by JIM KNIPFEL
April 4, 2010
When I was a kid—eleven or twelve years old—I used to wear my Chicago Bears gear (hats, jerseys, socks) to Green Bay Packers games at Lambeau Field. Given that the Bears and Packers were bitter rivals, this did not make me very popular among the season ticket holders. Didn’t bother me at all. I knew what I was doing.
Perhaps it makes sense, then, that now in my mid-forties, I should join up with a group of Chicago sports fans to once again invade my present hometown’s territory.
There were three major differences between the two situations, however.
When I was a kid I was, well, a kid. The adults might have called me names, but no one was going to beat me up at the stadium. I was also a single voice raised against an army of 60,000 true believers. And that was American football. This time I was one of about 250 people, we were adults, and this was soccer—a sport known as much for its fan violence as anything else.
Raising the stakes even further, the Chicago Fire supporters I was traveling with were invading Harrison, NJ to face the New York Red Bulls on what was not just the opening game of the season, but the first official game in a brand new, two hundred million dollar stadium.
First thing I learned is that there is a very important distinction to be made between “fans” and “supporters.” Fans buy their tickets, go to the stadium, and enjoy the game. Supporters hang banners, wave flags and scarves, beat drums, blow horns, chant slogans, and start riots. Supporters are an active and well-organized community. They get drunk together beforehand, they travel cross-country for away games several times a year, they buy huge blocks of tickets so they can all sit together, and they receive much closer scrutiny from stadium security.
At the bar beforehand, I got to meet a few of them, and they weren’t what I expected. Men and women alike, these weren’t hooting, howling, frat boy yobs. Quite a few of them were professionals—lawyers, genetic researchers, teachers, academics. They were very low-key, very pleasant. And they weren’t all from Chicago. Buffalo Mike (who hates being called Buffalo Mike) was from upstate. Others flew in from Florida and England and Arizona. There was nothing, really, that distinguished them from anyone else in the bar that afternoon. Only when they got on the PATH train to Jersey did the conversation start turning to soccer.
I’m told the new stadium is very nice. In an effort to avoid drunken tailgating tomfoolery, however, it was built without a parking lot. This means the only way to get to the stadium is via the train—and the train station’s about a mile walk away across some potentially deadly highways and past some lovely electrical substations, but not a whole helluva lot else.
(Plus it was mighty goddamn cold out there that evening, which left me grateful for that supporter’s scarf Grinch had given me.)
We were all told to meet at a certain gate some ninety minutes before the game started. (The other Chicago supporters were easy to find, thanks to the guy beating the bass drum.) There we waited until, in another effort to avoid trouble, security personnel showed up to escort us to our designated section. And as that section started to fill up, these sedate, low-key professionals transformed into a different kind of beast altogether.
In and amongst the glad handing, the backslapping, the greetings and the runs to the beer stand and the bathroom, the Chicago supporters started jumping up and down, waving flags, chanting and singing. They had a repertoire of some fifteen or twenty songs and chants, with that bass drum, a snare drum, and a trumpet for accompaniment. These ranged from simple chants (“You fucked up! You fucked up!” and “Your team is from New Jersey! Your team is from New Jersey!” and “Two hundred million dollars! Two hundred million dollars!” which arose whenever anything went wrong with the sound system) to a number of fairly complex songs, including “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” “Don’t Stop Livin’ in the Red,” and “Urbs in Horto Magico.” This all started an hour before the game, and for the first forty-five minutes or so, they were screaming all these things to a nearly-empty stadium. I guess they wanted to make an impression on the arriving New York fans.
But these weren’t like that inevitable group of loud, drunken assholes in the upper bleachers of a Mets game. These people really were seriously organized. Though as Grinch had warned me, beneath the organization there was the potential for both well-planned and impromptu violence. Supporters from the other team, he told me, sometimes tried to infiltrate the section to cause trouble, or steal banners and scarves as trophies. There had been fistfights and trouble with the police, and they were ready for either again.
Then I noticed something. Being a blind guy in the upper decks surrounded by these people, that potential violence was no longer my immediate concern. As they were jumping and stomping, the section we were in was bouncing. Not just trembling or shaking—it was bouncing like a tree branch ready to give way. I wasn’t the only one to notice.
Brand new stadium? Jersey union labor? Jumping Chicagoans? Suddenly I was preoccupied with visions of everything collapsing beneath us, dropping us all a hundred feet into the pavement beneath tons of crumbling concrete and twisted metal. Of course if Grinch and I survived, we’d find the whole thing hilarious—but there was that whole “survival” thing that had to come first.
With that on my mind, and surrounded by a sea of chants and songs, I wasn’t even aware that the game was underway until ten minutes after it started.
That was another thing that got me—these Chicago fans were on their feet, chanting and singing and jumping, for the entire game. The Red Bulls scored a goal, nothing dimmed or quieted. The guy down in front kept banging that drum, and professional men and women kept shouting and jumping. It was a kind of stamina I wouldn’t have expected from the people I’d met in the bar a couple of hours earlier. These people were nuts.
By contrast, the New York supporters sitting a few sections away didn’t seem to have their act together yet. They had no songs or chants. They just clapped in unison and stomped a bit. Having encountered my share of hipsters pretending to be soccer fans in the bars around here, I wouldn’t have expected much more.
Grinch told me that if a supporter is quiet, it shows a lack of character—especially when you’re the visiting team. For the record, and make of it what you will, when I went downstairs to use the bathroom, the only thing I could hear were those 250 Chicago fans, who successfully drowned out the other 20,000 people in attendance.
(I did feel awfully bad for the terrified family who, poor schlubs, ended up sitting in the middle of the Chicago section. They didn’t seem to be having much fun at all.)
As for real trouble, there was little. A few dastardly scofflaws smoked cigarettes, and as the game entered it’s last few minutes, the guy standing next to me set off a road flare. But security didn’t descend on us and nobody was hurt much.
Then the game was over. Chicago had lost 1-0, but that didn’t seem to matter. As one guy said, he looked forward to what happened before and after the matches much more than the matches themselves.
It was my first professional sporting event since I was a kid in my Bears cap and Butkus jersey. Now as then, I have no idea what happened on the field (apparently not much), but that’s okay. I get the feeling there were a few people around me who weren’t following things that closely. They were having a good time without having to concern themselves with it. And it gave them the chance to dance around and sing in public, blow off a little steam, give themselves a taste of the hooligan life before heading back to their law offices or classrooms on Monday. And while I’m no sports fan myself, I can’t say as I minded joining them for a bit. Best of all, at some point in the near future when part of that stadium really does collapse (probably while supporters from Philly or Columbus are jumping on it), I’ll get a mighty chuckle.
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