There are few YouTube channels with more of a cult-status than Arsenal Fan TV. AFTV is an English football channel that rose to prominence for its explicit and wildly entertaining post-match interviews with fans of the soccer team, Arsenal FC. The channel has millions of views and has attracted the attention, praise, intrigue and ire of high-profile soccer pundits, managers and players alike. The reason for its appeal? It happens to showcase despair.
Here’s Arsenal fan, DT, meditating on Arsenal’s 4–0 loss to Liverpool FC in the English Premier League in August 2017: “When is it gonna end?… Every single season we get mugged off and made to look like fucking idiots, and I’ve had enough of it now. I want fucking change and I don’t care if I have to bring a banner out every single fucking week until he’s [Arsenal manager, Arséne Wenger] gone.” That has nearly 2.5 million views.
And on Arsenal’s humiliating 5–1 defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League, 2016: “Embarassing. No! No! No! I’m not having it no more, Robbie [interviewer] because they’re [Arsenal fans that still support the manager] the ones that have got the problem, they’re the ones that have got the agenda. They care more about Arséne Wenger than they do about Arsenal. And when he goes, please, please, fuck off with him.”
Arsenal fan, Troopz, after the same game: “It’s a fucking joke. I’ve had enough of this shit. [Wenger] needs to fuck off. I’m done with this shit, Robbie.”
Here’s Arsenal fan, Chris, all the way back in 2013 after an opening day defeat to Aston Villa FC: “If they go out [of the Champions League in the next game] or lose two or three nil I expect you [here his voice cracks and he turns to look and point directly into the camera] Wenger, and you, [Ivan] Gazidis [Arsenal FC Chief Executive] to hand your resignation in… [here, fans walking by start to clap and interject with things like “well said mate” and “they should all fucking resign, excuse me French”] I’ve had e-fucking-nough.” That has 1.3 million views.
And last of all, Chris, at the end of the 2017 season just before Arsenal manager, Arséne Wenger signed a contract to keep him at Arsenal for two more years: “I’ll tell you something now, if he is staying that’s the most selfish, arrogant decision I’ve seen in the history of this club. There’s no way on God’s earth that he should remain manager of this club.”
You get the idea. First of all, I hope you don’t think I’m being sadistic or perverted by taking such an interest in these videos. If you do, I should say that out of the channel’s top 67 videos only one comes after Arsenal won a match (it does not show suffering). In other words, if I’m perverted then so is everybody else…
It’s not controversial to say that AFTV’s success has come in magical confluence with Arsenal FC’s failures on the pitch, and indeed much criticism has been levelled at the channel and its participants for that very reason; they do well out of the team’s failures (if that’s true then so do the players). I want to say that AFTV’s popularity very clearly and evidently runs on a common and compelling impulse: the impulse to watch and take pleasure in other people’s suffering. It’s the reason more successful soccer clubs have less successful fan channels, AFTV showcases (by far) the most suffering, the most pain, the most delicious denial out of all them.
The technical word for this impulse is Schadenfreude, which translates literally to “harm-joy”. It describes the experience of pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of another. There are Greek and Biblical equivalencies but Schadenfreude seems to be the operative noun. Theodor Adorno calls it “the largely unanticipated delight in the suffering of another which is cognised as trivial and/or appropriate.”
This is the gas that AFTV runs on. Each week it provides a pre-packaged compendium of every kind of response to negative affect there is; a haven for the Schadenfreuder. With each fan manifesting a different response-style that feeds into every kind of cognitive and psychological defence mechanism under the sun, e.g., denial, distortion, acting out, displacement, dissociation, intellectualisation, rationalisation, anticipation, humour, acceptance. Many Arsenal fans feel they have been trapped in a decade-long nightmare of maddeningly repetitive failure; maddening for the predictability of the team’s failure and nightmarish because of their inability to affect it in any way. What also gives AFTV its appeal and what fuels my Schadenfreude impulse is that, like all supporters, Arsenal fans are powerless and hopeful in equal parts.
Here is a theory. When I choose to support a sports team I enter into a tacit agreement — in return for my support, belief and faith, my team will win. There will be some kind of triumphant telos. I am promised that my team will be successful, more than that, they will be success. My team will vindicate my following, my energy, my hope, my irrationality, my money and their success will not only be a vindication but in some small ineffable way a result of my following. I give away to my team. I am a fan — abbreviation of fanatic, from the Latin “fanaticus” which means [worshipper] “in a temple”. In other words, the basis for my investment is faith and in return I expect to be rewarded with success, which I naturally mistake to be my shortcut to happiness.
This means that each time my team loses I feel betrayed, and the more I expected to win the worse I feel when I/they don’t — the more betrayed, the more broken the promise. Arsenal fans have the ring of the especially and most treacherously betrayed because only 15 years ago, under the same manager, their team went a whole season without being beaten in the league. An unrivalled achievement. Expectation for many continues to be the level it was then. Thus the failure/betrayal now is all the more callous, the broken promise all the more disloyal. Factors like the increased competition in the league are ignored; these fans are denied their right to Win.
