Archive for the 'Fans' Category

Dec 07 2013

Profile Image of Maggie Lin

German Nationalism Courtesy of Football

Filed under Fans,Germany,History,Racism

The 20th century was a wicked roller coaster ride for Germany.

Two World Wars, each spawned by high levels of nationalism, both resulted in German defeat. In the course of less than fifty years, Germany’s territory, economy, and politics were reduced to rubble, rebuilt, and then subsequently destroyed multiple times. Post World War II, the Allied Powers split Germany into two countries to separate East from West during the Cold War, with the very visible divide in the form of the Berlin Wall. Only with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 did East and West Germany begin the process of reunification. So, where has that left German citizens?

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Since the end of World War II, Germans have been wary of displaying national pride, which has been suggested by scholars to be a result of war shame and guilt [1]. Even today, nearly seventy years since the end of WWII and over twenty years since the reunification, Germans show relatively low national pride compared to other nations with similar economic and political stability [2]. However, when it comes to football, the display of national pride is a completely different story.

Much to everyone’s surprise, when Germany hosted the 2006 World Cup, German flags flew everywhere during the World Cup. It even came to a surprise for Germans at the time, as the display of the flag became the No. 2 topic of conversation, right behind coverage of the actual World Cup games themselves [3]. Prior to 2006, fans who waved or wore flags in public were less commonplace [4]. In the 2010 World Cup, Germans who crowded into the stadium that held the semifinal between Germany and Spain covered themselves in the nation’s colors — black, gold, and red — and pridefully sang the Deutschland national anthem [5].

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However, this rise in patriotism due to football has not been met without opposition. Back in Germany during the 2010 World Cup, shopkeeper Ibrahim Bassal, who is a German immigrant himself, hung up a giant German flag outside his shop that had been stolen twice — likely by members of the radical left-wing — and someone even tried to light the flag on fire [6]. Since WWII, Germans have been particularly sensitive to the topic of displaying national pride, as it typically triggers thoughts of war, blind-allegiance, and shame.

Opponents of the increase in nationalism also cite a rise in xenophobia and racism as a main issue. After Germany defeated Denmark in a game during the 2012 UEFA European Championship, anonymous users on Twitter made racist comments about German player Mesut Özil, who is third generation Turkish-German, in hopes of sparking a hate campaign [7]. Since German Turks form the largest minority in Germany [8], it makes sense that these racist comments would be particularly alarming.

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Even though many view sport as an equalizer without any place in politics, it is difficult to deny that football has a history of being manipulated as a form propaganda. Could the football-induced nationalism directly lead to increased xenophobia or violence targeting minorities? Or is that stretching it a bit far? Many Germans and critics will continue to be cautious as traumatizing flashbacks of Nazi Germany haunt their psyche.

Contrastingly, is it so terrible to have the ability to publicly show pride in one’s own nation without being scorned? Germany will continue to emerge from its difficult past, and these are just some of the issues that Germans along with the rest of the world will have to deal with eventually. This is a particularly fascinating case study, and as the 2014 World Cup rolls around, it will be interesting to see the pro- and anti-nationalism dynamics play out once again.

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Nov 26 2013

Profile Image of Caitlin Moyles

Soccer Comic Rants with Ian Edwards

Filed under Fans,News

To readers who are looking for light-hearted soccer commentary, I want to draw your attention to stand up comedians Ian Edwards and Jason Gillearn’s Soccer Comic Rants on the All Things Comedy podcast network. Edwards and Gillearn’s weekly podcasts provide informed and amusing updates on soccer news around the world, injecting a dose of humor into soccer fans’ dreary Mondays.

I listened to a couple of Ian Edwards’ latest “rants” to get a feel for the show. Soccer Comic Rant #52 from November 18 recapped a week of World Cup playoffs, and Edwards’ asides and zingers enlivened his recap so much that even newcomers to soccer (like yours truly) can enjoy it. Last week, the Brazilian head coach boasted that his team is going to win the World Cup. Edwards’ retort? “You might want to keep your yap shut…You don’t want to act like you’re Kreskin right now. You just want to coach.” (Here, he’s referencing The Amazing Kreskin, who was known for his clairvoyant powers and was a figure on American television in the 1970s.)  Here were Edwards’ thought’s on Nigeria’s 2-0 win over Ethiopia: “You’re supposed to beat a country that’s known for not having food. So Nigeria, you did your thing, you’re in the World Cup. Congrats.” Poland’s loss to Slovakia? “Poland, get your sh-t together.”

