Stories of Kindness
I haven’t been a football fan for very long. I started watching during the 2010 World Cup, but since then I’ve been thrown head-first into the madness, in stadiums and pubs and badly-organized watch parties, in Boston, London, Madrid, Cologne. I speak from the perspective of an American in Europe, a newbie among veterans. A girl in this age-old boys’ club known as football.
My story is one I’m still trying to make sense of myself.
“Germany?” she said, looking honestly surprised. “Don’t you like Spain? There aren’t any hot guys on the German national team. Except maybe Schweinsteiger.”
“Um,” I tried to explain. “I mean. I like the way Germany play.”
We were at a bar in Madrid, watching Real Madrid and Málaga grind out one of the worst 0-0 draws I’d seen in a while. A mustachioed gentleman kept pressing drinks on us, una más, una más, he insisted. His grin was irrepressible. We’re just trying to watch the game, we pleaded with him in English. He waved our protest aside and bought another round.
A group of men nearby were furtively looking on, caught between amusement and exasperation. Stop bothering them, one said finally. To which the old gentleman replied, No, you watch, this is how you woo a woman. It’s easy. Nothing to it at all.
He turned to us with another smile. I drank my wine and pretended I didn’t speak Spanish.
Oxford, late-June. Germany vs. the Netherlands at Euro 2012. There was hardly any standing room left in the pub, and I was glad that May and I had gotten there early and nabbed a seat in the corner.
Midway through the first half, a blonde woman tapped me on the shoulder, “Are you girls actually watching the game, or?”
I gave her a disbelieving stare. “Oh, yes, we’re watching,” May hastily intervened before I could say anything unfortunate. The woman seemed disappointed, but walked away with no further comment.
“You looked pretty mad,” May said quietly. I shrugged. Looked down at the dress I was wearing, and felt more self-consciously female than I had in a long, long time.
It doesn’t often occur to me that I’m a female football fan. I mean, why should it? In my mind, I’m a Gooner, and that’s that. This is what matters to me as a fan, and this is what I like to blog about: not feminism, not freedom — but football.
I spend most of my days reading blogs, looking at photos, bantering around on Twitter, and worrying about the next match. When I was in London, I went to Ashburton Grove as often as I could. I have a great appreciation for goalkeepers (especially our #1 Pole in goal), but I also love the way Mikel Arteta works a ball in midfield. I’ve rewatched the 5-2 NLD an unhealthy number of times. I try not to think about AC Milan at San Siro. I truly believe in Arsenal, and in Arsene Wenger. And if I get too down about our chances, I know I can count on my friends to bring some positivity — or else commiserate with me in a spiraling loop of despair.
It’s an extraordinarily unordinary fan experience, as far as I’m concerned. Which is fine, seeing as I’m just another fan. Every so often, though, I’m reminded — by blog posts, tweets, off-hand remarks — that this isn’t exactly true.
Every so often, you come across a comment that feels like a slap in the face. Because women don’t actually like sports, it’s assumed. Women only care about how hot the players are, not how well they play. Only men can really appreciate football. And therefore men are better fans.
I don’t want to mix the fight for equality with the fight for trophies, but unfortunately feminism and football aren’t separate for people like me. And by people like me, I mean female fans. Because somewhere along the line, someone will turn up to remind you that you’re not considered a “real” fan — because you’re a woman, so you can’t be part of this boys’ club, now can you? In the world of football, you’re always going to be a second-class citizen. And you need to be told that. Over and over again.
It’s ugly, this hierarchical code that expresses itself as the need to put down a fellow human being in order to feel our own self-worth. Either be the best, or at least make sure there is someone still lower than you on the ladder, and make it clear that you are superior to because of reasons x, y, and z.
It’s sad that we’ve been conditioned to believe such a lie, because superiority is a double-edged sword. The constant drive to prove your worth means you are never actually sure that you’re worth anything at all. The name of this game is insecurity itself.
But here’s the thing:
You don’t have to prove anything to anyone.
If you are a fan, a supporter, that has worth in and of itself. The thrill of the game, the bitterness of loss, and the soaring rush of victory — in our shared communion, love, and delusion, being a fan is enough. No further qualifications needed.
I recognize the irony of preaching against winning in a competitive sport. But football is so much more than just results. Football is pride and history and solidarity. Football is devotion and belonging and heartache and joy. Football is beautiful, win or lose or draw.
If we continue to reject these truisms, then we will have betrayed the spirit of the beautiful game itself.
I know that football fans are wonderful people. I’ve seen it first-hand, in fellow fans who have invited me to pubs for games, friends who have dragged me to get ice cream after a particularly crippling loss. I’ve found myself conversing with total strangers online because of football, and some of these people are now my closest confidants.
I don’t often think of myself as a female football fan, and I don’t intend to start anytime soon. It’s not that I don’t care. I won’t be a victim, and I’ll call out bullshit when I see it, but honestly? I’d much rather spend my time discussing Arsenal. Negative examples are sobering lessons, but what build us up and make us move forward are the moments of hope, and human goodness.
I want to tell stories of great kindness and great football, because these are the stories that truly matter to me.
One of my most cherished memories remains a cold Monday evening in March.
I’d gone to a match on my own, stood in the midst of a roaring North Bank and leant my voice to the song. I’ll never forget the screaming frenzy of exaltation that erupted when Vermaelen knocked in the last-minute winner: Arsenal 2-1 Newcastle. I remember hugging total strangers. A middle-aged man nearly lifted me off my feet, shouting joy into my ear.
I remember how I stayed long after most people had already gone. A few seats over, a crinkle-eyed granddad was smiling as he hummed to himself, And it’s Arsenal, Arsenal FC, we’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen.
When I walked by him, he opened his arms and embraced me the way a real granddad would. “Had a good time, love?”
Definitely, I answered, unable to stop smiling. Though this was only my second time here. The other match I’d come to was Blackburn.
“Blackburn!” he said, with a delighted laugh. “7-1, and now this? You’d better come every month.”
I would, I promised. I always would. The way water flows downhill and a compass points north. I’ll always come back, called home like a bird by the sudden breath of spring.