Home > Uncategorized > Label me a football fan

Label me a football fan

“Try to look inconspicuous, and be prepared to be stopped, searched, and maybe questioned by police. And do not wear red.”

These were no orders received before heading to Iraq or a certain section of L.A. Instead, that’s what my friend Jan (the J pronounced as a Y) told me the night before we were to attend the Brussels-based Anderlecht football club’s clash with Athletic Bilbao.

The teams were meeting in the second of their two-game series in the Europa League, a nearly yearlong tournament that takes top finishers from every nation’s league, puts them in a bracket, and lets them fight it out for a championship. The winner in this particular match would earn a spot in the final 16, pared down from a field that began with dozens and dozens of clubs.

To Americanize this, imagine if there were 20-plus other leagues comparable to the NFL. After the Super Bowl, the top teams from the NFL this past year — New Orleans, Indianapolis, Minnesota, Dallas, etc. — would then earn bids to play for a worldwide title against the winners of the NFLs in, say, England, Spain, Italy and so on.

The team I came to watch, Anderlecht, qualified out of the Belgian league; Bilbao emerged out of Spain’s league. The two sides (what Europeans call teams) have no history to speak of; no rivalry whatsoever. But you wouldn’t know it. You would think this was Yankees-Red Sox or Cowboys-Eagles. There was a nearly visible intensity in the air on gameday.

There is your essential background. Now let me take you through the night.

4:30 PM: I walk from our apartment to the metro station, dressed according to my friend’s pleas (jeans, black t-shirt and gray pullover). Fortunately, winter has begun its retreat and the first traces of spring are surfacing in Belgium. This happens to be one of the first days in 3-4 months where I could spend any time outdoors without a coat and gloves.

5:22 PM: After about a 45-minute ride on the metro, I arrive at the stop closest to the stadium. By this time, the metro car had been filled with purple-clad fans — the color of Anderlecht. We all disembark the metro; waiting outside are 4-5 policemen, stationed outside of every exit of the metro car. There must be 70 cops scanning the crowd.

If you recall, I had been to the stadium before, but I got lost walking to the stadium that night. I had arrived about 10 minutes after game time, so by then, everyone attending the game had already arrived at the stadium. No worries about getting lost this time around; I simply followed the legion of fans make the short walk from the station to the stadium.

5:27 PM: The European version of tailgating is in full swing when I arrive at the stadium. Street food vendors dish out burgers, fries, hot dogs and — for the gourmands attending the game — escargot. Techno music blares from speakers stationed outside of a bar. The intersecting streets at the corner of the stadium are closed to vehicular traffic, allowing fans to congregate in the streets.

There are at least a dozen bars in this area, all of them spilling fans out into the streets. Nobody seems to care about the light, intermittent rain.

About this time, I get a phone call from Jan telling me he’s running very late. I find out I’m on my own for the next hour. I walk around and observe that everyone around me is wearing some kind of Anderlecht paraphernalia: t-shirts, jerseys, sweaters, hats and, the most common article of clothing of all, scarves.

The need to fit in — I really don’t want to be mistaken for a Bilbao fan — overcomes me, so I hand over €15 to buy a scarf commemorating this game. It’s half-purple for Anderlecht and half-red for Bilbao.

I put the scarf on and hide the red half inside of my sweatshirt. Once the scarf is on, my mood immediately changes. I no longer feel like an outsider. The placement of the scarf gives me a ceremonious feeling of having entered the Anderlecht circle.

6:01 PM: Jan and I had talked about getting a burger before the game, but since he’s running late and I’m running on empty, I decide it’s burger and fry time (and maybe a beer or so to wash it down), so I grab some grub and find an empty storefront with an awning where I can eat and dodge the rain.

This gives me a great observation point for the tailgating action. There are few children in the crowded streets and perhaps even fewer women. A few zealous fans walk with snare drums hanging slung over their shoulders, ready to lay down a beat. After 30-40 minutes, I see what appears to be a fan of the opposing team, but his outfit doesn’t make much sense. He’s wearing an Anderlecht jersey, an Anderlecht hat, but he’s wearing the flag of Spain as a cape.

