I don’t really hate anybody in my immediate world (except, of course, my old landlord, Dick Dumont – yeah: he knows what he did). But it’s easy enough to drop the word hate into conversation. “Oh, I hate that” and “Don’t you just hate him/her?” We do it all the time, but do we truly hate the thing or person? Most of the time it is purely a conversational device. An overemphasis to make a point felt with the force of a sledgehammer rather than a mallet. Hatred – real hatred – is an awful thing to muster up. Especially against people. I should emphasize – in case my mother is reading this – it goes against my upbringing, moral code, inner life, and all that. It’s the thing that – if allowed to run wild – can eat up at somebody until they turn into a mass-murderer – or at the very least a cranky old bastard. I don’t want to be either.
But Sports Hatred – well – that’s different, isn’t it?
I mean I HATE the New York Yankees. But as a concept. It’s in the vein of hating brussel sprouts or going to the dentist. I don’t know the players as people. I’d have to know them to be able to truly hate them. Similarly, I hated Cristiano Ronaldo as a concept – when he was in England (now I feel indifference creeping in) – and of course Manchester United. But I don’t hate the friends I have who follow United or who adore C Ronaldo (and do they even still adore him? the next time he flops over and earns a penalty against Sevilla or Barcelona or Atletico, will they defend him as if it was against Chelsea, Spurs, Blackburn, Liverpool? Off topic. Sorry.)
This question is different for me, an American. I’ve seen New York Yankees fans wander into bars just outside Fenway Park after a heated game. They’ll get dirty looks and maybe a little shit talked to them here and there. But they don’t need a police escort from the park. They aren’t held back in the stadium while the home fans filter out. Hell, home fans and away fans are not even separated in our stadia as they are in so many football grounds around the world.
No, there are longstanding deep-rooted feelings in other parts of the football world, those epic animosities that, growing up Stateside, I can only appreciate from distance. I can’t completely wrap my mind around them. With huge historic overtones fueling the biggest rivalries (Arsenal v Tottenham… The Old Firm…) and with the sense of tribal loyalty that is embedded in world football culture, there’s something out of reach for me even living in Boston, a deeply passionate sports town in its own right with diehard fans, a long, angst-ridden sports history and police who come out in riot gear every time one of our big teams looks like they might win the title.
And while I cannot own the deepest kind of animosity of somebody who’s been following their football club their whole life, I’ve dipped my big toe in it. I’ve seen enough of it to understand how it can well up in a person.
One day we were in the pub watching Liverpool crank out a miserable performance against West Ham United. The Reds would eventually be undone by a stoppage time Mark Noble goal, but even up until that point, there was a feeling of desolation that permeated our corner of the bar. It was a Wednesday afternoon and two Manchester United supporters were at a table at the far end of the room. They seemed to be spending more time cheering on West Ham than watching their own match. I mostly ignored them. Then at half-time, on their way out to get a cigarette, one of them, for some reason, singled me out: “Why don’t you come over and watch a real team?” he said.
Then, only after they were out of ear shot, my Seinfeldian “the-jerk-store-called”-type response came to the surface:
“What? Are Havant & Waterlooville being shown?”
This was immensely hilarious and comforting to me. But ultimately useless since I didn’t think of it until after they’d walked away. (When I told to the story to friends later, I might have credited myself with saying this line in the actual moment. You know how it is.)
If Liverpool had pulled out the win, I probably would have forgotten the exchange. But as we (and as a relative newcomer – I was really feeling a part of that we that day) continued to struggle and eventually fell to the Hammers, the dickish words Why don’t you come over and support a real team? festered in my stomach like day-old food-poisoning.
Beyond that I probably would have kept festering and left it at that. But then the United supporters were still shouting and they eventually got a rise out of my friend Marty, a big Scouser who’s bled Red for decades, and who surely had strong feelings of his own in regard to the very recent loss. Marty was quickly in their faces, shouting and pointing, and in an otherwise quiet, mostly empty pub at five in the evening, I really though it was about to come to blows. Other friends pried Marty away, brought him back to the bar where we – along with the sole West Ham supporter – kicked off a rousing rendition of “Who the fuck are Man United?”
At some point, I found myself standing on a chair, screaming the words at the two young men in the corner. My face was red. All the nervous pints sucked down during an afternoon of bad football were spinning through my veins. I was outside myself. Who was that guy on the chair? It wasn’t me. I was feeling that tangible hatred. At that moment it stopped being only conceptual.
Before that day, I never would have seen myself behaving in this way. If my good friend Noel – an older United supporter and former co-worker who used to tape Liverpool matches for me and discuss football all hours of the day – had walked into that pub at that moment, I would have crawled under my chair and tried to melt into the floor boards in embarrassment. My point is, something switched on inside. It was a minor outburst in the big scheme of things, but that bit of aggro I could see but never understand in other supporters came up inside me in its own small way. That pure sporting hatred that was always a foreign concept stopped being the conversational hatred and turned into live unadulterated vehemence.
I still can’t fathom the depths of it that sits in supporters who have followed their club for decades. That’s beyond my experience. But I caught a glimpse of it that day and for the first time could at least understand where it can come from. That the potential of it is in all of us, no matter how civilized we think (or hope) we are. It might take one too many drinks or one too many snide comments or one to many miserable match points dropped to switch it on. But it is there.
I hope I don’t see that side of me that was standing on the chair again. Win or lose, I’ve cut down on the pints at match time and – though there will always be supporters in the pub who try and wind up others around them, I try to ignore them. This is easy in the States, where they are still in the vast minority. Most supporters of other clubs I’ve met in America – though we might exchange remarks and try to out sing each other in the heat of battle – are generally happy to be among other football lovers. In this country it’s a blessing to find others willing to discuss and enjoy football. Most Americans seem to want to check for signs of a recent concussion when you say you love soccer. When you find someone to talk football with, you might groan when you discover they follow your rival, but the important thing is they love football!
Even friends from England who role their eyes at me when they discover I follow Liverpool are generally still happy to chat about the beautiful game though their love is for Chelsea, United, West Ham, City or Spurs. We can appreciate each other’s passions even though they go in different directions even if we talk some trash from time to time on match day. I often find myself looking for something positive to say about the likes of Lampard, Rooney, Carlton Cole, Wright-Phillips or Lennon so when I run into these friends I can expand the dialog. It’s like when you see a play your dear friend was in only you hated the play: “Well, the costumes were niiice… and you were great!” You look for positives even though the plot did nothing for you and the music was like fingernails on the chalkboard.
My glimpse into pure sporting hatred scared me a little. Though I’ve resumed hating United purely as a concept – that ugly little beast must be hiding in me somewhere. I am glad he came out that day in a modest outburst. It was minor enough to cause little trouble, but real enough to teach me about myself. Show me a side I didn’t think existed. Now I know.