My Olympic Football Experience
As you may have gathered from the title, this isn’t a match report. It’s some subjective things that arose from my trip to see Japan vs Egypt at Old Trafford in the Olympic men’s football quarter final. For those of you wondering why the hell I picked that particular game, Spain were expected to feature in it when we purchased tickets pre-tournament, with the outside chance of an under-performing Brazil meeting them. Sadly, Brazil performed brilliantly and Spain did the exact opposite, leaving the two less-fancied teams to battle it out.
The result was a bizarrely mixed crowd – lots of Spaniards who like us had purchased tickets pre-tournament, presumably pretty certain that their team would top the group and make this stage as a minimum; vast numbers of Japanese fans; a smaller number of Egyptian fans; an assortment of other nationalities who were visiting the Olympics. And of course, huge numbers of Brits. It was a pleasantly cosmopolitan environment with lots of different languages being overheard and everyone mixing together in a friendly manner.
That said, the friendly atmosphere had another dimension which was even more striking: the massive number of women and children at the game. There was a real ‘family’ atmosphere in the crowd, which I am sure Premier League chiefs would be delighted at considering how much effort clubs put into creating this commercially viable family environment. Kids were crawling across seats and wandering about left, right and centre, obviously bored. Similarly bored were the middle class couple and families who seemed contented to chat about all sorts for 90 minutes. Here’s where I might piss a lot of people off.
I didn’t like it.
There seemed to be little actual interest in the game itself and it was obvious that many would never normally go to a football match but were simply there because it was the only way for them to attend a home Olympics. That’s fair enough and I’m happy for more people to understand our beautiful game.
What I’m not happy with is my efforts to watch said game being disrupted by your conversation about bloody anything and everything in your life, the constant questions (‘What’s going on now?’ ‘I’d have thought it was fairly obvious by there being two sets of stretcher bearers on the pitch that someone is injured you dozy shite’ I didn’t turn round and reply, to my eternal regret), the screaming crying children… there was even a woman breastfeeding two rows in front of me. I don’t have a problem with breastfeeding in public – I just wonder why on earth you would think this is a good way for your 10-12 month old baby to spend an afternoon. What is the child gaining from this experience? That environment wasn’t helping the baby’s development, it was stressing it out and boring it in equal measures, which of course led to predictable periods of crying and attention seeking behaviour which were fantastic for the rest of us. You want to go to the game? No worries. Get a babysitter and save your child several hours of boredom and distress with the added bonus of you being able to watch the game yourself. Or alternatively, if you don’t care about actually watching the game and are just there to say you attended an Olympic event – have a fucking word with yourself.
Midway through the second half, a group of blokes stood up and asked the poor guy behind them to take a picture of them grinning with their flags wrapped around their backs and the pitch in the background. By all means do that at half time (although I will still consider you a bit of a bellend) but for Christ’s sake, not in the middle of the game. One or possibly two rows have just been unable to watch the football they’ve paid to come and see for a bit, while you get yourselves set up and have a photo taken. The total lack of consideration for others was a recurring theme. The football seemed to be a small consideration in the background for most people, an excuse to gather together and socialise or something to tell everyone you’ve been to. Somehow, it seems to have become more important to take photos of what you’re doing than to actually enjoy the moment.
I suppose this is at the heart of it for me really. Football is serious business as far as I’m concerned. I don’t go to talk to people I know – not during the match itself anyway. That’s what the pub and half time are for. The vast majority of games I go to I am passionately involved in, as it’s my team playing, and most of the crowd are the same (I appreciate supporters of more ‘commercial’ clubs with a large number of tourists may have a different experience but nobody ever sees Blackburn as a tourist destination, aside from the handful of die-hard Scandinavian fans we seem to have accrued).
People focus on the game. Emotions are vented, people shout and get excited/angry/delirious/depressed in response to what is happening on the pitch. None of this happened at the weekend. Everything was commercial and synthetic – there was even an MC at half time to ‘fire up’ the crowd. Just piss off. No sport needs that, let alone football. You can’t generate passion and excitement by having some pillock shout into a microphone.
