At least no times a year am I asked what I think the differences between football spectating in Europe and North America are, but when asked by a friend if I’d like to attend a Baseball game during a hastily arranged stay in New York last week, the idea tickled my fancy. “No” I thought, I’d rather have all my fingers cut off and sewn on again the wrong way round before being forced to roll a cigarette, “but I would like to see a football, nee soccer game.”
The custom is, I know, to partake in the host’s culture when abroad, but most American sport registers with me somewhere between canal fishing and watching an inebriated Yorkshireman trying to fit his keys in the lock at 2 in the morning for an hour. Besides, this would be culturally enriching. I wouldn’t be simply going to watch Hurricane Henry kickball it out with Beckham’s Barnet – a duel I’ve witnessed several times already – I’d be going to observe the significant behavioral differences in watching the World’s most beloved sport in it’s two most culturally prominent Continents. And I was going to write an earth shattering, life changing, award winning article about it too. Booya!
The MLS, to most of us Europeans, still remains a mysterious commodity. A sort of intriguing unknown we’re unsure whether to take seriously. We don’t, partly because some of us still assume Americans just couldn’t possibly get it. They’ve failed to cotton on this far, why would they now? We all have our euro-centric preconceptions about it (Unless you happen to be from the US, in which case hello! you have a very odd conception of cheese.) and all of them would no doubt include some notion of overly theatrical presentation.
And, as to be expected, it excelled in this kind of showy, gaudy, pompy theatre that befits a nation who likes rock concerts in the middle of their sporting events. Giant screen console areas full of Faginesque parentless children, more food vendors than you could shake a turkey twizzler at, ball parks, Wii tents, T-Rex paddock, you name it, it was crammed into this small but efficiently built and deceptively large looking stadium (it only holds 25k) on the outskirts of Industrial New Jersey. A set up more reminiscent of an International tournament or Champions League final was gracing a Tuesday night league match in the Styx. “Interesting” I thought, “I can see I’m going to have to drink more.”
Which proved to be no problem at all, as not only is drink still permitted in American stadiums (and given my opinion of their sports, they’d be lost without it) but its almost impossible to evade it, as kiosks selling all types of bizarrely eclectic hooligan wife beating beverages like Stella and Boddingtons where seemingly under orders to be no further than 10ft away from each other. Domestic stalwarts like Budweiser and Coors (who seemed to sponsor everything) where also available if you wanted, but I didn’t, and so two Hoegaardens, a Land Shark and some nondescript meat in a thing were purchased, and off to our seats we went, to find we had little cup holders on the back of them, making eating our meat in a thing less of a jumbling chore. Success! Say what you like about safe standing terraces, there’s a small sacrilegious part of me that’d like foreign beer and cup holders. It’s the same part that thinks Gary Barlow’s a pretty good songwriter though, so I wouldn’t trust him.
It was during this brief moment of pre-match serenity that my prejudicial stereotype antenna sprung to attention. The stadium announcer was hilarious. With an over enthusiastic voice so far into a parody of itself I was sure he was going to pre-face every utterance with “Hi, I’m Ed Winchester” (obscure 90s sketch show reference there for you kids) he seemed to have a form of advertising tourettes, a condition sadly epidemic on the coasts of America, and like an annoying DJ intermittently talking over the songs, he could scarcely bare to leave the air dead for longer than 10 seconds. When Big Ed wasn’t raping the mic to hawk us life insurance from one of the Red Bulls’ many, many sponsors, he (or someone like him) was mashing up the mixing desk with attention deficit disorder. 30 seconds of a myriad of different tunes where blasted out of the PA including, in a moment of almost zen cheesiness, the Star Wars Imperial March upon the revealing of the away team sheet. Then someone from Bon Jovi came out to sing the national anthem with a Casio keyboard on a kickstand and I began to think I was being Punk’d.
Only in America could they pull off that level of sheer mind assaulting theatrical over zealousness, and pull that off they did. Sitting there you didn’t really feel it was out of place, it was very in place in fact. It would feel out of place at Loftus Road, sure, but in New York, a city that’s a virtual paean to excess and exaggeration, it would’ve felt out of place to not have it. And it’s not like we’re that far off in Blighty. Give the FA five more years and Wembley Terminal 5 will be selling us bobble heads from the light fixtures. It already has it’s own Ed Winchester, who gleefully informs us, to no one’s satisfaction but his own, that “The time for waiting is over!” whenever the teams make their way onto the hallowed turf (Question: Whenever Wembley is re-laid, do they have to get the turf re-hallowed as well?) and in truth most big clubs have a cringe worthy Winchester-esque announcer these days.
After finally reaching the kick off (but not before another superfluous 5 second blast of yet more rock music) and by now getting nicely half cut, we decided that sitting in the gods wasn’t conducive to experiencing a proper, American atmosphere, and so down we went to try and jib our way in with the proper fans behind the goal. Despite my match going companion’s convincing belief that they wouldn’t care where we sat as they don’t take football very seriously here, this proved slightly harder than expected as, perhaps unsurprisingly, they did. Furthermore the gaps of empty seats we had seen from above were rapidly filling up, as apparently half the people with tickets for this game had decided not to turn up until half way through the first half, or perhaps they had, but had become stuck in a Wii tent.
Eventually, after putting on my most convincing New York accent – which was somewhere between Woody Allen and Wu-Tang via Joey from Friends – for reasons I’m still pretty unclear on, we managed to sneak our way in at one of the corners and proceeded to shuffle our way along the rows towards the drums.
It was during this shuffling that I began to wonder whom all the pomp and circumstance was for. These people were proper football fans, a fittingly pot melting mix of South Americans, 3rd generation European immigrants and All American sports fans. These people didn’t want a Wii tent (though now on my 8th beer, I did) they just wanted a standing area to sing and drum and go f**king mental in. My plastic cup holder & Gary Barlow loving side dissolved in an instant along with any assertions that Americans didn’t really get the terrace culture of football. These people did. Sure there were only a few hundred of them, and with Columbian flags and some chants in Spanish (Sos Cagon even got an airing) it was clear where much of the influence was coming from but to claim it was only the ex pats would be disingenuous. Both of the hype men (a feature that may be laughed at by English purists but which is not uncommon in South America and did genuinely help keep the singing constant) where both “All American” (whatever that means in a country founded on immigration) and long-time followers of the club through it’s different incarnations. All the songs related to the “Metro”, the club the Red Bulls used to be before its name change from the MetroStars in 2006.
Certain sections of the ground were designated for different supporters groups, usually next to each other. We managed to get ourselves into a section for some people calling themselves the Viking Army (who sadly, where neither Vikings, nor dressed like Vikings) before moving along towards the Empire Supporters, or “them lot with the drums”. These sections proceeded to battle each other throughout the half, each with its own hype man. A few American specific chants or tunes where notable, but in the main it was a similar repertoire to what you’d find in any football mad nation across the globe.
By this point we were completely hammered and no doubt making utter fools of ourselves, but in a small but enjoyable atmosphere it didn’t matter. This was proper football, with proper football fans, and the fact that I’d expected anything less, was slightly embarrassing. I left completely satisfied, and very drunk, and while it may not have been the Superclásico, it was still more fun than 80% of the England home International I’ve attended in the last 5 years. And I didn’t even go in the Wii tent.
Watch my experience and video diary below
You can follow Oscar on Twitter here Twitter/Oscarpyejeary where you can help him debate the existential meaning of biscuits.