Fred Williams, Upwey Landscape, 1964–5


Excerpt from the recently published book

The stadium as a fan ritual

Nowadays, crowd events occur in stadiums much more frequently than they did half a century ago. Since the late 1970s and the rise of Freddie Mercury and his band Queen to worldwide fame, arena rock has become not just a fact of life, but a popular genre of music in its own right. The song “We Are The Champions” represents this. On June 23, 2019, the closing mass of the German Protestant Church Forum took place in the largest stadium in Germany, in Dortmund (although the number of 32 thousand participants was considered “disappointing”).

However, a briefly renewed hope in the political efficacy of spontaneous crowd formations faded again as the sweeping scenes of the Arab Spring and the days of the Maidan Revolution in Kiev were filed away deep in our historical memories.

Despite this configuration of trends, my observation that “the masses reach their foundation precisely in the stadium” may have seemed misleading. For to seriously insinuate that there could be perfect or completely correct versions of any phenomenon would be pseudoplatonic and consequently pseudophilosophical thinking of the worst kind.

Therefore, I should rephrase the sentence. Initially, looking at crowds in stadium space and spectators at sporting events helped us avoid two traditional forms of analysis: the traditional contempt for the masses and their equally unconvincing “heroization” as agents of history. Both approaches link the masses to the concept of “subject”, either positively, as a heroic collective subject of status superior, whether negatively, as an environment that would supposedly reduce the intelligence of its individual subjects.

In contrast to this, the stadium's perspective tries to shed light on a complexity that has previously been little discussed, the double complexity of the fan phenomenon. Namely, on the one hand, the ambivalence between the known tendency towards violence of these crowds and the possibility of accessing, as part of the crowds, an intensity that would otherwise be inaccessible, an ecstasy. To rephrase, we can therefore say that crowds may not need the stadium to “get to their foundation”, but that it is through the stadium context that they become above all an intellectually rewarding object.

However, I do not want to extend this theoretical analysis of fans to a third stage (because such processes of conceptual unfolding never come to an end). Instead, in the two concluding chapters, my aim is to once again describe the stadium fans' experience from two concrete perspectives. Both will show fans as a phenomenon of presence – that is, as I explained in my definition of presence, at a distance from, precisely, an interpretation of their functions or actions as attempts to change the world.

From the point of view of presence, functions and actions carried out in time are replaced by rituals, that is, by forms of self-unfolding of phenomena in space (and I am referring to rituals in the broad sense of current contemporary language, not to religious rituals in specific ). Such rituals are choreographies within which we can move again and again without ever changing the world through them. Against the backdrop of our two theoretical chapters, viewing stadium events as rituals should open up the possibility of experiencing and evaluating them in terms of their productive alienation.

The particular choreography of the stadium ritual usually begins some distance from the venue. At home, at work, at the subway station, on game day we feel drawn to the stadium – an attraction that is also physical. On the Saturdays in the fall when the Stanford football team plays at home, I never actually manage to work at the library until the scheduled time. I become unable to concentrate on anything else and the walk from the library office past Encina Hall to the stadium takes much less time than the usual fifteen minutes (my wife says she no longer wants to “run” with me, so that nowadays we find ourselves directly in the stadium in the usual seats, row 11, at the height of the forty-yard line).

In Dortmund there is a bright yellow corridor that leads from the train station in the gray north to the stadium in the green south of the city – a corridor, for some a running track, but for no one a promenade for socializing. Who had the idea that fans, on this route from the station to the stadium, would have time or inclination to stop at the beautiful German Football Museum? Stadiums, on match days, are unparalleled and powerful magnets, the center of existence for fans, with no alternative or distraction.

The pulse beats stronger the closer I get to the stadium, whether I'm seeing the red at Stanford or the yellow at Dortmund taking over everything around me. In Istanbul, before the classics between Fenerbahçe, Galatasaray and Beşiktaş, police officers are already starting to direct their respective fans kilometers away from the stadiums, in order to separate their routes and avoid explosions of violence. When Borussia isn't playing their derby against Schalke 04, I still drink my only (yellow!) beer of the year in Dortmund on the way to the game, hurriedly, because I have to get to the still almost empty stadium early, which is soon filling up, faster and faster, or, in fact, at the same time too quickly and too slowly for me – and in the process it becomes another space, another real world where I lose myself from everyday life in concentrated intensity.

