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Why Do We Root for Underdogs?

The underdog phenomenon is a complicated one, and I want to do it justice, but even sketching the outlines of what it entails is a herculean task, or perhaps Aristotelian. To follow up on what Supriya said in her last post, one can argue that all stories are either tragic or comic. Human beings, being narrative animals, understand all events in terms of the story they fit into. Underdogs are comic heroes, forever fighting superior forces: Jackie Chan against overwhelming numbers, Jerry against Tom, Josef K against the system. That seems to be true even though, unlike Jerry and Jackie, underdogs in the footballing world rarely win it all. In fact, underdogs rarely win anything at all in football, even in cup competitions, which are much less predictable than leagues. In the five major footballing countries of Europe there has only been one stunning underdog win these past ten years: En Avant de Guingamp winning the the Coupe de France in 2009, when the team was in Ligue 2.

But the fact that underdogs almost always lose in the end is a feature, not a bug, of the phenomenon. It would be awfully hard to root for Charlie Chaplin in his films if, instead of The Little Tramp, he played The Bloated Plutocrat. We cherish the underdog’s every victory, and feel pangs of sympathy at every setback. Supporting the underdog rarely if ever pays off big. Don’t get me wrong, watching an underdog win, say Hércules beating Barcelona, is tremendously satisfying, but in football, the underdog almost never wins it all. So why are so many people drawn to supporting the underdog? Why do people from outside England seek out teams to support in the Premier League that don’t stand a chance of winning?

There’s one facet we need to keep in mind when thinking about underdogs: how they fit a certain form of narrative understanding that seems to be universal in humanity. The great underdogs tend to be tricksters, showing up the powerful, and like tricksters, great underdogs have to be charming. If they aren’t, they’re just jerks who enjoy tormenting others. Sure, when you get right down to it, underdogs are teams that no one expects to win. But you can’t really root for every bad team against every good team. Well, you can, but it’s a poor spectacle when a bad team beats a good team by putting everyone behind the ball and making ugly tackles. An underdog has to be likable, whether it’s Roger Milla dancing at the corner flag, Ryan Nelsen putting on a masterclass in last-gasp defending, or Blackpool going for it, in game after game. Ah, Blackpool, this year’s great underdog, who’ve gripped my imagination like no other team this fall.

Earlier this year I was at a party, a farewell party for a couple of friends who are moving to the other side of a continent from me. I might never see them again. It’s Friday night, the party is brimming with friends, there are snacks and drinks aplenty, the conversation is witty and intelligent. So why am I thinking about Arsenal vs. Blackpool? Why have I decided not to drink any more beer so that I won’t be hungover when I get up in the morning to watch the game? Why is my friend shouting “the Gunners are gonna win it” at me? I thought the only sport he cared about was hockey. Why am I arguing back? There’s no way that Blackpool is going to win. Rationally, I’m not even sure I want them to win. Of the Big Three, I want Arsenal to become champions. They play an attractive, fun game. But here I am nailing my colors to the Blackpool mast, getting emotionally involved in a team I have no prior connection to.

Of course, you know what happened the next morning. Arsenal pummeled Blackpool into the ground. 6-0. I kept trying to look away, reading websites, catching up on the news, picking up the book I was reading, but nothing could distract me for too long. I kept returning to the game, watching the unfolding grimness. To be honest, the game was over when Ian Evatt was given the red card and Arshavin converted the penalty. I should’ve gotten up and gone out, enjoyed the fine weather, but I needed to watch until the end. I’m not sure why.

It’s that question that lies at the heart of it. Why do I care about Blackpool? And, also, why do I care about Arsenal? Neither team has any special claim to my heart. No team in the British Isles does. I’ve spent maybe 3 weeks total in England, and I’ve always followed the Premier League somewhat dispassionately. Except this year. This year my heart belongs to Arsenal and Blackpool. I don’t know why. I don’t know if this is going to stick, or if it’s just a one-season fling.

Underdogs are inherently contradictory: They’re the unfancied team everyone fancies. That’s easy enough, but when you start thinking about the psychology of supporting underdogs, things get tricky. It seems fairly evident to me that supporting underdogs is a form of pain management. If the team you’ve put your emotional faith in is never expected to win, every victory is a joy and every loss merely business as usual. Sure, they aren’t going to win the league or the cup, but anything short of relegation is to be celebrated. Staying in the top tier is glorious in and of itself. The obvious conclusion is that supporting underdogs is emotional cowardice, but I’m not happy with that interpretation, and not only because I myself am an inveterate supporter of underdogs, but because I don’t think it’s true.

The best explanation I can think is that supporting the underdog is the same basic human impulse that drives those countless popular movements in history that strive to level society, to make the meek equal to kings, erasing status and riches. Most football watchers want a game where anyone can win. We don’t want success to breed success. We want new champions every year. We hate the idea of a small number of clubs dominating a league. Does anyone desperately want Inter Milan to win the scudetto again, except maybe for Rafa Benítez? Who wants to see Barcelona and Real Madrid both finish over twenty points clear of the third placed team in La Liga? In a perfect world, there would be no underdogs because everyone would be equal. But until then we want the big dogs’ noses to bloodied by the perceived weaklings.

The most difficult problem is when we start thinking about people who do support the big teams. We make fun of people who root for big teams, we call them gloryhounds and worse, but really, if supporting the underdog is pain management, falling in love with a big team is emotional bravery worthy of a tragic hero. When a big team wins, it is merely expected. If a big team finishes second, it’s a crushing disappointment. If a big team goes years without winning anything, or falls off the pedestal, it’s asking for years of deep malaise. Witness Liverpool fans.

Supporting the underdog isn’t an ideological position, it’s just the desire to see the mighty brought low and the small triumph. Similarly, supporting big teams is a desire to see greatness rewarded, to see those who strive for excellence reach that level of excellence. I know both feelings. I want Blackpool to rampage through the Premier League, sowing discontent in the hearts of teams who feel themselves above small clubs. I want Arsenal to win the title because they strive for an ideal that I wish to see rewarded.

Kári Tulinius is an Icelandic poet and novelist. His first novel, Píslarvottar án hæfileika (Martyrs Without Talent), was published this spring in Reykjavík.

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Why Do We Root for Underdogs?

by Kári Tulinius · October 9, 2010

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