Growing up as a rugby lover in a family where football runs in the blood, I am quite used to the standard divide. “Football’s the beautiful game”. “Rugby players are just footballers who didn’t make it”. “Rugby’s just for men that want to get close and personal to other men”. I’ve sat and watched slanging matches across the kitchen table as the latest family reunion disintegrates. I’m used to separating off into adjacent rooms for the Boxing Day matches. I’ve gone home to Cardiff post Bloodgate ’09 to be greeted by a room of people with ketchup smeared all over their faces. I’ve had it all.
Yet, dating a football fan for me has been the final push. I use the term ‘fan’ lightly – I’d describe him more as a die-hard Gillingham fanatic. I’m talking a middle-of-fancy-dinner “Oh shit. I haven’t updated my fantasy football” kind of fanatic. And somewhere along the line, with only a handful of football matches under my belt, I was ‘forced’ to pay Priestfield a visit [in exchange, come the 18th October he’ll be watching the start of the season from my seats at The Stoop].
Not one to take things by half, I dressed myself in appropriate attire with Dack emblazoned across my back and off we went to the opening game of the season. Admittedly, my first mistake came early. Apparently my familiar practice of turning up early to have a wander around with a beer in hand doesn’t translate to football. Oh, and there goes my second. Asking for a tour of the ground somewhat embarrassed my boyfriend who had to explain that we couldn’t just “walk around” as we were confined to our stand. A fact that I assured him would be disastrous at Quins considering the best burger bar is in the opposite corner of the ground to my LV stand seats. Third mistake. A social meet and greet with our Sheffield United friend was also a no-go. We can’t even get into their part of the stadium?! And who knew that even the local pubs were segregated.
Having been to countless rugby games in my lifetime, I can only name one instance of a conflict. I was sitting at the Stoop a number of years back, when some drunken away fans in the row behind us started to get rowdy. They got a couple of glares from the surrounding crowd, including my protective father, but when they didn’t quieten down it was seemingly decided that they had crossed a line. Four of the biggest guys in the neighbouring rows stood up and asked them to leave. Which they did. Very promptly.
So, imagine my horror when, even as the teams were read out, I was surrounded by a sea of boos, hisses and unsightly hand gestures made in the opposition’s direction. And the songs and chants, which erupted non-stop from kickoff, were not, shall we say, pleasant to the ear. In fact, it shocked me how many kids were actually in the stands when surrounded by such a high and unrestricted level of swearing and general insolence. The most surprising: the fact that my boyfriend didn’t even flinch when the away fans started ripping up a few seats and chucking them down the stand towards the pitch. Apparently that’s something that “just happens”.
My second matchday experience took this to a whole new level. A trip to Rome with a football fanatic surely meant only one thing: a Sunday night visit to the Stadio Olimpico to watch Roma take on Juventus. Getting into the ground was a scary enough process in itself – Italians don’t seem to understand the concept of queuing, whilst the four different security checks en route posed a seemingly never-ending series of potential problems. During the match itself, in a language I couldn’t even understand, the hatred of the home fans through their taunts to their monochrome clad opposition was glaringly obvious. This was also my first experience of racism in the game, with distinct monkey chants audible around the stadium that climaxed when Pogba was in possession. A crowd catalysed by the disrespect of the players towards the referee, perhaps? Whichever side of that debate you land on, I think rugby and football fans alike would agree that this was not an experience that should be repeated in any sphere of the sporting world.
The flip side, however, was that the passion and atmosphere at both games was something that I have never experienced in a rugby crowd. To be completely contained in a bundle of fans, whose communal energy was electrifyingly infectious, is something that mixed seating will never support. A lone Harlequins fan lost in the huge crowd of the Stadio Olympico, yet it was impossible to feel like you didn’t belong. Whilst, at Priestfield, the relentless chanting meant that even I found myself subconsciously singing along – ‘Come all Within’ admittedly doesn’t seem quite so impressive any more. And, the rarity of goals, although less thrilling throughout the 90 minutes, did make the moments of magic that little bit more special.
The number of fans as well is incomparable. I will rarely miss a Twickenham club game, and I’m a huge supporter of fixtures like the Big Game which make rugby more accessible to the public, drawing in up to 82,000 a time. But, for a League One side to regularly have the attendance of Sandy Park, Allianz Park or the Rec is quite impressive. And for Roma to get close to filling an Olympic stadium week-in, week-out is a feat that rugby is still far from achieving.
I can’t say I prefer the football layout. One of my favourite Heineken Cup memories is sitting between a bunch of Stade fans throwing friendly banter back and forth in a distinctly broken ‘FrAnglais’. And to be able to go to Twickenham Club matches with crowds of over 80,000 and not worry in the slightest about the thousands of children present is quite reassuring – rugby definitely provides a more family orientated environment. That being said, you can never generate the atmosphere that I experienced at the Stadio Olimpico without segregation in the crowd. To be completely surrounded by fans holding scarves, shirts, and pretty much anything else they could get their hands on, aloft to the hearty tune of their club song was a spine-tingling experience I will never forget. It was one of the most overwhelming sporting moments of my life.
My conclusion: Football’s not for the faint hearted . Forget the stereotype of pathetic footballers against unrelenting rugby players. What the players lack in brutality is certainly made up for by the fans. The sport provides a form of zealous factionalism, particularly at club level, that I have never come across in a lifetime frequenting rugby grounds. Yet, I must admit, their passion is somehow, at the same time, infuriatingly contagious. And, as much as it pains me to say it, I can see myself taking my place in the Rainham End a little more often..