Staying put until the final whistle
15 September ~ After 55 minutes of Scotland's Euro 2012 qualifying group game with Liechtenstein last Wednesday, I made a promise to myself. If the score remained Scotland 0 Liechtenstein 1, I would never watch another game of football as long as I lived. I wouldn't look at scores, or tables, or anything. If people started talking about football, I'd stick my fingers in my ears and start singing "Giiiiiiirls just wanna have fun" in a really loud and annoying way until they moved off. But of course the score changed, and Scotland gloriously won the game with a brilliantly contrived 97th-minute header. The most amazing thing about that goal, though, was the number of fans still in the stadium to witness it.
Why, you wonder, had most of them not already left in disgust after burning their kilts, bursting their bagpipes and casting one last glance at Hampden before vowing never to return? A cynic might say: "It's because they thought 1-1 was actually quite a good result for Scotland, and they were just waiting to applaud their boys off the park." But there's another reason. They simply couldn't leave the stadium. Whether it was a desire to see the winning goal or just morbid fascination, it seemed that at the end of the game, the stands were heaving with jubilant, and massively relieved, fans. Who will now always be able to claim that they were there "the night we almost lost to f***ing Liechtenstein".
There are fans who have faith and fans who don't. The fans who don't are the ones who leave early. Personally, I'm like the Scotland fans. I just can't leave, no matter how bored or disillusioned I am. I once tried to leave a Swiss Cup semi-final between Grasshopper and amateur side Red Star Zürich – Grasshopper were 6-0 up, there were five minutes to go and the stadium was seven-eighths empty. But I was still worried I might miss something, like Red Star scoring six goals in five minutes. Or, failing that, a bald eagle landing on the pitch, or the referee dropping his shorts and mooning in the direction of FIFA HQ. You just never know, do you? And so after exiting the stand, I kept stopping at the stadium portals and standing there to see out the game's dying moments. And I just caught sight of Grasshopper scoring a seventh. Yep, looks like they're through.
I thought of this again on Saturday as Everton fans celebrated their second goal in stoppage time to claim a draw against Manchester United. I was mainly thinking of all the fans who'd left already, because there were a lot of empty seats. I was imagining what they felt as they heard the first muted cheer from outside the stadium. "Ah, a consolation goal, ah well, 3-1, 3-2, what's the difference, there's no way a team like Manchester United give up two goals in injury time… [hears massive, unrestrained, gobsmacked roar]. Oh great, we got a point. Hooray. I'm glad for us, I really am. But why did they have to wait until I left before they scored twice? And why did I leave early? [Holds head in hands and collapses to the floor] Why did I do that?"
And that's what I utterly fail to understand. Why would you pay £25, £35, £45 or more for a ticket to a 90-minute football match and then not watch the whole thing? Of course, the historical precedent of being 3-1 down to Man Utd with just two minutes of stoppage time to play could lead you to logically conclude, as a pessimistic Evertonian, that this will be another bad Saturday and you'd rather beat the traffic than wait to see the sight of glory-spoiled away fans cheering at the final whistle. But for most fans, there are only a few moments when you get to unleash wild, unfettered screams of crude joy in the company of several thousand others who are simultaneously going nuts. You have to work for those moments of collective glee. As in life, you endure hours of tedium and disappointment, but just occasionally you're rewarded with a treasured moment of surprise and delight. In fact, it's all we live for. Ian Plenderleith
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