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.

Seeing Red, Seeing Stars, Seeing Bars

I was recently referred to by one of my friends as a “soccer mom” because I didn’t like his little facebook post of “Soccer players pretend they’re hurt, hockey players pretend they’re not.” I can take the kidding from him, let’s face it I drive Marcus to about 3 practices a week despite the fact that there’s several inches of snow and ice on the ground and it only recently managed to get above freezing for most of a day. But I’ll keep my kid in soccer thank you very much if it means not having to worry about concussions. What is permitted in hockey as part of the game is turning the sport into a literally bloody mess. That brings me to today’s tour of violence in the two sports and we’ll see where you want your kid afterward.

hieeeya

hieeeya

Seeing Red: First stop Manchester, for the game between Manchester United and Real Madrid. With United up 1-0, Nani (Man U) went up for a ball with his leg way out in front of him and basically ninja-kicked Arvalo Arbeloa (Real) in the chest. Nani was focused on the ball, but by leading with that leg he was judged by the ref have used “excessive force” to win the ball and so out came the red card. While many have argued the ref’s decision (including everyone in the city of Manchester), the response from Real was telling, they simply subbed Luca Modric in who almost immediately scored and then minutes later Cristiano Ronaldo put in the winner. No need to “even things up” no need to “send a message”, Nani was gone and so was Man U’s game plan. I’m going to back the ref on this one – it was excessive, whether he meant to or not is irrelevant, only that he did do it. I think what was so shocking to Sir Alex Ferguson wasn’t that it could happen, but that one of his players could receive a red at home. He was counting on the intimidation of the crowd at Old Trafford to nudge the ref to a yellow rather than the straight red.

Seeing Stars: Our travels take us now to Toronto, for the Leafs – Senators game the following day. 26 seconds into the game Frazer McLaren of the Leafs and Dave Dziurzinski of the Senators dropped gloves and had the good ol’ fashioned punch out. Suddenly, Dziurzinski was down and not just down, but out cold. McLaren needed stitches, but at least remained conscious. The consequences for the deliberate fight that had nothing to do with the play of the game: 5 minute majors for both, and then all was forgiven and McLaren went back on the ice. Oh, and there was another fight later in the first period, probably to “even things up”.

Dziurdzinski after the fight

Dziurzinski after the fight

Compare the two sports now – in one (I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt) a dangerous, but likely unintentional play ends up in a player being ejected for his conduct. In the other, two players deliberately stop the game so as to fight one another, one ends up with a concussion and the other receives only a five minute ban from the game, and this leads to a further fight soon after. The league may review McLaren’s actions, but this is largely accepted and tolerated in the sport.

I’m going to tie this back to my research now with the importance of the crowd to the teams involved. In the soccer example, Sir Alex was furious, not because there was a card, but because the ref wasn’t swayed by the emotion and intensity of the stadium (the affect, for you theory junkies) into giving a yellow, or a warning. In sending off Nani in such an unexpected way the ref did have a huge influence on the game, it rocked the management of Man U, the players and the fans. But I’m not going to say this was a negative effect, since it was the right call for a bad tackle.

On the other hand, in the hockey example the players were trying to create that emotion and intensity for their teams by starting the game with a fight, in this case it seems to have backfired as you can’t really get all riled up when someone is lying unconscious on the ice. And one has to wonder about the mentality of deliberately attempting to injure someone as a way of motivating your fans and teammates. Affect is a two-way street, rile up the fans and they’ll rile you up too, that’s the intent of this relationship – get the extra boost from the home crowd to put you over the top. But it isn’t just something that you turn on or off, it has a life of its own and can react in strange and unpredictable ways. Which brings me to…

Seeing Bars: The consequences of playing with emotions and intensity can sometimes spin off in ways that you never mean it to. Last week former youth hockey coach Martin Tremblay was sentenced to 15 days in jail for tripping a 13 year old player during the post game handshakes. I don’t think that there is any excuse for what he did, but I wonder if a sport that so strongly encourages its “toughness” aspects does not set itself up for exactly this sort of situation? It is Sarah Palin’s pitbulls with lipstick image come true.

Tremblay trips a 13 year old

Tremblay trips a 13 year old

My argument isn’t perfect, there’s a lot that goes on in a soccer crowd in some places that makes hockey fans positively tame, but the example that is set in the game itself is critical for setting the mood of the crowd around the game. How will fighting in hockey stop? When people stop watching because of the fighting. I gave up. We’ll watch the Olympics next year because there won’t be fights. The hockey will be good, but without idiocy, because as international hockey has shown, you can play without the fights.

Playin’ English

Interesting article the other day in the paper about Michael Owen admitting that he’d fallen to get penalties.

