I attend sports events almost entirely for the atmosphere. If you only want to carefully scrutinize a game it is better to watch it on TV for free. You will get far more replays, ongoing analysis and timely updates about player injuries. But nothing matches the thrill of being part of a giant roaring crowd, urging your team on to victory, riding a roller coaster of emotional ups and downs. That’s why people pay massive sums to attend live sports events. It’s fundamentally an exciting tribal experience, as I first learned at a series of football matches in England back in 1983.
I used to think Canadian hockey fans were the loudest and rowdiest sports nuts on the planet. When the NHL playoffs near their climax each hockey arena turns into a madhouse of emotion, an atmosphere that is thrilling to be part of. I ought to know. I have attended well over 100 Edmonton Oiler playoff games over the years and was in the rink in the mid-1980s for the four unforgettable times in a five-year span they won the Stanley Cup on home ice. Each resulted in a loud and raucous party you wanted to never end. But by international football standards we Canadians and even Americans fans today are often fairly quiet.
I remember being at quite a few Oiler games last season when the team was playing listlessly and being pummeled. During the TV time-outs late in the game many of the so-called fans in the lower bowl were shown on the big scoreboard partying wildly and putting on a clown show for the cameras while their team was embarrassing itself. I am a member of a different fan species. I do not party when my team is flushing the game down the toilet. Sadly, Oilers owner Darryl Katz would rather rake in a few extra dollars than create a genuine hockey atmosphere at Rogers Place, so commercials masquerading as idiotic contests replace crucial replays. Mindless pounding music drowns out the natural crowd experience and makes it impossible to talk hockey to the person next to you – even between periods. The whole experience is geared towards entertaining the casual, well-off fan in the elite boxes and seats, while the wishes of the heart-and-soul fans – who faithfully filled Rexall Place for a decade of horrible hockey and crave a genuine sports atmosphere – are ignored.
Happily, sometimes the game itself interrupts the fashion show and grabs us by the throat, which is why I still go. My English footie fanatic friends can barely believe that opposing fans at North American sporting events are not totally segregated from each other, as they always are at English and European football matches in an attempt to avoid violent clashes, which have mostly disappeared in England. The presence of those away fans adds tremendously to the game experience as they trade clever chants and jibes with the home supporters. The far greater distance between clubs in North America deprives Canadian and American hockey fans of that exciting verbal combat and there’s nothing we can do about it, of course. The closest we come at Rogers Place is when the Leafs and the Canadiens make their annual visits and hordes of their fans show up. I remember a game at Rexall Place a few years ago when Habs fans were chanting and mercilessly mocking us as the Oilers fell down 3-0 by the end of the first period. The team fought back and in the final minutes potted the winning goal as we serenaded our crestfallen guests with the “Ole, Ole, Ole Ole” and “Na Na Na Na, – Na Na Na Na, Hey Hey, Goodbye” chants they hurled at us earlier in the game. It was the most fun I had all season.
During the Oilers miracle playoff run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final in 2006 I found myself slapping five with, and even hugging, total strangers as the team pulled upset after upset and the fans enjoyed an exhilarating tribal experience. All we had in common was our team, but I felt like I was part of a huge extended family and that we were all in this together. Even though the team didn’t win the Cup it was the most fun I ever had at hockey games, with the exception of the 1984 Stanley Cup Final when the Oilers won their first cup. My best friend and my two sons went with me to all 11 home playoff games in 2006, a memory we will always treasure. A good 20 minutes before the games began the crowd would be roaring like an erupting volcano, producing a spine-tingling wall of sound. It was like waves of thunder reverberating across Rexall Place, spiking after Oiler goals and sending me to bed each night with my ears ringing and a smile on my face. I loved being in the middle of that joyous and primitive bedlam, which got crazier and crazier as the team improbably drove deeper into the playoffs. Instead of boring us to tears with lame contests and ads during the TV commercial breaks, those in charge showed absolutely hilarious videos on the scoreboard mocking the Calgary Flames playoff failure with footage of them on the golf course etc., plus a handful of testimonials from ex-Oilers and celebrities like Bubbles from Trailer Park Boys. The creativity was amazing and the hockey atmosphere was an 11 on a scale of 10.
I got the opportunity to directly appreciate the very raw live English football experience on a couple of trips to that country in 1983 and it was fascinating and unforgettable. Those were the wild, untamed days where hooligan punch-ups were common inside and outside the grounds but the atmosphere standing on the terraces was absolutely electric. I was staying for a few days with my London buddy, Mick, on my way back from Kenya, where we met. He suggested we go see a Queens Park Rangers (QPR) football match at their London stadium, Loftus Road. Mick was, and is, a totally devoted supporter of QPR and has been since his childhood. At an early age football fans in the UK nearly always bond with a club for life. If you grew up in Liverpool, standing with the rest of your tribe at the Anfield stadium singing You’ll Never Walk Alone, then moved to London, you would NEVER start cheering for Chelsea or Arsenal or Tottenham just because you lived near one of their stadiums or because your new mates weren’t Liverpool supporters. Not if you were a REAL fan. As a hard-core QPR man, Mick bought tickets for us in the terraces, where the loudest, rowdiest, most fanatical, mostly young working class supporters gathered.
