It's Easy To Understand Passion Of Soccer Fans

July 25, 2009

I saw soccer fanaticism up-close and personal Friday night, and it was something to behold.

I saw fans in blue jerseys and fans in red-and-black jerseys wave flags and chant and jeer at each other with the nastiest, wittiest jeers you'll ever hear.

I saw a sellout crowd of 71,000 shoe-horned into M&T Bank Stadium to watch two of the best teams in the world, Chelsea FC and AC Milan, square off in the World Football Challenge, which brings European teams to play here in the U.S.

I heard the crowd roar when Chelsea's Didier Drogba drilled a bullet from 30 yards that found the upper-left corner of the net for a goal at the seven-minute mark.

And the roar was even louder when AC Milan's Clarence Seedorf tied the score in the 38th minute on an absolute rocket from 60 yards, with an assist from the great Ronaldinho.

I heard Chelsea fans sing a song that consisted of only two words, "John ... Terry" repeated over and over in an homage to the Blues captain.

"It's rich in subtlety and sophistication," Neil Barnett of Chelsea TV said dryly about the ditty. "It has three syllables and two words. But it has a climax!"

Right. The climax involves dragging out the last stanza so it sounds like this: "John TERRR-EEE!"

But that song sounded like The Battle Hymn of the Republic compared with the AC Milan song that went: "Pippo ... Inzaghi" followed by five quick claps.

"He's their No. 1 striker and my favorite player in the whole world," said Joseph Franchini of London, Ontario, who traveled here to watch his team. And he showed me how the song went.

"It's a great song."

A great song?

Well, OK. It's catchy. And fans of the Rossoneri (which roughly translates into red and black) sang it well. I guess.

But any song that requires clapping probably can't be considered great, can it?

In any event, it was a wonderful spectacle, this match between Chelsea of the English Premier League and AC Milan of Italy's Serie A.

And it was great for Baltimore, too. Great to see so much anticipation and excitement downtown on a hot, sticky July night, with the reeling Orioles up in Boston and not much else going on.

Think NFL fans get a little worked up for the big game with their beer-swilling, face-painting and head-dress-wearing, not to mention the fascination with colorful beads and ugly camouflage pants?

Well, soccer fans aren't exactly wallflowers, either.

The day before the match, I sat in a pub on Pratt Street and listened as scores of Chelsea supporters sang a bawdy song called "Celery."

You wouldn't think the harmless herb could ever be the subject of a bawdy song. But take my word for it: It could. And it is.

Therefore, I won't repeat the lyrics here, as it would lead to an uproar from some readers and - even worse for me - my immediate termination if it actually got into the newspaper.

I also listened to a woman named Beth Wild from Fort Worth, Texas, who discovered the intoxication of soccer madness in 1981, when she was 23 and a graduate student in London.

"I'd never seen a game, never been to a game, never followed the game," Wild said.

But she went one day to a bar on Fulham Road with a guy named Simon.

Properly fueled, they went on to the Chelsea-Wrexham match on the Blues' home ground of Stamford Bridge. They stood in the Shed End, where the hard-core fans put forth an unearthly wall of sound unlike anything she had ever heard.

What followed for Wild was a near-religious experience as the Blues won, 2-nil.

"I thought: 'This is amazing,' " she recalled. "I was hooked for life. It changed my life ... the passion of the fans! The singing, the cheering! They sing from the time they get there until the time they leave.

"And it's win, lose or draw. We sing even louder when we're down a goal."

When she was about to turn 50 not long ago, her brother asked what she wanted to do for her birthday.

She said she wanted to see a Chelsea match. Live. With family and friends, too.

So off they all flew to London and the hallowed ground at Stamford Bridge, where they watched the Blues beat Portsmouth, 4-0 amid much the same fevered atmosphere Wild remembered from nearly 30 years earlier.

At one point, her brother turned to her and said, "Now I see why you love this."

On a muggy July evening in Baltimore, lots of people were making their own discoveries about the game.

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