6:38 PM: Jan finally has beaten the traffic and arrived at the stadium. He hands over an Anderlect jersey for me to wear for the night — now I’m really in — puts down a burger and rum-and-coke in two minutes flat, gives me my ticket, and we walk into the stadium.

I’m surprised that after waiting in a long line, I simply scan my game ticket and walk into the stadium. No metal detectors, not bag checks from security personnel. For such a highly-charged atmosphere, I expected more.

The stadium itself is no jewel. It is not a shrine to technology, convenience, and aesthetics like the newer stadiums. It’s really just a gigantic slab of pavement, broken up only by the speckles of orange, backless stadium seats. But as the fans file into the stands, and those little orange seats are replaced by purple-adorned fans, the stadium suddenly begins to come alive and exude a charm I hadn’t noticed when it was half-full.

The stadium has transformed into a vast blanket of fans, and I realize that the fans not only don’t need modern stadium amenities, they might not even want them. Give them their favorite football club and a decent view and they’re satisfied.

7:01 PM: The game is underway. Our seats are amazing; we’re in the second deck, but we’re positioned at what would be the 45-yard line on an American football field. Within seconds after kickoff, a large group of fans to our right launch into a song exhorting their team to play its best.

Jan tells me that’s where most of the Belgian hooligan fans sit. I could’ve sworn we were in the hooligan section judging by the guy in the leather jacket with a half-mohawk/half-mullet sitting two seats down from me.

I look to my left and see a block of seats, about 1,000 strong, where the Bilbao fans are sitting. There is not a trace of purple in their midst. No Anderlecht fan accidentally purchased a seat in the wrong section — it is entirely made up of Bilbao fans.

And that is no mistake. This block is always reserved only for fans of the opposing team, in this case Bilbao. I tell Jan that I did see a Bilbao fan out on the streets — he is shocked. “What was he wearing?” Jan wonders.

I tell him about the fan wearing the Spanish flag as a cape and Jan laughs. That was actually an Anderlect fan mocking Bilbao, Jan tells me. Bilbao happens to play in the Basque region of Spain. What’s news to me is that the Basque region has wanted to separate from Spain and form its own nation for decades. Bilbao is famous for only signing players from this region and none from Spain or other countries. This team basks in its Basqueness.

Because of this, Anderlecht fans occasionally would launch into a chorus of “¡Viva España!” throughout the game, taunting the Bilbao fans and reminding them they belong to Spain, even if they don’t want to.

But back to that block of Bilbao fans. Separating them from Anderlecht fans are plexiglass walls, probably 10-feet high. And on the other side of the clear, plastic walls are policemen. Two lines of defense dividing the two opposing fan bases. All the stories I’ve heard about hostile sporting environments in the states seem like child’s play compared to this.

7:05 PM: The game is barely underway when Anderlecht strikes first, a stunningly quick start for the underdogs. The goal comes courtesy of 16-year old phenom Lukaku, a massive teenager with incredible speed and precocious technique who is one of the emerging stars in all of Europe.

Naturally, the Belgian fans launch into a song praising their goal-scorer, singing a “LOU-KA-KOOO! LOU-KA-KOOO!” melody over and over again.

7:28 PM: Anderlecht strikes again! An own goal gives Anderlect a surprising 2-0 lead, pushing the vocal crowd to the point of hysteria. Drums are beating, men are singing. A stadium that seats only 22,000 fans is in danger of sonically-induced implosion. Jan tells me over and over “This shouldn’t be happening!” Anderlecht fans are sensing a win — sensing a berth in the next round of the Europa League.

Despite the love for their team, Anderlecht fans seem to be realists. Though Anderlecht traditionally rules the Belgian pro league, they know they are a small fish in an ocean of whales from pro leagues like Serie A (Italy), the Premier League (England), La Liga (Spain), the Bundesliga (Germany) and so on.

