The Ethical Fan – Navigating Football Clubs’ Moral Minefields

As I sat watching the Manchester derby with a friend the other weekend, there were two topics of conversation on our agenda: the sensational performances that we have come to expect from Pep’s team on the pitch, and City’s slipperiness off it.

On the 5th November, German magazine Der Spiegel released the first of a four-part expose that put the Sky Blues’ books under the microscope, piecing together a narrative through a series of leaked emails that brought to light numerous counts of purported systematic financial misconduct since the Abu Dhabi Group’s takeover in 2009. Despite protestations from the club that they were in fact the victims of a ‘organised and clear’ attempt to ‘damage the club’s reputation’, even my friend, a Cityzen since the days of Maine Road and Jon Macken, seemed fairly happy to concede that it was more than likely his boyhood club had taken FIFA’s Financial Fairplay regulations with a rather large pinch of salt.

As the game ebbed and flowed towards another seemingly inevitable City win, our wider footballing conversation likewise meandered around topics ranging from Emirati soft-power plays and accusations of human rights violations to its own predictable conclusion. Punctuated here and there by the odd gasp of appreciation at the masterclass we were witnessing on screen, we landed on an uncomfortable realisation: it’s difficult to stay angry at what goes on behind the scenes when the show itself is so good.

The duality of the modern game - on the one hand reaching new highs and the other new lows - creates a tension that often favours the path of least resistance. As one’s personal ethics begin to clash with an organisation that, for many, will have been a love affair that long pre-dates the latest scandal or dodgy deal, we seek to separate out football-the-game from football-the-business. For every new cover-up exposed there is a screamer to salve; for every step out of line another step-over. Simply put, most of us are just here to watch the game.

But should we care about where our football comes from? And what do we do if we don’t like the answer?

In many other aspects of our lives we are beginning to pay much greater attention to the knock-on effects of our indulgences. From keep-cups to flexitarianism, a wave of trends rooted in the rise of personal accountability have shown us to be willing to do our bit. Are we likely, then, to see ex-City fans queueing up outside Forest Green Rovers, the self-styled ‘greenest club in football’?

In a word, no. Football Clubs, unlike disposable coffee containers, are not products that can be easily dropped or changed. They thrive on a powerful brand of flag-waving and chant-singing tribalism that demands fealty at the door. We judge one another on our commitment to the clubs we hold dear and boast of mileage covered on cold Tuesday nights to far flung corners to the UK. Our fandom is an emotional, even masochistic experience that often defies reason. Teams are passed between generations, often rooting people to a place long after they have moved away. In the words of Eric Cantona, ‘Never can you change your favourite football team’.

In many ways, then, the modern football fan can find themselves tied to the mast of a complex and layered ship, simultaneously sinking into moral decay while soaring. While our personal grievances pale in comparison to those felt at the sharper end of football’s sprawling reach, we are nonetheless victims of owners whose personal baggage can contaminate the purer visions of our team that we hold dear.

But that does not mean we should abandon our own moral compass in the face of something we love. In fact, that is precisely the reason why we should hold our respective football clubs under even greater scrutiny. As mentioned before, the relationship we share with our team will more than likely vastly predate the latest ownership regime. We know the true meaning of our clubs and must therefore act as guardians of these ideals. We are the first to complain when something goes wrong on the pitch, however more fan impetus must be placed into correcting what is wrong off it. As a collective we hold great power, whilst not necessarily agreeing with the way in which it was conducted, one need only look at the #WengerOut groundswell to understand how fans can make a big noise. Imagine what could be achieved if this energy had been applied elsewhere.

To be the greatest ally to your team, then, fans must assume the role of a critical friend, and the first step towards this comes through education. Despite what rivals might say, following a certain club doesn’t make you a bad person, but remaining ignorant to the wider context might. My friend and I will almost certainly meet up again to watch another City game, but just as Pep goes into every match having done as much research as possible, by reading articles likes the one from Der Spiegel, we will have done our homework too. We all have a responsibility to keep the game beautiful.