The thrill of the crowd

Ah, to be a Barca supporter, one of the vast churning crowd, cheering for the red and blue warriors as they pass, bob and weave, and crush the enemy, especially if that enemy is Real Madrid. On the football field, at least, Catalunya reigns supreme over the arrogant Castilians. All that history, all those years of humiliation, wiped out in one and a half hours of sheer ecstasy.

Of course, to feel the power of the crowd, the thrill of roaring in one voice with thousands of others, of losing one’s puny self in the surge of the pack, you don’t have to be a Barca fan. Manchester United will do just as well. Although the spectacle of seeing a fancied London club beaten may not carry quite the same historical weight as that of Barcelona defeating Madrid, it is good enough for the baying fans from up north. In fact, if the lure of combat and the kick of the crowd is the main attraction, any club is good enough, from Scunthorpe to Kiev, from Bruges in Belgium to Mendoza, Argentina.

Crowds make a man feel big. In crowds you feel up to anything. This is not just a matter of aggression. The mob also provides the freedom of the carnival, when grown men relive the exhilaration of childhood. I used to go to football matches with my father, a discreet, quiet-spoken, eminently respectable lawyer. But when Holland scored a goal against Belgium (or better still, Germany; but in the 1950s and early ’60s, the Belgian “Red Devils” were still traditional rivals to be reckoned with on the football field), my father jumped up and down like a madman, one madman in the midst of thousands of eminently respectable madmen jumping up and down just like him – and me.

Actually, watching a game in a packed stadium has great disadvantages, especially if you are in cheap seats, or, in the case of my father and myself, in the stands. The game is far away. Things happen too fast. There are no slow-motion repeats, let alone close-ups. And when the action gets really exciting, the chances are that people jumping up in front of you will obscure your view.

No, if the game itself is what matters most, you are better off sitting at home, watching it on television, drinks close at hand, with friends to share one’s disgust at the referee, the inexplicably missed chances, the criminally foul play of the opponents, and delight at the prowess of one’s own side.

And yet it is not the same. There is something a little detached, even synthetic, about the TV experience. The thing about being in the stadium is that one is there, on the night, a part of history. An important aspect of witnessing history in the making is the anticipation. I remember my heart beating as I walked with my father to the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam for a big match, us and many others. It was as though the stadium were a magnet; the closer one got to the magical place of action, the faster one seemed to be moving towards it. Being there, for the great event, is to feel attached to it, not just an observer, but a participant, as though history leaves an indelible trace on one’s own existence.

I suppose this is the same kind of feeling that medieval pilgrims had when they visited holy places. Perhaps some pilgrims still do. Certainly, crowds at victory celebrations after a war, or even royal weddings, must feel this. There is, as with most ecstatic human experiences, a religious element to this. I remember being in Rotterdam one sultry night, after the local team, Feyenoord, had won the European Cup. People were literally prostrating themselves on club flags, like Muslims at prayer, but with an edge of hysteria that was actually quite frightening. And I don’t say this because I don’t much care for Feyenoord.

Not all games whip people into such a state of madness, obviously. Truly memorable games are relatively rare. Even rarer are games that are truly historic. In terms of excellence, the 1962 European Cup final between Benfica and Real Madrid, with Eusébio, Puskás, and Di Stéfano, might have been one of those (Benfica won 5-3). Speaking of Puskás, the West German defeat of the great Hungarian team in the World Cup final of 1954 probably counts as historic, since it revived the morale of the Germans, perhaps for the first time since the war. And I suppose that those who were there at Wembley in 1966 will never forget it.

Historic games almost always have something to do with history, and not just football history. The England victory over Germany in 1966 was possibly like that, but what did England really have to prove? Unlike Barca v Madrid, there was no humiliation to be avenged. Holland’s World Cup final against Germany in 1974 was perhaps more significant, which explains why the narrow defeat left such a deep scar on the Dutch psyche. The Germans ran over Holland all over again. And it is why the Dutch victory over Germany in the European championship of 1988, in Hamburg of all places, was so sweet.

But even these games were trivial compared to the famous ice hockey final between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union in 1969, one year after Soviet tanks had crushed the Prague Spring. To have been in that crowd in Stockholm, crying “Dubcek! Dubcek!” in tribute to the deposed Czech leader, as the Czechs beat the Soviets, that must truly have been something.

Now it is of course perfectly true that the crowds streaming towards the Nuremberg stadium, to hear Hitler put his followers into a collective frenzy in 1937, must have felt the same sort of excitement as the thousands attending a big match. The same thrill of being there, of witnessing something unforgettable, of being part of a little slice of history, inflamed the masses watching Roman gladiators fighting to the death, or executions in Tyburn, or cheering on the lynch mobs in the American deep south. These are base emotions one cannot wish away, which is why I’m happy to salute the spectacles staged at Camp Nou and Old Trafford. At least, there, wars can be fought with a minimum of bloodshed, which, considering what else mobs are capable of, should count as a blessing.

Ian Buruma’s most recent book is ‘Taming the Gods’. He teaches at Bard College, New York.

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