The first english football match I ever attended was last season at Stamford Bridge when the Addicks traveled west to take on Chelsea. Ignorant of the nuances of the sport when compared to U.S. spectator sports, I was excited to pick up four tickets for the match from Chelsea's web-site and more than a little stunned to read the conditions on the piece of paper when the tickets were issued. Ejection for supporting the visitors? Well, no problem, I picked up a three lions shirt, the other three people going with me were neutrals, and this was my first match, so we should easily have been able to passively take in the spectacle.
I was even more surprised when arriving at the stadium. I've traveled all over the United States going to sport events and, because I no longer live in Chicago, I tend to be cheering for the visiting team. But not one of these little sojourns could have prepared me for a modern english football stadium. The whole set-up is menacing. Giant metal/iron turnstiles, little freedom to move around the stadium, and security at every turn. And then we are at our seats. And we are surrounded by supporters that, like me, appear to be tourists, out to get a taste, however removed, of english football. No chanting, no singing, just taking in the game. And when Carson saves a penalty, the only sound from my section was my cheer, quickly stifled. And then the game is over. We linger inside momentarily before we are authoritatively ushered out of Stamford Bridge and out into Chelsea. And I am thinking, this is it? This is the english game that instills such passion and enraptures the world?
The next Saturday, we take our first trip to the Valley, freshly back from Bergerac, on our way to Keflavik. This time, the heavy metal-iron turnstiles are more familiar and there is greater berth to wander the grounds. We sit next to the West Stand and there is considerably more energy than the previous week. Nevertheless, Pompey beats up on a listless Addicks squad and we've managed to travel a great distance to witness our side get pummeled on successive Saturdays. On the way out of the Valley, heading towards the Thames, a little bit of a window opens: a Portsmouth supporter, equipped with black, shin-high, steel-toed boots, heavy piercings, and tatoos over the length of his body, finds joy in menacing a twelve-year old boy who has briefly wandered from his father's side. The curtain rolls back slightly further: a little further on, a group of Portsmouth lads sit in an open, empty lot cursing the red clad families that walk by, launches the occassional projectile, and rejoices in the cowardice of the home side's supporters who are unwilling to invest the time or energy in dislodging them from their roost. They have taken Charlton ground. Good on them.
At home, I read the hue and cry for a return to terraces and enjoy the bastardized version of them created at RFK by Barra Brava and the Screaming Eagles. These fans keep the games vibrant and energize the team. But time passes on and this season my enthusiasm for the mini-terrace created by these fans is diluted in the antipathy reflected by the casual toss of smoke bombs into sections crowded with revelers simply trying to take in a game.
It is, I believe, impossible for an American to understand what took place in the European game twenty years ago. The inane wistfulness for those days on this side of the pond is devoid of any understanding of the chaos that reigned with absurd regularity at football matches throughout the region. We have no context for any of this. As a child, my brother used to regale me with stories of the disco demolition at Comiskey, he'd bring golf balls and batteries to games to wing on to the field. He was a Tigers fan and, in Chicago, his sympathies lay with the Sox. And that is just how Sox fans behave, or at least some do. And, admittedly, Lincoln Financial has a jail built into the grounds. But there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in this country that even comes close to approximating what Bill Buford describes in the remarkable "Among the Thugs." And it is Buford's account of what took place at Hillsborough that brings sharp focus to the layout of the modern english football stadium, to the easily understandable trade-off made to achieve the security and peace offered by all-seaters versus the chaos of the terraces.
I no longer have any sympathy for the pleas for the return to terraces and I no longer have any interest in being in close vicinity to those that would try and transplant the culture to DC. I am, at base, a now fully-converted, fully-devoted soccer fan. I want to witness Emilio's brilliance, Gomez and Moreno's skill, and Gros and Burch's interminable hustle. That's release enough for me. I don't need the faux violence to feel alive. Punch-ups can be had for the cheap in a bar, where there is only the furniture, the pint, and the odd-tv to distract from pent-up frustration. Soccer is performance art of aesthetic beauty, one that need not be marred by a moron with a 0.10 BAC, a lighter, and a small incendiary device. And if the expansion of the violence can threaten the game in a league as established as Argentina's, then f*ck the romanticism of the crowd. I'll sit behind the benches.