“Casse toi Anglais!” Shrieked the fanatic as he spotted the pristine white number 2 emblazoned eloquently on my scarlet tracksuit. I presumed that he had singled me out through the match program because my ‘Englishness’ could hardly be detected just by looking at me, as my physical appearance and characteristics differed only marginally from my Belgian teammates. I caught a glimpse of his bulging eyes sticking out from their sockets and billowing out above his large curved nose, almost concealing his thin snarling lips, from whence the profanities were angrily dispatched. Other supporters joined him to vent their condemnation of my intrusion on their territory, but the jocular expressions on some of their faces revealed a more benign approach to my presence.
I felt no animosity whatsoever to the verbal abuse being thrown at me through the forbidding, rusty iron mesh fence, which separated our ‘warm up’ area from the home fans. In truth, I enjoyed the insults from opposing fans as it served to stimulate the pre-match adrenalin rushing through me. However, there was something malicious and hateful about the fanatic’s baring, causing me to think that he held some personal vendetta and that I was the outlet for his anger.
I waved back in his general direction,
“Meilleurs voeux mes amis,” I retorted, sarcastically, in the few scraps of French that I knew. “Mai la meilleure equipe win.”
These comment evoked a further combination of good and ill-humoured insults and comments, regarding my ethnicity, from the on-looking home supporters, but the fanatic turned away in disgust and made his way to find a spot the terraces.
The incident drifted out of my mind, as I joined my teammates on making their way back to the refuge of the changing rooms, set deep in the bowels of the giant Tribune….
Two hours prior to kick-off Marcel Bourgoin had left his squalid apartment, set on the third floor of a sombre nineteenth century building situated on the Rue de la Station, heading for the stadium. He placed his royal blue, and white knitted scarf around his narrow shoulders, positioning his well-worn black beret over his thinning grey hair. Sunday was the most important day of the week for Marcel; regardless of whether his team was playing at home or away, he could be found on the terraces supporting his club with a passion unsurpassed by the majority of his comrades. Unfortunately, there was a more sinister reason for his fanatical support for the club, and this had its roots in social politics.
Historically; sectarianism often has associated itself to football clubs, in order to further religious or political beliefs. Marcel held a high position in the political Walloon Separatist Movement, and this was of paramount importance to him. Along with thousands of others, he perceived the football club as a major symbol of their movement, and any success for the club was perversely acclaimed as a triumph for Wallonia.
Although the Wallonia region comprised of a larger territory of Belgium, it was far less populated, but more discomforting to its inhabitants was the economic threat posed by the Flemish region. The heavy steel and coal industries, which had historically provided work for the people of Marcel’s province, were gradually losing their importance. New lighter industries, financed by foreign investment were being established in the Flemish part of the country, gradually reversing the financial and political fortunes of his people.
In earlier years Marcel had taken part in subversive actions against the Flemish, but these days he left those actions to the younger members of the movement, contenting himself with administration duties within the party. However, age had by no means diminished his passion for his province, which at times bordered on fanaticism.
At the tram-stop, en route to the stadium, the antiquated vehicle reluctantly heaved to a halt, its iron wheels screaming in protest as it prepared to burden itself with yet more passengers heading towards the game. As Marcel stepped aboard, the suggestion of a smile crossed his thin lips as he surveyed the tram’s interior, it was awash with the clubs colours, blue and white, and bristling with the noise of anticipation from the supporters. He curtly nodded to one or two of the younger fans, who replied with a respectful.
Under normal circumstances, these youngsters might not give the time of day to the elder citizen, but aleigence to a football club crossed all ages, gender, and racial boundaries; anyone bedecked in the club colours deserved their deference.
However, there was more to their reverence for Marcel than just his fervour for their club, the youngsters were well aware of his obsessive political views, with which they also shared. They often expressed their loyalty to the party by committing minor acts of vandalism against the Flemish influence, this often took the form of eradicating Flemish names on road signs, and replacing them with French titles.
Regrettably, it seemed that Marcel’s whole being was engulfed in conflict of one kind or another. The sheer physical effort of labouring underground at the coalface took its toll on his aging body, but more stressful were his political views which; when coupled to his club affiliation, periodically threw him into profound depressive states.
Supporting a football club, for the majority of people, is a recreational outlet, but for Marcel the club served to exacerbate and intensify his political prejudice. As far as he was concerned success for the club meant success for the Walloon political movement, unfortunately, defeat caused the opposite reaction, often sending him into deep dark holes of gloom.
He squeezed himself into a vacant seat at the rear end of the tram and pulled out Saturday’s newspaper, thus discouraging any conversation; at this stage of the afternoon he preferred to keep his own company, rather than enter into any dialogue; that would come as his day unfolded. By burying his head in the sports pages of the ‘Le Soir’ he could pay scant attention to the exited jabbering and babble going on around him, this also helped to drown out the clattering iron wheels of the tram, as it rumbled its way towards its destination.
