Football's twelfth man

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South African fans
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Former Zimbabwe Premier League star Sikhumbuzo Ndebele illustrates the importance of fans in modern football


Fans are arguably the most regular feature in most team’s starting line-ups, although they never appear on the official team sheets.

They are so pivotal to the game that their field absence is echoed deep into all stakeholders’ pockets, with football sponsors globally drooling over them as one does for a ready to roast gift. 

Although their common excitement comes from a match victory, each fan- however- may have a variety of expectations.  

It is assumed that more women may be more interested in Cristiano Ronaldo’s six-pack celebrations whereas their male counterparts are more interested in his statistics in relation to that of his biggest rival Lionel Messi.  Then there are those women who are intrigued by Ronaldo's majestic abilities with the ball, and their significant others more interested in his latest hairstyle or new car. 

Undoubtedly for some, the match would present a social outing away from either domestic or work rigmors.

These widely differing expectations - though a nightmare to completely satisfy as an event organizer- present a brewing chamber to ferment a unique and unforgettable match experience totally dependent on the fans present and the resources availed at that game.

No match experience is predictable or the same. 

Fans are 'Fifa' - Football’s Infectious Fan Ambience

Passionate fans create the atmosphere. The electricity in the air, the emotions and the expectations, for any match cannot be repeated by any design.

Recently Fifa recognized these 'athletes' too.

Scottish Premier League champions, Celtic's fans were voted as the World’s Best fans.

They came out as the outstanding group of athletes who have delivered beyond imagination whilst promoting an unforgettable unique game experience.



Fifa, Uefa, the FA and the many of the world's most popular clubs are known to market this enigmatic game experience vigirously, so much so that it the experience of the match that has become the selling point instead of the traditional scoreline.

As a player, it is impossible to ignore the relevance and impact it can have on team spirit. 

Al Ahly fans

I recall my debut home game appearance was at a fully packed 40 000+ Bauberfields stadium (1993 BP semi-finals) against the reigning 2016 Zimbabwean Premier League champions Caps United.

The chants, the songs, the color blocking, the uniforms in the terraces, the hangers the ambiance- it is so insane and grossly unnerving for the debutant.

Not all sounds in the stadium are praises.The energy displayed by some spectators in expressing their hearts and mind-out bares all in the dressing room.

The clock just seems to stall and the referee whilst calling the captains out for a toss is almost drowned out by deafening sounds from the stands. 

The emotions, nerves and the mental state were at its peak. 

The step out of the dressing room through the tunnels and corridors was filled with pregnant fan’s expectations of who made the starting eleven.

These overbearing emotions to the dugout turn into motivational strides with subsequent regular team jersey lineups and as the captain you step out in a manner that urge the fans to roar and chant as the teams take the field. 


The FA - Fan Athleticism

Although fan behavior can differ across the globe, it revolves around the universality of their training, agility, stamina, strength, exercise, and physical skills of these athletes in competitive participation of the football games.

Such an example being the FA’s Respect initiative.

In Africa, fan engagement initiavties are not fully utilized and so much more can and should be done.  

They are IFAB – International Fan Alcohol Bars

Bayern Munich, the German Bundesliga champions have an amazing a global following. 

The biggest Bayern fan club in the United States- estimated at about 600 members - take over the same bar in Arlington, which is just a few kilometers outside Washington D.C. for every match. It said that the atmosphere resembles the one of the Allianz Arena.


UEFA – Unifying Education Foil Fan Assaults 

Fan trouble cannot be ignored in this article.

As much as we enjoy the sensational emotions built up in the stadiums they come with associated risks.

Hooliganism, violence, racism, infield visual distractions, strippers, overcrowding, stampedes, pitch invasions, and now extremism (terrorism).

Football Confederations are implored to rollout programmes to counter and mitigate these incidents.

Uefa / Fifa have initatives against racism in Europe.

Caf can move a mile in the development of the sport by ensuring and education portfolio is rolled out to its member associations.

African fan athlete participation has the agility to entertain, the skill to execute indigenous culture celebrations, the proficiency to deliver an experience not found anywhere else.

Whilest there is some action taken, problems continue with stampedes, racist chants, incorrect seating structures and ticketing flaws that continue to the plague the game both locally and abroad. 

Bayern Munich fans


The bottom line is fans cannot be taken for granted. Their contribution to the game brings in money from sponsorship, media deals and gate takings amongst others. They are the ones that create the football experience, not just for other fans, but for the 22 men/ women on the field. They are the coach, the voice, the twelfth athlete in football. As much as they can build it up, it is just as much the fan as the club owner, that can tear it all down. 

Football in Africa can no longer ignore the role of the twelfth man. 

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Sikhumbuzo Ndebele is an entrepreneur, sports law student and a former captain at Amazulu FC and vice captain at Highlanders FC in the Zimbabwean Premier League. 

This article is brought to you by the Nelson Mandela University/FIFA/CIES Executive Programme in Sport Management