The Perils of Passion

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.

12 comments about "The Perils of Passion".
  1. Kevin Sims, September 5, 2012 at 11:16 a.m.

    Paul captures the conundrum well. Is there such a term as civil passion? enlightened passion? reasoned passion? How do we generate passion clean of the dark side?

  2. Carl Walther, September 5, 2012 at 11:29 a.m.

    A good, reasoned article Paul. In many countries (Italy, Hungary, etc.) passion equals violence. If I gave the psychological reasons for passion by fans turning into violence, there would just be too many idiotic reply's.

  3. Charles O'Cain, September 5, 2012 at 11:34 a.m.

    I am not a mind reader, nor am I a Stoke fan(atic). I can imagine, however, that the booing derived not from hatred of Aaron Ramsey but rather from extreme displeasure at the way his accidental injury resulting from a foul by Ryan Shawcross was characterized by Arsene Wenger, and by "passionate" soccer writers such as Mr Gardner who imputed specific malicious intent on the part of the Stoke defender without any real justification. A more DISpassionate analysis would conclude that most serious injuries are UNintentional, and not the result of criminality (excepting one notable Bulgarian, perhaps). I'm ok with passion (perhaps more so than with fanaticism ... but then Mr Gardner isn't proposing we drop the term "fan" as well, is he?), and will try to keep on the positive side of things. Leave it to Mr Gardner to focus on the negative.

  4. Millwall America, September 5, 2012 at 11:46 a.m.

    Agreed. We do want passionate fans in the game, in the sense that we want MLS to be delivering the kind of sport that makes people care deeply about their teams. This will ensure they keep coming to games, buying merchandise, season tickets, etc. which will allow MLS to continue as a league and allow us as American fans to enjoy the sport in our own cities (rather than always watching EPL/La Liga/Serie A on FSC at odd hours of the day). But we want to make sure our passionate MLS fans are more like rugby fans or American football fans. We need a league where home and visitor supporters can sit together happily drinking beer and enjoying the game without incident. Here's hoping MLS can pull off that balance (so far they do).

  5. Emilio Tellini, September 5, 2012 at 11:55 a.m.

    I think that Mr. Garber should be more concerned in gaining popularity than increasing passion.

  6. Gus Keri, September 5, 2012 at 12:27 p.m.

    Mr Paul would like to go to games where all the attendants are wearing suit and tie and sitting quitely checking their iPad or iPhone or whatever iP there is, instead of cheering on their teams. Passion is necessary for the game. You take the positives from it and deal with the negatives appropriately. He is just playing with the word's meaning. I was looking for the meaning of "stupid" in the "Webster's," I found this: {1: a: slow of mind, b: given to unintelligent decisions or acts, c: lacking intelligence or reason, 2: dulled in feeling or sensation, 3: marked by or resulting from unreasoned thinking or acting, 4: a: lacking interest or point, b: vexatious, exasperating.} Now! Paul, to what meaning do I refer when I say this article is as stupid as it gets?

  7. Kevin Etzel, September 5, 2012 at 1:10 p.m.

    I agree with what Millwall America said. Going further, I think Mr. Gardner is much too cautious in his warnings of the dangers of passion. There is no basis for it. The USA is much different than Europe. Even in the most passionate MLS crowds on this side of the pond there has not been any significant violence or racist taunts. If there was this sort of problem it would be dealt with swiftly and decisively by stadium security and team administrators. I have been to games in a few European countries and sometimes their security can be lacking.

  8. Ramon Creager, September 5, 2012 at 3:25 p.m.

    Very much like the Anders Frisk disgrace, here is another excellent example of the passion Mr. Gardner is talking about, of the kind we don't want in MLS:

  9. Jake Brodesky, September 5, 2012 at 3:47 p.m.

    I think what Paul touches upon but doesn't quite nail down is the inauthenticity of what sometimes we see. Fan support here shouldn't look like Europe (Mr. Garber), it should look and feel American. Less clap and two arm hails (I don't understand this type of clapping and doubt that many of the people who do it understand it either) and more Tifo and National Anthem singing.

  10. Kent James, September 5, 2012 at 9:38 p.m.

    Passionate fans give the game atmosphere, which makes attending the games in person an event worth attending, but we need positive passion (no violence, racism, or unsporting behavior). We need passionate, positive, fanatics (or "phanatics"?).

  11. Jack Niner, September 6, 2012 at 11:17 a.m.

    I would rather Mr Garber be focused on the product on the field of MLS. I suspect he does, and MLS fans 'passion' is viewed as simply an indicator of that on-field product improving, at least that's what I hope. Soccer in America has such a long way to go in terms of becoming a mainline sport that I think the concerns of overdone passion should be the least of our worries.

  12. Gak Foodsource, September 6, 2012 at 10:33 p.m.

    A delicate topic for Paul to tread on but I think he did it well. I went to the Red Bull-Portland game last weekend. In the last two minutes of the game, a Portland defender took down a RedBull attacker from behind on a breakaway. The referee gave him a yellow card. The "passionate" fans behind the goal erupted with cheers, while an 8 year old kid behind me yelled, "No! It should have been a red card!" I turned around and gave him a high five. That kid might be 8 years old, but he knew the game better than any of the fans singing adopted European chants all game. This is not to disparage in any way the fans that come to games and cheer. Garber and I just see the world differently. in his eyes, America gets better at soccer by having more money to do the necessary things - fully funded academies for example. To him, we need those fans behind the goal more than anything because they buy jerseys and inspire people to play the game. We all agree that 8 year old behind me is the future of the game. But does he get better by having a league to watch - a league full of over-indulgent players like Thierry Henry running at half pace? Will those fans spend enough money on the game to fund our future youth academies and end pay to play? I don't know. But if it were my call, I'd worry a whole lot less about whether our stadiums have fans with scarves cheering as artificial smoke is pumped underneath them from stadium officials, and a whole lot more about that kid behind me - and whether he has the right coaches and the right environment to become a better player. I'd spend every cent on futsal courts and coaching education programs and hope we could sell him to a better team.

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