Football conspiracy theories: Are we in a ‘golden age’ of fan paranoia?

One of the most engaging biographies on X, or Twitter as we all know it, belonged to a sports writer from one of the UK’s largest national newspapers. It was plain and simple and boiled down to five words: “Biased against your football team.”

Which is true. If you have been following football for a long time, then you know that every arm of the media is ready to target the club you support. You should see AtleticoThese are the morning meetings in which we plot against the teams we most want to mend (all of them, obviously). Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean we’re not trying to get Mikel Arteta banished from the touchline. Or perpetuate bias in favor of London. Or planning to deduct more points from Everton. It’s All the President’s Men meets 24.

In truth, we pay more attention to subsidized croissants, but let’s not let the truth ruin the fun. Conspiracy theories are everywhere in football and why shouldn’t they be? This is an environment with the right climate for conspiracies to thrive: tribalism, partisan attitudes, anger and mistrust. They’re not just for the fans either. Players and former players are on the bandwagon, some in ways that aren’t entirely comical or healthy. Rickie Lambert on climate change, Matt Le Tissier on Covid-19; like the first time Arnold Schwarzenegger told someone that he was going to leave Skynet and go into politics.

But admit it. If you follow a certain club, from time to time you have been seduced by the suspicion that something or someone is deliberately hindering you. And these suspicions are clearly well founded. They are all true. Even those that completely contradict each other.

For example, and as a starter for 10, this comment from a Chelsea forum last year: “Can this guy not referee another Chelsea match again? “Too many times at this point.” We’re talking about Anthony Taylor and referees are a good place to start because even journalists aren’t as rampant in their favoritism as match officials. Leeds United, the club I write about, have several referees who are fixated on the target: Ray Tinkler, Michel Kitabdjian, Christos Michas. Has any team ever had things this bad? Michas, who managed (arguably) Leeds’ 1973 Cup Winners’ Cup defeat to AC Milan, was banned from refereeing any future UEFA matches due to corruption allegations. Which makes you think.

Taylor obviously screwed Chelsea and we can’t allow it. But he is a busy man because in other intervals he steals Manchester City (perhaps because City and Chelsea drew 4-4 in November; the impossible decision on who to ennoble). And Everton too, apparently. Which begs the question: If Taylor is biased against everyone, isn’t he actually 100% right? But of course, none of this depends on Taylor having days off or being a flawed Select Group official. It’s because, as everyone knows, he has Manchester United sheets. He enters the Blue Moon forum and everything becomes clear, at least until Dzeko’s Right Shoe throws a spanner in the works: “Right, so: was the United fan referee trying to let Liverpool win?” Valid point. Someone else supports this by daring to say that it could be a boring question of incompetence. Don’t let this stop you.

Antony Taylor – he may or may not have it out for your club (Rich Linley – CameraSport via Getty Images)

But what do the numbers actually say about Taylor? Since the start of the 2020-21 season, City have won six of the 15 matches he has refereed and lost five; a mixed record for such a dominant team, admittedly, but not a smoking gun. Chelsea have lost one match in 13. Scandal. Manchester United have four wins in 14, mainly because they are not very good. And Liverpool? Sixteen games with Taylor in the mix, one defeat and, among all, the 5-0 defeat of Manchester United at Old Trafford. Presumably a good way for Taylor to cast a veil over his loyalty. As for Everton, some will describe their crises as everyone else’s fault, even if the Premier League openly resents them on the financial fair play front.

We could go around and around with the refs all day. In Spain, fans of smaller clubs think that the 1950s will invariably end like Barcelona and Real Madrid. Scotland has long been considered a Glasgow-centric country, where everything is in favor of the Old Firm and the Old Firm think everything is in favor of each other. Rangers have not conceded a penalty in more than 70 consecutive league games. Celtic are taking this statistic well. Their chief executive, Peter Lawwell, said at the recent AGM that the last time a penalty was awarded against Rangers, “John Greig touched the ball”. Greig’s brilliant career at Ibrox ended in 1978, not long after Celtic’s first nine in a row ended. Since then both have been nourished by scraps of success.

At Liverpool, there is a nagging inconvenience about Saturday’s 12.30pm kick-off: the cross they so often have to bear after international breaks. This is how the Premier League purposely handicaps them when their players have jet lag and long legs because in the corridors of Premier League power, they would rather someone else win the title. But then the Premier League hates Newcastle United, as evidenced by the delay in allowing the Saudi takeover of Newcastle. Although not as much as City, which is why City are facing all these charges.

