Tribalism and half-and-half scarves

There can’t be many more annoying trivial discussions in football than all the faux outrage at half-and-half scarves. They have recently become common place at football stadiums around the country and many don’t like it.

As Evan Bartlett put it in the Independent “There is little else in modern football that draws as much ire as the half and half scarf: a piece of fabric bearing the emblems of rival teams, denigrated as the preserve of tourists and part-timers that no “proper” football fan would ever dream of wearing.”

Such was his distaste of half-and-half scarves, Dave Newbold created the protest company Half and Barf, which manufactures spoof half-and-half scarves mocking the concept, with scarves such as “Notts-Bovered” or “Sporting-No one”.

Newbold says the concept came to him as he says the scarves “always got on my wick”. Also saying he believes most are worn by “corporate Johnnies who are supporting no one and are just there for the freebie.”

There was further criticism of half-and-half scarves by Thom Gibbs, who wrote a piece in the Telegraph where he said that he thought that its rise in prominence was “a logical by-product of modern football”. He explained he thought that this was “because a great number of people were there just to experience English top-flight football… a half-and-half scarf says “I was there”. Merely being there, without proof, is an empty gesture in late capitalism. To just experience an event without also paying for something when there is an unconsummated relationship.”

This though is just the tip of the iceberg regarding half-and-half scarves, go online on any match day and you’re bound to see outrage at the sight of these things being sold. Even critic Dave Newbold says “It’s amazing how much vitriol you see online around them. But I’d rather make fun out of them than rant and rave.” However, many feel otherwise, and you will often see many calls to ban them, albeit with some of this being light-hearted.

But all this reasoning doesn’t explain the level of outrage that is directed towards half-and-half scarves. And the way I see it that level of outrage comes as a result of the culture within football in the UK of tribalism, with fans pressured into undying loyalty and a strong devotion to their chosen club. This means fans are often behaving in a way so as to be seen as a “proper” fan and gain a sense of authenticity amongst there peers.

Such loyalty to a fan’s chosen club means most importantly, to not support two teams. And in an article from the magazine When Saturday Comes about supporting two teams, Ed Wilson said “this one-eyed devotion to a single cause – beyond good sense and, sometimes, beyond even basic standards of decency – has acquired such weight as a measure of superior fandom that any deviation from its course represents something sinister.” This appears to be the generally required standard of behaviour for a football fan.

In contrast, in the book ‘Gullhanger’ (a must-read for any football fan) Mike Ward writes about his journey from a fan of giants of English football Arsenal to fan of the more modest Brighton, who were then playing in the even more modest Withdean Stadium.

He said: “I hope the club take the book in the right spirit. I do take the mickey because I think football deserves it sometimes. But ultimately it is an affectionate, upbeat, positive book.” But such was the books success that he was warmly welcomed by the club and its supporters and for a time was a part of the BBC Sussex radio coverage of Brighton’s matches. But often a story like his does not culminate in such a welcoming atmosphere, such is the seriousness which loyalty to your club is valued by other supporters.

This level of loyalty by supporters to their club has gone so far as to see any two clubs as completely contrasting entities. The guardian’s sports blog reasoned when discussing half-and-half scarves that: “A Venn diagram of Liverpool and Everton supporters would have a minuscule crossover.” But us football fans have much more that unites us than we realise. For instance, did you know many Liverpool and Everton fans live in the same city?

In fact us football fans have much more that unites us than divides us, after all the Merseyside Derby itself is known as the ‘friendly derby’. Long before many people in the country owned a car to enable them to support their team away from home, it was common place for football fans to attend one local team’s matches one week and another local team the next. Within my extended family I’ve heard stories of a great-grandfather attending Sheffield United one-week Sheffield Wednesday the next. And another grandfather who watched both Chelsea and Fulham on alternate weekends.

That said, tribalism in football isn’t new and in the UK it’s a trait that has created some of the fiercest and most entertaining rivalries in the game. But it’s this same tribalism that some have used to justify prejudiced behaviour in football stadium’s, prejudice of the type that those same people wouldn’t dare to justify outside of it. Too often a fans moral-perspective is hindered by their loyalty to their team with the culture of ‘he’s one of our own, he’s all-right’.

In fact, I’d say the outrage towards half-and-half scarves is sometimes akin to that of the level that is shown to incidents of prejudice in football, where in the cold light of day surely, we can all recognised that there is no comparison between the two.

And it’s not just prejudice, tribalism also in part gave way to the hooliganism that over-shadowed English football during the 70s and 80s. And it wasn’t just the traditional rivalries that saw this. During this period my club Brighton developed a particularly fierce rivalry with another not so local club, Crystal Palace. And whilst it is said to have been instigated by an infamous FA Cup tie and a personal rivalry between then managers Alan Mullery and Terry Venables dating back to their days as teammates at Tottenham, it is a rivalry that has perpetuated until this day, in no small part due to the constant violence and hatred between rival fans, simply for supporting the wrong team.

This rivalry isn’t for everyone. Former BBC Match of the Day presenter Des Lynham once said “Nothing irritates me more at home Albion matches than having to listen to that banal chant of ‘Stand up if you hate Palace’. Adding that, “hate has no place in football.” This was in 2012, so it’s safe to say that his calls for harmony were ignored and the rivalry continues as fierce as ever.

Whilst during a football World Cup all we hear about is the power of football and its ability to bring people together. Outside of it, it’s very good at separating us into individual groups of fans.

But football can also unite us outside of international tournaments, as the fan-organised protests at my club Brighton in the 90’s showed. The ‘Fans United’ game at home to Hartlepool in particular being an example of this where supporters of rival clubs from throughout the UK and beyond came to support the Albion fans fight to oust its owners.

Many football fans also have their own personal experiences of football being a uniting force rather than a dividing one. When I met my wife at university we forged a bond very quickly, in part through a shared love of football. And whilst not supporting the same team, football was a mutual interest that helped to create our lasting bond.

With her being a Chelsea fan and me a Brighton fan, our teams wouldn’t meet in a competitive game until 2017. And this is where I must put my cards on the table now, I own a half-and-half scarf. From Brighton’s visit to Stamford Bridge on that day, Boxing Day 2017.

I bought it as a souvenir, not as suggested earlier to avoid experiencing an event without also paying for something, but as a souvenir of a very special day. A day when the two teams that met were teams that my wife and I have special affection for. This wasn’t a match about tribal competitiveness, it was about two of the big passions in our lives coming together and the scarf was a way to remember that.

Half-and-half scarves were even discussed on BBC 5 Live’s 606 on Sunday 6th January and the presenter Alistair Bruce-Ball listed the only three occasions where he believes that it’s acceptable for you to buy a half-and-half scarf, which were:

  • A young fan attending his first game
  • A one-off occasion, if your team were playing in a game you won’t play in regularly, e.g. a smaller, lower league team playing away to one of the top sides in the country
  • Where your club is competing in a European game against an obscure team

I find this way of thinking depressingly narrow-minded, football means so much to people for many different reasons. Discouraging items like half-and-half scarves because of either loyalty to one club or by calling those buying them “corporate Johnnies”, just creates divisions in football that leads to bigger issues. It may appear like harmless fun, but this outrage and vitriol creates a culture of abuse and encourages the tribalism within football in the UK to perpetuate. The same tribalism which can lead to the problems that it in turn creates to therefore persist.