Let’s set the scene, June 27th 2010 just outside Philadelphia in the tattered streets of Chester,PA. Fans pile into the new PPL Park (recently renamed Talen Energy Park) the Philadelphia Union’s brand new soccer specific stadium. Today was to be the first ever game played at the park by the area’s newly formed MLS team the Union. A team formed out of the demands of the now famous supporters group “Sons of Ben”.
I strolled into the new stadium with three of my friends after a short bus trip from a parking lot near interstate 95 due to the lack of parking near the stadium. On the brutally hot sunny day in late June we were about to view a flavorful match up between the well supported Seattle Sounders, who brought a hundred or so fans from the northwest corner of the country to southeastern Pennsylvania that day, and Philadelphia’s newly formed and beloved Union. I took my seat in the corner of the north side of the park, dead in the sun, near the Sounders supporters. My friends and I were facing the River End, where 2,000 of the loyal Union supporters stood awaiting the kickoff of the match. A kickoff they had been waiting for since talks of a MLS team and Sons of Ben came about a few years before.
As the game began the River End was absolutely electric and the stadium was bombarded with noise. The passion of the fans could be felt in every section of the cozy stadium, creating a game environment that was second to none. Even when Seattle went up 1-0 on the expansion side, the fans continued to give the team everything they could. Then came second half goals in front of the River End from Le Toux, Fred, and the Union’s first ever draft choice Danny Mwanga erasing the 1-0 halftime deficit to the fans absolute delight. To rub salt in the wounds of the Sounders faithful who traveled cross country for the match Chris Seitz saved a penalty early in the 2nd half, launching the Union’s historic second half comeback.
After Fred pounded a cross into the back of the net in front of the River End, securing the Union’s first lead and ensuring the home team’s success at the then PPL Park, 2,000 of the Union faithful turned to the away supporters corner. With what seemed to be 2,000 middle fingers in the air, the chant “Fuck Seattle” traveled towards the upper corner, with an aim to inform the dedicated Sounders supporters that they are not to expect Christmas cards from the Sons of Ben anytime in the future. As the chant rang across the park, the ever so typical “welcome to Philly” cry was heard from fans in my section.
As some moms began to cover their son or daughter’s ears to shield them from the noise, I remember chuckling to myself. I was a 19 years old, six to seven beers down after a tailgate, enjoying a football match with my friends. The type of language coming from the River End did not offend me in the slightest, and having been to Philadelphia sporting events my entire life, it was not something that was uncommon to hear. But looking back on that day in 2010 and having been to hundreds of football matches around the world since that day in Philly, the banter debate of what behavior is appropriate from fans has continued to be a common issue for supporters and clubs alike in both the US and England
Football in basic terms is the people’s sport, an outlet for the working class to enjoy on the weekends as a distraction from everyday life. The sport means very different things to different people throughout the world who are entertained by the sport. In America soccer is becoming less of a growing trend, and more of a culture and a way of life. As generations who grew up playing the sport are now in their thirties and twenties, the passion for the sport has grown incredibly over the past decade. In England, the sport is not only a tradition, but you could argue that English culture is almost defined by football. Many of the most popular pop culture icons are footballers. David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, and many others are cult figures in towns across the country. As the culture surrounding the sport is different the behavior at football matches on the weekend is very different in each country as well.
As progressive tolerant social ideas have become popular in American culture, fan bases and soccer clubs have recognized their need to control the behavior of their supporters during soccer matches. In the USA, soccer has traditionally been a family activity, one which started as moms and dads taking their son or daughter to practice and games on the weekend in the 1990s. Thus why hateful, violent, sexist, or racist language is not prevalent at MLS matches. The Sons of Ben have set a standard of etiquette that the supporters now follow, and 2,000 middle fingers have not been shown conjointly since that day in 2010. The supporters of the league have been accepting of players and fans from every background and a counter culture of acceptance has formed in the US soccer community. Robbie Rogers the first openly gay MLS player has had his sexual orientation become a non issue due to the tolerance shown by supporters of MLS, an element of the fan base the league should pride itself on. In the USA, soccer was never really an accepted sport until very recently by popular culture and media, thus why there is less of a hate and violence culture surrounding the sport that you may see in other aspects of American culture.