Meanwhile, VAR = blatant cheating, which only gave more oxygen to conspiracy theories. A study conducted after the 2018 World Cup found a surge in theories surrounding VAR calls made during that tournament, particularly after the elimination of African nations. One of his conclusions was that belief in conspiracies appeared to be encouraged by perceived threats to the identity of the poster’s author. And here lies the problem.

Karen Douglas is Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Kent. She is also currently the director of a project, funded by the European Research Council, which is examining the rise and effects of conspiracy theories; why they develop, why they persist, when and how they tend to be influential. Football, she says, is prone to conspiracies because of its “tribal feeling of group against group” and the strong emotional investment it encourages. The irony of fate is that in football no prejudice is more pronounced than that of the fans themselves. And it must be said that the discussion on football has never been so furious.

In the EFL, “the corrupt of the Football League” is a familiar chant at Elland Road, partly because of what happened in 2007 when Leeds became insolvent and, to the shock of many, was resold by administrators to the people who owned it they had taken in the first place in a state of insolvency. A 15 point deduction followed. Around here you will find people who genuinely think that the referees, the authorities, absolutely everyone, will do anything to stop Leeds from escaping the EFL because the club is a big cash cow at this level, including for TV rights contracts . They drive the kind of audience numbers that most EFL teams can’t, which is why Sky Sports continually interrupts their schedule. But that’s another story.

As a rule, the more petty or more hidden the conspiracies, the better. The BBC can’t be pissed at Crystal Palace, which is why Palace gets dumped into the Match of the Day graveyard slot over and over again. Boring, boring, ends up in the bin after 30 seconds.

Palace fans are fed up of staying up late for the final minutes of the day’s match (Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images)

Palace, over the years, has felt like a lab rat even when it comes to new rules or changes in circumstances. The 1990-91 season was the only season in which Palace finished in the top three of the top flight. A month before the end, UEFA decided to readmit Liverpool to European competition following their post-Heysel ban, meaning no European adventure at Palace. UEFA is brave enough to do something like this to a club like them. No one cares. But are Arsenal in the same position? Or Chelsea? Certainly not. Then came 1995, when the Premier League reduced its numbers from 22 clubs to 20. Palace finished fourth from bottom and fell; at least saving the match of the day from going through the motions.

Jokes aside, what is it about football that generates grievances which then become real conspiracies? What is it about this sport that takes the inevitable kicks in the teeth and turns them into a bigger picture, of dark art? Some Tottenham fans have it in their heads that whenever a negative, generic football story requires an image to accompany it, the editorial team automatically uses Spurs to represent it. Depressing stuff, so let’s go with Tottenham. Is that so? Or do people express their irrationality, often in response to underlying annoyance with their club’s performance?

“Research suggests that people are drawn to conspiracy theories when one or more of their psychological needs are frustrated,” Douglas says. “The first of these needs is epistemic, linked to the need to know the truth and have clarity and certainty. The other needs are existentiallinked to the need to feel safe and have some control over what happens around us, e social, linked to the need to maintain our self-esteem and feel positive towards the groups we belong to. People may be drawn to conspiracy theories to try to satisfy these needs.

“This essentially means that anyone can search for conspiracy theories if they have psychological needs that are not being met at a particular time. Perhaps it’s one explanation why we tend to see a lot of conspiracy theories when things like sudden celebrity deaths or during pandemics happen. People are looking for ways to understand what is happening and ways to deal with difficult situations: worry, fear, social isolation. Even a simple explanation is often not very appealing. People assume that a great event must also have a greater 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 slim possibility that your team is to blame.

Some conspiracy theories, experts say, may be based on grains of fact or reality. These facts then become exaggerated or distorted to the point that they get out of hand. Football, unfortunately, has no track record of being squeaky clean or free from corruption and the like, it cannot always tell those who follow it that their paranoia is simply that. But there has rarely been a time when the simple explanation struggled more to make itself heard.

Take Leeds again. Firstly, there was a gypsy curse, supposedly cast on Elland Road many decades ago. Then, during the Don Revie era of the 1960s and 1970s, there were claims and counter-claims about corrupt umpires, alleged kickbacks, and a Southern media that resented their success and tried to prevent it. And so on until last month, when the FA Cup tie sent Leeds to Peterborough United, their 13th consecutive away match. The odds of that? Not far from 9,000 to one, or so my father, a professional mathematician, tells me. But as someone told me the other day, there’s no conspiracy here. It’s just very, very Leeds.

(Top photo: Getty; Richard Sellers/Allstar, Shaun Botterill, Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA; design: John Bradford)