Aymen Gheddai discusses the different ways fans approach our favorite sport…
“Football without fans is nothing.” – John “Jock” Stein, former Celtic manager
During my college years, friends routinely made fun of the fact that I would only register for classes that didn’t clash with the Champions League schedule. As for my weekends, I had to know the times of any upcoming matches before I could plan my social outings. Ah, those were the days! As the saying goes, however, the young shall grow, and now other priorities exist despite my ever-present love for the sport. Priorities or not, there are exceptions, and some people make their lives always revolve around football. Every time we watch matches on TV we see fans that epitomize passion, the season ticket holders, the chant-singing followers, the flag-waving supporters. Across the board these fans’ unifying sentiment is the love for football; however, fan culture varies from country to country. Let’s begin in England, where it all started.
The English football fan is arguably the world’s most notorious, both for good and bad reasons. Of course, because the sport was “invented” in England, the history is there, with some clubs existing for over a century. English football has always had a link to alcohol, both in the stadium and outside. It’s not uncommon to find pubs specifically for fans of a certain club where drinks are consumed before heading to the stadium, or for those without tickets, the match is watched in communion at the pub itself. Alcohol used to be available in all areas of stadiums until the 1980’s when correlations were drawn between consumption and hooliganism. English fans gained a reputation in the 1970’s and 1980’s for having an affinity for brawls with opposing fans, locally and abroad. Studies were conducted and alcohol was believed to be the inspiration for such behavior. As a result, the current laws state that alcohol can still be sold in stadiums, but only consumed out of sight of the field.
The negative press and stringent measures placed on English fans from the hooligan era has fortunately resulted in the modern day “English supporter.” Whether it’s for club or country, the English fans demonstrate true loyalty. Match days are enjoyed in a calm, peaceful manner with unending backing for your side at full voice regardless of the result. Watch an English Premier League match and you’ll see all ages in the stands, from toddlers to the elderly. It is this complete turnaround from hooliganism to a family-friendly atmosphere in stadiums that makes the English fan base a positive example.
While the term “hooliganism” is associated with England, those types of behavior are not limited to that country. Italy has a section of fans called the ultras that can also be viewed in a positive and negative light. The ultras are a section of fans usually located at one specific end of the stadium. These fans are present at every home match, and they are also the ones that make the journey for away games. They have been known to start skirmishes with rival fans, and it has been said they hold special “enforced relationships” with the club hierarchy in order to ensure ticket allocation. They have a tendency to overlook the boundary between football life and personal life, as displayed by one Inter ultra who sent Cristian Vieri a letter threatening to burn down his restaurant due to his poor performances. Another incident, also by Inter ultras, saw them throw a motorcycle–yes, you read that correctly–into the stands to protest a poor display by their team.
It is this tension at the stadium that distinguishes Italy from other countries. Stadium attendance rates are lower in Italy partly because of the simmering atmosphere. Most people would rather watch the match on TV than take their family to the stadium for fear of what might happen if things boil over.
In spite of the negatives, ultras are renowned for their amazing support, choreography and banners. Unlike England, the ultra section of a stadium always creates and initiates the unique team chants during Italian matches. They are virtually conductors of a match-long symphony, almost dictating the level of passion and support coming from the stands. Quite often when a player wants to show appreciation to the fans in a Serie A match, he’ll first acknowledge the ultra section before everyone else.
Italians who relocated to Brazil in the early 20th century took this culture of banners and choreography with them. The equivalent to Italy’s ultras in Brazil are called torcida organizadas (or torcida for short). Much like their counterparts in Italy, torcida have a penchant for the occasional scuffle, but their support for their teams is immense. I witnessed this firsthand during a match in Rio between local side Flamengo and their rivals from Sao Paolo: Corinthians. We arrived about 30-45 minutes prior to kick off, but you wouldn’t have guessed it considering the sound level at the stadium. There was a “sparring” of sorts going on between the rival torcida over whose chants could be more abusive. Just when I thought the passion couldn’t be more evident, the players came out for the match.
Immediately, flags and banners appeared from what seemed like thin air in the torcida section. Flares were lit and that whole section of the stadium became quite the sight! As the match progressed, the decibels in the Maracana stadium went from strength to strength. Each chant would emanate from the torcida section, with the rest of us playing catch up and trying to sing along, and when Flamengo scored the match’s only goal…absolute chaos! Take a look at the following clip. While it may be hard to understand unless you speak Portuguese, the passion shown by the Flamengo torcida needs no translation.
So while fans munch on various traditional stadium foods like meat pies in England, bratwurst in Germany, a Brazilian sanduíche de calabresa, or sunflower seeds in Spain, their common infatuation with the world’s game remains constant. It is this fervor from the fans that makes the sport tick, the players perform, and the moneymen invest. In the end, these fans epitomize the term football fanatic. While many of us reach that point where we feel life comes first then football after, ultras/torcida give us a glimpse into what the opposite would be like.