It isn’t the easiest thing to be a football fan in the United States. And that’s not because of the lockout, but because when I say “football,” I’m talking about the game that almost every other American wearing sport gear calls soccer. Tell you what: for purposes of this post, I’ll refer to it as futbol. That satisfies the purist in me without putting that windbag Roger Goddell in charge.
One of the difficulties is finding good futbol to watch. I like MLS as much as the next guy and going to a DC United game is great fun. For a really good league, though, you try to tune into the English Premier League. The problem there is that, just like beer, when you’re consuming an exported product you’re getting only the most major brands. The couple of teams at the top of the EPL — Chelsea, Arsenal, Man United, Man City, Liverpool — tend to be the only ones getting airtime in the States. Well, they and whomever they happen to be beating up on that week.
In the future, my friends, I’ll be hoping that the underdog in every one of those matches is Newcastle United. I’m now a fan of NUFC. The Toon Army. The Geordies. The Magpies.
There are a couple of reasons for this, which I’ll go into because let’s face it, if you don’t care about futbol, you aren’t still reading anyway. Superficially, I’ve always enjoyed watching Arsenal because I liked some of their players and the way they play. But following one of the huge clubs that makes American television is a bit like deciding to follow American baseball, and so glomming onto the Yankees or the Red Sox. You don’t have a lot of choice aside from a bandwagon, unless you want to spend inordinate amounts of time just reading about your chosen club on the Internet.
Now, I’m willing to do that. Because I want to be part of any fan base that is like the group I just recently sat among. My friends, Newcastle fans rank right up with Redwings fans, who are the best crowd I’ve ever been part of.
Allow me to set the stage. I’ve made a friend, John, at the London office of our company, and he had a ticket available to watch Chelsea host Newcastle about a week and a half ago. Unfortunately, John had to work that Sunday. Fortunately, someone mentioned to him that I’m a futbol fan. He sent me in his place, to meet a group of people and buy his ticket. His friends and I got on famously right from the beginning, and they warned me that we’d be sitting in the visiting stands (presumably, to keep me from buying a Chelsea jersey just to fit in). I warned them that anywhere I sat would quickly be turned into visiting stands.
Clearly, I didn’t understand. Worth mentioning: in English futbol, you have VISITING stands. Not just bad seats that tend to be relegated to folks rooting on the other side, but actual, divided areas where the people from out of town can’t start fights as easily. It cuts down on the fatalities. There’s a separate gate and corridor that leads to the visiting stands. I imagine they probably have different, impartial paramedic teams standing by. You’ve all heard of hooligans and this was my first clue that they take that shit seriously over here.
Sit for five minutes among the NUFC fans and you’ll see why. Basically, the deal is, where you might clap at a sporting event, these guys sing. I never sat down the entire match, and no one else did, either. I’m pretty sure that no one around me ever stopped singing the entire match. They started even before kickoff, taunting the rest of the stadium:
I’ll be the first to concede, it isn’t always easy to understand the Geordies. I’ll feed you, baby birds. Here’s a translation:
You’re not champions anymore.
You’re not champions,
You’re not champions!
You’re not champions ANYMORE!
By way of explanation, Chelsea did rather well in the Premier League last year, but this year Man U took the title. That was a foregone conclusion via point totals by the time I was at this, the second-to-last game. And the fans from one of bottom teams had no problem rubbing that in. I’m sorry I didn’t capture my favorite taunt of the match, which teased Chelsea for their massively-priced roster: “You can’t buy good fans.” It was the best one of the match, because all the noise in the soundbites I’ve grabbed come from 10% of the stadium — the visitors. The Chelsea fans sat in their seats all game and took it, despite the banners around the stadium proclaiming that fan clubs from Hungary, Michigan, Denmark and the like had come to give their support. Newcastle fans taunted them for wasting money on players, for having empty seats, and then for being quiet, only to shout them down if they started their own cheers. The scrappy upstarts were larger than life.
They weren’t shy about challenging the behemoth. Late in the first half, this was the general sense, as sung by the NUFC Boys Choir:
As great as that was, I suspect I have to learn Geordie to really grasp the full flavor of everything. If anyone has the slightest idea what they’re singing here, I’d love to know. They were having a great time with it.
The game itself was fantastic — you get two teams who don’t have anything to calculate anymore, so they just play to win. As far as professional futbol matches go, this really was one of the best I’ve been to. The ball spent very little time in the midfield, and there were excellent tries on goal at both ends and good goaltending. Chelsea scored in the eighth minute and Newcastle came back in the 13th to tie. When Chelsea scored another late in the second half, there were about 30 seconds of cheering by Chelsea fans and stunned disbelief among Newcastle. And then this:
I love a fan base with a set of balls. And a solid dose of malt-and-hops fueled delusion. As it happened, Newcastle scored a spectacular goal to tie it in stoppage time. I got to the office the next day and better than half a dozen people told me I’d been to one of the matches of the season. That part, they didn’t need to tell me. And even if the club itself is flirting with relegation some years, I have my scrappy underdog to root for forever.