On this week’s Soccer Comic Rant #53, Edwards hosted a conversation with Monaco player D’Angelo J. Waddington. Born in the Ivory Coast and adopted at 3 years old by a white family, Waddington then moved to Italy, where his adoptive parents put him in the Torino Calcio youth academy. He was only six years old, and was the only black athlete at the academy at the time. “At six years old, you’ve lived a full life… That’s pretty dope,” Edwards exclaimed. Waddington goes on to describe some of the challenges of being a foreign player in an Italian academy in the 1990s—Italy was one of the strongest soccer complexes in Europe, and priority was given to Italian players. The podcasts are entertaining, always informative, and an engaging medium for fans to get soccer news recaps. I’d encourage you to check it out!

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Oct 29 2013

Profile Image of Matthew Schorr

Le Chaos de la vie des footballeurs professionnels

Filed under Fans,Players,World Cup

Certains supporteurs ne font pas attention au foot que toutes les quatre années, en prévision de la Coupe du monde. Particulièrement aux Etats-Unis, ce n’est pas rare de trouver un Américain qui apprécie le foot mais qui ne sait rien de ce qui se passe dans le monde de foot quand la Coupe du monde n’est pas en train de se dérouler. Ces supporters comprennent comment jouer le foot et ils connaissent le tableau de service des équipes nationales. Mais ils ne savent rien des clubs qui payent aux stars des salaires énormes et des rivalités régionales qui provoquent des émotions intenses. Un article récent publié dans le New York Times, « In European Soccer, World Cup Is One of Many Priorities », démontre que l’internationalisme du foot—la Coupe du monde—n’est qu’une seule face du foot.

Bien que certains supporters se focalisent uniquement sur le Mondial, c’est impossible pour les footballeurs de faire de même, malgré le fait que c’est l’événement le plus important dans le monde de foot. Les footballeurs ont plusieurs responsabilités à la fois—leur club, leur équipe nationale, leurs parrains et leur santé. Quand plusieurs tournois ont lieu dans une période courte, c’est difficile pour les joueurs de jongler toutes leurs priorités, particulièrement quand ils doivent jouer avec deux équipes à la fois. Ça c’est un sujet que Rob Hughes déborde dans son article dans le Times. « Is there is [sic] any other walk of life in which the principal protagonists are expected to be at peak performance in three such diverse tournaments in such a short time? » demande Hughes, qui fait référence au fait que Cristiano Ronaldo, le star de l’équipe portugaise et du club Réal Madrid, jouerait dans les matches préliminaires de la Coupe du monde, dans « el Clásico » (contre Barcelona), et dans le tournoi de la ligue des champions (contre Juventus). On dit que c’est impossible pour un homme de servir plus qu’un seul maître à la fois. Les footballeurs n’ont pas d’autre choix : « They play, they rest and recuperate, and if they are not injured they have to be ready to play again, in different circumstances, on different grounds, and perhaps with different teammates on their side », remarque Hughes. Bien que le Mondial domine des pensées de beaucoup de supporters, il ne permette pas aux footballeurs d’oublier leurs responsabilités diverses. La vie des footballeurs est chaotique, et il faut respecter ceux qui, en dépit du chaos, parviennent à performer chaque jour et sur n’importe quel terrain d’une manière impressionnante. Ces footballeurs défient la douleur, l’épuisement, et la pression de réussir. Ces footballeurs sont presque surhumains.

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Oct 21 2013

Profile Image of June Zhang

A Soccer Field Carved from a Mountain

I wanted to share this short video clip I came across in the New York Times. While we have been talking a lot about the astronomical political and economic effects of the 2014 World Cup on Brazil, I think this video highlights a more personalized perspective on the passion Brazilians have towards the sport. Soccer is a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation in this community. Why pour billions of dollars into a stadium when you can dig one out of the ground?

This video was the precursor to an article about pickup soccer, or pelada, and it’s popularity in Brazil. This anecdotal reflection on the importance of the game is definitely worth a read.

The juxtaposition of the modernized streets with the spontaneous game of pelada embodies the beauty of the street game.

The juxtaposition of the modernized streets with the spontaneous game of pelada embodies the beauty of the street game.

