As I stood on the balcony of my accommodation, looking down on the fan fest in Kyiv, trying to explain to my Ukrainian host why all the fans were singing at each other, it suddenly struck me how radically following football has changed over the last 25 years.
This is my seventh UEFA/FIFA tournament and I have enjoyed them all, but long before my first tournament in USA 94, I had my first initiation into football on the crumbling concrete terraces of Charlton Athletic, at the old Valley, in London, where the wind whipped into the stadium and the concrete terrace drained the feeling from my feet and made me wonder if it was possible to feel any colder! Ironic…I know
In those days in the UK, crowd trouble was an expected part of the match day experience. Inside or outside the stadium, you were never totally safe, and so as teenagers, we made sure that we stayed in a group, steered clear of large groups, avoided any loud singing or chanting and made sure we were as close to the police as possible at all times.
USA 94 changed all my preconceived notions of watching football probably for 2 main reasons. Firstly, England didn’t qualify and so instantly, a significant hooligan element was eliminated. And secondly, the police were ever present and had zero tolerance for trouble. It all resulted in the safest experience I’d ever had to that point, and since then I have tried to attend every international tournament I can.
More recently, the provision of fan zones with lots of security but no segregation has turned all my hard earned lessons upside down. Arriving in a strange new city, the first thing I look for is all the big groups of fans, and to follow the sound of chanting.
Football has been billed as a unifying force, and whilst the victims of the Football War in 1969 might disagree, these days, it has an amazing ability to bring people from all over the world together. Never was there a clearer example of that, than the opening night as an Omani in Ukraine, watching Poland play Greece, sat and discussed the game with Russians, Swedes, Albanians, Portuguese, Danish, Irish and English fans. And during, but especially , after the game, the old running battles between gangs of rivals supporters were replaced by the modern version…gangs of fans singing at each other. All in good humour.
The only assault on each other was the volume of noise, and the only harm done was the out of tune singing, with each group trying to out sing the other and get more of the neutrals to sing along with their group. I must have made about 15 friends that night, whom I will probably never see again, and I am looking forward to making even more tonight.
It certainly beats watching Charlton…in more ways than one!