Such distance from everyday life is gradually established: teams come to warm up, disappear into the dressing rooms, return to the field as in a joint parade. Eight minutes before kick-off, the loudspeakers in Dortmund blare You'll Never Walk Alone, the stadium anthem imported many years ago from Liverpool. The South Tribune sings along and then tends towards the game, getting as close to it as possible without becoming part of it.

Even in indoor stadiums, where the impression of architectural forms can be felt even more intensely, the hockey ice or the basketball court remain separated, whether by glass walls or simply nothing at all – and yet closed in such a way. impenetrable to fans. In baseball, sometimes some of these may even sit at pitch height, almost within the game, but still separated. Whatever our place, we want nothing more than to see movements, forms of transfigured bodies that rise against the resistance of other bodies and against all odds, only to then disappear again. Forms as events, forms that we experience without, however, embodying them ourselves.

At the beginning of the game, the stadium is charged with two tensions: there is our team and the other team, us and the other fans (us and our team, the other fans and their team). As the game unfolds, we and the other fans become mystical bodies, both dependent on but not identical to our respective teams, while the referees, for both sides, always seem to belong to the other mystical body since they do not they are, after all, nothing more than a potential obstacle to the emergence of plays from our own team.

The elementary substance of the stadium divides into two zones and their subsequent energies, there is no third. Two substances and two energies that form and charge against each other, without overlapping. In particular, the great classics bring this absolute separation to a kind of ecstasy that can only arise in the stadium, because the stadium makes visible, condenses and compresses the tensions of the city and all its stories.

Adriano Celentano, a purple fan (fan) from Milan's Internazionale and therefore a rival to AC Milan, the other team from their city (and Borussia Dortmund's quarter-final opponent that February 1958), sang the tension of the 1965 classic in one of the greatest hits of all time, “We were in Centomila” [We were a hundred thousand]. Even the seemingly simple title is interesting, because the preposition in makes the enunciator and the listener of the lyrics (he and she, respectively) become bodies in a crowd of one hundred thousand fans.

All this in the Milan stadium, which at that time was still called San Siro, the name of the neighborhood (the renovated San Siro is named after Giuseppe Meazza, the charismatic striker of the Italian team that won the world in 1934 and 1938). “She from Milan”, he “from Inter”, he saw her in the classic among the hundred thousand fans, “from one end [of the stadium] to the other” (in Italian, the words can also mean “from one goal to the other ”): “I smiled at you/and you said yes”. You can only hope to see her again after the end of the game – but she “runs away with someone else on the tram”. In everyday life after the game, therefore, there is no overlap between the mystical bodies formed during the classic and those that compose them.

“If I'm not mistaken, you saw Inter-Milan with me”, he says at the beginning of the song. “With me”, but after the first quick moments of conversation (“Excuse me!”, “What is this?”, “Where are you going?”, “Why?”) there is no more response from her, the Bella Mora, the beautiful brunette, the Milan fan he so wistfully addresses. It would have been “a game between the two of us”, he sings: “You scored a goal (un goal)/right at the door [in the goal] (the door) from my heart/and I understood that there is only you for me.” No reply. “Io dell'In (Inter!)/ Lei del Mi (Milan!)”, thus ends the song of a tragic love that cannot be consummated: “Io dell'In/ Lei del Mi – o bella mora".

The mid-1960s, with three Italian and two European championships, were the years of “Grande Inter”, the nerazzurra squad by Sandro Mazzola, by whom I was so influenced to the point of growing my mustache during a few months when I worked near Milan in 1972, the year of one of his last seasons. Also his rival Gianni Rivera still played for the Red-black Milan with a casual elegance that must have inspired the dreams of all Milanese mothers-in-law.

But it was Inter coach Helenio Herrera, born in Argentina and raised in French football, who invented it, around Sandro Mazzola, with defenders like Tarcisio Burgnich and Giacinto Facchetti, with full-backs Mario Corso (left) and Brazilian Jair ( right), the hyper-rational elegance of bolt, which remains widely practiced to this day, a strategy that was based on a bet on perfect defense and brilliant counterattacks, racking up 1-0 victories. “C'è sole!” shouted one fan of Inter in the pouring rain, hugging me, when, after a pass from Facchetti to Mazzola on the left and, from there, a turn of play to the right for Jair, Mario Corso pushed the ball into the back of the net with his leg left, the only goal in the victory against AS Roma.

