I I never forgave myself for attending the 1991 FA Cup Final. Tottenham Hotspur v Nottingham Forest. I had broken my leg badly playing football a year earlier, and a blazer wearer I knew at the Football Association had kindly sent me a note to cheer me up. I’m not a Spurs or Forest fan but, having never attended an FA Cup final, I was delighted to be there. Well, I was excited until I sat down, after which my feelings changed to something more like guilt or shame.
I was sitting between an ardent Forest fan and an ardent Spurs fan. Both were telling me how far they had gone to score their tickets – and how many of their fellow fans were missing. I was not feeling well. As a neutral, I had nothing to do with it. Football is no place for neutrals. If my team ever made it to a major final, I’d be livid to have to share the experience with someone who doesn’t care about the outcome. I was deeply uncomfortable being that someone. Spurs won 2-1; I felt like I was at a strangers wedding or, in Forest’s case, at the funeral of someone I didn’t know.
On Wednesday evening, 43,883 people 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 been allocated their tickets as supporters of both teams. The other 24,883 tickets went to corporate and neutral guests associated with various other clubs. These 24,883 people must question themselves. If it’s Rangers or Frankfurt fans who managed to get a seat somewhere, that’s fine. But the others won’t enter football heaven, at least if I hold the pearly gates.
The neutral fan or, even worse, the non-fan of corporate entertainment, there for a night out, has been killing football for quite a while now. The further your team progresses in tournaments and cup competitions, the worse. Working at the 2006 World Cup Final in Berlin, I shared an Olympic Stadium Park & Ride coach with a bus full of Samsung executives. They were all in costume, accessorized with drawstrings – their golden tickets to suites where they would find huge tables groaning under the weight of mountains of fine food and drink. Outside of the ground I ran into a guy I had met filming on a gas rig in the North Sea a few years earlier. The thing is, I remember him telling me that day that he didn’t like football at all. I asked him what he was doing there. He told me that his son’s girlfriend’s father had received tickets; he was high up at McDonald’s, you see. Inside the stadium, the real supporters of France and Italy were squeezed into disgracefully small areas behind each goal. Everything felt terribly wrong.
It was just as wrong – worse, in fact – when I went to a World Cup final next: France v Croatia in Moscow in 2018. This time, having Croatian heritage, I had a dog in the fight. I was there as a fan, and a devotee at that. But next to me was a well-dressed middle-aged guy who had obviously never been to a football game before. His cord told me he was Mexican. He celebrated the goals of both teams with equal enthusiasm. He did it by standing up and dancing daddy while taking selfies. At the final whistle, he celebrated France’s victory in the same way, although a bit more vigorously. I gave him a dark, murderous look. Honestly, 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.