Organized soccer clearly has it’s value as it draws fans from all over the world who glorify professional players and teams through a national identity. There is something magnificent about a stadium filled with eager fans chanting and jeering. But I believe one finds true beauty in the sport by recognizing it as a street game. The pure essence of soccer comes not from fancy uniforms, screaming coaches, or shiny trophies, but from the innate ability to play. Pelada’s prominent existence in Brazilian culture reflects this notion that at it’s core, soccer is a simple game. It is an integral part of Brazilian culture which often serves as an escape for all of it’s citizens: children, day workers, busboys, and waiters alike. The ball reflects the passions and dreams of the average Brazilian, who uses soccer as an escape from crime, societal problems, and everyday hardships. It gives hopes to young people that one day, they may rise to the ranks of their favorite soccer stars. The power of soccer transcends socio-economic status and fame. Pelada plays just as integral a part in soccer culture as the national Brazilian team does.

 

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Oct 06 2013

Profile Image of Bryan Silverman

U.S. Youth Soccer vs. Soccer Fandom in the U.S.

The United States Youth Soccer logo.

A common question that people often ask is, “why has soccer not taken off in the United States the same way that other sports have?” Although there are a variety of hypotheses, ranging from “it just isn’t the style of play that Americans like” to “it isn’t high scoring enough” to “there isn’t a professional league at a high enough level,” I think it is interesting to analyze the disconnect between I see between the high participation in youth soccer and the lack of fandom that exists.

Interestingly enough, the United States has the highest participation of youth playing soccer in the world, with almost 4 million American children registered with US Youth Soccer. Furthermore, the United States saw the most accelerated growth rate of high school soccer between 1990 and 2010 than it had ever seen before. There are also a growing number of television channels that provide access to both foreign and domestic games to help with the soccer push even further. An interesting number that seems contrary to what we think about fandom in the states is in a poll from ESPN in the Economist, demonstrating soccer is the second-favorite professional sport behind only American football in the United States for Americans ages 12-24. What do these numbers say to me? There is a large constituent of those who play, and perhaps there is a growing number of fans, but why are Americans thought of as not liking soccer, then?

However, I have to ask myself, “why do I love to play the game so much, and enjoy watching it, but would not consider myself an avid fan of the game?” And I think that there are probably numbers that exist about taking either side of this argument, but to me, I love watching sports because of its social nature. Watching the Masters finals on that first or second Sunday in April, sitting down with chips and dip every Sunday to watch American football, or going to Cameron to be a Cameron Crazie with 1,500+ others, soccer seems to fall into a catch-22 situation. I like to watch sports and be a fan because I get to do it with friends and family. But when friends and family don’t enjoy watching, then I don’t end up watching. Will the United States reverse this cycle and become a nation of fans of this beautiful game? Or perhaps we really are in a period of transition where people think the sport might not be big while in reality it has a huge following? Only time will tell.

6 responses so far

Oct 03 2013

Profile Image of Becca Fisher

Est-ce que le foot est vraiment quel que chose qui unifie?

9782253109075-GMadické est le jeune demi-frère du narrateur, Salie. Tout au long du livre, il est obsédé par le football et le joueur Maldini qui joue pour l’équipe d’Italie. Il pense constamment à la vie en Europe, plus précisément en France, à cause de Salie. Il croit fermement à «l’herbe est toujours plus verte de l’autre côté.» Il pense que la vie de Salie en France est si parfaite, même si elle essaie de lui expliquer autrement. Elle est dans une position très difficile parce qu’elle est née au Sénégal, comme Madické, mais vit en France. C’est le ventre de l’Atlantique qui les sépare. Elle pense que la France est oppressive, misérable et solitaire, tandis que Madické et les autres villageois pensent que la France est un paradis. Salie est enracinée partout et à la fois exilée tout le temps. D’autre part, Madické est enraciné au Sénégal avec toute sa famille, l’amour et le soutien.

Madické représente les étrangers qui idolâtrent France. Malgré tous ses défauts expliqués par Salie, il refuse d’admettre les imperfections de la France. A la fin du livre, comme Madické mûri, Salie lui envoie de l’argent pour démarrer une boutique. Il se rend compte que son rêve de jouer au foot était enfantin et il devient satisfait avec sa réalité. Même si il décide de rester au Sénégal, il reconnaît les différences de cultures et peut-être leurs implications.

