Most Canadians cannot claim allegiance to their soccer team as a birthright; most of us have grown into the sport and our team. Of course some Canadians come from a family of supporters but it has always been that little bit more difficult to be a ‘supporter’ while being in Canada. Nevertheless people find a way. In Ottawa, we saw it first hand when thousands of Scottish Canadians showed up to support the Glasgow Rangers, a reborn shadow of the historic Scottish team. Even then, how many had set foot in a Glasgow stadium to watch the Old Firm Derby? In reality, how many grew up on this side of the Atlantic and only heard stories from family or friends of what it means to go to the Ranger’s Ibrox? How many had to learn to support their team through long-distance imitation and with great effort? I think the same questions can be asked of many soccer supporters in Canada. The few, I’d say the lucky, have breathed the stadium air and heard the authentic roar of their team’s crowd celebrate a match winning goal. Live and without the interruption of a television broadcaster. The rest of us have had soccer’s passion planted in our hearts in what some might say are ‘unnatural ways’.
I don’t have a good reason why I started watching the sport as a kid, beyond that my parents signed me up to play recreational soccer. As the son of a German immigrant, my earliest vivid memory of being a television spectator was the 1998 World Cup and the inglorious defeat of Germany at the feet of the Croatians. My sadness at the result has no great explanation; my connection to Germany was never very solid. Yes my mom was an immigrant with her family and I did have monthly dinners at my Oma’s, who spoke English with great difficulty, and it brought her a lot of happiness when I told her that I cheered for Germany. My environment, while not toxic to supporting the sport, was never really fertile for being a soccer supporter. Like so many others, my interest had to grow in the unlikely climate of Canada. When TFC was born I tried my best to like the team. But I was more of a fan of the sport in Canada than the team in Toronto.
My passion for live soccer was radicalized in Argentina where I’d gone to conduct research on soccer culture. In little over 14 months, I went to close to 60 professional matches across three of Argentina’s divisions but most of my time was spent following Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro. San Lorenzo is one of the country’s most successful clubs but it was relatively unknown outside of the country until recently – mostly because one of the club’s supporters became Pope Francis and they recently lifted the Libertadores, South America’s most important trophy. These events have shown a recent change of fortune for San Lorenzo since I was in Argentina in 2011-12. When I arrived the club was facing a drawn out relegation battle. As the team fell down the table, I got to live Argentinian passion first hand: to see tens of thousands of supporters turn into shambles, tears rolling down their cheeks in the first half as they imagined their beloved team in the abyss of a lower division. Only to be lifted by a dramatic comeback; a 3-2 victory that pulled the team out of direct relegation. In that match the tears flowed once again, this time in utter joy.
Argentinian fans are known for their demonstrations of support: pulsating songs that send the terraces into a surging frenzy, concrete bending under the weight of jumping fans, and their nearly unending devotion for the full 90 minutes. Lyrical creativity over popular melodies is used to insult opponents as much as support their own clubs. I was fortunate to be with what many Argentinians consider to be one of the most creative supporters in the country; the “hit” of the last world cup, “Brazil decime que se siente…” is based on the melody of a CCR song that was first transformed by the supporters of San Lorenzo. Throughout the nearly disastrous campaign, San Lorenzo supporters sang with an honest sincerity, “through all the bad times, I swear that I will always be with you.” Each year the club’s supporters provide new stadium songs, lyrics often proclaiming their fanaticism for San Lorenzo. The supporters section has a repertoire of at least a hundred songs. Argentinian fans are also known as some of the world’s most violent, something I saw rare glimpses of while attending matches but I also had the sense that situations were explosive.
Canada, and Ottawa in particular, for good and bad is far far away from Argentinian soccer culture. I don’t think the point of SMR is to copy or imitate Argentinians or the soccer culture of any other country for that matter. Borrowing parts, however, is something that reflects who we are and where we come from. One of the things that impresses me most about Argentinian supporters, and something I hope we learn to create in Ottawa, is their pride and dignity. Their fandom belongs to them and no one else. The stadium culture, with all of its problems, is something supporters talk about and it deeply influences their connection to their team. They don’t just fiercely support their team, they fiercely believe in the community they create through their support. And they are able to create an environment and an experience that pushes their emotions. With the birth of the Ottawa Fury FC, I think we’ve been given a chance to make something new, something unique to the people of our city. We each come to the stadium at Lansdowne with our own story: why we love soccer, or why we are interested in trying to love it, and what we think it means to support the Fury. We are given a chance to combine our different traditions, stories, and desires to make something that belongs to this city, to our people.
For me there are two principles that make a strong supporters section: always support the team always; and, everyone that supports the team belongs.
Beyond these principles for the section, my hope is that SMR represents the creative intentions of its ‘people’. The word members doesn’t work because a riot is rarely well organized. But SMR is a small and growing collective of people who want to show their support for the Fury. We can be proud after the first year that Ottawa is becoming known as one of the loudest stadiums in the NASL. We have sowed the seeds of a soccer culture that belongs to Ottawa and we will see it grow on its own terms. And over that time, I look forward to each of the moments where we together get to live the passion of being a Fury supporter.
Join SMR when the Fury play against Canadian rivals Edmonton FC, Saturday 18 October at 3PM. Tickets from the supporters groups are $15.
Part of the Why I Riot Blog Series, posted by Matt H