Jul 16 2012
Since my first game in Montréal — versus the Chicago Fire on March 17th 2012 — I have been struck and moved by the powerful support we get from our fans. It was my second game as a professional, so you might have thought I would have gotten over the nerves of playing in front of a large crowd. Only a week earlier, I had my debut as a second half sub versus the Vancouver Whitecaps. I’ll admit that at one point when play stopped for a throw in and substitution I took a few seconds to look up and marvel at the number of people in the crowd. Although we lost, after the game I realized how incredible it was to be playing in front of such a large group of spectators. When, a week later, I was substituted in against the Chicago Fire during the 2nd half, I ran out onto the field in front of 58,912 spectators, most of them our fans. As I pulled on my jersey I thought: “Try not to trip as you run onto the turf!” Though the game was a draw, it was truly magical to experience our fans and feel their support behind us the entire game.
It was incredible for close to 60,000 supporters to come out and show their support for the team and the organization. We felt their passion again during our recent game against Sporting Kansas City, when they clearly let their displeasure with the events on the field be known. It shows that they truly care about Impact de Montréal and the city.
One of the most moving shows of support came during the game against the Columbus Crew on July 8th. My roommate Zarek Valentin commented on twitter that the fans were unbelievable. We had suffered a few tough losses at that point in the season, and went down a goal in the middle of the second half. But no one left for the exits early. I was watching from the stands and saw only two men leave — but they returned two minutes later with fresh beers knowing it was going to be an exciting finish. Without the fans’ support we couldn’t have clawed back from the one goal deficit and eventually won the game. It was a special feeling those last 20 minutes as you could see the team recover mentally from the deficit and begin to earn the win as the excitement in the stadium got stronger and stronger. It was our fans that produced the collective feeling of belief and unity that helped the players on the field succeed. The fans truly were the 12th man, “La Garde.” They exuded a passion for the game and for our team that is typical of the city. All the players on the team are very thankful for the support for you have helped us through some tough times this year!
As I saw clearly from the reactions to my first post both here on the blog and on twitter, residents of Quebec and specifically Montréal really throw themselves into a cause or event they believe in. I have already commented that I was struck this year by the passion and effort the students of Montréal showed as they opposed laws they found unjust. It was a new experience for me moving from the States and seeing the scale of these protests. Though I don’t know enough about the details of the issue and am not endorsing or opposing their stand, I feel one must respect the commitment they showed to their cause, something that seems ingrained in the culture of the city. In my reading of “A People’s History of Quebec” I learned about the politics surrounding Bill 101 on August 26, 1977 — which parents of current university students must remember — which stipulated the use of French in government and other official capacities. At that time, residents in Montreal also stood up, supporting the culture and Bill they believed in. In the same way, this generation of students marched and stood for their beliefs.
Standing for what one believes in is clearly not a new idea to residents of Montréal, and it is something Impact de Montréal supporters group “les Ultras” do for 90 minutes — pun intended. Since I first saw their massive 60 foot banner and heard their support during my first home game in the Olympic stadium, I have been intrigued by our supporter groups les Ultras as well as 127 Montréal. I’m probably biased — and have yet to see the Sons of Ben, the Timbers Army, or the supporters of the Seattle Sounders in person, but the Impact ultras are one of the best supporters group in the MLS I have seen thus far in my short career.
I had a chance to chat with one of the members of the ultras, Eric Chenoix, about their organization which recently celebrated their ten year anniversary. I learned that the group began as an idea in 2001 when 60 Toronto Lynx fans invaded Claude-Robillard stadium unopposed. Group founders Daniel Nahmias Leonard and Patrice Vaillancourt made the idea a reality in 2002 when the small group encouraged the Impact to a 2-0 win over the Lynx. They set out to build a group whose sole mission is to support our team Impact de Montréal. Nick Sabetti recently covered the ultras’ anniversary with an article. He quoted Eric as describing the group as “apolitical” and saying, “We avoid mixing politics and football. We don’t even use the Québec flag, to avoid any association with separatism or anything like that, although we do use it on the road sometimes. We just want to support the Impact.” In my own conversation with Eric, I learned that the ultras took inspiration from the larger ultras movement in Europe, modeling themselves on groups in France, Belgium, and Germany but seeking to infuse the group with the traits of Montréal and its devotion to a cause. The term ultras is used for extreme football fans, and is meant to characterize their extreme devotion for their club and fellow members. I have been told that Ultras Montreal members see their support of the team as a job.
I have recently been reading two excellent books about “ultras” that help me understand a bit more about those I have encountered in the city. The first, about the fans of Millwall in England, was written by scholar Garry Robson named after one of their amusing chants: “No One Likes Us We Don’t Care!. The other is a recent account by journal Robert Andrew Powell of the supporters of a team in Cuidad Juarez, where soccer provides hope and community in the midst of violence.
Fans of Millwall are known for their aggressive support of their club but this commitment takes on a deeper meaning for they have joined their physical being and their love for Millwall F.C. into one. This kind of commitment to the club is typical of international ultras movement minus the aggressive posture. Garry Robson argues that “Millwallism” is not, in fact, mainly about language and symbols. It is, instead, defined by “experiential relationships” between individuals who find in the fan group a place express themselves collectively. (137) It is this state of a living and breathing relationship for one’s club that defines what it means to be an ultra. Once a fan defines their life by the club, they then become an extreme fan.
