About a month ago, I made a deal with the football gods: if VfB Stuttgart (then in the 2.Bundesliga) won promotion back to the German top flight, I’d stop watching Arsenal and the Premier League for the rest of the season. It’s a nonsensical bet. But then, so are ritual and superstition and all the myriad things we do to appease the chaotic forces at play in any game of football—whether we admit to actually believing in such things or not. We have lucky socks and lucky kits, pre-match rituals and post-match traditions, and god forbid someone tempt fate by saying such a thing like, “Surely, Arsenal’s got this in the bag now!” before the full time whistle has gone. The saying goes that there’s no such thing as an atheist in the 80th minute. I submit there’s also no such thing as a truly non-superstitious football fan.
This is a long way of saying I’m not watching the North London Derby today. Because VfB Stuttgart did, indeed, win promotion back to the Bundesliga last month. And since I’ve kept up my end of the bargain with the football gods and stopped watching Arsenal, the team has been doing pretty well. Emi Martinez has stepped up big time. In four starts, he’s kept three clean sheets, faced 17 shots on target and denied 14 of those chances for a colossal 0.824 save percentage. The small sample size of games makes any actual statistical analysis a fool’s errand, sure. But Martinez’s performance isn’t a singularity; the rest of the team are also clicking in a way that all of us would have hoped for but most wouldn’t have believed possible just a few short weeks ago. Arsenal are—somehow, finally—looking like a decent team.
As many a scientist in my life would say, correlation is not causation. Just because Arsenal happened to start playing well at the exact moment I happened to stop watching the Premier League does not mean my watching has any effect on the team’s performance. But if you poll ten Gooners now and ask them, “Should June be allowed to watch Arsenal again this season?” it’s a pretty sure bet that all ten of them will say “Please, god, no.”
Superstition and ritual in sporting culture is something that we’re all familiar with. It’s not just the fans who do it: athletes and coaches also have rituals. Maybe it’s a list of things they always do before competition. For some players, they have to always step onto the pitch with the same foot. Others pray or give thanks to higher powers before, during, after games. My favorite example is Borussia Dortmund’s goalkeeper Roman Bürki, who always touches the match ball before kickoff, and sometimes going to great lengths to get to the ball. This pre-match ritual is now immortalized in a compilation video, which is currently the most viewed thing on Dortmund’s YouTube channel.
The specifics differ, person to person, but the underlying sentiment is the same: in football, and in life, there are too many things outside what control we can exert through our bodies, words, and effort. Prayer and ritual and superstition may be feeble attempts to bring control upon the uncontrollable, but the very act of such an attempt first requires an admission: there are things beyond my control.
For fans and spectators, that admission is a painful thing and one that we often go to great lengths to deny. Of course, there are nuances here as well. Match-going fans who can cheer on their team as the famous “12th man” and can exert, if not control, then at least influence upon a game. The power of match-going fans has been demonstrated by their absence during the COVID-19 pandemic as leagues resumed behind closed doors. But even when stadiums were full, and fans could cheer on their teams from the sidelines and stands, there is only so much that support can achieve. A step removed from this, fans who watch in pubs or at home through television broadcasts have even less influence on a game, if any. And yet it doesn’t stop fans at pubs and watch parties or even alone at home from cheering on plays, arguing bad calls, or wearing lucky kits and socks and carefully avoiding any jinx-like behavior.
Why? Part of it’s just because that’s what you do, as a sports fan: it’s behavior learned from others, whether it’s your parent who brought you to your first Arsenal game, or your Gooner friends who shouted at you to leave the pub for daring to say, “We’re going to Wembley,” before the semifinal was over. But it’s also something internal, a bit of us that truly believes—however nonsensical it sounds—that if I don’t drink my usual drink and wear my usual kit, the one I wore the last time Arsenal won a big derby victory, then something might go wrong. I live an ocean away from North London. I can’t replicate the match conditions or the stadium atmosphere that, in the past, provided the context for my team’s victory. But I can replicate the exact conditions in which I experienced that victory. And when that’s the only thing I can control, I will attempt to do it—because that’s what you do, as a fan.
There’s a sense of ownership that comes with being a football fan. It manifests in the pride with which we talk about our team’s achievements, and the genuine sorrow when we remember the defeats. It’s in the way fans say “we” to refer to the team, the club, the players, of which the fans are a part. As we expect players and coaches to own their actions, as it influences the fortune of the team, fans also own their small part in that narrative. So whatever you’re doing today to support Arsenal, wherever in the world you are, I raise a virtual toast to you.
As for me, I’m doing my part by not watching at all.