Outside the gates of the stadium one could almost detect a sigh of relief from the creaking vehicle as it screeched to a halt, unburdening itself of the boisterous cargo on board. The ancient tram spilled the eager supporters out onto the boulevard to join the mounting throngs making their way to the stadium compound. The noise of excitement and anticipation increased with every step, as the surging tide of blue and white swept nearer the massive terraces, from where the Sunday afternoon’s drama would be played out.
In a country divided by language issues, a clash against one of the big Flemish clubs always added an edge to proceedings, particularly in this parochial region of the country. The rasping cries of provincial French accents reverberated through the chilly moist air as, in their thousands, they fought their way to claim a place on the large embankments. Marcel was swept along with the charge, his blood rushing to his head, this was where he belonged, brushing shoulders with his own people, intoxicated and buoyant in the anticipation of gaining some retribution against what he perceived as a focal point of Flemish superiority.
On reaching the periphery of the stadium the tidal surge of supporters separated into untidy queues as they patiently ticked their way through the turnstiles. Marcel’s thick coal grained fingers foraged through his smooth dark leather wallet as he counted out the exact levy of francs needed to gain his entrance. Lined up against the steel mesh fence he observed the teams leaving the warm-up area to make their way to the changing rooms. His lined brow furrowed and his dark eyes narrowed as he scanned today’s opponents; the bright white numbers conspicuously displayed on their scarlet tracksuits helped him identify the three Belgian Internationals in their line-up.
As he scrutinised his match program a training ball landed close to the fence where he stood, the player retrieving the ball glanced up and caught Marcel’s gaze, causing Marcel to quickly glance at his match program and identify the player. His eyes widened with fury; an Englishman in the Flemish camp! A foreign agent assisting the enemy! The short fuse inside his gut ignited causing an explosion of profanities to burst from his tongue.
“Casse toi Anglais, vous perdez vous collaborator; baiser de retourner d’où vous est venue de.”
His thin lips bellowed out the words, laced with such venom that, for an instance, others around him were silenced, before also joining in the verbal abuse aimed at the unfortunate player. Marcel stormed through the turnstiles to make his way onto the terraces, from where his anger gradually subsided, helped by the stirring sound of the club’s anthem ringing out from the speaker system.
A sea of faces and a barrage of whistles greeted us as we emerged from the narrow tunnel and onto the pitch heading for the centre circle from where we saluted the crowd. The piercing whistling reached a crescendo as we acknowledged the fully occupied Tribune and then turned to wave to the jam-packed terracing. High on the terraces a conspicuous pocket of red and white stood out like roses in a field of bluebells, as our travelling fans bravely attempted to make their presence heard above the explosion of din from the home supporters.
With our Coaches axiom of “earn the right to play,” in other words, ‘concede nothing early in the game,’ his words falling on eleven pairs of deaf ears as we promptly conceded a goal within the first ten minutes. Our opponents, now full of confidence, came at us like a runaway train on a downward track, sensing that they could finish us off within the first twenty minutes.
They almost did! Two goals down after thirty minutes, our back four under siege from their attacks, however, we managed to hang on and halt the haemorrhaging of goals until the half-time whistle blew.
Things went better for us after the break, as we clawed our way back into the game with a goal in the sixty second minute. This silenced the home crowd for a short while, however, as the game edged towards its conclusion and we struggled to find an equalizer, they found their voices again and roared their team onto what should have been a home victory.
Should! How often does that word deceive us; with the ninety minutes played out and the few seconds of added time ticking away we sneaked the equalizer past their bemused defenders. The silence from the home fans could have awakened a deaf turtle, as they tried to comprehend how we had burgled two points off them.
For our part we stood, arms aloft, acknowledging the shouts of glee reverberating from the pocket of red and white high on the terraces. Before the restart could take place the referee blew the final whistle, and we hastily beat a retreat down the tunnel back to our changing room, delighted with our late reprieve.
I caught a final glimpse of the fanatic, in the darkening gloom, when gazing through a window of our luxury coach, as we prepared our departure for home. We were laughing and joking in the glow of our lucky escape; evading the jaws of defeat by a hairsbreadth left us as jubilant and triumphant as if we had won the match.
The fanatic was disconsolately hauling himself out of the café from under the Tribune, accompanied by two compatriots, heads bowed, their blue and white scarves hanging dishevelled from their bent shoulders, muttering to each other about their cruel luck.
He caught sight of me staring at him through the window of the bus, but this time there was no anger in his drained face, he quickly averted my gaze, turned away and disappeared, heading through the late autumn gloom towards the distant city lights.
Still basking in the euphoria of our late escape I felt a certain amount of sympathy for him; his dream of a victory snatched away from him at the death. His Sunday afternoon in tatters, and a further week’s labour ahead of him.
However, Sunday afternoon would come around again, and once more he could release his pent up anger at some other adversary in the hope of rekindling his dreams….
Based on true incidents; names are fictional.