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The Fan and the Patriot

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The Fan and the Patriot


It turns out that among the people I know there are more Manchester United fans than Zenit fans by a 3:1 ratio. This is probably due to the fact that I live in Moscow rather than St. Petersburg. I also have friends who follow Spartak Moscow and CSKA, and most of these were not happy at all when Zenit won the UEFA Tournament. In fact, many of them were rooting against the Russians. But they all jumped for joy a week later when the Russians beat the Canadians in the World Hockey Championship. Then there were those, however few, who rooted for the Canadians. Not because they were against the Russians, but simply because they were for the Canadians.

There is a clear formula that works in cases like these: the further a person is from one sport or another, the less he follows it, the less he has his own sympathies and preferences – the more certain it is that he will root for “our” team, that he will be guided by patriotic feelings. This is natural. The famous phrase “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” is not at all some type of cosmopolitan curse but rather a very apt description of reality. When there is no other sense of meaning, patriotism becomes the last point of anchorage that gives people purpose and keeps them from falling into chaos and indifference.  And the word “scoundrel” in this case literally means “unqualified” (a simple person, not a specialist).
In reality, it is a good thing that people who can’t tell the difference between an out and a position in a game still feel pride in their country when “our” team overtakes “their” team. But there’s nothing terrible in the fact that Zenit or even the Russian National Team for some people might not be “our” team. A fan is not a soldier in the ranks. And a country’s team (especially one of its individual clubs) is not the country itself.

Since the Soviet era, we have become accustomed to viewing sports as a matter of national or state importance, which means that any victory of "our" team is also a victory for the country and state. In this model, the fan, while certainly not a soldier, is nevertheless a civil servant of sorts with a duty to root for “our” team. But in reality, sports are sports and are only very indirectly related to a country’s greatness. Secondly, the very essence of being a sports fan involves a personal choice on the part of an individual. Being a fan, when it comes down to it, is a withdrawal from everyday life and personal singularity. It is precisely this joining of an individual’s separateness with the unified whole – formed by others who have made the same choice – that creates the energy exhibited by fans. The energy formed by people’s friendly forces.

Three years ago, one of my friends was in Istanbul during the Champions League Final. Getting into the stadium cost him about a thousand dollars, but he still believes this money was one of the best investments of his life. Neither before that game nor afterward had he ever experienced such strong emotions. In that final, Milan was playing Liverpool. At the end of the first half, with Milan leading 3:0, nobody doubted the outcome. The teams went for their break, but this is when something took place that alone was worth a thousand dollars. The part of the stadium where the Liverpool fans were seated began to sing. A choir of 40,000 voices. Initially, it was like a solemn and majestic funeral song, but then, through all the deep melancholy voices a stronger and more powerful motif of loyalty, steadfastness and courage emerged, which was in turn followed by a passionate call to battle "without hope, without sorrow." And Liverpool came out to drudge on, winning back three goals by the 60-minute mark. And then it won on penalty kick. My friend claims that he can still hear the sound of the Liverpool fans singing. He later bought himself a satellite dish and never misses a single Liverpool match. And when he talks about “our” team, he means Liverpool. But, when our team beat the Canadians, he tortured all his friends with enthusiastic SMS messages.

By the way, today, "our" team must not fail to break this despicable Chelsea. I have been rooting for Manchester United for almost 10 years now. One day I was just watching football – they had only just begun showing the English championship – and I suddenly realized that what was happening on the field was breathtaking. Manchester, led by Cantona, played with inspiration and so vigorously that it was impossible to take one’s eyes from the game. The desire to watch more and more – Manchester to be precise, and only Manchester – was almost like a narcotic in its effect. That was how I made my choice as a football fan. And there are thousands if not tens of thousands like me in Russia. I am not sure that that is exactly what Dostoevsky called the “universal responsiveness of the Russian soul,” but I am absolutely certain that the Russian world is far more expansive than the number of Russian football clubs. And I don’t go to the stadium, as I do not like Soviet stadiums. Luzhniki Stadium, despite the ambitious reconstruction, is still a Soviet stadium where almost nothing can be seen and the acoustics are such that any singing sounds like bleating. But we still have a unique chance to test the acoustics on the Manchester and Chelsea fans to see whether Luzhniki is so bad after all.


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