The terraces are a series of concrete steps located directly behind the goals where fans stand to watch the match. The tickets were less expensive than the seated areas and the view of the football pitch wasn’t ideal but the atmosphere was simply incredible. Or should I say that’s the way it used to be, because the terraces have now disappeared from the highest levels of English football based on safety concerns. Some rowdy fans now sit in the cheaper seats and carry on, but few can afford the tickets, which have become absurdly expensive. Those ticket prices, and a massive reduction in hooliganism, have radically changed the crowd demographics, so that far more upper and middle-class families attend, which is good. What’s missing are most of the working-class youths whose ear-splitting, witty and often rude chants traditionally provided most of the energy that made attending football matches so much fun. In fact many of those clubs are trying to find ways to make attendance affordable for the younger fans, as the quality of the game atmosphere is waning. Ironically, they also want more of their opponent’s fans coming to enhance the experience.
During the first match I went to, a player on the opposing side, Oldham Athletic, lost his balance while sprinting towards the sideline after the ball and crashed face first into the advertising sideboards, knocking himself silly. As he lay there, semi-conscious and receiving medical treatment, a thunderous chant swept across the Loftus Road stadium – “Let him die, Let him die, Let him die.”
Okay, I admit it. I laughed. I realized I was a very long way from Canada but loved the absolute audacity of the QPR fans, although I soon realized the accident would have likely gotten the same outrageous reaction in any English football stadium. As the match remained scoreless the QPR and Oldham supporters loudly traded a string of traditional and witty chants and taunts until QPR scored late into the goal Mick and I were standing directly behind for a 1-0 victory, engendering mad celebrations. “One-nil, One-nil,” roared the QPR fans over-and-over again. They then serenaded their quieted guests with a deafening chorus of “You’re not singing. You’re not singing any more.” It was magical. I fondly remember thinking that there was no place I would rather be at that moment. I was hooked. These people must be my distant cousins.
I have attended many North American hockey, baseball, basketball and football games, but rarely experienced anything that was this much fun – and this was just an ordinary match between two second-tier clubs. The QPR fans didn’t really want the opposing player to die, of course, or be seriously injured. He was on his feet in a few minutes and walked off unaided. It was just their wildly politically incorrect way of displaying their provocative tribal passions. It was not a uniquely QPR chant either, though I didn’t know that at the time. Compare it to the Canadian tradition of politely clapping for players on the opposing hockey team who are down on the ice. We are such sweeties. Most Canadian fans don’t go beyond the perfectly reasonable and traditional “Ref you suck. Ref you suck.” Fans of a few teams, like the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators have begun creating some chants, but they are pretty lame, especially without opposing supporters in the stands to chant back.
One thing that stands out for me was the English fans’ invention of new chants, some of them very salty, quickly adopted by the crowd to comment on recent events involving an opposing player, or to salute one on their team they admired. For example, when stories appeared reporting that Manchester United’s then young star, Wayne Rooney, had sex with a prostitute who was a grandmother, every time he stepped on the pitch he faced the same very crude and very loud mocking chants to the tune of Guantanamera.
“Fat Granny Shagger! You’re just a Fat Granny Shagger. Fat Granny Shagggger. You’re just a Fat Granny Shaaaa-ger.”
When Marouane Fellaini played for Everton, the fans regularly sang a tribute to their ace Belgian midfielder to the tune of Frankie Valli and the Four Season’s song Can’t Take my Eyes off of You.
“Marouane Fellaini, you are the love of my life/Marouane Fellaini you can shag my wife/Marouane Fellaini, I want/love/got curly hair too.”
Hilarious. Much as I love the singing and chanting I have to admit that some of it crosses a line well past bad taste into simply disgusting and indefensible racism. For example, Arsenal’s former Togolese striker, Emmanuel Adebayor (pronounced Atta-buy-or), had to endure “Adebayor, Adebayyyyor, your dad washes elephants, your mom’s a whore.” Obviously, there is no defending that, although it is far, far worse on the continent, where Spanish, Italian and other fans often toss bananas at black players and make monkey noises when those players touch the ball. Disgusting and revolting are the first words that come to mind.
Six months later, after completing a cycling journey through England, Ireland and Wales I arrived back in London and Mick and I went to see two more QPR matches at Loftus Road very early in the season. They had been promoted to the top division and beat Aston Villa in the first game and drew with Watford in the second one. I was now a QPR supporter and bought a team sweatshirt and scarf, which I still have, and joined in on some of the chanting and singing, which was fabulous fun – for the most part. Watford’s chairman at the time was the famed singer, Elton John, a life-long Watford supporter. From our perch in the terraces we could see Elton standing in the press box that day. Suddenly the QPR supporters launched into a raunchy rendition of his current hit, I’m Still Standing, cleverly if cruelly altering the words to mock his, at the time, controversial sex life. Everyone in the terraces but me knew the words and belted them out loudly and cheerfully. I wonder how Elton felt about that? I am sure he heard it at every football match he attended. That was one step beyond for me.
By contrast, also in 1983, I attended one day of an international cricket test match between England and New Zealand at Lord’s, a kind of sacred church of English cricket in London, which was as supremely civilized as the football matches were loud and rowdy. Fortunately, I had my Aussie friend Roy, whom I also met in Kenya, along to translate the game and its arcane customs for me. I’m still not sure I know precisely what ‘silly mid off” means, however. Most memorable were the breaks for lunch and tea, in which players could have a nice cuppa, dispensed from great silver tea sets, before resuming the match. Cricket is mostly a gentleman’s game, as football was formerly a working class one. I’ll take football. I enjoyed the cricket experience but I know I have the soul of a reasonably rowdy working-class footie fan, and a hardcore hockey one. I fit in really well with the lads in the terraces even if I did find some of their behaviour over the top, and in some cases, just plain vulgar. Ideally, I’d like to experience some combination of Canadian hockey passion and edgy English tribal wit that would enable the fans on both sides to participate and be creatively naughty. That would produce the best possible atmosphere and fan experience.
Feature image of English football fans: Getty Images