Experiencing the UEFA Champions League

I have been to an NFC Championship game. I have been to multiple NCAA Tournament games. I’ve been to the Jimmy V Classic about seven times (for the same halftime speech). I’ve seen Jay Williams catch fire against Kentucky and Jeff Green make Roy Williams face turn crimson. I’ve been to the Bass Masters Championships (just kidding). But one of the most electrifying, memorable atmospheres I’ve ever witnessed was in Marseille, France at The Stade Velodrome on December 9, 2008.

In America, we do not have one sport—we have seasonal sports. When a season ends, we move on to the next sport. In Europe, soccer is the sport. Yes, they have rugby, football and basketball, but they are mere footnotes. The soccer season never really ends—and when a city holds a title, they have bragging rights for the whole year. In America, the Yankees might have won the World Series, but the Saints won the Super Bowl. No city has any claim to dominance. And the

rivalries are even more intense.

My third day abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France, I made the naïve mistake of donning a Paris Saint-Germain jersey that I had bought in Paris eight years earlier (a Bar Mitzvah gift, naturally). I thought this jersey was fresh to death (and I still do). But I almost got my ass kicked on that day. It wasn’t till a French person came up to my friend and me, and kindly told me that, more or less, I better take the shirt off, turn it inside out, or my ass would be grass—a very loose translation. Wearing this jersey in this part of France, where Marseille is the team de force, is akin to wearing a Yankees jersey in the heart of Boston. It’s probably worse, considering the actual distaste the Marseillans have for “snotty” Parisians. In Europe, the history, the civil wars, the different accents and the distaste for one another make these rivalries even stronger than our worst. There is no such thing as a front-runner—that would just be blasphemy.

If attending a baseball game in America is an event, a European soccer game is best described as a spectacle. If Americans tailgate, Europeans riot. At halftime of an NFL game, Americans flock to the bathroom and beer stands. At halftime of the game I attended, fans flocked for cover underneath the rain—so they could light cigarettes and spliffs. Fans don’t do the wave or chant De-Fense. The crowd supplies the music. In America, fans want the best seats their money can buy. The true fans at European soccer games sit behind the goal amongst each other. There is no need for “Sandstorm” to blare from the speakers during breaks of play. There is no need for dance squads or cheesy intermissions. The focus is on the sport. Instead, they set off flares and chant their team’s anthem.

A friend of mine, Chris Gonnella, attended a game between Italian rivals Fiorentina and Lazio last spring. Remembering his experience (a Serie A match), he stated that, “the stadium was divided by giant metal fences with barbed wire, separating the opposing teams. It was such a drastic difference to sporting events in America. The fans were just as important, if not more important than the players…The game was tied going into the 87th minute when the star player on Fiorentina scored the go-ahead goal. He immediately ran to the fans and jumped over the barricade to be with them. It was amazing.” Kind of like the Lambeau leap.

Another friend of mine, Jonathan Friedman, went to a couple of FC Barcelona’s games last spring. The whole experience had a lasting impression on him as well, as he commented, “Barcelona games are funny because they don’t sell alcohol, but the fans are crazy enough that they don’t need it. After the team won La Liga, the fans were going nuts in the streets and setting off fireworks until around 4 in the morning. I could never see that sort of stuff happening in New York.”

This may be why Europeans invented the “pre-game.” And why I made sure to drink on the way to my game.

While the game I attended was relatively meaningless for a Champions League game, as Atletico Madrid had already advanced to the knockout stages, and the home team, Olympique Marseille, had already been eliminated from contention, it was still intense. They needed to at least to make the UEFA Cup, the secondary club competition in Europe. The major subplot for this game was violence, as Madrid released the leader of Marseille’s fan base from prison the day of the game. This man, Santos, was accused of assaulting police at the previous meeting between the two teams in Madrid. While I still tread lightly walking into the stadium, his release eased tensions. And I made sure to purchase a Marseille scarf prior to entering the stadium.

The game began, and from the first whistle to the last whistle, the stadium was electric, akin to the descriptions offered above. There was a sea of orange, blue and smoke at this game. And there was more security on hand than at a Lil’ Wayne concert. And as much smoke billowing through the air (mostly from the flares). While the action on the pitch was intense, it was equally intense in the stands. The die-hard fans—the ones with season tickets, the ones that would kill for a win—stand behind the goal, chanting and jumping up and down like Cameron Crazies (only if they were French and actually wanted to kill the other team’s fans). They are just as important as the action itself. And overall, the atmosphere is akin to that of a college event—the true fans don’t sit in their seats waiting for something to happen, nor do they chant only when prompted. And the players—who I could see pretty well 10 rows from the pitch (for 30 euros)—played their hearts out, slipping and sliding all over the field.

While the weather was reminiscent of a February evening at Colgate, with cold rain pouring down throughout the match—the weather in Southern France is typically balmy, at worst—I will never forget the atmosphere and the emotion on display. Marseille out shot Atletico Madrid about 17-3, but couldn’t find the net. The game ended in a 0-0 tie, but it’s an evening and an experience that will never leave my memory—and reason number 1,313 why you should go abroad.