15 May 2008

UEFA Cup Comes to Manchester: Musings on Football Fanatics

With golden intentions to take a much deserved break from writing, I decided to head into the city center yesterday. I packed my notebook to brainstorm and record my observations while sitting in some outdoor cafe, my camera to snap a few shots of the Manchester that I see and my knitting gear for the Absolute Knitters biweekly meeting at 8th Day on Oxford Road. I rambled down to Gatley where I got on the train (which I now prefer over the bus as it is cheaper and much faster) to go to Manchester Piccadilly. Why are there men in blue soccer jerseys boarding the train in my little village? I had conveniently forgotten the Glasgow Rangers were playing Zenit from St. Petersburg in the Uefa Cup Final that evening. Since I had already spent two quid on my train fare and I hadn't done anything to refill my creative springs in more than a week, I bravely decided to make my journey into the city despite the imminence of football fanaticism…

I am really no stranger to all this European football madness – I was in Germany for the 2006 World Cup where I experienced it from all sides: backyard barbeques with the television rolled out onto the patio, over packed pubs where the air was still thick with cigarette smoke, the frenetic energy engulfing the Allianz Arena in Munich as the Germans beat Sweden 2:0 in the first 12 minutes, the adrenaline rush of the fans pouring through the cities after a successful round of penalty shooting, and the final crush of defeat. For three weeks, soccer became my personal religion. So, how bad could these fans be? Little did I know that Rangers fans are the poster children of sports hooliganism. Oh, the cultural lessons we must learn when living in a new country!

Encountering this apparent madness as an outsider is such a revealing experience. When I arrived at Manchester Piccadilly, the station was infectious with the excitement and chanting of The Bears (Ranger's fans) who all seemed to be already generously liquored by noon (How many cans of cheap lager can you guzzle before lunch?). Many a palette of beer met an untimely demise at their hands. Walking down from the station, I had to watch myself in my favorite black and white gingham ballet flats as not to step on shards from broken bottles or the steadily growing puddles of the backwash beer leaking from discarded half liter cans. When I realized the sheer insanity of what was happening around me, I made a beeline to get out of the city centre. 

Fleeing wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. Every man out there had his beer goggles on and there were a few guys that tried to chat me up along my way out of the city. I actually did stop to talk to one, a certain 'Bongo', who said he directly spotted me as not being English (and therefore interesting?). He told me he was from Glasgow. Ya don't say? I would have never known. Then he mentioned his trip to Florida. Good for you, Bongo. Next time, mate, try Seattle, Portland or Vancouver. He wanted to give me 'a wee kiss on the cheek' and I painfully obliged so he would just let go of my hand. Yew. Ranger cooties. My sanity was restored from the all the crazy blue shirted men (and women) when I ducked into the Cornerhouse to check out their magazine and book shops. I bought myself a copy of the 'Sloth' edition of Cabinet, then crossed the street over to 8th Day where I was finally free of the epidemic plaguing the streets of Manchester in the quiet sanctuary of the cafe. Somehow, in retrospect, I did manage to refill my artistic spring with many observations (hence this post). All was not lost; too bad the Rangers did.

The city had actually welcomed fans by setting up several viewing screens for fans without tickets on several of the larger squares in the city centre. The public drinking ban was lifted - a Carlsberg tanker truck was parked conveniently at Piccadilly Gardens, the main public viewing zone. Unfortunately, the screen broke later that evening causing all sorts of drunken upheaval. It was said that the city was besieged by nearly 100,000 fans who were to spend millions. One Rangers fan spent nearly 1500 GBP and flew from northern Australia where he works just to spend a whole 27 hours in Manchester and see the game. If this man's dedication says anything, than it is safe to assume that every Rangers fan from all corners of the United Kingdom descended upon Manchester yesterday.

Rangers fans left the city of Manchester in shambles. Granted the City Council did not plan well enough for the onslaught expecting them – there was a marked lack garbage bins and public toilets. But police (and a police dog!) were injured. Someone was stabbed. There was a river of urine reportedly flowing down one city street and vomit on every doorstep. Following soccer is a good time, but does it really have to be taken this far? And if it allowed to go this far, then why aren't the effects and such an aftermath being managed for? One would think that someone would have figured out how to by now.

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