The Nietzschean guide to being a football fan

I’ve always felt that besides food, water and shelter, the biggest need that people have is to feel that they’re better than someone else.
— Zito Madu (@_zeets)

The above Tweet coupled with the Paul Pogba to Manchester United firestorm, was an excellent start to a day of thinking about stuff, including the convoluted path linking all of that to the official Barça squad list.

United paid 100m for Pogba, a player they cut loose for about 900k a while back. People are snarling about the “world’s most expensive loan” while wondering if Pogba is “worth it.”

In America when you buy a house, people with very good to excellent credit can purchase a home that costs 2.5 times their annual gross (not net) salary. Manchester United, on the other hand, will top the “money table” for football this season, has signed an astonishing shirt deal with adidas tapped at more than a billion over its life and the Premiership’s remarkable new TV deal adds even more to the coffers atop match day revenues, sponsorships, etc.

The 100m for Paul Pogba is probably the equivalent of someone who makes 300k a year buying a 15k car. It’s a sum that doesn’t matter, even as it makes the eyes pop out for someone who makes only 20k a year. But it is, essentially, no money, which makes it in a strange way the equivalent of the Douglas transfer. The failed Barça right back/winger came for a pittance to a club that will rake in almost 700m this season, and almost certainly surpass that total next season. We can talk about player amortization, etc, etc, to break down numbers but none of it matters, because it’s no money, really. It was noted by someone on Twitter that Pogba was 15% of United’s fiscal turnover. That just ain’t a lot but even if it was, should we care?

As for whether Pogba is “worth it,” it doesn’t matter because who is the ultimate arbiter of that? You? Me? Fans? How do you assess player value? Goals? Assists? Then what’s Iniesta worth? Magic? “Oooooh!” moments? There isn’t any real way to assess player value. Luis Suarez is deemed worth his 82m transfer fee because he banged in loads of goals. Neymar is said to be worth his fee of … um … just never you mind, because of what he brings to the Barça attack. It’s all interpretation. Players are successes or failures based on interpretative contexts, “realities” as nebulous as transfer fees, which are linked to player buyout clauses, which are in and of themselves nonsense.

People snipe and snark, scoffing at United for paying too much, for paying for a player they sent away, for taking a risk on an still-unproven talent, for buying Mino Raiola a new yacht and a Bugatti Veyron. Why? Because of the need to feel superior to someone, that tribal thing that makes us group together in support of something. If I love my club, then what your club does is silly when I deem it so. That makes us better than you. Neener, neener.

The philosopher Nietzsche understands football and being a fan, rooted in one of his fundamental ideas that when we find out that the world does not possess the value or meaning that we need it to have or believe that it has, crisis beckons.

“Pele said Ronaldo is the best player in the game. Noooooo!”

In the world that a Messi supporter has constructed based on fondness for the player, this can’t be right. Nietzsche would sit back and tell you that because you have constructed your world around your interpretation of the game, its parameters and Messi being the best within those parameters, you’re a mess because your reality has been questioned. But what if you let all of that go?

Twitter arguments are endless and never resolved because two people have the need to be right, a rightness that bestows betterness. They stake out opposing worldviews and have at it. Nobody wins, nothing changes because why would it? Red is better than blue. We debate in this comments space. Nobody wins, nothing changes, there is no right or wrong. Everybody has the right to an opinion. That Pogba is underpriced is just a valid a view as that he’s overpriced. It’s supportable by precisely nothing except someone’s need to have an opinion. The problem with opinions is that need to feel better than someone else, which means that an opinion has to be “right.” No, it doesn’t. It merely has to exist. Its veracity is almost completely rooted in the fervence of your belief, assuming that opinion doesn’t contravene laws of nature. Believe all you like that if you flap your arms hard enough you can fly, but …

Was Douglas merely a punt that didn’t pan out or a waste of money? It doesn’t matter because it depends solely on a blizzard of mitigating factors. If the Barça board can do nothing right, it’s a waste of money, a criminal enterprise linked to Traffic, payoffs and things nefarious. Or it might be as simple as “everybody said he sucks, so why did the club waste money on him,” and that view tempers what you see when you see him do anything. It’s a construct. If you don’t really care about any of that stuff, the Douglas purchase becomes a simple risk taken on a player with Brazilian ball skills and pace, because why not? It didn’t work? That’s life.

The player has become a running joke because people need to be right, but what if we just let things be, whatever they were? The official squad list is out. Sergi Samper is No. 16, Douglas retains his No. 2. There are smug nods as people think that means Samper will stay and therefore they will be right — about the player’s talent, about his being better than Gumbau, about Luis Enrique being stupid to not have promoted him sooner, about pretty much everything under the sun up to and including Grimaldo. “See? Told you. Imagine if he had that kind of faith in Grimaldo.” Yet Douglas also has a number, which means what, exactly? Right and wrong? What about my world? What if both end up staying? Or going?


Arrigo Sacchi expresses a preference for Ronaldo, Pele expresses a preference for whoever he felt like this week and fans of other players scream and express outrage. Why? Does it matter to anyone what a retired player says? What anyone says? A Barça director said that it’s “scandalous” that neither Messi nor Suarez are on the UEFA top three list of best players. So what. Should they be? It depends on your view of things. But they aren’t. To whom does it matter? Nobody. Not even the players. Why is it “scandalous?” Because my club is the best, so when my players aren’t also the best, I can’t feel superior.

We want to feel better than someone, which is a lot of why we live vicariously through this thing called sport. Leicester City has 800k Twitter followers. FC Barcelona has almost 19 million. That’s no accident. When we affix our affection, we need that team, that athlete to be the best, which makes us feel better. We made the correct choice when there really IS no correct choice. Ronaldo supporters say one thing, Messi supporters say another. Hell, Eden Hazard fans can raise their hands, or Gonzalo Higuain fans, because why not? What are the parameters? Goals? Tattoos? Contextual excellence of that sort that says it’s easier to score goals in one league than another? Hair? Build your own world, then live in it.

Every aspect of the game that we love gives us an opportunity to feel superior to someone else, if we choose to take it. Would the Barça fan base be as large if the team wasn’t winning everything under the sun? Of course not. What makes anyone feel good about not winning? When the United States Grand Prix was at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, there was a supporter of Minardi there. Every year. Huge flag, full team livery. Minardi was slow, about 5 seconds per lap down on the top teams. Why Minardi? Good question. Was it easier to respect him than Ferrari or McLaren fans, success junkies and bandwagon hoppers? Only if you want to feel better about something or other. In reality, it just is.

What kind of a football world would it be if nobody needed to be superior? If we had opinions, held them as our own and moved on?

Well for one, sports talk shows would go out of business because who would call in to argue about stuff? Would there be Ultras? Would there be fights and mayhem, or would supporters cheer for their team then go home, chatting with opposition fans? Once we liberate ourselves from the need to feel right, to feel better about the thing we have attached ourselves to, how different does life become? You don’t love your club any less, you just don’t argue about it because your love doesn’t need affirmation, doesn’t need to feel right. If your team wins a championship you are happy, but you don’t look across the aisle with disdain because what does that matter?

Players would come and go and we would sit and watch, evaluating their performance based on how it helps the team that we love. Everyone would do that, and it wouldn’t matter who was better than who, who made what list or who says who isn’t “world class.” The Ballon d’Or would be this thing that when someone won, fans of that player would cheer. Fans of other players wouldn’t care.

Would sport become this liberating, beautiful enterprise, or the most boring thing in the world?

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