US Soccer faced its' first banter controversy with the "You Suck Asshole! " chant that was screamed after an opposing team's goal kick. The backlash towards the chants vulgarity was aimed at supporting sections who were emerging at MLS and US National team games. The chant was seen as somewhat unoriginal and juvenile and in the end the popularity of the saying died off, but it was the first time the debate was held between the backers of the traditional family environment in US Soccer and the true supporters of the teams in MLS over what can and cannot be said at a soccer game.
Traditionally in England, football is a male attended event. A weekend tradition for adults and teenagers alike to bond with their peers. Whether it is father-son time, or a day out with friends, football is the outlet for the hardship of everyday working life. Football matches in the early days of bleacher seats and general admission tickets were not scenes for the faint of heart. Alcohol fueled violence and foul language were common commodities during these fixtures, which lead to a hooligan culture surrounding football that the FA has been attempting to shed for the past decade. Hateful, rude, distasteful chants from the supporters directed at the opposing team’s stands are common practice to this day. Taking the piss out of the group of fans who dared to travel to the home park that day is expected behavior. The fact that so many fans travel to away games, just to endure abuse from the home supporters if the game turns out in the home team’s favor, is what makes European Football so magnificent.
Banter creates a strong bond between individuals or groups who engage in the activity. Some of my closest relationships are built on constant banter between friends who are strong enough to take words as words and give back chatter in my direction. And in the end I believe that is what the main goal of the football supporter is, he or she wants his or her words to be heard by the opposing fan, the players, the manager, and the referee in order to gain a reaction. The jeering of a referee if he or she takes a tumble in the center of the park over a shoelace or wet patch of the pitch The jeering and banter is welcomed by the official. He or she is then cheered by the fans when the clumsy display is acknowledged by the official with a polite wave or clap of the hands, with the rule that if you cannot laugh at yourself, you can not laugh at others in full effect. The aesthetic felt by everyone involved in the interaction is one of connection. The more connected we are during the experience of football, something we all cherish and love, the better the experience is for everyone involved. I believe banter is a part of soccer, fans have every right to give it to players, opposing fans, and anyone involved in the game they are supporting as long as no violence or bigotry is involved. Once in those aspects the line is crossed, that is when action needs to be taken against the supporters who choose to act out in such a way.
So is it an over reaction to ban the use of foul language and abuse given towards the opposing team, their fans, and the referee? There lies a certain expectation that comes with what happens at a football match. There are going to be passionate fans, beer being drank, and a coming together of fans of the sport from all walks of life. A family with young children may be sat near a group of drunken adults who are out for a day away from their everyday working lives. I believe having a general etiquette page supplied by the club or the clubs main supporters group is necessary, and it also helps if the club designates sections of seats for the various types of supporters that attend the matches. It is also up to the parents, to understand what the environment is like at the club you are going to. If the atmosphere at the ground you are planning on visiting is a bit hostile and edgy, then maybe it is best to not spend family time at soccer matches, or wait until you think the child is capable of handling the environment before attending the match as a family. That is a bit of a drastic measure, and there has to be a middle ground that can be found where every fan can enjoy the match with the comfort that he or she would feel in their homes. Finding this middle ground is the difficult task that clubs face in order to make football matches enjoyable for all, but still allow for the connection between supporters who are engaged in the match.
At the end of the day, football is meant to be enjoyed. It is the people's sport, and if singing songs about the other team which may poke fun at their team culture, or even about your own team's lack of ability is what you enjoy about going to a soccer match, then by all means indulge. Church is not in session during a soccer match, and a few harsh words may be spoken by the supporters, but as long as it is not violent or racially motivated speech then attendees of the match should learn to cope with the expected atmosphere at football matches. When it comes to the banter debate, I believe the supporters are capable of setting the proper tone for what they will and will not allow to be chanted or said at matches, and there is plenty of room at most stadiums to find an area that suites your comfort level as a supporter to ensure you and whoever you brought to the match with you enjoys their day at football.