Sacred Spaces

Phil Noble/ ReutersIn thinking about my project I just realized I have completely forgotten one of the spaces in the stadium: the field.

While this space should seem pretty obvious to consider when framing my project, I can see how it got overlooked. This is a space that is generally excluded from direct fan activities. It becomes all the more obvious how forbidden this space is when someone steps over the line and violates the sacredness of the field. The Manchester derby of yesterday provides some highlights of the behaviour that crosses the line when someone steps over the painted lines.

In the build-up to Sunday’s derby, this became a much hyped battle of two giants. Both Manchester teams were at the top of the EPL and both were looking to establish themselves as the premier Manchester side. Much was talked about how the city was divided between red and blue and the talk of money teams and history, all in hopes of a great match. In truth, the match seemed to live up to much of its hype, with a lead, a dramatic comeback and a last gasp winner. Had that been the end, that is all that would be talked about today, but it was the fans reaction following the winner (and some of this went on before that too, but without the same result) that changed the story of the day.

Following Robin Van Persie’s 90th minute winner, and during their goal celebration, some City fans let loose their displeasure at the goal; a smoke bomb went off on the field, and coins were thrown at the United players. One coin hit United defender Rio Ferdinand just above the eye (lucky for him it wasn’t a bit lower), opening a cut. As he retrieved the coin off the field another fan jumped the barriers and rushed onto the pitch, only to be stopped by the City keeper, Joe Hart. In total, 13 fans were arrested at the game by Greater Manchester Police, one for aggravated racial abuse, and two for violating bans on attending games. Police are continuing to investigate  and said they may make more arrests. What could have been one of the most memorable games in Manchester history is now marred by a few of the fans.

It was this, and in part a few of the other recent fan incidents that got me thinking about the sacredness of the field as a space. Unlike the rest of the stadium, where fans are allowed and encouraged to interact with the space, the field itself is removed from the fans’ territory, which makes the exceptions all the more noticeable. In the case yesterday, the pitch invasion of a City fan to try to confront Ferdinand was stopped by Ferdinand’s erstwhile opponent Hart (okay they used to be teammates on England), but here is a instance that when the fan transgressed the rules of fan conduct, the players instantly joined in a rejection of the fan’s behaviour. So here is a case where fans are excluded from the territory of a space, not just by the authorities written code, but by a unwritten code of fan behaviour.

This is in stark contrast to the invasion of the fans at the same stadium last May. At that time, City won the EPL on a goal scored on the final kick of the game. It was considered the most dramatic finish to the English top flight since Arsenal’s last day victory in 1989. At the final whistle fans streamed onto the field to celebrate with the team. It was considered an acceptable moment of transgression. But again the sacredness of the space was evident through some of the acts of the fans on the pitch, as some of them began to dig up pieces of turf to memorialize the moment of victory by their team. Order was eventually restored so that the trophy could be presented to the team and again the fans could celebrate their team’s victory.

As a result of the game yesterday, there have been calls for netting to be put in place at games, this is a rather ominous turn for English football, should the nets be put in place. It was the removal of fences that was the first of the changes following the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. While there have been a few high profile incidents of pitch invaders this season, they stand out all the more for their being uncharacteristic of fan behaviour. The most unfortunate example of the season was the assault of Sheffield Wednesday’s Keeper, Chris Kirkland by a Leeds United fan back in October. England fans should consider themselves lucky right now as the fields remain free of netting. Many of the stadia around the world have fencing in an attempt to keep the fans, and their missiles off the pitch.

I wonder if the use of fences and nets helps with the security of the stadium. Or does the use of fencing and netting encourage violent behaviour by the fans as they are now reacting to the impression that they need the physical separation? In any case, nets and fences are not missile proof. Nor are they a complete solution to persistent fan attacks.

Back to the question of sacred spaces, the stadium is often considered the modern-day cathedral, and much like the cathedrals of old, there are sacred spaces beyond the reach of the common fan. Even for the players, the play of the game is inscribed with the use of the field space and the boundaries of that space. It has much in common with theatre and the proscenium arch and stage that separate actors from audience. It is the exceptions to the rules that draw so much attention, as they clearly do not fit with the tolerated rules of society.


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