The BBC reports that Brazil is in a state of shock after last night’s 7-1 defeat of its soccer team by Germany, it seems as though the nation itself feels humiliated, for the moment at least. Next week the World Cup will be over and the match will be a memory and when the Seleção next runs out to play, the fans will be there with their songs and music; the fans will always be there.
The sheer resilience and determination of sports fans is extraordinary. There were always apocryphal stories of travelling soccer fans – like the group of Glasgow Rangers fans who were said to have gone to the European Cup Winners’ Cup Final in Barcelona in 1972 and decided to stay on, being encountered by Scotland supporters in Spain for the World Cup Finals ten years later – but there are plenty of much more prosaic tales from much more prosaic places.
Memories of fans’ determination remain. An England match against Bulgaria in November 1979 was not an exciting prospect and by the time it was dark, fog had begun to form across North London. There were reports that up to 85,000 tickets had been sold (the capacity for floodlit matches at the old Wembley was 92,000). The mood was cheerful and buoyant, as it was on any occasion at Wembley, and tens of thousands of fans milled around outside the stadium. It soon became apparent that the match was in doubt, the turnstiles had not been opened and the fog had grown so thick that the twin towers were barely visible.
Eventually, an announcement came that the match had been postponed because visibility was so poor; it would be played 24 hours later and tickets would be valid. There was a huge groan and much muttering and people turned to go home. There wasn’t much money around in 1979, it was hard to imagine that those who had travelled from distant points in England would get much use from their tickets.
The following day, I again caught the tube with four £2 terrace tickets in my hand, my own and those of three friends who had come the previous night and could not return. The three tickets I didn’t need were sold, at face value, to people travelling to Wembley. The match went ahead without a hitch, Dave Watson and Glenn Hoddle scoring in a 2-0 win for England.
The postponement certainly reduced the attendance, but at the re-scheduled match on a November Thursday evening in economically-depressed times there were 71,491 people in the crowd. The overwhelming majority of the crowd from the previous evening had managed to turn up on the second night; there were people from the corners of England who would support their team, wherever and whenever it played.
Football has always been about more than winning; it is about the experience, (even mighty Brazil has won only five of the twenty world cups in which they have played). If it was just about winning, then how would anyone explain crowds of over 20,000 for at least the top half dozen teams in the Championship in England- which is the second division, and where the only thing anyone wins is promotion to the division above? How would anyone explain the tens of thousands who attend the matches of lower league teams week in and week out for season after season after season?
I have no memory of most of the England matches I attended in the late 70s and early 80s, no idea of most of the opponents, what mattered was being there. The Brazilian fans are stunned for the moment, but, like England fans on foggy nights in November, they will be back, because football is about more than winning. As Bill Shankly said, when he was asked whether football was a matter of life and death, ‘It’s far more important than that’.