I will fully admit to it, I jumped on the soccer bandwagon. Soccer was a sport of my youth, mainly watching but never really a player. I had the chance to attend all the youth events set up for the 1994 Men’s World Cup out at the New York City Giants’ stadium. I wish I still had that slightly garish dirt-brown oversized t-shirt they gave us for playing a rousing game of kneeball soccer. Nearly 15 years later during the deepest and hottest months of a Midwest summer, I found respite in the cooling AC of local sports bars hosting the Men’s World Cup viewing parties at all hours. In all, soccer would flit in and out of my life as seemed necessary, with only the stars and the highlights really sticking around to make an impact.
Fast forward to earlier this year when a long-term friend brought me to my first Seattle Sounders match. He warned me profusely beforehand that “you really have to stand for 90 minutes, and clap, and chant, and I can give you a scarf to wave, and… don’t you dare look at your phone.” He wasn’t speaking about the entire stadium of course, but of the Emerald City Supporters section, the main support club for the Sounders. They sit in specific sections, lower 121, 122 and 123, and are the heart of the long-term, die-hard support for the Sounders. They don’t just create and propagate supporter culture, they are the culture. And after a quick dive into soccer twitter and attending a few games, it’s clear to me they are as committed to each other as fans and friends as they are to the game and its players.
I genuinely wasn’t prepared for that first game. The crowds were thick outside Century Link and a marching band boomed out twists on popular pop songs as a literal sea of blue and green snaked towards the stadium. The security reminded me more of my post 9/11 hometown than what I am used to in any kind of event in laid-back Seattle. And I finally understood that clear back-packs had not in fact made a fashionable comeback but were required if you wanted to bring any kind of container into the stadium.
ECS sits right behind the south end goal, which normally would be a great place to watch a game, except for the dozen or so 25-foot long flags that fly, without stop, through the 90 minute game. The flags often relay different subgroups within the ECS community. Barra Fuerza Verde is the Latinx group and they fly a giant sugar skull flag with the words “Fútbol Sin Fronteras” (soccer without/beyond borders). The Emerald City Sirens are a group of women and gender-non-conforming people intent to “foster community and destroy barriers for womxn and gender nonconforming supporters of Sounders FC”. There are the Brougham Boys, as close as you come to soccer ultras in this part of the world. And they, as far as I can tell, will out drink and out chant or drum anyone else while making sure that white men aren’t being total assholes to the people around them. Besides the flags, there are aptly named cloth placards called two-poles. There has been some recent controversy over the messaging of prominent two-poles being held by ECS members bearing the phrase “Anti-racist, anti-fascist, always Seattle”, which is a part of a much larger fight inside the sport currently over the historically anti-fascist imagery of the Iron Front symbol, three arrows pointing down and to the left.
Deep imposter syndrome notwithstanding, my first moment of panic came as the overhead PA began to announce the National Anthem. I do not stand for the anthem, and don’t consider it a big deal. I’m from a big city where most people identify more with where their parents or grandparents came from than the stolen native land they stand on currently. I have never been called out for not standing, and I don’t plan on changing that position at any point, but places like giant stadiums full of beer drinking sports fans certainly give me a moment of unease in that conviction. So, I stayed seated and hung my head, I thought about all of the people, recent and past that have died because of nationalism and hoped nobody would pour a beer on me. Peaking an eye open, I noticed that the section was full of people sitting, kneeling with fists in the air and their backs turned on ol’ glory. No one jeered and 30 seconds later it was over and nothing happened. Everyone rose to their feet as the goal-side fireworks went off and the match started.
The supporter sections of all stadiums are the loudest, or at least they should be. There are designated chant leaders called capos, and there is a large drum section to keep everyone on beat. Chant cards are passed out, but really once you hear them through one or two times they are pretty easy to get. The words blue, green, unity, beer and goal are frequent as well as the number ‘74, the year the Sounders were formed in Seattle. The Spanish language chant is a remake of the Richie Valens hit La Bamba, with other remakes of Cock Sparrer, Sick of it All and Woody Guthrie songs rounding it all out. The capos aren’t just there to lead chants and coordinated scarf waving but to make sure everyone in the section is focused on the game and nothing but the game. About 20 minutes in, the capo in front of me looked over her thick rimmed black sunglasses and absolutely screamed at some man for being on his phone. “IN THE SUPPORTER SECTION WE SUPPORT, PHONES DOWN!”
In a world and city that bases itself on alienation and automation, this basic act of de-commodifying an experience is what sealed it for me. This is something that I want in on. You can’t sell the experience of being at the game if a fundamental part of that experience is being told you cannot capture it on your phone. It’s 90 minutes where your emotions are synced with the tens of thousands of people around you, and more intimately with the few hundred in 121,122, and 123. I found myself high-fiving strangers and using the term “we” in completely unreasonable ways. Each pass and corner kick, as well as every bad call by a referee and goal attempt is a ripple of emotion that passes through everyone, and that’s not relegated to the stands. The players see it, actually. For a brief moment, your world shrinks to the outcome of something as simple as a game. But the real beauty in this is how ECS and other supporter groups across the country have kept the sanctity of soccer, and a diligent understanding of the game, its teams and complicated leagues while not creating a space to “tune out” or a space bereft of what some would call politics.
You can stand in support of your team, whether you’ve been there for years or are new like me and understand that people will fight for your inclusion and fight against those that would set themselves against you. For me, this kind of space where interpersonal interactions are not only encouraged but required and strong stances against racism, fascism, xenophobia and misogyny are the norm is exactly what I was looking for. As I dive deeper into the sport, I begin to understand the nuances of the rivalries and the rules; as players become more familiar faces and I expand my soccer knowledge to Reign FC down in Tacoma, the reality that this is what we need bubbles closer to the surface. That not only is this a game, but it’s a break with commodity and a break with passivity inside a dominant culture that lives off of and breeds both.
We might need soccer as much as it needs us.