Gallant Refrains From Throwing Hamburgers; Goofus Not So Much

I think it’s time we had a talk about fan conduct.

My default stance regarding fan behavior in soccer is to, first and foremost, acknowledge that it is multitudes more passionate and vocal than in other sports. It’s kind of why we’re here: people wrap themselves up so deeply in the game that it spreads into other facets of society. I covered back in April some of the ways that fans might express displeasure with their team or their players, up to and including demanding the shirts off their backs, forming political parties, and forming new competing clubs.

At the same time, though, it’s important to recognize that, at the end of the day, we are playing games. Sports carry importance because of the Tinkerbell effect: they are important because and only because we say they are, and they carry exactly as much importance as we choose to give them. If nobody wanted to participate in sports, sports would not exist. The same goes for art, or money, or the rule of law. If humans were not around, these things would all vanish as concepts. But money and law perform vital functions in a society: money provides a standardized way of determining the worth of things and a standardized way of obtaining them; law provides structure and order in how we conduct ourselves. Sports cannot claim such lofty ideals: it is entertainment, pure and simple. It can also be exercise, a way to keep a body healthy, but there are a lot of ways to do that which don’t involve sports. As such, because sports are less vital in the abstract than some other subjects of the Tinkerbell effect, it’s important to keep perspective. To remember that we’re here to be entertained, and to have fun. A sporting event where everyone’s pleasant to each other makes for a sociable day out and a strengthening of the local community. A sporting event treated like a matter of life and death makes for a community torn asunder, sometimes violently so.

This appears to be something American fans, from the perspective of the rest of the world, have down pat (or at least a lot more pat than them), sometimes to their bewilderment, fully on display in Brazil last year. They realize they’re probably going to lose this upcoming game, right; why the hell are they chanting ‘I believe that we will win’? They’ve had worse outings at the World Cup than we have; why are they so relentlessly cheery all the time? If WE had a team like that, we’d be tearing our hair out! Are they just here to party and enjoy themselves? …you know what, we can live with that. They aren’t about to slug an opposing fan anytime soon; that’s not a bad thing.

Or, well, storm the pitch and chase away the other team, as happened in Bulgaria on Sunday when CSKA Sofia supporters ran off Israel’s second-tier FC Ironi Ashdod in response to an Ashdod tackle that received a red card, Ashdod’s third of the match. CSKA fans are probably on edge a bit, having recently watched the most decorated club in the country be forcibly relegated to the third tier due to financial difficulties alongside local rival Lokomotiv Sofia and relegated-anyway clubs Haskovo and Marek Dupitsna, but that is far from an excuse. If anything, it’s less of an excuse, because it’s not like they sunk alone. Bulgarian soccer is clearly in a bad way. In the 2012-13 season the Bulgarian top flight stood at 16 teams, and then each of the next three seasons it’s shed two spots; it currently is a 10-team league. You’re having problems, CSKA fans? So is everyone else. Don’t take it out on the Israelis.

This is why the wall is there, folks. We should not have to dwell on this basic fact. The only time anyone decent thinks it’s remotely acceptable to storm the field is after you’ve won a title or escaped relegation, and many think not even then. A stray red card? Stay in your seat. The players are supposed to be able to play. Yell, cheer, boo, chant, make the place uncomfortable for the opposition. That’s the whole idea of home-field advantage. But they do still get to actually play. They’re just folks trying to make a living. Not enemy soldiers to be driven back outside the city walls.

A judge in Germany agreed on Wednesday after witnessing another unacceptable behavior: tearing off an opposing fan’s team colors, as some fans of 1860 Munich did to a Bayern Munich supporter last year, stripping him of shirt, jacket and hat. The attackers figured that this was within the bounds. The judge begged to differ. After consulting with the victim, he “wanted to show that football is football and not a battlefield,” and the way he did that was to give the attackers a choice: either spend 15 months in jail, or go to the Bayern Munich team store and personally buy the victim replacement gear (and pay 500 euros in restitution). Said the judge, “I thought about what would be really painful to them, and doing something like this really bothers this type of people.” 1860 and Bayern being local derby rivals, and being the kind of people who would do that in the first place, the judge likely is not wrong. Even so, a walk of shame to the rival’s team store is still a damn sight better than over a year in the hoosegow, so off they went to the store to buy a hat, scarf and jersey for the victim.

Even if you remain in your seat, things on your side of the wall should stay on your side of the wall (unless it’s part of a tifo and specifically meant to be pitched forward, like a streamer or confetti). Food, for example. That goes in your belly. That does not go on the field. One recent violation of this came in Argentina on Sunday, where goalkeeper Juan Olave of Belgrano had a hamburger tossed in his direction by fans of opposition Racing Club. Normally this would come with vigorous protests on the part of the players involved, maybe even a walk off the field in protest. Olave, meanwhile, decided there was no sense wasting a hamburger that only had a little bit of dirt on it and proceeded to take a bite, before returning to keeping a clean sheet in what would end as a scoreless draw.

And when you chant, don’t be racist about it, as CSKA Moscow fans were towards Caucasus Mountain-based Anzhi Makhachkala last Saturday in merely the latest in a long line of racist behavior in Russian parks. Moscow fans were hit with a partial stadium closure in response. The Russians, along with other racist fans the world over, can also be distressingly easily found violating the ‘no food thrown on the field’ rule every time a banana is hurled at a black player, as evidenced with a simple Google search of ‘soccer fan banana’ or its ‘football’ equivalent.

I’m sure you are likely thinking of other examples, but here’s the thing: other than the bananas, this is all just news from the previous week. America’s got a good fan-conduct reputation partially because American soccer tends to have higher standards for conduct. Nobody’s going to tolerate so much as an empty drink cup being thrown on the field in the likes of Chicago or Portland, and if push comes to shove, as it did after, for instance, the 2012 MLS Cup when Houston Dynamo fans rained streamers and beer cans down on Landon Donovan after the LA Galaxy won 3-1, or the following season when MLS launched a leaguewide offensive against the chant ‘you suck, asshole’, MLS is going to think less about the supporter groups and more about the random mom, dad and two kids coming to one soccer game a year. Those families generate a large percentage of the revenue, and if they get too scared to attend a game because the people around them are jerks, pretty soon nobody’s going to have a team to root for at all.

It seems to have been a difficult week. The English Premier League season begins today. Let’s make it a well-behaved season, okay?

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