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Issue 08 (October 2006)
I was born a soccer fan. Brazil, early 70’s: my father was a huge Santos (Pelé’s team) fan and when I was one week old, I “became” one of the youngest champions of 1973. Needless to say I started to attend soccer matches with my dad at 3, and by myself at 13. Hundreds of live games all around Brazil, a true addiction. Every defeat was followed by deep blues, sometimes rage. The stereotype about Brazilians and their emotional involvement with soccer is true in every inch. Millions live their state-of-mind beyond the 90-minutes, more like all week long. You breathe it, as insane as it might seem. I was always very proud of sharing the love of the most popular sport with billions. Soccer made me reach incomparable joy, and unmistakable misery. It was like a seesaw, full of ups and downs. More downs, because you were not fortunate as a Santos fan in the 90’s. Frustration started to accumulate.
Fortunately, I was smarter when I chose my American Football team, during my 80’s exchange program in San Francisco. The local 49ers had Joe Montana, class, and a team that dominated the 80’s and early 90’s. When we finally had NFL games live on TV in Brazil, 1994, the 49ers won their 5th Super Bowl. I watched it, and this time I was not one week old anymore. It was enough to ignite passion for football, as intense as for soccer. Failures on the following seasons were lived through intense pain, rage...the need for venting, cursing, seeing replays again and again...hopelessly trying to change history, or find new consolation.
If you are American, and who by now think I am a freak, I won’t be surprised. But here’s my verdict, after having such a “career” as a soccer fan, spending thousands of hours in front of the TV and also visiting American stadiums and arenas of the NFL, MLB and NBA: people don’t chant on and on in the US, among other things, because Americans see sports completely different than the rest of the globe. It fills a different void on people’s lives and in society.
Americans have a ball at sports events. Anyone can see that. If your team is winning and the camera shows you, you’ll be smiling and showing your sign with a constructive support message. If they’re losing the game, you’ll still be smiling and shouting “ #1! ” to the TV people. Of course you prefer to win the game, but if you have set things up to propose marriage to your sweetheart at halftime, it is expected that you won’t change your mind (or fiancée) if you're sore. Brazilians I know used to laugh at Americans in stadiums: “they’re always smiling, they don’t know what’s going on the field!” – shout my comrades.
More than 50 people have died in São Paulo and Rio stadiums in the past decade, due to fans fighting before, during or after soccer matches. Some of the fights and deaths were actually inside the pitch of play. Lately, the so-called “organized-fans” have preferred to schedule confrontations through the internet, and they usually take place in subway stations or streets where they can interact to death away from the police force, ever so large inside the stadiums (perhaps they should be called “arenas”, like the Coliseum in Rome).
The dying is not everything. Hate is spread throughout the big cities on game days, even when there’s not physical fighting. Fans from different teams are advised to take two different traffic routes on game days. Of course there is always a whole batallion of guards separating the entrance and accommodation of the two different factions in the stadium. If you accidently were seated on your opponent’s “side of town”, you’d be lucky to remain intact. Around the city, neighbors shout at each other, some couples split temporarily, old friends forget about their past. It’s suddenly just about the color of the jersey you’re wearing. It’s not like going to war. It IS war. And let’s face it: if the majority didn’t wanted it to be that way, if they didn’t enjoy it, things would be different. They were different once.
First time I started to search into my experience to explain why things are so different in Brazilian and American stadiums, I went for economic reasons. We are poor, they’re rich. There’s lots of social tension, and cheering helps people get whatever they have off their chests. Get lots of people with no schooling, food, job, homes, who decide to spend their little money on a ticket, and you have pure TNT. In America, you’ve got your life in addition to that one game. Case closed? Not so fast. How would one explain the similar fights (and deaths, even if fewer) among Italian “tiffosi” (fans)? Juventus and AC Milan fans are not poor, not the base of the social pyramid. They also have to remain separated inside the stadium..
Next attempt went the ethnic way. Brazilians and Italians are Latin people. They’re passionate about their cars, their wives, their teams...about everything. Hotblooded fans that are very different from Anglo-saxons. If they have the reputation of killing for love, why not killing for goals? Right? But if so, how can we explain that English, Scottish and Dutch fans are all recognized as the worst kind of hooligans? They’re supposed to be “un-Latin”, cooler. And they can be so barbarian that some of them have to report to the police on game time in order to make the rest of society breathe in peace. Ethnic factors won’t explain everything.
Third time was the charm, I guess. I think I got the explanation the first time I was at a live NFL game. Tampa Bay at Detroit, 1996. A new world was open when I made my dream come true. Not so much because of Barry Sanders or the game. What amazed me was the fans! During the first half, I was absolutely annoyed, because on every snap and play one guy in the front row would stand up and go buy a hotdog. And a soda. Then popcorn and a baseball cap for a young girl. I wanted to follow every single play, and they were aiming at becoming obese. Halftime came and I finally relaxed and joined the stadium atmosphere. Promo items thrown to the audience during every break, a guy trying to win millions by kicking a FG, musical attractions, fantastic stores, people appearing in the scoreboard and sending messages...I saw a community getting together and having fun. Regardless of the number of touchdowns scored. And regardless of the color of the jerseys.
There’s no community in soccer audiences. Just die-hard fans, obsessed with the game. Everyone knows the complete line-up (and bench). I suspect most NFL fans wouldn’t be able to spell their offensive line's names. In soccer, families are the exception to the rule. It’s not an activity people do together, sharing quality time. Kids are rarer and rarer (no wonder), old people too. For soccer fans around the world, the event is about scoring. For Americans, it’s about entertainment and fun. About the experience, tailgating, bragging before the game. Of course you want to win, you'll be sad after losing a Super Bowl, but you won’t kick your dog out of the door when you return home. Americans tend to keep things in perspective. “It’s just a game”. No need to take it that seriously. Sounds obvious, I know, but it doesn’t happen like that outside the 50 states.
American sports have tons of television breaks. Commercials are also entertaining for the audience in the stadium. All sorts of activities are going on. Some might have more fun than they do during the “action”. Soccer is frantic, no interruptions in 45 minutes. Maybe that’s why soccer fans and the NFL/MLB rarely marry. The game stops all the time. They get bored, the game means something different for them. Maybe that’s why American fans never married soccer. It’s not entertaining enough, one-dimensional, it’s about scoring and passion, not necessarily fun.
I have no right to claim I know why sports events are seen in such a different perspective in America. But it could be because it is one of the aspects that help people become friends, interact during elementary, high school, and finally college. People grow up playing sports, they’re exposed to rivalries and losing all the time, and they just don’t make such a big deal about that. Sports help people get a better education. Sometimes sports play a good part in racial integration. It’s just a positive thing in its nature. If you lose the game, it’s a minor problem, and it’s amazing how people quickly say “there’s always next year/season”.
A few weeks ago, I saw the reopening of the Superdome, in New Orleans. It would always come down to how important the Saints were, and how happy those people behaved in and out of the stadium. The Saints happened to have one rare good team, but that wasn’t the reason why they were sold out for the first time in years. It was being there that counted. It turned out that Drew Brees led the team to an unforgettable victory over Michael Vick. The crowd went wild. But I suspect they would have been “good wild” anyway. I’m not so sure what kind of “wild” would have been registered in a similar condition down here in São Paulo.