybands is a product sold to "fans". It's a word football clubs will always be vehemently reluctant to use for fear of alienating their base but we are, essentially, "consumers". Though evidence of this truism often slips out. Usually from the tongue of Richard Scudamore, the Premier League's Chief Executive. He's the man who last month bemoaned Manchester United's recent decline as it was costing the league "interest and audience in some places". He's also the man who, according to the Secret Footballer, told referees "And, remember, you’re not in a sport, you are part of the entertainment business. We don’t want our top players being sent off every week because it’s bad for the brand." It might be hearsay but, if true, it's about as blatant as it gets.
There are some rather salient differences however. Football clubs, or at least the top Premier League clubs, may be giant corporate behemoths today but they all evolved from community groups and workers' teams. Manchester United were originally called Newton Heath L.Y.R (The L.Y.R standing for Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway) and the team was comprised of railway workers. Arsenal were originally called Woolwich Arsenal and were formed by workers at an armaments factory in London. And so on. Boybands are completely artificial and manufactured by record companies and pop moguls like Simon Cowell and Simon Fuller. Whatever it is about Simons. Another difference, though the veracity of this one may depend on which side of the fence you sit, is that footballers have a genuine, unique talent that is quantifiable and undeniable. Perhaps One Direction's fans might claim that Niall Horan is a very proficient guitarist and Justin Bieber's that he is a fantastic singer but they're probably not the standouts in their respective fields. They're where they are because of careful marketing and boyish good looks.
There are differences however which are more subtle. Football is taken seriously. Boybands are not. If truth be told, and whisper this, football is equally as frivolous as boybands are. There is absolutely no point to it other than to provide millions of people with entertainment and a distraction from the horrible, wallowing shithole of a life they are leading. Same as boybands. Teenage girls are berated and derided for their almost theistic devotion to their idols but football fans' unwavering support for their team is seen as some sort of solemn, sacred practice. Also, football is spoken about by serious men in serious suits in serious studios. Sport gets a healthy chunk of all news bulletins (Except for RTE Radio 1 cos they're too posh) dedicated to it. Sure, popstars often make an appearance on the evening news but sport and football are omnipresent fixtures.
This point was sort of addressed by fashion writer Hadley Freeman in the Guardian a couple of months back. She wasn't comparing boybands to football but instead the fashion industry. She argued that fashion is dismissed as inconsequential swill as it is predominantly aimed at women and football is seen as an, as she puts it, "essential pastime", as it is overwhelmingly enjoyed by men. It's an interesting theory and one she doesn't really elaborate on further than that. It might be easy to poke holes in but it's worth ruminating on.
I admit I sound a bit conceited and pretentious in my above analysis. Sure, I'm just as bad as the fans I've been dissecting. I'm as beholden to the big, bad corporate giants as they are. And I am, unfortunately. But so are many like-minded people. We know what I've wrote to be true; that the Premier League is a brand, football is a business, players are employees. We know all this and yet we persist with this illusion that football is some noble, natural phenomenon. And you know why? Because we fucking love it. There's no two ways about it. If football wasn't so damn enjoyable we'd all have given up by now. We'd all have stuck our two fingers to Murdoch and the Glazers and Abramovich and the Sheikhs and told them to do one. The way the product is made, polished and presented may be bordering on depraved but, fuck man, what a great product.