Cette relation entre Salie et Madické met en perspective beaucoup de choses. Il démontre l’exception culturelle qui existe en France et le rôle qu’elle joue en ce qui concerne le problème de l’intégration. En France, tout le monde semble être heureux avec la façon dont ils vivent. En tant qu’étranger, il est difficile de ne pas seulement comprendre ces différences de culture, mais aussi devenir une partie d’une nouvelle. Je pense que cette “exception culturelle” est l’une des choses qui rend l’immigration en France si difficile pour Salie. Si elle avait immigré dans un pays dont la culture était plus similaire au Sénégal, il aurait été plus facile. Cela représente aussi la difficulté de l’intégration en général. Même si cette histoire est particulière à la France, elle peut être généralisée à immigrer n’importe où. Les différences de «langue», la religion et l’éducation posent des difficultés d’assimilation.

Comme nous avons parlé en classe, le foot est souvent considéré comme un rassembleur entre les différentes cultures et les immigrants. Il offre un langage commun et l’intérêt mutuel. Les règles sont assez régulières et le jeu n’a pas besoin de beaucoup de ressources. Mais, le foot est un peu préjudiciable à la relation entre Salie et Madické. Salie essaie très fort de rester en contact avec sa famille parce qu’elle se sent isolée et triste en France. Quand elle appelle pour parler avec Madické sur la vie au Sénégal, il veut seulement des mises à jour sur les derniers matchs et joueurs. Très tôt dans le livre, il devient clair que la différence et la distance entre les cultures provoque le foot d’être une grande source de tension entre Salie et Madické. C’est un sujet difficile à analyser car nous ne sommes dans aucun de leurs positions. Les deux, Salie et Madické, sont justifiées dans leur intérêt, mais malheureusement ils ne sont pas dans le même page. Peut-être que ce n’est pas le jeu de foot lui-même qui crée la distance et la tension entre les deux personnages, mais le foot souligne leurs différences de caractère et est donc considérer d’une façon négative. Mais à la fin du roman Madické est capable de se rendre compte que peut-être son obsession était injuste et un peu ridicule. Le jeu de foot est fascinant et c’est intéressant de voir comment il est capable d’affecter tant de gens de différentes façons. Cela aurait pu être n’importe quel autre sport ou un hobby que Madické et Salie n’étaient pas d’accord, mais dans ce cas il était de foot (dont je suis sûr, n’était pas une coïncidence). Comme nous l’avons expliqué en classe et dans African Soccerscapes, l’Afrique continue de se tourner vers la France et l’Europe comme les fondateurs et les idoles de ce sport. Ce livre est capable de démontrer ça à l’aide de Madické, qui représente le Sénégal, et Salie, représenter la France. Cependant, Diome est également en mesure d’intégrer les effets positifs et négatifs de cela aussi.

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Sep 23 2013

Profile Image of Ian Bruckner

Vulgar Chants a Problem for MLS Teams

The Viking Army, a fan group for the New York Red Bulls, one of several MLS team working with fan groups to kick their habit of vulgar chants. Courtesy of nyt.com

When most fans of the beautiful game hear the term “vulgar chants,” they probably conjure images of English hooligans, racism across Europe or any game the United States Men’s team plays in Mexico. However, according to a recent report in the New York Times, vulgarity is becoming entrenched among fan groups at MLS games and teams are struggling to find ways to induce fans to stop. In this article, entitled “M.L.S. Tries to Mute Fans Vulgar Chants,” Andrew Keh details how similar chants involving dirty language have been popping up across the country. One chant in particular, the wording of which is “unprintable” but has the initials “YSA” (I’ll let you figure it out) originated in Europe.

According to Keh, teams including the New York Red Bulls and Real Salt Lake have sent letters to fan groups asking them not to chant profane language. The Red Bulls offered each of its three official fan groups $500 for  for every game in which they improved. Two of those groups accepted the offer, and have since received $4,000 each towards paraphernalia and travel. A spokesman, nicknamed Terror, for the third group, the Garden State Ultras, said that the Ultras do not support the chant but also are uncomfortable with the idea of incentives.

