I I never forgave myself for attending the 1991 FA Cup Final. Tottenham Hotspur vs. Nottingham Forest. I had broken my leg very badly playing football a year earlier and a blazer wearer I knew from the Football Association had kindly sent me a ticket to cheer me up. I’m not a Spurs or Forest fan but having never been to an FA Cup final I was excited to be there. Well, I was excited up until the moment I sat down, whereupon my feelings turned more towards guilt or shame.
I sat between a passionate Forest fan and a passionate Spurs fan. Both told me how far they went to get their tickets – and how many of their fellow fans missed out. I felt terrible. As a neutral, I had no business there. Football is not a place for neutrals. If my team ever made it to a grand final, I’d be furious if I had to share that experience with someone who didn’t care about the outcome either way. I was deeply uncomfortable with being that someone. Spurs won 2-1; it felt like I was at a stranger’s wedding or, in Forest’s case, the funeral of someone I didn’t know.
On Wednesday evening, 43,883 spectators will watch Glasgow Rangers and Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League final at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium in Seville. Only 19,000 of them have been allocated their tickets as supporters of the two teams. The other 24,883 tickets went to corporate guests and neutrals associated with various other clubs. These 24,883 people need to take a long look at themselves. If it’s Rangers or Frankfurt fans who managed to snag a spot somewhere, fair enough. But the others won’t get into soccer heaven, at least if I occupy the pearly goals.
The neutral fan, or worse, the corporate non-fan out and about for just the night, has been killing football for quite some time. The further your team gets in tournaments and cup competitions, the worse it gets. When I was working at the 2006 World Cup final in Berlin, I shared a bus from the park and ride park at the Olympic Stadium with a bus full of Samsung executives. They all wore suits and were equipped with lanyards – their golden tickets to suites where they found huge tables groaning under the weight of mounds of fine food and drink. Off the ground I met a guy I met filming on a gas rig in the North Sea a few years ago. The thing was, I remembered him telling me that day that he wasn’t into football at all. I asked him what he was doing there. He told me that his son’s girlfriend’s father got some tickets; he was up at McDonald’s, you know. Inside the stadium, real fans of France and Italy crowded into shamefully small spaces behind each goal. It all felt terribly wrong.
Just as wrong – actually worse – was the next time I went to a World Cup final: France vs. Croatia in Moscow 2018. This time, being of Croatian descent, I had a dog in the fight. I was there as a fan, and a fervent one at that. But sitting next to me was a smartly dressed, middle-aged guy who had obviously never been to a football game before. His lanyard told me he was Mexican. He celebrated goals for both sides with equal enthusiasm. He did this by getting up and dancing daddy while taking selfies. At the final whistle, he celebrated France’s win just as much, albeit a little more energetically. I glared at him darkly and murderously. To be honest, I would have been less offended by a jubilant Frenchman dancing triumphantly in front of me, playing the accordion and blowing Gauloises smoke in my face.