Never before have I appreciated the ‘working class’ feel of football. The sanitised, family friendly atmosphere isn’t something I enjoy. I love the brotherhood with those around me, the shared experience, knowing that they too are being affected by those useless/brilliant overpaid/hard working men wearing the shirt I revere. When I’m a neutral this is admittedly missing, but I still enjoy the game itself, relishing being able to objectively analyse the match instead of the more emotional reactions I usually have. And in certain places, the passion of the crowd around you gives you a buzz, a thrill that others love football and their clubs as much as you do. I have experienced that equally at the Camp Nou and Croft Park, the home of Blyth Spartans. That passion was lacking here very obviously, replaced by people who didn’t really care about the match and didn’t care whether anyone around them wanted to focus on it either.
I would like to make it clear by the way that I don’t have a problem with women and children attending football matches. I don’t want to give that impression. I attended my first game aged 2 (Sheff Utd reserves vs Blackburn Reserves if you’re wondering; I fell asleep and we left at half time, the first time in his life that my dad has left before the final whistle which he still reminds me of from time to time) and had a season ticket from the age of 6. I didn’t understand tactics or realise the significance of passing length, I learned all these things along the way. That footballing education is something we’ve all experienced and I think is an integral part of the game.
Likewise, two women had season tickets directly behind us for years. They were so passionate and knowledgeable that I doubt anyone ever dreamed of patronising them or treating them differently to the male fans around them. My younger sister neatly ticks both boxes, getting her first season ticket at about 7. There are lots of daughters attending football these days and an increasing number of adult women too, which we should encourage. It’s good that traditional gender divides are being eroded. The more people who experience how fantastic football is, the better.
What I’m saying is that there’s a code of behaviour for football matches, an unspoken understanding that everyone is here for the game and the talking takes place before and after the match. Those discussions on the walk to and from the ground are a fantastic part of the football experience. The passionate pub debate, the exchange in the toilets at half time, the endless analysis on the journey home are things most of us treasure. This code of behaviour doesn’t care about your gender, your age, your ethnicity, your religion, your sexuality, or anything else. It tends to be a working class male environment but increasingly it isn’t. That’s fine as long as the ‘rules’ are observed.
The fact is, football is massively important for me and I imagine it is for you too. I don’t want that to be spoiled by inconsiderate people who don’t have much interest in the game or the manners to respect those of us who do. I don’t want to see some commercialised family free-for-all. I do however want to see others enjoying that slow bond between parent and child, that development of a shared interest and passion, those moments that on reflection were actually pretty significant in your childhood. I know my relationship with my Dad would be totally different if we hadn’t spent every other Saturday at the football together and I’m sure lots of people are the same. Those moments don’t happen if you’re not actually interested in the sport you’ve paid a significant amount of money to watch.
So next time you’re at the football, savour the things you love about the experience. Take pride in standing amongst so many others who share your passion and love for the game and/or your club. Relish all the pre-match build up, the debates, the optimism and the pessimism, the half time mutterings, the better-than-Gary-Neville-on-Sky-with-his-stupid-pen-thing post match analysis with whoever you go to the match with. If you go with your kids or even your mate and his kids, do what you can to help them develop the same passion that has given you so much over the years. If you go with family or friends, appreciate spending time with them and enjoy the bonds football has helped develop between you.
Because if the Olympics is anything to go by, you’ve got your work cut out enjoying this experience for too much longer. Being an inconsiderate prick who pays no attention to the match itself, in a commercialised atmosphere where people have to be employed to ‘generate’ an atmosphere – that’s the way football wants things to go. Fight it!
P.S. I’d just like to add a big middle finger to the atrocious ‘security’ procedures in place at Olympic football games, which meant that we missed the first 15-20 mins of the game queueing to get bags searched (all contents emptied into a clear bin bag), pockets emptied into a little clear bag, then being frisked. There weren’t enough staff to carry out these procedures in a reasonable amount of time. We were there early enough but the chaos was sufficient to delay us and thousands of others.