Understandably for a league that is slowly but surely establishing itself, many teams want to create a fun, exciting atmosphere, but one that parents feel comfortable taking their kids to. In some ways, this is a good problem to have. MLS teams used to be desperate for attendance, but now average attendance at an MLS game is higher than that of the NBA and NHL. Therefore, the problem many teams face is that of creating an atmosphere that is safe and fun but also intense. Hopefully, the Red Bulls and other teams are successful in their efforts. I doubt that the use of foul language is the beginning of European-style hooliganism, but Americans are accustomed to a pleasant atmosphere at professional sporting events. The future of soccer in the United States rests on its youth, and if parents are loathe to take their children to games because other fans are yelling profanities, the game’s future popularity may suffer.

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Sep 01 2012

Profile Image of Grant Allard

Why Football is Part of the Creative Economy

Football is part of the creative economy because its value lies in ideas. Typically when we think of football, we tend to think of it as “big business.” Real Madrid made over $695 million in the 2011 fiscal year and the combined net worth of the top five richest clubs for 2011 is over $5 billion. But to put this into perspective, we need to realize that the combined value of the world’s five richest companies is nearly $2 trillion. We can all see that in the grand scheme of things, football financially pales in comparison to other sectors of industry. Yet football is both immensely powerful and popular. In FIFA’s latest Big Count, 270 million people—or four percent of the world’s population—are involved in football in some way. Further, more people watch the World Cup Final than any other single sporting events. This leads us to ask—is football really a business at all?

Football is, at the very least, is a part of the creative economy. According to the New England Foundation for the Arts, the creative economy refers to a sector of the economy that derives its value from producing and distributing “cultural goods and services that impact the economy by generating jobs, revenue, and quality of life.” Linking football to the creative economy likens football to artists, cultural nonprofit organizations, and creative businesses. This means that we can liken footballers to actors, dancers, sculptors, painters, educators, and other job paths associated with enriching society with a vibrant culture.
We can find evidence for thinking about football as generating the product of culture by looking at a few examples. First and most notably, many countries’ politics are linked to football. The best exemplar in the last decade is Silvio Berlusconi. He made his rise to prominence in football with his involvement in AC Milan’s top administration. After all, he named his political party after a football chant—Forza Italia!

I argue that football is part of this creative economy because it produces and distributes cultural goods that directly impact quality of life and the connections between people. We first must take up the fact that football impacts the quality of people’s lives because this will lead us to understand the way that it creates jobs.
Soccer impacts the quality of life because the experience connects us with others and allows us to escape the pain, troubles, and hurt that we experience in our daily lives. Jordi Royo, a psychologist at the Palliative Care Unit and Home Care Team at the Fundacio Hospital Sant Jaume y Santa Magdalena in Mataró, Spain, demonstrated in a poster that cancer patients’ symptoms were lessened or alleviated while watching soccer matches. But we don’t need to be cancer patients to understand how soccer shapes our views toward life.
A soccer game is a performance. The players are actors in a drama whose laws govern play but do not predetermine it. The spectators come from different perspectives on the world to share the game. We typically think of soccer as being played in blue-collar, industrial cities, whose workforce turns out to support the local team; yet, (as Pelada would remind us) soccer is also played in schools, in jails, and by construction workers. And now, more than ever, soccer is a global game that brings together not only working class laborers in industrial centers but also white-collar workers from cultural centers such as Barcelona, Milan, Munich, and Liverpool. In this way, soccer becomes a cultural institution that defines our own identity.
The cultural centers I mentioned above were large industrial centers before they were cultural centers with outstanding soccer clubs. Kuper and Szymanski, authors of the book Soccernomics, point out that the aforementioned cities were industrial towns during the early development of the sport. These industrial cities have become cultural centers because they forged an identity from their soccer teams. Where capital cities focused on the standard cultural products such as fine arts, museums, government institutions, and business headquarters that come along with being a capital, these industrial cities defined themselves by their soccer clubs because it was a comparison point between cities

Hooliganism would seem to be a phenomenon that threatens the nexus between people because it pits city, ethnic, and class identities against each other in a violent way. Hooliganism though is universally derided as a major problem for the game. It is something that nearly anyone can recognize. Thus hooliganism is a structure—that even though it pits people against each other—is part of the common shared language that surrounds soccer. Hooliganism is a problem because it is a disjunction between seeing the big picture and hyper-focusing on certain particulars. The hooligan focuses on the fact that other fans belong to a certain group-identity that supports an opposing team and thus must themselves be bad. He loses his ability to see the contextual picture of how violence destroys his connection to the world because of the intoxication that he feels when connecting to a few radicals. As the hooligan focuses on his own identity, he loses sight of the sport and its creative power.

