As the world turns increasingly to football in anticipation of the 2010 bid, Yasmine El-Rashidi submerges herself in the hype and tries to figure out what the fan frenzy is really about
Moderation, we are advised, is the optimum state of being -- a condition in which balance, calm and inner peace are notionally attained. Beyond the human contours of nationality and belief, moderation is what every sphere of society and circle of community urges its people to adopt: Moderation in everything, including moderation.
People, however, have the tendency to ignore the voice of reason and adopt self-devised policies on how to live their own lives. Moderation is discarded -- consumed by indulgence and desire. We see it in spending, outings, and food, of course. And we see it, as well, within the realm of so-called "sports".
For some it is a mere pastime -- a way of maintaining health and strengthening the heart. For others, it is a profession -- a way of life and clear-cut thrilling ends to a highly lucrative means. But for many -- hundreds of millions of people around the world -- sports is more than just a hobby. Every day across the globe, people of all descriptions unite in common cause and spirit. For them -- of whom the majority is comprised of die-hard football fans -- it cannot be described as a game, or a sport, nor a pastime. More aptly, it is an obsession.
According to the New Penguin's English dictionary, those who are "enthusiastic supporters or admirers", are called "fans" -- as opposed to "a person who is excessively and uncritically enthusiastic; can't change his mind and won't change the subject," who are called "fanatics". In both cases, it boils down to a matter of the mind; an intricate intertwining of upbringing, society, and the primal instincts passed down from generations and eras before us.
In today's disordered fast-paced world, the theory of social identity partially explains the "fan" experience -- allowing individuals to bring order and structure into the vast globe around them by categorising themselves; a behaviour motivated by the need to boost self esteem and attain a sense of belonging. Identifying with a sports team serves that need, with fans "BIRGing" and CORFing" to intensify that winning high (Basking In Reflective Glory/ Cutting Off Respective Failures). De- individuation also comes into play -- where people lose their self-awareness and have decreased concern for how others around them evaluate their actions. "In this way," writes Pearce Mann in Social psychology of the sports spectator. "People seem to lose or change part of their identity and take on a whole new identity when engrossed in sports. People are swept up in the moment of a sporting event and lose their individuality and act as a group."
Twenty-year old Sarah Shahin is a case-in-point.
"Let me tell you something," she begins, her intonation perking up at the mention of "team" and "football". "I'm fine when I'm alone. Maybe I think of the team -- Zamalek -- a little bit, but I'm okay. Normal," she laughs. "Put me in front of a television with a Zamalek match on, and I go crazy -- I can't move a single step away from the TV until the match is over. Even if I'm alone I feel like I'm there, with the people!"
Turning to her best-friend Wedad -- an unapologetic football atheist -- she smiles knowingly.
"Wedad's brother is a different kind of fan," she laughs. "He's really crazy. He's an Ahlawi," she says of the historic arch-rival to Zamalek; Ahli.
"It's odd what happens to him," Wedad pitches in, shaking her head. "He cries and shouts and screams and stamps his feet on the floor. Really, he's crazy. It's such a part of him that if his team loses it's as if someone died. There are lots of people like him."
It is these people that comprise the contingency of fans-turned-fanatic (FTF) -- a phenomena widespread around the world.
"Ahli and Zamalek fans are a good example," says sports psychologist Karim Fawzi. "They identify on a very deep level with their chosen team. There's work, there's family, and then there's Ahli or Zamalek. The team often gets more importance than the other elements of a fan's life. In fact," Fawzi smiles, "more often than not the team takes priority."
This FTF phenomena has been broken down and dissected in more ways than one. Sociologist Kay Michael Troost -- renowned for his work on sports and society -- says part of the problem lies in the normalisation of violence.
"The news media and technology must share some of the blame for fanaticism," he writes in From fan to fanatic. "Technology has increased the interaction people have with figures and celebrities, and fans feel more closely connected to the players. Media attention, especially when focused on the perpetrator, gives the fanatical individual the fame he seeks and a sense of tolerance for his or her actions," Troost writes. "The fans may move from the adulation stage to exaggerated identification with a particular player and may turn fanatic when something 'stings' them and makes them feel more involved and deeply connected to the player. As involvement increases, the individual wants to approach the figure. He or she feels roused to meet and get near the player."
