A Love/Hate Letter to Fitbaw

Football. Footie. Fitbaw. A game whose history traces hundreds of years and involves around 250 million players worldwide. And also the bane of my life.

Let me explain. Where I come from – the distant barbaric Baltic shores of Latvia – football is mainly followed by a small stratum of hardcore fans.

There is a decent amount of clubs, but the sport is definitely trumped by ice hockey, basketball and winter athletics in terms of popularity. Go to any stadium, during any game – especially between local teams – and it will be half-full with supporters at best. The lack of national fervour for a good kickaround could be, quite possibly, attributed to the fact that it’s bloody damn cold most of the time in the Baltics (they ARE called the Baltics for a reason, you could say), so it makes sense to mainly participate or follow sports that either support some amount of overall wearing or are held indoors.

But probably the main reason is that there’s not much in the way of an actual football culture in Latvia: nae famous rivalries, nae particular songs that can be associated with teams, nae obsessive parents dragging their weans to be indoctrinated into the cult.

For, indeed, the whole thing does still seem a bit cult-ish here to my foreign eyes, not just due to sectarianism.

Often times, when meeting somebody new, especially if they’re male, one of the first questions they will ask will be “what team you follow?” with the same gleam in the eye and tone a Mormon might ask if “you’ve found true happiness?”.

Don’t get me wrong: I quite enjoy playing football. But not any more than I do enjoy playing any other sport. For me, sport provides both a vent to blow off some steam and a chance to zone out from the daily grind. Granted, the same could be said about following the game, at least as a hobby, but, being the pretentious snob I am, I’ve always preferred books or music.

My main gripe with ‘kick-the-ball-into-the-goal-everybody-go-yaaay’ is how much it permeates almost all walks of life in Glasgow, and how, subsequently, displaying disinterest in it tends to elicit the same reaction from people as saying you have irritable bowel syndrome.

Having been to a local game, I understand and respect the skill exhibited by the players and the camaraderie amongst the fans themselves. But still in no way does it excuse the frankly abhorrent and animalistic violence exhibited by the more hardlined of the supporters. While the bloodshed has somewhat seemingly lessened over the last few decades, due to regular police presence and tighter organisation, it hasn’t been and probably never will be weeded out; as the recent violence in France instigated by Russian fans during the European Championship showcases. Even here in Glasgow, it’s not that uncommon to read about a ten year old receiving a bottle to the face during a game.

I’ve never been able to understand, however, (and probably never will) why is it football specifically from all the sports that tends to have the same effect on the fans as a red cloth has on a bull. A large reason for this, I reckon, could be that fights and general dickishness is almost seen as the expected norm amongst the supporters, a case of “the lads just being lads”.

In other words, in an ideal world where decent sportsmanship and common decency are prevalent, any punter could enjoy the game without the need for police presence. But it does seem like the toxicity goes all the way up, with some clubs paying their young footballers to keep silent about the sexual abuse they experienced from their coaches in the past.

So it’s understandable, I think, how the vein-popping fervour of the fans that willingly chooses to ignore the rot within their own culture would alienate people like me, who haven’t been brought up in it. But I still have hope for football. We do live in the age of social progress after all, and, in a few years perhaps, the culture might be as inclusive and benevolent in the stadiums as it is the backyards. But, until then, all we can do is try to love each other and to be careful with the scarves we wear.

By Kaspars Zalans