Soccer is a creative enterprise that connects people across political, geographic, and temporal boundaries. It is creative both because of the “product” the players produce on the field, but also because of the “products” the fans make, such as fan tributes, blogs, and cultural memes (chants, songs, fan clubs, etc.). Soccer contributes to humanity because it allows people to create new ideas and cultural institutions. Soccer then is part of the creative economy, because it emphasizes our humanity. And while some people become exorbitantly rich, the majority of people involved in football seek to create experience within a domain that underlines our connections to one another as human beings.

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Jul 16 2012

Profile Image of Andrew Wenger

La Garde

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.

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Jun 08 2012

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What Would Thuram Do?

In 1996, after France narrowly defeating Bulgaria to move on from the group stages of the European Cup competition, the French defender Marcel Desailly made a striking accusation during a press conference. Hristo Stoichkov, the star Bulgarian striker, had racially abused him during the game. “Hey Desailly, do you know that little kids are dying of hunger in your country,” Desailly claimed Stoichkov had said to him on the pitch during one of a number of heated entanglements. And then he added: “Shitty country, shitty blacks, shitty skin.”

Desailly was born in Ghana but grew up in comfortable circumstances with his mother and a French step-father. As he writes in his autobiography, Stoichkov’s comments ultimately had an awakening effect on him, driving him to reconnect with Ghana after years of relative distance. But his public accusation against Stoichkov was itself both a courageous and relatively rare thing: this was not something black players did in the 1990s in the midst of major tournaments. And there was in fact little result: the UEFA did nothing to Stoichkov — who when confronted by Desailly after the match had refused to apologize and said “I believe what I said.” The incident was, in any case, soon overshadowed by a larger racial scandal, when far-right French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen famously attacked his national team — which included Desailly, Lilian Thuram, Christian Karembeu, and Zinedine Zidane — of being composed of “foreign players” and “fake Frenchmen” who didn’t know the words to the Marseillaise, or else refused to sing it if they did. The comments incited a wave of criticism from the players, politicizing many of them, as well as from politicians and media figures in France. Though France didn’t win the Euros that year, the tournament ended up setting the stage for the 1998 World Cup in at least two ways: it helped solidify the team, but it also transformed it into a symbol of multi-cultural France and made supporting Les Bleus a form of anti-racism activism for many. (This is a story I tell in some detail in my book Soccer Empire).

Eighteen years later, another European Cup begins, and once again the question of race, nation, and sport are center stage. This time the story is beginning in a very different way: thanks in large part to a controversial BBC show about Ukraine and Poland called “Stadiums of Hate,” there has been wide-spread concern about the presence of racist, anti-semitic — and violent — fan groups in the countries hosting the Cup this year. Sol Campbell urged English fans to stay away from the Euro, and others have made similar warnings. In response, Polish and Ukrainian authorities have decried the BBC show as extremely partial, focusing on a marginal phenomenon, and tried to reassure everyone that there will be no problems during the tournament. But yesterday members of the Dutch team, having just returned from a visit to pay homage at Auschwitz, were greeted by monkey calls by a group of Polish fans as they practiced, prompting Van Bommel to warn that the team would leave the pitch if this happened during a game. Mario Balotelli, meanwhile, has already threatened to do the same.

Will the players do it? Many people are hoping they will. In a recent interview I did with Lilian Thuram, he insisted that if players — and all players, not just black players — banded together and refused to play as long as racism of any kind was tolerated in the stadium then the federations would very quickly act to solve the problem. But UEFA President Michel Platini has announced that if Balotelli or anyone else walks off because of racial abuse, they’ll get a yellow card. It will be up to the referees, not the players, to decide whether the situation in the stands merits and end to the game.

