I didn’t get it. I thought I did, but I was wrong. I watched the games on television and on my computer, heard stories from friends, and even knew some of the songs. I even went to a Cup final two summers ago between my hometown team and a Mexican team that went to 12 penalties with fans screaming constantly, but I still had no idea what I was getting into.
Going to an English football (soccer) match is really an experience unlike any other. I was lucky enough to spend my final spring break of college going to two of them. Even better yet was that the matches were staged at the home ground for the club I support, Arsenal.
As a little background, I had always been interested in soccer, playing it for years at home and following World Cups casually when they occurred. One of my fondest sports memories as a kid was watching the controversial United States-Germany World Cup match on a large TV in Heathrow in 2002 with my attention fixed on the entire airport totally engrossed in following grown men kick a ball on grass. It was three years ago, however, that a former sports editor introduced me to the club game and since then I have been completely hooked.
My experience in North London was something that I could not have predicted, no matter how much I was told or knew prior to going. The area directly surrounding Emirates Stadium was an Arsenal paradise, with everyone in the vicinity wearing red and white, drinking pints of beer, and singing—loudly. In addition, the fans were from all around the world, a signal that soccer truly is the world’s game and that Americans are the ones who are on the outside. Go to an NFL game and find me a thousand international fans. I doubt you would be able to do so.
What also makes soccer different than other sports is that the fans are not only better versed in the players and teams, but that every team has unique chants, sung to more well-known tunes. Sitting inside the stadium on a Saturday afternoon, hearing a chorus of 60,000 sing, “Who’s that team they call the Arsenal?” makes fans singing in unison at large-venue concerts look like child’s play, let alone the tame chants every American team reuses universally.
Soccer is nothing short of a religion for some, and each team represents a different sect. Opposing fans typically receive a few thousand seats for away games, but they are cornered off in their own section of the ground, away from the home supporters and surrounded by police. As an extreme example, Arsenal fans that travel a few miles north to Tottenham Hotspur for the North London derby are required to stay in the stadium two and a half hours after the match ends for fear of physical retribution from the home supporters. Even for normal Premiership games, home fans have no problem attacking the opposing supporters directly through song—and as I would come to realize a few days later, the 2,000 opposing supporters can make a lot of noise too if they have a lead.
This sense of mass camaraderie still astounds me nearly two weeks after my first match, and I trace my astonishment to the singing of the fans. Nearly every home player has a song created by the fans attributed to them—some positive, some negative—and it is here where I think American fans have fallen short of their duty as supporters. I think that this is especially true at Columbia, as the college game is specifically suited to these kinds of songs.
Columbia has its alma mater and a fight song or two, but many fans don’t know all the words and the impact of the songs fall dreadfully short of their intention. We’re a rather intellectual lot and I see no reason why we can’t take the time to create catchy lyrics to popular songs that sing the praises of our more prominent players. Think what Levien could sound like with even a few hundred students belting out homemade songs for the full two hours of games. The effect would be tons of confidence for our players and a systematic drowning out of the opposition, creating a truly lethal home atmosphere.
Whether or not you like the sport, it is nearly impossible to say that soccer fans don’t get the atmosphere of matches exactly right. What’s to stop us from adopting the system that creates that environment here?
Jonathan August is a Columbia College senior majoring in economics-philosophy. firstname.lastname@example.org