One of the most eye-catching bios on X, or Twitter as we all know it, belongs to a sports writer with one of the UK’s biggest national newspapers. It was plain and simple and boiled down to five words: “Biased against your football club.”
Which is true. If you’ve followed football for any length of time, then you know that every arm of the media is out to get the club you support. You should see The Athletics‘s morning meetings where we conspire against the teams we most want to work with (all of them, of course). Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean we’re not trying to get Mikel Arteta banned from the sidelines. Or to perpetuate prejudice in favor of London. Or sneak in deductions for more points Everton. That’s All the President’s Men Meet 24.
Honestly, more attention is paid to the subsidized croissants, but let’s not let the truth spoil the fun. Conspiracy theories are everywhere in football and why wouldn’t it be? It is an environment with the right climate for conspiracies to flourish: tribalism, partisan attitudes, anger and mistrust. They aren’t just for fans either. Players and ex-players are on the bandwagon, some in ways that are not entirely comical or healthy. Rickie Lambert on climate change, Matt Le Tissier on Covid-19; like the first time Arnold Schwarzenegger told someone he was giving up Skynet and entering politics.
But admit it. If you follow a certain club, you are tempted from time to time by the suspicion that something or someone is deliberately preventing it. And those suspicions are clearly well-founded in fact. They are all true. Even ones that completely contradict each other.
For example, and as an appetizer for 10, this comment from a Chelsea message board last year: “Can’t this guy referee another Chelsea game? Too many times at this point.” We’re on Anthony Taylor here and referees are a good place to kick off as even journalists aren’t as effusive in their preference as match officials. Leeds United, the club I’m writing about has pinned several referees to their dart board: Ray Tinkler, Michel Kitabdjian, Christos Michas. Has any team ever had it this bad? Michas, who (doubtfully) Leeds’ 1973 European Cup Winners’ Cup defeat to AC Milanis prohibited from refereeing any future Uefa games amid allegations of corruption. Which makes you think.
Taylor has obviously done Chelsea over and we can’t have that. But he’s a busy man, because at other intervals he’s roughing it Manchester city (perhaps why City and Chelsea drew 4-4 in November; the impossible decision of who to noble). And Everton too, apparently. Which begs the question — if Taylor is biased against everyone, isn’t he actually 100 percent fair? But of course none of this is down to Taylor having days off or being a flawed Select Group official. That’s because, as everyone knows, he has Manchester United sheets. Go to the Blue Moon forum and everything becomes clear – that is, until Dzeko’s Right Boot puts a spoke in the wheel: “Right, so: the United-backing ref tried to make Liverpool win?” Fair point. Someone else backs him up by daring to say it might be a dumb case of incompetence. Don’t let that stop you.
What do the numbers actually say about Taylor? Since the start of the 2020-21 season, City have won six of 15 matches in charge and lost five; a mixed record for such a dominant team, admittedly, but not a smoking gun. Chelsea have lost one of 13 games. Scandal. Manchester United have four wins in 14, mainly because they are not very good. And Liverpool? Sixteen games with Taylor in the middle, one defeat and in between it all a 5-0 rout of Manchester United at Old Trafford. Presumably a good way to throw Taylor a shroud over his loyalty. As for Everton, some will describe their crises as everyone else’s fault, even if the Premier League blatantly had it going for them on the financial fair play front.
We could go around with referees all day. In Spain, supporters of the smaller clubs think the 50-50s always go the way of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Scotland has long been seen as Glasgow-centric, where everything benefits the Old Firm and the Old Firm think everything benefits each other. Rangers has not conceded a penalty for more than 70 league games in a row. Celtic take that stat well. Their chief executive Peter Lawwell said at their recent annual general meeting that the last time a penalty was awarded against Rangers, “John Greig handled the ball”. Greig’s distinguished career at Ibrox ended in 1978, not long after the end of Celtic’s first nine in a row. They have both been feeding on scraps of success ever since.
At Liverpool, there is nagging uneasiness about Saturday’s 12.30pm kick-off – the cross they so often have to bear after international breaks. Here’s the Premier League’s way of deliberately hindering them when their players are fleet-footed and long-legged, because in the corridors of power at the Premier League, they’d rather someone else win the title. But then the Premier League hates Newcastle United, as evidenced by the delay in letting Newcastle’s Saudi takeover go through. Although not as much as City, which is why City face all the charges.
