An objective look at the tribalism behind derby day

Shut your eyes and you can hear it; quiet at first, only a reverberation which is part anticipation part anxiety, and then all around you explodes with unbridled passion, that which only occurs once a year, as the first notes of z-cars chime out.

You’ve been imagining this scene for days now, probably weeks, and it can only mean one thing – derby day fast approaches.

But why does football have such a tribal nature?

Football’s tribal nature is what keeps many fans trundling towards rickety stadiums in the depths of winter every Saturday. However, it is also what those who do not subscribe to the love of the self-acclaimed beautiful game cite as its most unattractive feature, going as far to call it a disease.

It divides cities and families using colour as the most puerile of separations to denote allegiance to a particular team, or tribe if you will. Red hates blue, who in turn hate them back with equal fervour. Hate is shared between stripes of varying colours as well as many other pastel adversaries.

The ‘rules’ of football’s tribalism are as follows: hate thy local rival, hate clubs which have the audacity to field a player who has previously slighted your club, and hate clubs who threaten your league position. But most importantly come 3pm Saturday hate whoever your team is playing because for those 90 minutes it is war (make a Frankie Goes To Hollywood reference at your peril).

Not only is football tribal but it is territorial; the closer two tribe’s proximity the greater the hate – a rivalry that is covered by the umbrella term derby. Come derby day men who spend the entire week working together, getting along perfectly amiably will be reduced to volleying abuse at each other back and forth over the net of high-vis clad stewards. On Monday morning relations will return to amicable albeit with lacerations of banter.

The only common ground warring tribes share is their mutual hatred of three men, though not at the same time. When a man, who for the sake of tradition we shall say is clad in black, and who for 166 and half hours a week nobody would cast a second glance at, blows his whistle and points his arm in the non-desired direction thousands rise as one in a deafening chorus of hate. The man-in-black will conduct this reaction for each tribe at varying times of the game, but one thing is for sure both tribes will at some point vent their distaste for this man.

His fellow conductors of hate use a flag to signify to each tribe when it is their turn to rise in anger. His or Sian Massey’s proximity to the crowd mean that they are also subjected to everything from aspersions of their spouse’s whereabouts the previous night to explicit threats of violence, yet he/Sian Massey skips along the white line regardless.

For those who do not appreciate football’s need for a tribal element then imagine the game without it. Picture Saturday afternoons where the crowd applauds politely and unremittingly, only pausing to cry out ‘good job old boy’ or ‘better luck next time.’ If you really wish to see football absent of its tribalism then the next time you are at a match cast a glance towards the directors box, and visualise a stadium brimming with the prawn sandwich brigade. If tribalism in football is a disease then apathy is certainly an affliction to be more feared.

Perhaps tribalism in football can be attributed to a primal attraction. We feel the need to be part of a larger group, to nail our colours to the mast. Maybe now there aren’t too many wars to be had the hostility vented between rival teams across the terraces fulfils our primitive urges for the week, a far flung desire that can be traced all the way back to our pillaging and plundering days. Home grounds are castles with the fans their defenders and war cries are bellowed semi-musically to generic tunes.

Joseph Fitzpatrick

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