By Paul Gardner
Be careful what you wish for. That’s what we're told. And as a slice of folk wisdom (if that's what it is), it's not bad, not bad at all. The implication being that what you get might not, after all, be to your liking.
A warning that I want to draw to the attention of MLS Commissioner Don Garber. I’m referring to Garber’s repeated use of the word “passion” when he talks of MLS fans. That is what he wants, masses of passionate fans, and the more passionate they are, the better Garber will like it. But will he?
I once stood with Garber as we paused to watch a procession of MLS fans -- let the club remain anonymous -- as they noisily made their way into the hall where the MLS draft was to be held. Garber was all smiles, and he purred to me that “We’re getting there ... the passion, this looks like Europe.”
Well, maybe. A hundred or so young to middle-aged, mostly male, fans with banners and flags, chanting incoherently and singing tunelessly. To me it looked like a rather synthetic enthusiasm. Even so, it had a colorful liveliness to it -- and what more could one desire?
Garber, apparently, does want more. He wants passion. He should think again. What does he mean by passion? For that matter, what does the word itself mean? It proves elusive. You’ll find that the dictionary has problems defining it. The chief difficulty seems to be that it belongs with a bunch of other words all of which express varying degrees of the same emotion.
And which emotion would that be? Unclear, but probably all the emotions. My dictionary (Webster’s) talks of “extreme, compelling emotion,” then mentions “a) Great anger; rage; fury b) enthusiasm or fondness c) strong love or affection. In that order. There follows a sort of sidebar attempting to calibrate the levels of intensity implied by fervor, ardor, enthusiasm, zeal and, of course, passion. The winners -- that is, the words that convey the strongest intensity -- appear to be passion, along with fervor and ardor, both of which “imply emotion of burning intensity.”
At this point, I suspect, the marketing mob takes over. Those wonderful guys whose brainless buzz-words and slogans daily assault our ears and the English language (while I’m on that topic, a first prize in fatuity to the guys at the Columbus Crew who came up with, yuk, “Dare to be Massive!").
In strictly marketing terms, to talk of “enthusiastic” fans simply doesn’t do it. Too weak, too commonplace. Nor does “zealous fans” -- something unpleasant about zealots, no? And anyway it might get mistaken for jealous. Both “ardent” and “fervent” suffer because they’re words that don’t get used too much. But “passionate” -- there we go! Visions of unbounded pleasure and ecstasy suddenly flood the marketing mentality; even better, there are sexual implications here, and a whiff of salacity is nowadays an almost essential ingredient of any well-planned marketing campaign. You can ask David Beckham.
OK -- so the marketing geniuses win. We need passionate MLS fans. But what sort of passion are they talking about? For the marketeers, who already live in a mindless world, the more mindless the passion the better. More noise, more flags, more funny hats, more chanting ... Ahah! Garber has encountered this season a problem with some of that passionate chanting. It uses what are known as “inappropriate” words, and the MLS clubs involved must clamp down, the fans must learn to rein in some of their passion.
A hint to Garber that there are limits, it seems, to passion. Well, what are they? It is of interest that the dictionary, in its attempt to define the “overpowering” aspects of passion, comes up with this: “his passions overcame his reason.” A strong pointer to the dark underside of passions.
Another such pointer came just a couple of days ago from Germany. Kevin Pezzoni, a 23-year-old defender with Cologne, asked permission to quit the club as the result of fan bullying and harassment. A group of fans had gone to his home and threatened to beat him up. What inspired those fans was hatred -- they considered Pezzoni to be a poor player, they blamed him for the club’s relegation to the second division.
In 2005 Swedish referee Anders Frisk announced his -- premature -- retirement. He and his family had received death threats from Chelsea fans, unhappy at his refereeing of a Barcelona-Chelsea game. One is left aghast at the actions of the Chelsea fans, no doubt so passionate about the fortunes of their club. But it is with that passion that their extraordinarily virulent level of hatred begins.
Hate, unfortunately for Garber’s rosy view of these matters, is right there in the dictionary, defined as a passion. Just weeks ago, Arsenal played an away game at Stoke where, in 2010, young Aaron Ramsey had his leg broken by Stoke defender Ryan Shawcross. Ramsey came on as a substitute -- and was loudly booed by the Stoke fans. Not all of them, no doubt, but enough of them to be clearly heard on television. What could possess people to behave like that? Well, passion for a start.
When fans are praised for simply being passionate, no one should be surprised when passion “overcomes reason.” The ultimate disaster -- so far -- of this attitude was the horror of Heysel. But the recent history of soccer is liberally strewn with other unpleasant incidents involving groups of fans who act with homicidal hatred toward opposing fans. Are they, too, “powered by passion” (I’m here using a slogan currently used in TV commercials by a soccer company)?
It seems to me that there are already enough stimuli for soccer fans to behave unreasonably, even barbarously. Hooliganism, which threatened to wreck the English game in the 1970s, is still very much with us, in other countries now. Racism is a constant worry. Gambling is an ever-present cancer.
It can be argued -- as indeed it was during hooliganism’s heyday in England - that the people involved are not really soccer fans at all. It is not a credible argument -- but even if it were, an explanation is still needed as to why these people, fans or not, find soccer such a fertile ground for their activities.
The answer to that question, I think, lies in the way that the fan side of the sport has been feverishly whipped up by marketing interests -- and the whip they use is labeled “passion.”
When you unleash and encourage passion -- when you give the impression that almost anything can be excused in the name of passion -- you’re likely to get more than you bargained for. Passion stands for hatred and grief every bit as much as for joy and love. It is a fragile, inflammatory word that is used much too freely by people -- among them MLS Commissioner Don Garber -- who really ought to weigh their words more carefully.