And when he or she does attempt to make that bond, and reality hits home, the rejected FTF -- unable to fulfil the fantasy and befriend the figure -- may strike out; as in the case of tennis star Monica Seles, stabbed by a "jealous" fans, or Dallas Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman, who was stalked by an obsessed female fan.
"To my knowledge it hasn't reached such extremes here," says Fawzi, "Which would make sense," he adds quickly. "The culture here plays a key role -- the social values and religion."
In magazines and on television programmes around the world, football is in fact being parallelled to religion.
"Sacred Soccer? Is football the new religion?" asks British football writer Simon Inglis on footballculture.net. "Superficially the game is portrayed as such. After all, we are often described as making weekly pilgrimages to worship our gods as they play upon the sacred turf of hallowed grounds." In his writing, Inglis refers to the 10 commandments -- universally preached, in some form, across the board of the world's religions. In breaking down each commandment at a time, Inglis parallels the similarities a football fan is faced with: loyalty to a team, worship and ritualistic behaviour, sportsmanship and treating others (fans and players alike) well, no cheating, and on. While unstated, the implication is that football offers people the tangibility that religion cannot.
"On a broader level definitely," Fawzi says of the western press and analysis. "But having looked at that, one needs to deal with each country as a separate case. Egypt is unique in that unlike the West, the sense of belonging is very much intact given the importance of the family unit. There's also the strong identification with the culture -- as an Egyptian culture. Yes we are Arabs, yes we are Muslim, yes we are African, but fundamentally, we are Egyptian."
The obsession, therefore, comes from somewhere slightly different.
"It is human nature to want results and reaction," Fawzi explains. "We identify strongly as a nation with the religion, and it is safe to generalise that the majority of the population follow the rituals and have faith. But it is for later," he continues, explaining day-to-day life's role as a "perceived test" for the next phase of existence; judgement day and subsequent delegation to heaven or hell.
"Something like football gives people the tangibility they subconsciously want. It gives people another focus. It gives their lives more meaning and purpose. Over time the relationship intensifies, with a fan feeling as if they are part of the team. When the team does well that victory is transferred -- the person feels like they have played and won themselves. The emotional impact of this group identification is profound."
It fills, in short, a void.
"When you have something that you can devote yourself to and worship and follow piously daily -- and it is tangible -- you reach that state of satisfaction and fulfillment that as humans we need. It's basically a means of finding meaning and purpose to life."
And it serves, as well, as an outlet.
People, it is well know, are innately aggressive -- tamed by institutions through the strategies of law and the instillment of guilt: "Guilt is the means civilisation employs to inhibit aggressiveness," Freud wrote. Football, for fanatics, feeds that aggressiveness offering a place in which this energy can be released.
Whether being a fan, or becoming a fanatic, the benefits are seemingly, psychologically high. But in a world laden with "isms": extremism, nationalism, racism -- the "ism" linked to the football fanatic (footballism, shall we call it) can have lethal consequences.
Around the world, across the span of history, nationalism, racism, and footballism, have intertwined and erupted in violent chaos.
"In the late 19th century, psychologists began discussing a new social phenomenon that seemed common to urban industrial societies," writes Richard Crepeau in Is there an "I" in team?, "the twin A's of 'anomie' and 'alienation' dogged the faceless masses of the urban landscape. Marked by a sense of loss, a lack of belonging, and a breakdown of identity, their impact was widespread and growing and could be traced to any number of causes. These were the symptoms of the breakdown of community."
Instead, they turned to sports -- hence, for example, the birth and fast growth of American football. The sport and team fast replaced the void of society and community, and "teams" are what hundreds of thousands of people around the world began to fight for. And hence hooliganism was born.
In Egypt, of course, the case is quite unique. A culture in which community is close, family ties are strong, society is tight; and all of the above are intricately intertwined -- footballism offers a mere, albeit extreme, reinforcement.
"It is a tangible return for a form of devotion, it is entertaining, it offers temporary distraction from the hardship of life, and of course it allows people to express themselves -- loudly. A release," Fawzi offers. "Football is part of the culture. But because of the strong cultural foundation of togetherness, it never reaches the extremes we see abroad. By nature we are passionate as Egyptians and we like the sense of togetherness and belonging. What we see with the Ahli-Zamalek situation is actually very appropriate to our culture," Fawzi smiles. "It makes perfect sense."
In Egypt, footballism has a meaning entirely of its own, comprising just one of many elements of existence that Egyptians are unwaveringly enthusiastic about.