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#ItsComingHome: How this World Cup's meme culture has changed football fandom

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What is most fascinating about the World Cup 2018 is what's happening on the pages of Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp. The seemingly unstoppable power of meme culture is cultivating a global football fandom unlike any other in history.

Anna Freeman

10 Julio 2018 15:30

Photo credit: Getty

It is a strange time to be an England football supporter (as I am simply by way of being born in England). The team that everyone loves to hate, who infamously have had more bravado and hubris than talent, has defied all expectations - which were so low that many believed England would not make it out of the group stages - and will face Croatia in the semi-final in Russia tomorrow.

A quick note for those who are not accustomed to ‘soccer’ talk: neither am I. I would characterise my born-again football fandom that dates back just four weeks as entirely internet-driven, profoundly uninformed, yet by all accounts, real. This World Cup in Russia has been, as I am consistently told by those more enlightened than myself, a tournament full of incredible upsets and soul-stirring underdog tales. Germany were knocked out by South Korea; even this novice knows that’s a big fucking deal.

But what is perhaps most fascinating about the World Cup 2018 is what is happening off the pitch and on the pages of Reddit, Twitter and Facebook, not to mention between friends and family on WhatsApp group chats. The seemingly unstoppable power of meme culture is cultivating a global football fandom unlike any other in history. It is football mania gone nuclear. And I love it.

Four years have passed since the last World Cup in Brazil. A lot can change in four years - particularly internet trends. Viral meme culture was a relatively new phenomenon at the time and it was largely contained to niche subreddits and fringe Facebook groups. Our understanding of what actually constitutes a meme was also far more vague than the content we have all come to recognise and adore. In symbolic terms, the side-effects of meme addiction hadn’t spread to the rest of the body yet.

Fast-forward to 2018 and we’re all ‘dank’ meme junkies, scouring the internet for our next fix, injecting their absurd wittiness into our eyeballs and sharing so persistently that no organ has been left untouched. In England, even if you were not a fan before, chances are you have shared at least one meme about football ‘coming home’ (a reference to a lyric in the now-iconic World Cup anthem ‘Three Lions’ by Badiel, Skinner and The Lightening Seeds). At the very least, you are well-versed in the resurrection of the humble Marks & Spencer waistcoat and the nation’s newest fashion icon: manager Gareth Southgate.

I usually loathe the jingoistic displays of nationalism under the banner of football. The St. George’s flag - one I associate with imperialism, racism, and now Brexit - displayed so obnoxiously from house windows and pub gardens. Flag-flying, the chanting of mediocre English slogans, and the loss of individuality to the rousing spirit of the crowd, has never traditionally captured my affections. It is true that being a woman also makes the leap from footie phobic to fanatic a more fraught transition given the hypermasculinisation of the sport itself, but in particular the fandom.

And yet here I am, frantically ordering an England shirt off Amazon before the semi-final tomorrow, reading op-eds about how lovable this young team is, and most notably wasting away hours searching for the best memes to send to anyone who will look at them. With each new life-giving meme, that precarious feeling of English solidarity becomes more pronounced. The more niche a meme is, the greater our sense of shared national identity. Even if patriotism is a ruse and there really is no one or true meaning of nationhood, the internet has rightly or wrongly made us feel like there is.

‘It’s coming home’ lads, users posit, forgetting that the country is at one of its most fractured and divided states in post-war memory. I am not going to offer a hot take about the comparisons between World Cup heroism and the weakening of English collectivism due to Brexit; that would be disproportionately farfetched and cliched. But as a friend put it to me plainly the other day: ‘This new internet football worship means can have a laugh instead of being constantly tormented, and if it is all terrible, you still get to enjoy it with hilarious memes. Everyone wins.’

Ask any fan what it typically means to be an English supporter and they will tell you it is a mixture of hopeless hope, then disappointment, and eventually cynicism. In fact, such emotions denote wider cultural perceptions of English identity. The ‘everything is a bit shit, but at least we’re prepared for it’ mindset. But England making it to the first semi-final in 28 years has thrown fans and non-fans a curveball. Are England actually OK now? Or are they, dare we say it, good now? Cue the meme-ageddon.

Friends of mine who have barely watched a game of football in their lives are sending me memes by the dozen. I have become obsessed. And it isn’t just a young person's game anymore. My father, a man from generations gone by who doesn’t know what Twitter is, calls Facebook ‘Facebox’, is now a meme-er.

As countless commentators have pointed to since the birth of meme culture, and how Amelia Tait wrote experty for the New Statesman, these user-generated nuggets of joy make us feel less alone and galvanise a feeling of togetherness. Memes actually create communities as much as they reflect and inform them. And for me, when it comes to football, they have changed the footy fanscape for the better.

Football fans (or some football fans) have notoriously taken themselves and their idols very seriously. The level of tribalism the game inspires has almost made this a compulsory characteristic. It is this element that I find most off-putting. It may slowly be melting away so more of us can join in the fun, though. One of the best knock-on effects of football meme culture circa 2018 is that it is funny, tongue-in-cheek, and at times utterly stupid. It is a welcome antidote to the die-hard fandom that created hooligan football firms among London’s clubs and the riots that broke out in France during the Euros 2016.

If this is what football coming home truly means, then sign me up.

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