I have heard it said that it is easier to change your religion than it is to change your allegiance to a football team. Having thought about it, I am inclined to say that the statement is true. In my experience, I have never heard anyone say, I am so disappointed that my team keeps losing, I am now going to support a team that wins a greater percentage of games.
Of course there are the initial glory hunters’ who do choose their team based on it winning cups and leagues, big signings, and the perceived glory that following a big, glamorous club brings. Even so, once they have chosen, they will then follow that club even if it starts on a downward spiral.
When I was growing up the phenomenon of glory hunting was far less common than it is today, and so you chose your team based on the old-fashioned concept of supporting a local team.
At my school, in South-East London, there were three real choices: Charlton Athletic, Millwall, or West Ham United. When I look back now and try to comprehend why I chose West Ham over the other two, all I can really come up with is that I just knew I belonged with the Hammers’ characters.
I believe that character is an important aspect of following a team. Every team displays a slightly different character to the next, and thus has an important part to play when adopting a team. You only have to look at local rivalries such as Manchester United and Manchester City, Rangers and Celtic, and West Ham and Millwall fans to see a marked difference in character.
The Manchester rivalry is more or less seen as a social and geographical divide between the haves and the have not and the assumption that United fans come from everywhere but Manchester.
The Glasgow rivalry is one of the most divided in world football as it has the incendiary elements of religious and national differences embedded into it.
And the West Ham and Millwall deep dislike of each other can be traced back to a political difference of opinion of rival dock workers in voting whether to strike or not.
This is all well and good, but does not answer the question if following a football team is religious or tribal. A simplistic definition of religion is that it is a system of beliefs and practices, and tribalism is a way of thinking and believing with a strong cultural and ethnic identity.
It is my conclusion, then, that following a team encompasses elements from both religion and tribalism, and because of that, makes following a team such a powerful influence in the lives of so many of us. Amen