Football, ey. Jumpers for goalposts. You know, marvellous. Photo: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images

June 30, 2020   5 mins

In October last year, I was in a pub meeting a very old friend, someone I hadn’t seen since school; we had bumped into each other in north London and agreed to go for a drink. My diary management is dreadful, so I hadn’t realised that I’d arranged to see him on a night when Liverpool were playing Arsenal in the League Cup.

My old friend was surprised to see me so emotionally invested in the match. It was a bloody hard game not to get invested in: fixture congestion meant that Liverpool had to field the reserves — four teenagers started the match — and it ended up 5-5, with Liverpool winning on penalties. Eventually, perhaps because I was constantly distracted and staring over his shoulder, he asked me something that I’d never been asked before and which I had to think a lot about. “Tell me,” he said: “Explain it to me. Why do you like football? What do you get out of it?”

He, like me, had been a Warhammer-playing, model-aeroplane-building nerd at school; neither he nor I had had the slightest interest in football. Nerds of a certain kind have a sort of superior attitude towards sports in general and football in particular — they call them/it “sportsball”, and sniff dismissively about people competing to see how hard they can kick a ball. (“But if all that’s true, then football … is a game!”)

I was probably one of them; but in my late teens and early 20s I changed. I’ve now been a Liverpool fan for more than 20 years, having gone to university in the city. I’m a bit of a plastic, in that I’ve only been to a dozen or so matches in that time, but it matters to me; I am grumpier when they lose and happier when they win.

But I don’t think I’d ever stopped to think about why. It is objectively quite strange that I invest a small but real amount of my happiness in the number of times a group of men whom I have never met can put a ball into a net 180 miles away from me. It’s a medium-sized part of my identity; I say “we” won at the weekend, as though I had anything to do with it. It’s as if, in Mitchell and Webb’s words, I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark and started talking about how “we” had defeated the Nazis. 

Now that football’s back, and Liverpool are champions, I wanted to look at the answer I gave my friend; to try and interrogate what it is that I get from it. In short, I wanted to try to explain football to nerds.

The most obvious explanation for football fandom is that it’s a sort of emotional gambling. You bet a small amount of psychological wellbeing on whether your team will win or not. If they don’t, it makes you sad; if they do, it makes you happy. A good win in the early Saturday kickoff can genuinely improve the mood of the whole weekend; conversely, a crucial defeat can make me several percentage points less fun to be around. 

There’s a bit of research that suggests that football fans suffer more pain from losses than they get joy from winning, and that’s been taken as meaning that football fandom is irrational, as in a rational actor would not make the choice to be a football fan in the first place; much as it is economically irrational to play blackjack, because in the long run the house always wins. I’m sceptical of happiness/wellbeing research, but intuitively that feels about right — nonetheless, I think it misses the point.

At the risk of ending up in Pseuds’ Corner, the utilitarian calculus around football fandom isn’t limited to the individual games, and whether they add or subtract to your Happiness Points. There’s more going on. 

First, here are long-term payoffs. Sure, most league seasons are a trudge, and most cup runs end in disappointment, but every so often something happens which you treasure forever, and which becomes part of your memory of a period of your life. A few games — England thrashing Germany 5-1 in 2001; Liverpool’s Miracle of Istanbul in 2005; last season’s extraordinary turnaround against Barcelona — become joyful little memories partly separate from the real-world stuff of work and family, that contain all their value within them.

Then there is the obvious point that watching the games themselves has a joy in the form of watching people who are just incredibly good at their jobs. There is a skill to watching football — to appreciating the skill involved (much as there is a skill in appreciating concert pianists, a skill which incidentally I lack entirely). 

This isn’t football-specific. You can get that with anything; the format is somewhat irrelevant. I’m terrible at chess, but I can appreciate a beautiful move or a clever checkmate. If I happened to be a fan of Fortnite I could get it from watching Fortnite matches on Twitch. Or rugby. People being good at stuff is pleasing to see. And sport involves not just physical skill but mental; watching Steph Curry, the basketball star, effortlessly recall details plucked from any of the hundreds of games he’s played is honestly astonishing. His expertise (LeBron James does the same thing) allows him to view the game in such a high-level way that is opaque to those of us who don’t understand it. 

But I think there is a particular beauty in football, especially the sheer, feathery, delicate precision of a beautiful first touch. People talk too much about goals in football. A goal blasted in from 30 yards is impressive, but I think if you want to show someone the aesthetic beauty of the game, the best thing to show them is the way a footballer uses their body to control the ball

There’s a pragmatic reason to be a fan, too, which is that football is a sort of lingua franca, especially for men. Its ubiquity makes it valuable. If you’re fluent in it, you have a ready-made topic of conversation with a majority of men (and a significant minority of women) almost anywhere in the world. 

I went on a river safari in Borneo, on honeymoon in 2012, and was chatting away to the Malaysian porters about how good a signing Robin van Persie was for Man Utd. When you’re put at a table at a wedding with a bunch of people you don’t know, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to strike up a conversation about what’s gone wrong at Arsenal in the last decade or so. Those embarrassing moments when someone comes to fix the boiler and middle-class dads find themselves dropping their aitches and saying “innit” become much less awkward if there’s a mutual appreciation of what a good job Jurgen Klopp’s done.

I have male friends who don’t enjoy football and it’s just that little bit harder for them to find conversation-starter topics with strangers. Relatedly, if you’re a boy who’s good at football, it’s a fairly cast-iron defence against bullying at school. It’s a bit cold-eyed, but for a boy in Britain, there are good practical reasons to be interested in football.

Football has been off for lockdown; Liverpool were just two wins from their first league title in 30 years. But it started again recently. And last week, Man City lost to Chelsea. They did so in hapless style, via a calamitous bit of defending from their own corner, allowing Christian Pulisic to run the length of the pitch and score, and a comedy handball on the line which led to a penalty and red card. That defeat ended even the mathematical possibility that City could retain the Premier League, and handed us the championship.

The circumstances make it all a bit surreal. Liverpool are simultaneously the earliest ever Premier League winners with seven games to spare — and the latest, with the league not decided until 25th June. But I’ll watch them be awarded the trophy at Man City’s ground when they play them on Thursday, and I’ll cheer and drink with friends and it’ll be fun. And that, I’ll explain to my nerd friend if and when I see him again, is what I get out of it.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.