Incorporating an intellectual style of play on the pitch has remained the legacy of the Inter-Milan rivalry for football, just as no other classic has produced a hits with such a tone of dismal reality. Because the insurmountable division of “We were in Centomila” is the condition of intensity of the two blocks, the two mystical bodies, the two fans in the stadium. There is no friendly alternative. Has anyone ever experienced a moment of great emotion in a (that wave that rotates through the spectators in the stadium in a collective circular movement) in which it would have transformed the two blocks of the stadium into a great unity of affections?

The much acclaimed It is nothing more than a symptom of boredom – suitable for the break, for games that have already been decided or for those that no longer have any dramatic meaning. A it is not part of the stadium choreography, while those other moments of ecstasy, rare, spontaneous and explosive that actually captivate all the fans (like at the end of the great rugby match in Sydney) cannot have any choreography, any fixed form, in its explosive character.

But, if it is true that there cannot be a real stadium experience without this invariable structure of division, antagonism and potential aggressiveness (which is why no one cares about friendly games), each sport modality must have different regimes of transitive attention and transfiguration on the players and the plays. Nowhere are rivalries more stubborn and more deeply charged with history than in baseball. Since I'm a San Francisco Giants fan, I've had to learn to actively forget that some of my colleagues and even friends support the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Baseball depends less on the emergence of a form from the movement of several players' bodies than on the confrontation of two individual players, namely, the pitcher on your little hill (mount), who throws the hard white ball to the kneeling catcher, and, on the other hand, the batsman (at bat) between pitcher and catcher, who tries to bat thrown balls out of the other team's reach with his bat. This confrontation has, for its fans, the psychological tension of two chess players and the potentially devastating physical energy of two boxers. Everything for both teams and the fans' attention depends on such clashes, and any other intervention can only occur as a result.

In basketball, given the particularly high scores, games rarely come down to one last decisive basket for victory or defeat, and fans – especially in professional leagues, college basketball has a different dynamic – tend to be more attracted by the fluidity of the team movements and the added artistic value of individual moves that contribute to a particular tension or rivalry. A great dunk is only worth two points, but it produces an irresistible feeling of dexterity, just like Steph Curry's insanely long shots that fall of chuá create a presence of perfection.

I can feel the acceleration of a huge center in hockey and its sudden and expected pain on impact with another body, as well as the weightless connection with the puck being driven on the blade of the stick. The time between moves (downs) in American football, experienced by football fans as unbearably long, is always too short for the complex mind games – and in this case also for the compact conversations of experts who want to anticipate the strategies of both teams for the next play – , until an offensive play is transformed and carried out in real movements in order to overcome (or fail against) the defense bodies.

And, despite all the obsessive discussions in football in recent years about tactics and statistical conditions for success, it has remained a team sport of improvisation. As also happens in ice hockey and unlike games that hold the ball by hand, possession of the ball in football is always precarious and disputed, making the development of the game only vaguely predictable. More than sophisticated strategies or dramatic confrontations, football, therefore, lives on intuitions, brief hopes, disappointments and reactions to which teams must adjust like swarms, without forgetting their mutual antagonisms.

Each team sport has its own tone and rhythm, which I, as a fan, experience and adapt to almost physically, and which produce different forms of coherence between the collective bodies of spectators. Do baseball fans feel in the hands of fate? Do basketball fans evoke ecstasies of perfection? Is there a spirit of military thought in American football or an existentialism in football? I will not pursue such questions and comparisons here because they can become banal in their ingenious arbitrariness.

Certainly, part of the stadium ritual occurs as a reaction to the different plasticities of forms and atmospheres of different sports, which find particular resonances in different bodies of spectators without having to correspond to them (for example, the most physically aggressive games do not have to have the most aggressive fans). All of them, baseball in Osaka, basketball in San Francisco, college football in Alabama, ice hockey in Montreal or football in Dortmund, fill their stadiums with crowds that are completely different in substance, different substances that may be familiar to us because of our experience. without having defined concepts for them.

