My first ever trip to White Hart Lane came about when I was eleven years old. At that time I was extremely impressionable and any sports event I attended with my dad tended to become my favourite. Importantly, before that game, my fandom had only ever been extremely abstract- I was in love with the idea of the club, of their stature and history and stars, but my appreciation of what it actually, tangibly meant to be a Spurs fan hadn't developed yet. Over the course of 90 minutes in a game we edged narrowly 1-0, I took in and embraced every single aspect of being a Spurs fan- the ground, the chants, the love of the players. From that point onwards, I thought that I was no longer a follower of the club, someone who willed them on and cheered their good results, but a fully-fledged fan; the club's heroes were my personal heroes, it's successes were my cherished memoires. Essentially, I felt I'd become a part of something; my willing the club on was validated and stoked by the knowledge that the people who'd accompanied me to that game were feeling the same elation as me, and in putting my hands up for that synonymous chant from then on I felt like an intrinsic aspect of my character was being satisfied. Tottenham became a new forum in my life for interaction, celebration and commiseration with those fundamentally the same as me.
The problem was that in growing into this mindset also became enculturated into a tribe. For every measure of worship I possessed for Gus Poyet and Mauricio Tarricco, I held (behind my admiration of their amazing skill) an equal amount of resentment for the Hasselbainks and Bergkamps of the world. As I willed on Spurs I booed all our closest rivals, with their defeats heightening the joy that came with Spurs' advancements. My camaraderie with others, the ties that kept me with my tribe, became dependent partially on the denial of commonality with all the others.
In terms of the social implications of the game, the 2011/12 season has been a particularly poor one for football. In only a few short months we've witnessed two on-pitch incidents of alleged use of racist language; we've seen the same behaviour mirrored in the actions of fans against the members of the team playing theirs. None of these issues are new, however, yet this season they've been manifested more visibly and sharply than they sometimes are, and this year they have taken on a strikingly partisan tone which has been exhibited not merely in the actions themselves but in the responses seen to them. The rallying round Luis Suarez by Liverpool FC and the aggressive denial of any wrongdoing on his part against Patrice Evra has been matched by the volatile reaction from Manchester United FC to his refusal to shake Evra's hand in a subsequent match. He said, she said, and ‘it wasn't us but them' have been defining themes of the season.
The depressing fact for me is I can attempt to abstract myself entirely from these incidents, to condemn them and to criticize other clubs for excessive partisanship. But deep down, I know that such problems stem fundamentally from the tribal mentality that I too am guilty of. I would never condone the use of racist language, of offensive or violent behaviour, or even of excessively sharp personal attacks on players or managers. But in denying the commonality I share with other football fans, I sit a few paces down the same continuum as the individuals responsible for the abusive and unacceptable problems that the Premier League has seen this season.
What is so heartening about the aftermath of the horrendous events of Saturday, then, is that this same tribalism has been beaten back momentarily in the wake of the terrible tragedy that occurred at White Hart Lane. It began with fans from both sides of the stadium singing Fabrice Muamba's name as medics came to his aid; it continued with players from all Premier League teams coming together to vocalize their shared emotions and prayers, and has seen all football fans putting aside the weapons of spite and disassociation in favour of expressions which connote shared humanity. When Gary Cahill lifted his shirt to reveal a "Pray 4 Muamba" skin underneath, during the FA Cup yesterday, no-one chastised him for a gesture that on any other day would be condemned as vulgar and provocative, but praised him for articulating a sentiment they were behind.
I'm a football tribalist. I don't engage in the same activities as the racists, the coin-throwers and the turners of a blind eye to overt wrongs, but in terms of my motivations I'm cut from the same cloth. For many years I've paired support for Spurs and enjoyment of the wonderful forum of interaction with others that being a fan represents for the denial of ties of commonality with others. Though I've always been an ardent supporter of the idea that everything good that comes from us as people comes from celebrating what makes us different while holding onto those ties which makes us human, in a very small sense football has always created a contradiction in me in that respect. This season, I've seen my own tribalism extrapolated to horrible extents. If there's one thing that can redeem this season, it's remembering that commonality should always be more important than tribalism. Football may only be about one team for me, but without all the others and all the others fan it wouldn't have a purpose to exist.
There's a long way to go before the wounds inflicted by the various occurrences of this season are healed, but in the wake of this tragedy, of something that reminded me of the wider network of human feeling, emotion and compassion I'm plugged into, the idiocy of aspects of years of being a tribalist has been laid out in front of me to give me something to think about. Hopefully in the minds of others too it can prompt some re-examination, some understanding of where we all went wrong, and some serious work put into changing things next time out. When Tottenham step out against Chelsea in a few weeks, I'll cheer on my team as passionately as ever- but the denial of anything in common with the opposing fans will hopefully not be present as we attempt to remember which ties to each other really matter when things are reduced to the bare bones of being human.