Raymond Seitz, former Ambassador to the Court of St James, wrote an enjoyable book called Over Here wherein he highlighted the subtle but pervasive differences between the English and Americans, even as the countries share the same language, TV shows, music, movies and upscale sushi restaurants. One of Seitz's insights (inseitz?) was that the British like to perform in their everyday lives -- as in "All the world's a stage". He cited (seited?) interactions of neighbors and party-goers, but passed up an obvious example in the behavior of fans at English football matches. In contrast to America, where fans are definitively an audience insistent on being entertained by Jumbotrons and cheerleaders, in England the fans are players in the production. News accounts of the matches always mention the atmosphere, meaning the contributions of the fans to the event. At a match last week between Chelsea, champions of Europe, and Manchester City, champions of England, the football was dull as doorknobs, but the event was anything but, thanks to the supporters.
This match, at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea's home ground, marked the debut of Chelsea's new manager, Rafael Benitez. His predecessor Roberto di Matteo, had played for Chelsea as a midfielder in the '90s and in May had managed the team to the most important trophy in club football, their first ever European Champions League title. Meanwhile, Benitez had managed Liverpool in the '00s when they and Chelsea met five years in a row in the Champions League. Worse, at the time he famously remarked that Chelsea fans needed 'plastic flags' to generate enthusiasm.
This is the English football equivalent of Obama accusing Romney of bigamy. There are some lines you don't cross, even when it comes to the enemy. In England a visiting player (typically one who has played in the past for the home team) can be carded for inciting 'unrest' among the fans if he so much as points to the team crest on his uniform. Meanwhile back in America Rex Ryan gave the finger to Dolphins fans at a UFC event and lost nary a tooth let alone a limb.
Because of his past, Benitez was greeted warily by the home fans before the match. Then again, 'warily' would be a word to describe what American fans would do in a similar situation -- perhaps some light booing at the start, soon supplanted by cell-phone studying, the securing of nachos for the kids, and asking the people in front, who are doing the Dougie
for the 'dance cam', to sit down. In America fans couldn't even be bothered to boo Bobby Valentine on his home debut.
At the Bridge it played out a little differently. I was sitting in the 'family section' -- unintentionally I can assure you since it is the rare 50 square-foot space in the country that beer is not sold. For reasons that remain a mystery, the family section at the Bridge is adjacent to the section that houses the visiting team's supporters. In England a section at every ground is reserved solely for away supporters. In an effort to eliminate the risk of interaction between home and away fans, visiting fans are escorted by security en masse in to the grounds an hour before the match, straight to the away section, and not allowed to leave until half an hour after the match. They spend their entire time in the ground penned in like cattle lest they somehow come in contact with opposing supporters. But should the away fans break free at the Bridge, the first section they'd encounter is the only one containing eight- year olds and dads whose shaved heads are in deference to male pattern baldness as opposed to a fascist bent.
But on this occasion the home and away fans had common cause, distaste for the home manager. When Benitez first emerged from the dressing room, twenty minutes before kickoff, Man City fans sang (to the tune of "Guantanamera") 'You'll be Sacked in the Morning!' Not much of a prediction since Chelsea had been through ten managers since oligarch Roman Abramovich bought the team in 2003. When the P.A announcer made the optimistic move to introduce Benitez just before the kickoff, Chelsea fans sang 'Fuck off Benitez! You aren't Welcome Here' which was equal parts pugnacious, polite and redundant--the triple crown of British linguistics. By English standards it was mild enough that mainstream British papers printed the phrase, no asterisks, in their accounts of the match.
The chants often get rougher. At another league match that weekend, West Ham serenaded Tottenham fans with 'Can We Stab you Every Week?' (sung to the tune of 'Frere Jacques') . This was a sinister play on the cheeky English staple 'Can We Play you Every Week', sung by supporters when their team is beating a favored opponent. The previous week nine traveling Tottenham fans had been stabbed in Rome by local hooligans. If you think that song was distasteful you didn't need to go far to hear much worse.
With fans being a big, unregulated part of the show, you get the good with the bad, sometimes at the same time. Arsenal supporters used to serenade their captain and best player, Patrick Viera, a Frenchman of African hertiage, with this ditty, sung to the tune of "Volare":
Vee-air-a, Oh Oh Oh Oh!
Vee-air-a, Oh Oh Oh Oh!
He comes from Sengal,
his dad's a canniblal,
Vee-air a, Oh Oh Oh Oh!"
Meawhile back at Stamford Bridge in the 16th minute the entire Chelsea support (minus the family section, that was texting the babysitter) rose as one and paid homage to di Matteo (he was number 16 in his playing days at Chelsea). For the rest of the match, as the teams struggled to a 0-0 draw, both sets of fans continued to sing. In England, the play's the thing.