But on this night, Anderlecht is a leviathan. The Belgians outplay Bilbao in every possible way. They win the one-on-ones, the dashes for a loose ball, the aerial leaps for headers. Anderlecht plays inspired, creative football all night long. Watching Anderlecht play on this night would convert any non-soccer fan.

All the while, Anderlecht’s faithful cheers them at every chance. There is a chemistry between the Anderlecht players and their fans that you rarely see in sports. I can’t figure out if the players are the conductor and the crowd is the orchestra — or if it’s the other way around. Do the fans’ songs and chants direct the players, or are the fans responding to the artistry of the players? Either way, the two are linked and make each other stronger than either side would be on its own.

8:56 PM: Game over: Anderlecht 4, Bilbao 0. The score indicates how one-sided the match was. Afterwards, Bilbao’s players and coaches will say they failed to match Anderlecht’s intensity. Even had they done so, I don’t imagine the result would’ve been much better.

Shortly before the game had ended, an announcement  — in Spanish — from the stadium PA informed Bilbao fans they could not leave the stadium until all the Anderlecht fans had emptied out. Plexiglass walls, policemen surrounding their seats, and now an escort out of the stadium: If Bilbao fans got into a dustup with Anderlecht fans, they simply were looking for trouble. The authorities certainly did everything possible to ensure a peaceful atmosphere.

The Anderlecht players — after shaking hands with the Bilbao players — form a line and walk over to the hooligan section of the home crowd. The players motion kisses and half-bows to the crowd, expressing their gratitude for the support.

Then, as if it had been rehearsed, the players thrust their hands up in the air and back down again — up and down, up and down, many times over. At this sight, the crowd mimics the players. But the fans are holding their scarves by each end with their hands, pushing the scarves up and down in the air in adulation of the players.

Now I see why every fan has a scarf.

The players walk to the other side of the stadium and repeat the ritual. The players — many of them multi-millionaires — are showing a humility that’s scarcely seen in professional sports.

9:35 PM: After a bit of celebration in the streets outside the stadium, Jan decides he needs to head home (about a 30-40 minute drive). He’s a schoolteacher, so I wonder if he will have his voice the next day. I walk back to the metro station still wearing the Anderlecht jersey Jan had lent me. Maybe seeing me as a good-luck charm, Jan gave me the jersey to keep. This is one souvenir that will always have extra meaning.

Before the game, Jan had apologized in advance if he offended me with any of the traits that only surface when his team is playing. Jan, I’ll have to say, you were much better behaved than you led me to believe.

But maybe I say that because that’s exactly how I act when my teams are playing.

10:30 PM: Finally home, I recap the night to Jenna. A thought crosses my mind: Americans call their favorite sport football; Europeans call their favorite sport football. Who truly gets to claim that name for their sport?

After this experience, I’m closer to siding with the Europeans than I ever thought I would be.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Trey
    March 2, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    Great recap. I am glad you had a good experience. There really is nothing like going to a match like that. In my mind going to see an American football game is just a different kind of experience than a Euro game. They are both intense but in different ways. I agree that the relationship between the players and the audience seems more of a two way street in a football match than with an American football game. I think we go to see the performance of our favorite players and they go to interact with the players. Good read Jake.

  2. Jenna
    March 3, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    I agree with Trey on this one … great read, husband! I’ll work extra hard in the coming years so we can build you a man-room for your jersey and scarf (to go along with your ever-growing Belgian beer glass collection). 🙂

  3. Jan
    March 3, 2010 at 8:31 pm

    Great stuff, of course. Can’t wait for the next round! Bring on the Hamburgers from Zermany!

  4. Jan
    March 3, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    And Jenna, to get an idea about that man room, he can come and check out my Green Bay shrine / Male dominated room 🙂

  5. JD
    March 9, 2010 at 12:43 am

    A man room!!! What’s next being able to attend a quad header?????

  6. March 11, 2010 at 4:56 am

    Jake, I love your blog! Bask in their basqueness? You’re so clever!

  1. September 15, 2010 at 5:44 pm
  2. May 4, 2011 at 9:59 pm

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