Conspiracy and fundamentalism: the rise of footballing Trumpism

Words By Richard Jolly Illustration by Philippe Fenner
January 18, 2018

Martin Tyler is biased against Liverpool. Martin Tyler is biased against Manchester City. He isn’t, of course, as the rational need no reminding. Or even some of the arguably irrational, given a City fan has Tyler’s commentary of Sergio Aguero’s 2012 title-winning goal tattooed on to his arm.

Yet those are the accusations made and repeated in ever more of the darker corners of the internet. Like many radical views, they scarcely stand up to scrutiny. A commentator is unlikely to jeopardise his career by being partisan. Broadcasters, particularly commercial ones, probably would not deem it in their interest to employ a commentator who actually did display an agenda against well-supported, successful clubs.

For the record, not that it should it be required, Tyler is a Woking supporter, a genuine football enthusiast whose devotion to the game is reflected in the fact that, at 72, he is first-team coach at Hampton & Richmond. Like Woking, the Vanarama National League South promotion chasers are not renowned for their bitter rivalry with either Liverpool or City.

His goal descriptions – too excited when some went in, not excited enough when others did – have been scrutinised with particularly selective interpretation (Tyler certainly sounded animated when Aguero struck against QPR) and an ignorance of the role; partly because the vast majority of commentators turn up for games armed with reaps of facts, ready to impart knowledge, not opinion, and partly because commentary, like any job that happens in real time, will always be imperfect; its practitioners have a second or two at most to identify individuals, compose sentences describing their involvement and try and judge the mood and significance of what has just happened.

Quite apart from the nonsense of it all, his accusers show a lack of perspective. City and Liverpool have played some outstanding attacking football this season; should it not be enough to savour that, rather than complaining that a man on a gantry you have never met did not share your reaction?

Evidently not for those who are less fans than fanatics, for whom it is not enough to assume that referees, the footballing authorities and the mainstream media (always somehow assumed to be a homogenous unit, forever united in following diktats) are conspiring against them; a scrupulously fair commentator is as well.

They propagate a fabricated notion of moral superiority about themselves and their club while living in a state of permanent rage, inciting hatred. It is anger, not analysis, attacks and abuse, not understanding and explanation

But this is not really about Martin Tyler, or commentators in general, or even Liverpool and City in anything other than the profile and size of the clubs. It is about those who are polluting footballing culture. It reflects society and the Trumpification of it in an age when there has never been more information, more facts, more footage, more articles, more opinions and yet some pay no attention to the vast majority of it and follow those who tap into a self-pitying willingness to believe wider forces are conspiring against them and their club, whoever it may be. It is about the irresponsible, influential extremists leading the case for the persecution, about conspiracy theorists who are legitimising ludicrous standpoints.

In an era when those from the margins are propelled to prominence by the fervour of their supporters, the mainstream and moderate majorities of the Liverpool and City fanbases are given a bad name by those it was once easy to ignore before social media created echo chambers. The reality is that every club has a lunatic fringe: at the bigger clubs, with millions of fans, even a comparatively small percentage can amount to huge numbers.

Self-appointed spokesmen – and they are rarely self-appointed spokeswomen – now have a certain status; in some cases a profitable one as the voices of unreason, as they pursue work from the media outlets they otherwise sneer at. It suits their purpose to construct imaginary agendas against their clubs, inventing enemies where none actually exist. In the process, as Tyler’s experience shows, they traduce the reputation of professionals, impugning their integrity and, were their grievances to be taken more seriously, threatening their livelihood.

They display an attention-seeking narcissism in worlds of extremist writings, constant commentary and guaranteed retweets, as though fearing that a period of silence would mean they would lose control of their own narrative. They indulge in needless whataboutery, using false equivalence to create fake narratives about other clubs being granted preferential treatment. They create the pretence that the achievements or excellence of their team or players are being overlooked, furthering the idea they are the sole arbiters of truth.

They propagate a fabricated notion of moral superiority about themselves and their club while living in a state of permanent rage, inciting hatred. It is anger, not analysis, attacks and abuse, not understanding and explanation. They may not directly insult those who disagree with them, but they contrive to convey the message their followers can. They can marshal armies of idiots, the one-eyed who have populated the cyberlands where the visually impaired have crowned themselves kings.

They appear either incapable of independent thought and impartial analysis or afraid to demonstrate it, less their base will disagree. They demonstrate the hypocrisy of the absurdly prejudiced accusing others of bias, safe in the knowledge the likeminded will rally to their cause, and disparage anyone who does not toe their party line. They are reprehensible figures who, judging from the way their profile has mushroomed in recent years, are probably here to stay.

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