It is above all the dramatic developments of each individual game that trigger those movements of intensity through which we fans allow ourselves to be carried away, movements that go from openness to irreversibility, movements charged with that pent-up physical energy and composed of transfigured images of our perception. For a fan, nothing that happens at the stadium is trivial or relaxing, all its events are ecstatically serious. And that is why, at the end of the game, the euphoria of the winning mystical body could not be greater, and the loser's discouragement, deeper. Mere satisfaction with victory or annoyance with defeat would be very little.

This is also always the time when – especially in Dortmund – the home team comes to the stands (even after disappointing games and defeats) to thank the fans. Unlike what happens during the game, now the players' bodies are synchronized with the mystical body of the fans and trigger a series of synchronous movements.

The players, at this moment, are no longer separated from the fans; This gratitude can be understood as a mutual exit from the transfiguration, a return to the world of everyday life from which the members of the crowd wanted (and managed) to get away for a few hours, a return to a rather superficial and no longer ecstatic seriousness.

Stadium crowd rituals presuppose that the focus of attention is a team game, because today we very naturally associate spectator sport – both culturally and economically – with the fascination with teams. Historically, however, as already mentioned, the rise of team sports to their current popularity only occurred from the mid-XNUMXth century to the mid-XNUMXth century.

Ancient Greece knew no team games – and cooperation between the charioteers of the respective factions it was more like the sports of automobile racing than football, basketball, or hockey. At the same time, we know that the few athletics events that still take place today on a large scale and in front of full stands do not produce the intensity in the crowd that I have been describing.

Athletics spectators tend to be experts or former athletes rather than fans. There are almost no explanations for the historically late emergence of team sports as a dominant sporting form. Should we assume that the progressive development of individuality as an existential norm of life in Western societies has given the collectivity an increasingly attractive counter-aura? Do those who live day after day alone in front of a screen yearn for collective experiences and their tensions? In its basic premise, this speculation converges with our explanation for full stadiums – what becomes attractive on the periphery of everyday life is precisely what disappears from its center.

In any case, it is plausible to relate the possibility of crowds of spectators like the ones we know to the emergence of team games for two main reasons. Firstly, because team games, unlike most individual sports, take place as competitions between just two sides. In other words, there is always just one other team and its fans that we oppose as another mass.

In individual sports, the situation seems more diffuse: runners, swimmers or gymnasts have several opponents. Secondly, however, our shared concentration among players on our own team and the transfiguration of their movements probably also contributes more to the formation of groups of fans that can become crowds than the concentration on individual athletes. Above all because, within a group, perception often triggers the impulse to associate with it, to join it – and thus to expand it through our own inclusion.

After the end of the game and the thanks from the team (i.e. the release of transfiguration), we are exhausted. For the fan, multidimensional intensity is the equivalent of the athletes' physical participation in the game. We practically no longer feel resistance or even melancholy when leaving the stadium. We know the date of the next game, just like the rituals. We walk slowly, tired, outside the stadium perhaps we want half a cigarette instead of another beer, and the atmosphere of excitement also subsides in the bars.

The night after the game is not for fancy food or brilliant conversation. Maybe we don't even want to talk about the game. The batteries are empty, pleasantly empty – emptiness comes, not relaxation. After all, fans use up all the concentration, proximity and energy they have.

What would we have to lose in a world where there were no longer full stadiums? This is an issue for us, the fans, not for society in general. We would lose a physical feeling of contentless euphoria that attracts us to the stadium and that we wouldn't otherwise have. In exchange, so to speak, we would lose the risk of violence with all its consequences. In any case, there is no educational value and certainly no moral improvement that can be expected from being part of a fan base.

But without them, without their lateral presence and the transfiguring power of their gaze, perhaps the form and aesthetics of the games we are attached to would also change. Not because the masses support their teams, as athletes like to so kindly claim – but because teams and their stars play for the fans even more than they play for their coaches and for their bank accounts, more than perhaps they themselves realize.

Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht is a professor of literature at Stanford University (USA). Author, among other books, of Profiles (unesp).


Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. Fans: The stadium as a ritual of intensity. Translation: Nicolau Spadoni. São Paulo, Editora Unesp, 2023, 126 pages. []

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