Attentive Redleg Nation readers might remember my initial reservations about a professional soccer team in town—not that I feared it, but that I didn’t know what to do with it, exactly.
It’s an odd position we’re in here with the soccer people heaving themselves and their orange lion in the middle of our lives. Is this the historical first heartbeats of a two-century team, or are we going to–in the tradition of the 2019 Reds–beam lovingly and hopefully upon it only to be abandoned in the end?
The franchise was created out of whole cloth. We didn’t import it from anywhere; the creation of it is about as natural as the green grass of Riverfront. It just… existed all of a sudden. Cincinnatians aren’t sure how to operate in such situations. We’re on, what, our fifth ballpark and maybe our third head Bengals coach? (All Bengals head coaches after Paul Brown were Sam Wyche. All head Bengals coaches after Sam Wyche were Marvin Lewis.) There’s no local emotional template for professional soccer. How to welcome this suitor for our time, dollars, and hearts? Do we fear it? Mock it? See if it floats? Do we give it a parade or throw beer on it or…?
Given that an entire generation has now moved to adulthood without any Cincinnati franchise even approaching a title, I paced towards FC life with every expectation of bitter disappointment, not unlike the dark cloud of foreboding that rolls over my soul whenever I open any social media app. At first I considered flinging myself in full force on the notion that soccer was somehow non-political, so I followed FC closely for a week, but the team lost seventeen times and soccer in general threw more politics in the air than C-SPAN. I retreated. I’m too old for a new sports romance.
But my godson wanted to attend an FC Cincinnati game for his birthday, so he put on his scarf and shorts and I put on my shorts and trailed behind him to Nippert Stadium. It was an educational afternoon, as I learned that several things happen at FC games which don’t at Reds games:
All People Inclined to Woo Are Cordoned Off: I completely support this innovation. The FC’s cheering section is called the Bailey and occupies an entire endzone. What traditions FC has stems directly from it. And everything the Bailey does– waving flags, singing songs, holding up banners, drumming drums, chanting chants, trading beard balm tips–are copy-pasted from European and South American soccer traditions, so expect brawls spilling out into East Walnut Hills at any time.
And these people are serious. Remember how the entirety of June was horrible and cold and made you want to roll into a ball at all times? The Bailey people stood outside in that for 90 minutes to watch this brand-new team lose again and again. They have entire websites full of instructions and lyrics and sign templates and directives (my current favorite: “DO NOT PUNCH THE TIFO.”) Above all, they are keeping alive the “WE DON’T, WE DON’T, WE DON’T MESS AROUND!” chant from “Sports or Consequences” for new generations. I respect this.
But I don’t see how something like the Bailey could work at a Reds game without a lot of illegal stimulants. A soccer game usually lasts no more than two hours. That’s the approximate length of a single at-bat in the MLB.
There Is Total, Beautiful Sound System Silence: At one point in the middle of the first half, I held up a hand to Josh The Pilot. “Listen,” I said. “Do you hear that?”
“We’re losing some more?”
“No. The loudspeakers. There’s nothing coming out of them.”
The Reds need to look into this. The Bengals need to look into this. Every single sports team which steamrolls natural crowd chatter and cheers with bursts of Harry Belafonte needs to look into this. When I was shadowing Ohio State’s marching band, its leadership was in a constant tug of war with the Athletic Department over when recorded music would play and when these 225 people who forked over the bulk of their waking hours learning to play music at football games would actually play music at a football game. Guess which the crowd responded to more.
Nippert can get away with this, of course, because the Bailey never shuts up, bless it.
Very Tall Men Are Asked to Carry Flags: This happened to my brother-in-law, who was milling about Clifton when a member of the Bailey, organizing the March to the Match, thrust a flag in his hands. “Here! Carry this!” he said.
“Okay!” said my brother-in-law, and carried it.
This would not happen outside GABP. If you shoved anything at anyone outside a Reds game, it had better be a beer or a bobblehead or it will soon be flying directly back at your face.