If we take a step back from all of this, there’s a fascinating set of historical shifts at work. It wasn’t all that long ago, after all, that many European countries dreaded the arrival of English fans, who were notorious for right-wing affiliations and violent behavior. In one incident among many, during the 1998 World Cup fans of the England team, in Marseille for a game against Tunisia, rampaged through the center of town beating up people they saw as North African, as well as attacking a beach in the middle of the day and beating up families picnicking ocean-side. The problem of English “hooliganism” was in fact a pan-European obsession throughout the 1980s and 1990s — producing among perhaps it’s signal literary expression in Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs (a brilliant work of that is part embedded ethnography journal part journey to self-realization as thug). Monkey noises, bananas thrown on the pitch, neo-nazi symbols, brutal beatings and killings — it was all there, and it was thoroughly English in many European’s eyes. Now, some decades on, the English are leading the charge in criticizing the Ukranians and Poles for their unruly and violent fans, and it’s not surprising that some of the accused have had their hackles raised by the process.

At the same time, of course, the reality is that in England — precisely because of the magnitude of the problem — is now home to what is probably the most aggressive and committed program of action against racism in football in Europe. This year alone has seen two major cases involving racism on the pitch, and indeed what England captain John Terry has to look forward to after the Euros is being put on trial for racial harassment — which does make the English a bit of an easy target for accusations of hypocrisy. There have been arrests for racist tweets and programs through which fans can warn officials about racist chants they hear.

Of course, one way to interpret this is to insist the England still has as much of a problem with racism in football as the Ukraine and Poland do. But that would be a bit too easy: for it is true that today the kinds of anti-semitic, neo-Nazi, and racist banners and symbols that were clearly visible in stadium crowds shown on the BBC would rarely if ever be tolerated by officials in an English stadium. And in Italy, Holland, Spain and France the situation — while far from perfect — is also very different from what it was even a decade ago.

Underneath all this, of course, is a broader set of intricate tensions about Europe itself: after all, Eastern European immigration to Western Europe is a major phenomenon, and while such immigrants are not generally stigmatized quite as harshly as those from Africa and Asia, there are clearly social and cultural tensions that subtend all of this. (During one political campaign in France, just as an example, the threat of the “Polish plumber” who was to come and steal the jobs of perfectly competent “French plumbers” was bandied about). While it’s often difficult to trace the connections between such broader social phenomenon and football, they should not be disregarded as part of the current story — and one of the reasons the whole question has created so much tension, accusation, and counter-accusation.

Every international football tournament brings scrutiny to host countries — recall the extensive worried hair-rending surrounding the problem of security in South Africa (which turned out to be largely a non-issue), or simply look to the various panics surrounding whether Brazil will be “ready” for 2014. But to my knowledge — and I may well be overlooking cases here — the question of racist and anti-semitic fans as the major problem for a host is a new phenomenon. (The most dangerous thing about South African fans, it seemed, was the vuvuzela). And within Europe’s contemporary political landscape — as well as the landscape of European football — it needs to be taken seriously. The defense that racist and anti-semitic fans are a fringe group is an old one: the same was, rightly, said by those decrying the depictions of English “hooliganism” in the 1980s and 1990s. But the question of their presence, and their impact on the field of play, is as relevant as it ever has been.

What has changed since 1996? At once a lot — and too little. The intense scrutiny about racism in football is testament to the success of the actions taken by players such as Desailly, Lilian Thuram, and Thierry Henry — who responded to racial epithets directed at him by Spanish national team coach Luis Aragonès by partnering with Nike to launch an anti-racism campaign. But it’s striking how relevant the message of this campaign remains.

What players like Mario Balotelli — as well as Lilian Thuram, from a retirement he has devoted to anti-racist activism and education – are saying is that a more militant approach may be needed. After years of football federations and FIFA carrying out extensive public campaigns against racism in football, it can still emerge to haunt one of the sport’s most important international tournaments. It may turn out that all the sound and fury about this will turn out to have been misplaced. Perhaps the small groups of Ukranian and Polish fans foregrounded in “Stadiums of Hate” are truly a fringe, and they will be successfully kept out of the stadium — and away from visiting fans whose physical appearance might not please them — during the next month. Let’s hope that is the case. But if it is not, it may be politically and historically necessary for players to force the issue, as some have threatened to do. And, especially if action is taken in full solidarity — so that it is not presented as a problem facing black players, but rather as one affecting all players — it might make an important difference. Balotelli certainly loves to court controversy, but his matter-of-fact approach to the issue is refreshing. After all, in what other profession would those in charge simply tell people to deal with it if people racially harass them while they are working? Players have the right to wonder: how long do we have to wait?

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