You and Whose Army?

When is a racist chant not racist chant? That all depends, according to the British Prime Minister David Cameron.

The English FA recently informed Tottenham Hotspur fans and the club to drop references to themselves as Yids in their chants, to the point of threatening banning orders or criminal charges. The team is located in what was once a very Jewish neighbourhood of London, and in other times was branded by derisive anti-Semitic names by opposing fans – this includes hissing at the Tottenham fans to mimic the sound of gas chambers during the Holocaust. Times change and although one would hardly describe the White Hart Lane neighbourhood as Jewish now, the identity has stuck with the club. Fans calling themselves the ‘Yid Army’ and singing songs of their link to that Jewish past are seen by some fans has having reclaimed those derogatory terms and given them a more positive association.

Hotspurs fans hoist their flag

Hotspurs fans hoist their flag

Yet it is this same history and identification with their Jewish history that played a role in the recent troubles some of their fans found themselves in last year while visiting Rome to play SS Lazio, a club associated with fascist ultras and a history of being supported by Mussolini. With the very clear presence of anti-Semitism still around, is it possible to reclaim a term like Yid, even as a sort of historical reference to the clubs old roots?

No. As in the above example, the possibility of real anti-Semitism just makes it problematic for fans to continue to refer to themselves as Yids, especially when one Spurs fan estimates that only about 5% of the current fanbase is Jewish. The word hasn’t been reclaimed, it has been appropriated. Non-Jewish Spurs fans can revel in the idea of being the oppressed minority for the duration of the match and leave the term behind as soon as they remove their scarf or jersey. Actual Jews whether they support Spurs or not do not have that luxury. It may not be intended as hate speech, but it certainly is not free of that racist context – even when used in jest.

In steps the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who in the past has blessed the electorate with his opinion of Luis Suarez’s suspension for biting another player. Cameron wanting to appear to stand up for the little guy, says that fans using the term should not be prosecuted. How very generous of him. It’s okay to use a derogatory term about a minority religious group with a history of being persecuted because, “it isn’t motivated by hate.” I can’t wait to see a Spurs supporter dragged before the court and use the Prime Minister as his defense witness.

Of course the response to all this from some Spurs fans was to chant “We’ll sing what we want” during their recent game, although the club has opted for a middle road of surveying its fans and hoping they will voluntarily drop the chant of their own accord.

This is very different from the YSA chant that MLS has tried to stamp out. “You Suck Asshole!” while offensive in a potty mouth sense, does not target anyone other than the opposition keeper, nor can you really make this out to hate speech. Maybe the MLS is afraid that YSA is a gateway chant that will lead to harsher chants in the future?

The Yid Army is also clearly different than many of the North American sports franchises that continue to cling to racist mascots endorsed and marketed by the club. Any Jewish associations Tottenham have had have always been informal and adopted by the fans. In North America the endorsed minority of choice would be Native Americans with the Washington Redskins being the most egregious example, but let’s not forget the Atlanta Braves with their tomahawk chop choreography and the Cleveland Indians and their caricature logo. I’ll throw in the Chicago Blackhawks and Kansas City Chiefs as still problematic in their use and depiction of Native Americans as well. All of these are offensive on one level or another, yet completely acceptable to their sports organizations and many in their fanbase. However, I don’t see any of those franchises making any moves to change their identity anytime soon, they’ll cite the history associated with the name just as much as Cameron excuses the use of anti-Semitic terms as part of Tottenham’s heritage.

The Singing Section

As a non-Manchester United fan I can’t help but laugh at the news that they are going to trial a ‘singing section’ at their Champion’s League match vs Real Sociedad next month. Manchester United, the club with 659 million* fans seems to be having difficulty getting its stands at Old Trafford to make enough noise.

Old Trafford on a noisy day

Old Trafford on a noisy day

What a come down for current Manchester United manager David Moyes. I had the chance to watch his final game as Everton’s manager at Goodison Park and they sang for him throughout the game, the sound from the Gwladys Street stand was deafening, and all he had to do was give a slight wave in acknowledgement of the singing and the stand went nuts, louder than before. Goodison Park’s capacity is just over 40,000, but the old fashioned stands cram them in so tight it feels like you’re right next to the pitch and everyone is in a bit of a fishbowl. Old Trafford, now rebuilt to 75,000 seems to struggle to develop as much noise with nearly twice the capacity. Both stadia were originally designed by Archibald Leitch, the godfather of football grounds in England, although expansions and modifications over the years have changed what he designed a century ago. In the case of Old Trafford, the expanded capacity and the need for sightlines for those extra fans has probably diminished the closeness that the smaller, older version of Old Trafford provided, and altered the acoustics by opening up the stadium somewhat. There are similar concerns about the new Wembley, as the shallow bowl of seating allows for better viewing, but apparently at the cost of the noise that can be generated by the fans. This perhaps demonstrates why Man U felt is was necessary to hire a acoustic engineer last season to assist with the atmosphere.