The Indios de Ciudad Juarez are also loved by residents in Juarez, Mexico for whom it is one of the few positive aspects of their lives as drug cartel warfare rages on their doorstep. Powell’s book, which focuses on a group of fans who call themselves — with a bit of irony — “El Kartel,” gives a riveting depiction of not just soccer but also humanity in a modern day war-zone. It illustrates how the power of a soccer team’s promotion can allow its fans a brief respite from the horrors of everyday life. The fans of the Indios may live in an inhospitable place but they still find the need to support their team.
The Impact ultras, then, are part of a global cultural phenomenon that is a central part of what makes soccer such a powerful and meaningful sport for communities throughout the world.
Two hours before a game, the Ultras Montréal meet at Bar 99 on Hochelaga Street. From there, they walk as a group to the stadium where they take their positions in section 132. There they have some 20 different chants they use to invigorate the crowd in Stade Saputo in support of the players on the pitch. Since I have been injured recently, I often sit behind the ultras and I always enjoy the way the chant leader or capo directs to the group. There is one particular chant I love. I don’t know what it is called or what the words are, but everyone sits down for about 30 seconds and bangs their feet on the stands before finally jumping up and waving all their scarves and flags. I get a kick out of it every time.
Outside game days, the group meets regularly. They enjoy each others’ company, for they have a common bond in their support and passion for the Impact. They spend time making flags and tifos, watching away games or planning trips to those very games. Each member designs their own flags and tifos, which allows them to individually express their own form of support for the club and the greater city of Montreal. When I asked if the group drew on a specific demographic in the population, I was told that the only thing that united them all was a passion for the Impact. Otherwise it is quite a diverse group. To become a member of the ultras it is simple: fans just need to get involved in the group by coming to games and other group events, living their passion for club, and investing their time.
The ultras are not the only supporters’ group for our club. The fans in section 127 of Stade Saputo are known as 127 Montreal. Though their group’s inception was much more recent, their support is just as passionate. The group was reportedly founded — as most supporter’s groups all over the world probably are! — over several pints of beer in early 2011. Since then, it has flourished. Instead of a march to the match they can always be found in the parking lot before the game tailgating. I have often walked by on my way into the stadium and they are always having a good time getting themselves prepared for the match. All you have to do to join in is go up and introduce yourself and talk about the team.
From my brief experience in Quebec, it seems to me that here professional teams — whether the Habs or the Impact — in some ways take on the status of representing the province as a whole. Given the strong provincial pride, and the two relatively recent attempts at establishing Quebecois sovereignty, I’m curious about what the local relationship is to the Canadian national team. I know Patrice Bernier is a native of Montreal and has represented his country 46 times. But I wonder: do fans here have more admiration for, CNT of IMFC? Or do they support both equally, but in different ways? How deeply do political sentiments in favor sovereignty influence sports fandom? Like the Impact ultras, many fans prefer to see their relationship to a team as “apolitical,” and yet it seems that at times it’s difficult to untangle sport from regional or national political contexts.
I have profiled two of the Impact’s supporters groups here. But these groups do not make up the bulk of the fans of our club. Though what we might call “the common fan” does not align themselves with a certain group, their passion is just as strong. Perhaps we can start a conversation to find a way so that, once or twice during the game, all the fans can join together in one concerted effort to support the club and the city. This could take the form of a quick chant or simply raising your scarf above your ahead at the beginning of each half. It would be a great way to celebrate and enjoy the unity of all the fans in the stadium, who have a common affinity in supporting the team and loving Montreal.
As a player I am always working and searching for that one night when everything goes right. It rarely happens. But you keep searching for that mystical apex of perfection. The same goes for fans for you routinely come back to cheer on and support our team, thinking and hoping that tonight could be the special night when everything falls into place and works perfectly. Laurent Dubois comments in his book “Soccer Empire”: “Football games open up incredible spaces of mass mobilization, public fervor, and hope. They give spectators the rare feeling of being ‘exactly at the right place at the right time’ and ‘at the centre of the whole world’ writes Nick Hornby ‘” He also quotes the novelist B.S. Johnson, who writes about the felling that accompanies the beginning of any soccer game: “‘Always, at the start of each match, the excitement, often the only moment of excitement, that this might be the ONE match,’ . . . the one ‘where the extraordinary happens,’ the game ‘one remembers and talks about for years afterwards, the rest of one’s life.'”(21)
Let’s be honest — we may be searching for that night for a while. In the meantime, though, we can fill each night in the Stade Saputo with the collective belonging that celebrates Montreal and it’s culture. We can make each night one where everyone believes tonight is the tonight, doesn’t give up on our team even in the face of adversity and continues to stand and support us. Those are the nights when the hair rises on the back of your neck — for you know something special is happening and that this is a special place. Nights like that of July 8th 2012 against the Columbus Crew.
As always, I invite you to leave your thoughts, tell me where I am right or wrong, or simply suggest what I should look at next. Leave a comment here or tweet to @andrewwenger.