What I found so interesting is not how his international career is over (whether he admits it or not), but that at the end of the article he discusses the unfortunate influence of foreign football players on the English game, especially with regards to diving. This is almost exactly the same thing said by Alex Ferguson less than a month ago. Interesting that in less than a month, and just before an international break that two prominent Brits (Sir Alex is a Scot) would discuss the bad influence these diving foreign players are having on the English game.

Xenophobia and soccer are good ol’ friends. Players and fans in England howled when they removed the limits on foreign-born players, and it was big news when Arsenal fielded a team of entirely non-British players a decade ago. In Italy, a team fired a South Korean player for scoring on them in the 2002 World Cup, and eight years later considered kicking foreign players out of the Serie A to let more Italians play. Spain naively declared they had no racism problems, and then this week the whole sad saga of John Terry and Anton Ferdinand hopefully, finally came to an end. As much as the players and managers play lip service to the Kick It Out message against racism for the fans, they have not kicked it out themselves.

The idea that the English don’t dive is hilarious – surely Sir Alex has had a glance at Ashley Young’s passport on one of their trips? Of course he may have just picked it up from Nani. And that Michael Owen would say that it’s just become a problem in the last 10 years or so is staggering. He’s been injured for something like the last 10 years! So maybe he’s the actual root of the diving epidemic sweeping Britain.

The whole idea that the Brits play a more honorable version of the game is something that I’ve been thinking about recently. In the history of the sport – back in the beginning, the Victorian ideals of sportsmanship and amateur athleticism dominated the English game, some clubs insisted on amateur status as it was unseemly to accept (up front) payment for the game. The English game was seen by the English as a game of toughness and virtue for the players. But then a funny thing happened, other countries found other ways to play and they beat the Brits at their own game. The South American game became about artistry and flair, the Italian about suffocating defense, the Dutch about Total Football, etc. Everywhere the game went it took on slightly different character and tactics, the English tough long ball fell out of favour.

England has it tough, as the inventors of the game they see it as their right to be a good team (totally understandable living in a hockey obsessed nation), but they are just one of many nation in the sport now.  And while their league is the most prestigious on the planet, it is so precisely because it has so many foreign players in it. Do players dive – of course they do, is it something that was brought here by those insidious foreigners – sorry, not gonna buy that one Sir A.

But then there is Suarez.

Without You I’m Nothing

I’m in the midst of writing midterm papers and marking assignments, which is going to put a serious crimp in blogging time. Right now I need to get a quick note down that may work into yet another idea for me.

My seminar today was talking about the meaning of place and the the ideas of different geographers and philosophers. I was thinking while we were discussing Bachelard that his idea of place meant created an interior and exterior, in order to understand home and place, you had to be able to differentiate it from something outside. So what if I were to extend this to my subject.

I was thinking about supporters groups and the intense rivalries they create with select other groups. At their base they are all football supporters (thinking English case here, so its football). They differentiate themselves by which team they support and how much they support them. Having created an identity for themselves they are now free to have a rivalry with another team’s supporters. They’ll contest space and identity with these others who often come from the same town as them and in another context could be friends. These manufactured rivalries depend on the ‘other’. Without someone to fight what is the point of the supporter’s identity existing? So these two supporters groups have created a situation mutually sustained hostility. They effectively need each other to survive, as threatening and awful they are to each other, deep down they need that other to validate their own behaviour. Kind of twisted.

Each imagined or real slight informs the long dance that the two group play out with each other. I’m thinking about the Liverpool – Man U match a couple of weeks ago after the release of the Hillsborough papers. The Man U supporters mock the Liverpudlians with songs about murderers (1985 Heysel and 1989 Hillsborough) while the Liverpool fans act out airplane wings for the Mancunians (1958 Munich Air disaster). The memories are collective and help to sustain the animosity between groups.

Is there some grudging respect or acknowledgement of what they mean to each other? Could be fun to find out.

Saturday Schadenfreude

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Saturday morning had me and Marcus in front of the TV at 7:30 to watch the Arsenal – Chelsea match. It was a chance for me to see if Arsenal were going to compete this year or not. After two poorly defended set piece goals, no I don’t have high hopes for them this season, but at least the open play during the rest of the game was okay. I wasn’t surprised, having recently shown my colours by putting up an Arsenal poster in my office at York. Fate you can be cruel at times. I love the above Studs Up cartoon because it so perfectly encapsulates sport: picking a winner is too easy, true joy and ecstasy come from having to suffer through countless losses so that you team can finally get to the top – only to muck it up at the last possible moment (Jens Lehmann’s red card in the Champions League 2006 final springs to mind).

Not many things could have cheered me up after that loss, but then the late game happened. I didn’t even get to see it – Marcus had another soccer tryout, but just to know from my phone that Man U had lost to Tottenham gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling inside. Being a fan is all about suffering: either your own, or your enjoyment of someone else’s.