BABIES!: Probably because I’ve never experienced a baby barreling out of me, I love them. All of them! Even the poopy ones. Even then angry ones. Since I was with my nephew, my Aunt Senses were especially attuned, but he is 15 now and taller than both me and his uncle and no one was going to carry him off without also taking the entire stadium with him. So I was free to meet Crew Baby.
The FC’s opponent that day was the Columbus Crew, and Crew Baby wore a Crew onesie and was happy and entertaining for the duration of the match. When it was time to go, his mother draped his tiny scarf around his neck—THE BABY HAD A BABY-SIZED SCARF—and took him back to Columbus. Babies with tiny baseball hats are adorable. Babies with baby-sized soccer supporter scarves are just unfairly trying to take over the world.
Professional Soccer is Somewhat Different From Catholic Youth Soccer: There are certain things that people yell in a soccer environment they just don’t in a baseball game. In the twelve years of soccer I played as child, each kid was required to take up a position for at least two quarters, no matter how disastrously (this was ideal, in my case), the captain was decided upon by which parent brought the pop for after the game, and substitutions were made by tearing onto the field yelling “JEEENNNNNIIIIIIFFEEEEEEEERRR!”, which was our high-tech system of alerting the ousted girl that she had in fact been ousted. There was none of that here.
In my soccer retirement, I now attend my younger nephews’ games, 98% of which entails holding a to-go coffee cup while yelling “SPREAD OUT!” I did not have to tell the FC to spread out once. It was a refreshing experience, and one I’d like to repeat, although I really should learn some of the players’ names so that I can shout “Good try! It’s okay! You kept running—nice job!” Old habits, and all.
It Can Get Really Ugly Really Quickly: And here–for all the loudspeaker silencing and baby scarves in the world—is how I learned to never attend a professional soccer game without doubling up on Xanax in the parking lot:
This game did not go well. As Cincinnatians, we expected this, but apparently there’s some sort of rivalry between FC and the Crew (how, I don’t know—four months of existence isn’t really enough to build up an Auburn-Alabama swell of hatred) but when I got there I was suddenly made aware of this when an entire section above us was swathed in yellow. It was the Portable Bailey of the Crew.
“Nice for the entirety of their fan base to come down for this one,” someone noted on Twitter, and even though it was just a block, it really did feel like the entirety of the noise of all Ohio was raining down on the field. Crew fans were shouting chants at one another on the stadium concourse, waving at one another in the food lines, and forming flash mobs outside the ladies’ room at halftime (all things you will also never see at a Reds game, outside of the ladies’ room thing, but those mobs form out of necessity rather than excess of shouty energy.) They also had signs and banners and flags and chants, and they also never shut up.
This was all in good fun for about an hour and fifteen minutes, but as the match edged to a shutout and the FCC crowd became more frustrated, things… turned. I’ve seen bro-yelling at Reds games and the occasional back-and-forthing in the student section at Notre Dame games, but this was an en-mass side eye and it was not pretty.
It happened some time between when the Crew section began chanting “Beat the traffic!” as blue shirts began streaming up the aisles and “This is our house!” after the third goal. And people went from discouraged but still enjoying the slushies to maaaaaaaaaaaad. For the first time all afternoon, heads started turning towards the all-yellow section. None of them were smiling. The people in blue around us began shouting down the people in yellow around us. I mentally formed an action plan to rescue Crew Baby from the ensuing beer carnage.
And something rose within me. I got mad, too. I wasn’t particularly invested in all this outside of my anxiety that my nephew should find us hopelessly lame, and would have preferred an FC win, but even though I couldn’t have named a single one of the players (none of whom were from Cincinnati, or anywhere near it) and I’d never set foot in Nippert until that afternoon, I was glaring at the block of yellow too. You back off of our city. In that moment I was ready to let Crew Baby fend for himself.
The only thing that dissipated the tension was an FC goal. We were mollified a little, and the Crew people quieted down a little, and Crew Baby put his scarf on. And all was well. Not baseball-level well. But well.