The Schadenfreuder is watching to see how each of these hopeless souls reacts to the injustice of the broken promise. Remember this: the promise is ridiculous. It was never fulfillable, we were childish and stupid to make the promise, and the fact that we feel aggrieved about it is even more stupid and childish. When my team loses, I feel angry, betrayed, annoyed, sad, etc. but more than that I feel stupid for feeling those emotions in the first place. I know I shouldn’t be angry but I am. These are qualities that we don’t normally like revealing to others, especially on a YouTube channel with over 720,000 subscribers. Having said that, here’s an exchange between Robbie and DT after a 3–0 loss to Manchester City FC at the end of February, 2018:
Robbie: It is Man City —
DT: I don’t care. I don‘t care if it‘s Man City Robbie. [This] is Arsenal fucking Football Club…Maybe I love this club too much, maybe I do, but you know what? All of you that wanna criticise me — because of what? I want to win! I want to win!
DT says what every sports fan[atic] really thinks after a defeat, “I wanted us to win and we didn’t win and now I’m miserable because it is my desire and need that every time my team play they win, as per the agreement.” We (usually) never say this because even though the agreement is universal, we know it doesn’t really make sense; losing is the joint-most fundamental part of competitive sport, and just as I’m sure that my support will garner a never ending, atemporal Win, I also know, deep down, the logical impossibility of that claim. Not every interviewee is as direct as DT, but either way each defeat gives me, the viewer, a unique opportunity to see genuine human responses to pain and betrayal in beautifully polyvalent motion.
The obvious question is why I, as audience, find this emotion so attractive. Why a channel that showcases distress and misfortune almost exclusively ahead of anything else is so successful. But, and here’s the key, what’s so seductive about AFTV from a soccer perspective is not so much the failure and betrayal of its own fans on show (of which there is a lot), but the implied success of its viewers. It easily achieves what everybody knows is the number one rule of business: it’s about the customer. Its first loyalty is not to its interviewees, nor to its own Arsenal fans. Nor is its loyalty to Arsenal fans at home. Precisely the opposite, its loyalty is to anyone but Arsenal fans. It is for me. The appeal of the channel, why I seek out this misfortune, is so that I feel good about myself.
When I see my team lose I feel betrayed. I feel betrayed by the players, the team, the manager, by the world. I also feel jealous of those fans that do get to Win, that do get their promises fulfilled. When I see these emotions of loss I feel in someone else it not only makes me feel less alone about my sadness, it makes me feel like my sadness isn’t so bad. That maybe I’m enviable in some way. That maybe I’m clever. Vindicated. The technical form of this kind of Schadenfreude is Social Comparison Theory. In other words, we define ourselves in opposition to others, and so when they lose, we win. Where they are disadvantage, we are advantage. All of us who watch AFTV, we are all winners.
Here’s another example, which I promise hasn’t been invented just for the purposes of this essay: there is a young girl in the café in which I’m writing this and she is in a deadlocked argument with her father. It looks like the father has promised his daughter a hot chocolate. She is thus, in the way of a child — fully trusting of her parents and the world — expecting to get one. But she won’t. This café only sells hot chocoloate with milk and for reasons unknown this is not suitable. The father returns to the table to deliver the bad news, offering in place of the hot chocolate sugary alternatives, e.g., honey-tea and warm almond milk, at which point the daughter goes into classic denial: she refuses the alternatives and demands hot chocolate. She wants that which she was promised and that which the father is unable to provide. She wants hot chocolate. And now she is crying.
Like the Arsenal fans, the girl is powerless in the face of a broken promise. And the response is a playing field of anger, sadness, resignation, fear, anxiety, rage, dread. But there’s one difference between the girl and the Arsenal fans; I don’t feel particularly good watching the girl begrudgingly drink her almond milk. My sick human mind doesn’t seem to be responding positively to this pain. The two examples in opposition throw up a final realisation about the specific kind of s/freude goggles I keep at hand.
I think the reason I don’t enjoy the girl’s pain is because there’s something serious brought about by her response, something sad. The idea that maybe it’s not always best to be fully trusting of the world, that sometimes despite all assurances to the contrary, promises aren’t always to be relied upon, that good faith and good intention alone aren’t enough to ensure the viability of a promise, that in order to protect myself from this feeling of betrayal it might sometimes be best for me to remain ever so slightly more guarded, more fearful, more skeptical. These stakes are too large and they stop me from viewing this whole scene with horrible glee. The difference with Arsenal Fan TV then is that, at least in my mind, whilst the emotions are real, the stakes are low.
I don’t think there’s anywhere else to experience a level of unbridled suffering that exists in such disparity with the stakes, especially since I watch the videos in the knowledge that my cruelty is making the channel’s owners a full-time living. Yes — I’m saying its guilt free, which unless you’ve achieved inner peace, is a pretty attractive prospect.