Manchester United’s inability to generate noise at Old Trafford has become a bit of a joke among its opposition teams, and one that neither they, nor I, would put down exclusively to the architectural configuration of the stadium. The creation of the singing section would seem to show that what really is concerning the club is the ability to get a mass of fans together that can even make the required noise. Remember there are two (big) clubs in Manchester – United and City. City doesn’t seem to be having these problems because they draw the majority of their support from the local community, ones who are ready to sing their hearts out for the club.

United has become the tourist team, drawing fans from all over the world coming just to see a game at Old Trafford. This again touches on the debate of what a true fan is. Is it someone who lives and breathes the team because they are the local heroes? Or someone who is willing to follow from across the globe, and just prays for that chance to one day get to a game? United’s dominance of English football for the last 20 years, and the bandwagon effect of that success is probably part of the reason behind that rather bloated number of 659 million fans. Some of them are reds through and through, others are reds because…, hey they do win a lot of games! But bandwagon fans are not necessarily the most attached fans, nor are they the most informed and passionate fans should they ever get to a game at Old Trafford.

In Liverpool, the Kop is seen as a refuge for the local fans, you have to be ready to sing and you’d better be ready to cheer on Liverpool if you’re going to sit there. As I sat in the Kop, I heard some man yelling behind me, “If you’re not singing, go sit in the Main Stand!” And I know exactly what he meant, having sat in the Main Stand at the previous game, that Main Stand is filled with tourists there to watch Liverpool because it’s Liverpool. They may know “You’ll Never Walk Alone” but many won’t be singing it, because they are too busy taking a video of it to prove they were there. As for the rest of the songs, they may not even know them, and instead watch the Kop perform its repertoire. United has the same problems, but on a bigger 75,000 seat scale.

So to solve this problem, the ‘singing section’ idea has come about. A section dedicated to people who will loudly sing and cheer for United. It’s being first offered to season ticket holders, then general United members to try to get the most passionate supporters involved. Interestingly, they are being located in the South East corner of the stands – this is where the visitors’ fans usually sit. Have they accidentally been seating the opposing fans in an acoustic sweet spot? And what to do with the Real Sociedad fans that now have to sit elsewhere? The original plan was to stick them up in the third tier of the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand – sounds like a nosebleed section to me. Thankfully the police vetoed this plan (not a fan of sticking away fans that far away from the game), and United instead has configured an away section in the East Stand.

So one part of the East side will be dedicated to singing United supporters, and another section of the East end will be filled with noisy Spaniards. That’s going to make for an interesting dynamic, rather than the usual division between two ends, both the loudest groups of supporters will be located within singing distance from each other.

* 659 million fans based on a study last year, including 110 million fans in China alone.

Columbus Discovers Soccer

Pregame hype

Dempsey vs Chicharito

With a 2-0 win tonight the USMNT has all but qualified for Brazil 2014. CONCACAF is always dominated by the big two USA and Mexico teams, leaving the rest of us sorry North/Central American and Caribbean countries to fight over the scrap spot and a playoff against New Zealand. So the prospect of Mexico stumbling out at this point – and they may – is rather shocking for any place that conveniently finds itself covered by the Monroe Doctrine.

That’s not really what interested me about the game though. I was watching (and listening) to see how the Columbus, Ohio fans reacted to their new cheerleaders. Not a Dallas Cowgirls sort of cheerleading, but the Capos that were sent on the USMNT dime from Seattle to Columbus to help get the fans going. So you get the privilege of hosting a national team game, but are then told basically that another city’s fans are better than yours. Whether you agree with the fan evaluation or not is beside the point, it was done in such a way that came off a bit insulting to Columbus fans. I don’t think it got to the point where those fans would then stop supporting their team, but I’m guessing that the American Outlaw (US supporter group) membership in the Ohio region just dropped significantly. As one tweet I saw during the game said, “this is our house. being sung at Mexico or the Seattle Capos?”

Aside from the slight to the Columbus fans, one thing really bothered me about the Seattle Capo’s plans, a moment of silence for 9/11 in the middle of the game.¬†Yes, I know it’s September 11 and there was a horrible event on this day 12 years ago, but it is difficult to stop a crowd from making noise for 71 sustained seconds during a match (from 9:00 to 10:11, the American Outlaws wanted a moment of silence). That Mexico was putting on a lot of pressure at that point and had a free kick during that span ended up ruining the effect by ineffectively taking the crowd out of the match. Silent crowds can be incredibly intimidating – usually against the home team, but the moment of silence is best left for pre-game ceremonies, not for the middle of the match where the action can ruin what would otherwise be a solemn remembrance. What would have happened if either side scored during that time? An effective use of the silent crowd was last December when German fans around the Bundesliga were silent for 12 minutes (!) to protest changing fan policies and ticket prices, but that’s German fans for you, they get all kinds of respect for their fan community. Something Columbus fans can only dream of at this point.