Meanwhile, VAR = blatant fraud, which only gave more oxygen to conspiracy theories. A study conducted after the 2018 World Cup found an increase in theories related to VAR calls made during that tournament, especially after African countries were eliminated. One of its conclusions was that the belief in conspiracies appears to be encouraged by perceived threats to the poster’s identity. And therein lies the rub.
Karen Douglas is a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent. Currently she is also the director of a project, funded by the European Research Council, which looks at the rise and consequences of conspiracy theories; why they develop, why they persist, when and how they tend to be influential. Soccer, she says, is prone to conspiracies because of its tribal “group-versus-group type of feeling” and the strong emotional investment it encourages. The irony is that within football there is no strain of prejudice more pronounced than that held by fans themselves. And it has to be said that football discourse has never been more furious either.
Down in the EFL, “the Football League’s corrupt” is a well-known chant at Elland Road, partly because of what happened in 2007 when Leeds became insolvent and, to the amusement of many, were sold back by administrators to the people who had bankrupted them. the first place. A deduction of 15 points followed. Around here you will find people who genuinely think that referees, the authorities, absolutely everyone, will do anything to stop Leeds escaping the EFL because the club is a meaty cash cow at this level, not least for TV rights- contracts do not. They drive the kind of audience figures most EFL sides can’t, hence why Sky Sports are forever disrupting their schedule. But that’s another story.
As a rule, the smaller or more obscure the conspiracies the better. The BBC can’t get tired Crystal Palace, that’s why Palace are relegated to Match of the Day’s graveyard slot time and time again. Boring, boring, gets in the trash after 30 seconds.
Palace has also felt like a lab rat over the years when it comes to new rules or changes of circumstances. The 1990-91 season is the only time Palace have finished in the top three of the top flight. A month before it was finished, UEFA decided to allow Liverpool back into European competitions after their post-Heysel ban, meaning no European adventure at Palace. UEFA is brave enough to do this to a club like them. Nobody cares. But Arsenal in the same position? Or Chelsea? Definitely not. Then came 1995 when the Premier League reduced its numbers from 22 clubs to 20. Palace finished fourth bottom and were relegated; at least to save Match of the Day to go through the motions.
Jokes aside, what is it about football that generates grievances that then become full-fledged conspiracies? What is it about sports that takes inevitable kicks in the teeth and turns them into a larger, dark art picture? Sure Tottenham Fans have it in their heads that when a negative, generic football story requires an image to go with it, editorial staff automatically use Spurs to portray it. Depressing stuff, so let’s go with Tottenham. Is that how it is? Or are people expressing their own irrationality, often in response to underlying annoyance at the performance of their club?
“Research suggests that people are drawn to conspiracy theories when one or more of their psychological needs are frustrated,” says Douglas. “The first of these needs is epistemic, which is related to the need to know the truth and have clarity and certainty. The other needs are existentialwhich is related to the need to feel safe and have some control over things happening around us, and social, which is related to the need to maintain our self-esteem and feel positive about the groups we belong to. People may be drawn to conspiracy theories to try to satisfy these needs.
“This essentially means anyone can seek out conspiracy theories if they have psychological needs that are not being met at any particular time. This is perhaps one explanation why we tend to see a lot of conspiracy theories when things happen like sudden celebrity deaths or during pandemics. People look for ways to understand what is going on and look for ways to cope with difficult situations – worry, fear, social isolation. A simple explanation is often not very appealing either. People assume that a major event must also have a major or more sinister cause. (conspiracy theories) can turn people away from mainstream politics and science, in favor of more radical ideas and actions.” Or away from the faint possibility that your team was to blame.
Certain conspiracy theories, experts say, can be based on grains of fact or reality. Those facts are then exaggerated or distorted to the point where they get out of hand. Unfortunately, football does not have a record of being squeaky clean or free of corruption and as such cannot always tell those who follow it that their paranoia is simply that. But there has rarely been a time when the simple explanation has more trouble being heard by itself.
Take Leeds again. Firstly, there was a gypsy curse, believed to have been placed on Elland Road many decades ago. Then, during the Don Revie era of the 1960s and 70s, there were claims and counterclaims about bent refs, alleged bribes and a southern media that resented their success and tried to stop it. On and on until last month when the FA Cup draw sent Leeds to Peterborough United, their 13th away game in a row. The odds of that? Not far from 9,000 to one, or so my father – a mathematician by profession – tells me. But as someone put it to me the other day, there is no conspiracy here. It’s just very, very Leeds.
(Top photos: Getty; Richard Sellers/Allstar, Shaun Botterill, Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA; design: John Bradford)