Obsession | Football is as much a part of the British national psyche as queuing, drinking tea and spending hours in the pub. (Image | The Sun)

It is probably fair to say that if the next national census asked whether people considered themselves to be a fan of sport, and then asked them to specify their favourite, the most popular answer would be football. By popular consensus, football is the national sport.

It is a constant talking point in the media and a regular source of conversation in workplaces and public houses. With this in mind: why do such a large number of people seem to know so little about the game?

When I hear somebody mention in passing that they are a football fan, it reminds me of those that claim to like music, only to reveal that their iPod contains nothing but singles from the current UK Top 40 chart.

Or perhaps people who claim to be huge film fans, but have no idea who Tom Hardy was before his turn in The Dark Knight Rises. Where I think the disconnect lies is that there is a difference between being a fan of the sport of football, and a supporter of a particular club.

Kitted out | Fans love to emulate their heroes and wear the shirt of their club with pride – but how much do they actually like the game of football itself? (Image | West Ham United FC)

That does not mean that the twain shall never meet. It is perfectly possible for a profound love of your club and a wider appreciation of the entire sport of football to coexist. However, wearing a replica shirt, buying the ancillary merchandise and knowing the requisite songs rarely correlates with a discernible level of expertise.

The essential issue seems to be this: that the mindset of many fans is not what is good for the game, but what is good for my team.

How else can you explain behaviour that is becoming increasingly commonplace, such as players and pundits receiving abuse as a matter of course, with some of it racially motivated.

Chris Kirkland suffering a common assault during a game, and any and all unpleasant actions justified with ad hominem “yeah, but what about when your player…” arguments.

A portion of Chelsea supporters would happily provide a number of defences for scandals which have engulfed players such as John Terry and Ashley Cole. These are borne solely from them being very good football players who are an asset to their club.

Convicted | Chelsea supporters offered no defence and simply turned up their noses at Adrian Mutu’s drug habit. (Image | The Telegraph)

I did not hear much from them when Adrian Mutu was sacked after he was found to have been taking cocaine. This is not to say that one offence is worse than the other, but Cole and Terry have been very significant in Chelsea’s recent successes. Mutu was not.

This isn’t an attack on Chelsea, as the same could be said for the zealous defence some Liverpool fans mount in favour of Luis Suarez, covering his suspension for racially abusing Patrice Evra to his propensity to dive (which I personally think has been overstated).

Arsenal fans routinely bemoaned rival supporters indulging in a chant which suggested that Robin Van Persie was a rapist, a case that never even made it to court. However, now the Dutchman has moved to Manchester United, a section of Gunners fans are chanting the same vile accusation at RVP.

The rules seem to change as soon as a player is deemed to be a “traitor”. No longer is it au fait to cheer for your team, but you must also engage in unpleasant chants against other sides.

While I think it is reductive to lay the blame at the door of Sky Sports and the Premier League, there is no doubt that since Italia ’90 there has been an acceptance that the sport should, and can be turned into an ongoing soap opera, in which sensational tales are used as oxygen to keep interest alive.

High drama | The sport has drifted further towards scandal, controversy and confrontation since its elevation to television fame and the formation of Sky Sports. (Image | The Telegraph)

Every week we have a new story to rail over: referees, goal-line technology, racism, sexism, homophobia and players as role models. After the wearying events at Stamford Bridge, when Chelsea came up against Manchester United, journalist Philippe Auclair asked the following question on Twitter: “Is the Premier League still about football, or just about narratives related to it, a screen on which to project neuroses and prejudice?”

I for one fear that more supporters can recite chapter and verse on certain scandals surrounding Wayne Rooney, than could tell us about the likes of Jock Stein or Charles Hughes.

This wallowing in emetic negativity stops so many from removing the blinkers and seeing that the world of football is bigger than the narrow concerns of their clubs. But such a large number of fans are cloaked in the demented zeal of winning no matter what that the cost that it can have to the game becomes irrelevant.

The distaste which many have for the aforementioned Suarez means that they will likely be robbed of the sheer joy of his sublime goal against Newcastle United at the weekend.

Whatever the faults in his character, if you are unable to find pleasure in the quality of this strike then you cannot be a true lover of the game (Magpies fans are exempt in this specific instance).

Two great demonstrations of football that I have witnessed in recent years were Cristiano Ronaldo‘s coruscating performance against Arsenal, in which he inspired Manchester United to a 3-1 victory in the Champions League.

Masterclass | Moments like this are what football is really about, not petty squabbles and insular club matters. (Image | The Guardian)

Not to be outdone, Lionel Messi‘s explosion of brilliance against the same opposition – in the same competition – during a 4-1 win was no less impressive. Any disappointment I felt as an Arsenal fan (and there was plenty of this) was superseded by the privilege of watching the game played to an astounding level of proficiency.

Yet I appear to be in a minority, and clubs that seem to stand for more than just winning, such as Real Sociedad and Crewe Alexandra, are an ever decreasing exception to the rule.

I am not naive enough to expect this paradigm to change. If you choose to dwell in a land of self-interest, in which the only things that matter in football are the ones that affect your club, that’s fine. But do not call yourself a football fan, because you aren’t one.

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