Olivier Higgins considers his journey of footballing discovery, taking him from Cambridge via East Dulwich to Montreal.
Unlike most English people I’ve asked about this, I remember the day I first became aware of football. I have a first football memory, granted to me – I assume – by the slight foreignness of the sport, a phenomenon just weird enough to notice, or to remember noticing.
The day was July 12, 1998. I was four and a half. France had just won the World Cup, defeating Brazil 3-0 and sending me running through my grandparent’s backyard, desperate for things to kick. I’m still not sure who was there and why we’d been watching. In any case, I gave up football later that afternoon, an unusually dilettantish four-and-a-half-year-old.
After that it was baseball and hockey, America’s pastime and Canada’s Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). In what now seems like a conspiracy against my knees, I was catcher in baseball and goalie in hockey – a year-round commitment to crouching and falling that resulted in such crap as Osgood-Schlatter disease and Osteochondritis. These chosen positions came down to a serious penchant for gear – gloves, masks, pads, straps: psychoanalysts stay back. The idea was to wear enough equipment to look and feel like you had any business being there. Unfortunately, football – of the non-American variety – didn’t quite meet this requirement. The relative nakedness that made it the world’s sport also ensured it couldn’t be mine.
After that afternoon in 1998, my exposure to football was confined to playground tutorials (really, though, how do you not kick it with your toes?) and serious international incidents – like a head-butt, or more specifically, a coup de boule. With these and other scattered exceptions, I know nothing at all about the present topic. I’ve honestly been calling it ‘soccer’ in my head this whole time. But please keep reading. It’s my vague hope that this football ignorance will be interesting to the well acquainted – a new angle on something familiar, bashed in by the ignoramus. So, this is a record of initiation: here, as I remember it, is my embrace of football.
My first glimpse of English fervour for football was also a glimpse of a denuded, middle-aged back. A man I will call Paul overheard my friend Percy telling me about a match result and walked up to us, offering his impressions. Soon enough, Paul had pulled his shirt over his head, uncovering a tattooed crest – big as his back would allow – of his beloved Liverpool F.C. My immediate thought was that he must have been very fond of Liverpool F.C.
I wondered, as the conversation carried on, how many painful hours had been devoted to the lettering of ‘You’ll never walk alone.’ This was serious, like a symptom of something Paul had been living with for a while – football, by the looks of it.
It turned out, insanely, that this was only one of his two favourite teams: all his back for one allegiance. Paul assured us that there was another tattoo – simply and ominously described as “somewhere else” – of his equally beloved Glasgow Rangers.
It was later suggested that I look into a possible religious connection between these clubs, but I found none. That these fan-bases are linked by denomination is a myth, I’m told. As far as I’m concerned, the only connection here is Paul’s tattoos: no further devotion required.
Encounters like this one are what persuaded me of football’s cultural authority – that it could be used, without further explanation, as a basis for every imaginable personal narrative. I have come to ascribe this narrative potential to the outrageous number of football clubs, each of which raises tattoo combinations exponentially. For comparison’s sake, allow me to bring up Canada and hockey (which is to say ice hockey, which is to say hockey). There are four professional teams in Ontario: my beloved Ottawa Senators (tattoo forthcoming), the reviled Toronto Maple Leafs, and their respective farm teams. Compare that with the twelve professional football sides playing in London this year.
Encounters like this one are what persuaded me of football’s cultural authority – that it could be used, without further explanation, as a basis for every imaginable personal narrative.
It’s fair to say that football is on a different scale to North American sports. Separating me from my new-found Premier League dream is a pyramid of other professional leagues (leagues!), populated with dozens of teams that could theoretically ascend to the very top tier. I know this is news to no one, but appreciate how it disabuses me of all previously-held standards for sport culture. It’s no wonder everyone has a football story: you practically need a reason – family history, neighbourhood loyalty, political association – to not cheer for the half-dozen other teams in your relative vicinity.
The first match I attended, Dulwich Hamlet v. Billericay, was an experience of a football subculture. Known to many as a ‘Hipster’ team, the South London side has enjoyed a recent surge of young supporters who gather, understandably, around craft beer and anti-fascist politics. The resulting atmosphere is purposefully unlike what you’d expect from a football match (and not just because the stadium is adjacent to a Sainsbury’s parking lot, although that does heighten the vague sense of self-parody running throughout). Setting the tone at the stadium entrance is a poster of Edgar Kail – a Dulwich legend who signed with the club in 1915 (aged 15) – side by side with Che Guevara. The caption reads: ‘Left Wingers.’
Ensuring the fans’ passage through the stadium’s turnstiles is the inclusive atmosphere, which promises an enjoyable (if not quite elite) football experience for those not tempted by the high-priced premiere stuff, nor the coarse, banker-on-a-stag-night culture that can go along with it. The club’s self-imposed mandate is to diffuse the enjoyment of football in as many seldom-reached places as possible: there should be no reason, besides maybe not liking football, to keep you away.
So, understand that it was hard, with a flight home days later, not to fall in South London. And I’m genuinely concerned now, learning of the club’s development problems and uncertain financial future. Clubs like Dulwich Hamlet seem to expand the variety and availability of football experiences, so the worry is not just for south-London fans recently recruited for pay-pal support, but the larger football culture Dulwich commits itself to improving.
As for the match, Dulwich lost 3-1, with a few highlights discernible even to me. There was a controversial Billericay penalty, then a third Billericay goal, scored by Jake Robinson, somehow, from his own half. The ball’s trajectory stunned the Dulwich keeper, who mined the full comic potential of frantic backward running. Unsurprisingly, the score did little to diminish the experience.
Returning to Canada, I wanted to refine my powers of football observation. The Canadian men’s side, it must be said, is not a football powerhouse, with one World Cup appearance (1986) to its name. Yet, Canadian women have done much to salvage the reputation, with a ‘FIFA/Coca-Cola (?)’ World Ranking of #5 to the men’s #96. A #96 world ranking, in case anyone is curious, places you comfortably between the Faroe Islands and El Salvador.
As of this autumn, my local team is the Montreal Impact – a name no-doubt chosen for its identical spelling in French and English (I can honestly see no other reason). The match I attended was against the New England Revolution, which makes a little more sense. Yes, most MLS team names are also Pictionary nouns.
For the duration of its five-year MLS history, the Impact has played at Olympic Park, so-named after the 1976 Montreal summer games. I’d heard of the team’s (and thus, the sport’s) mounting popularity in Montreal – not least with the momentary addition of Didier Drogba in 2015 – but I tried to maintain reasonable expectations.
Completing the journey to the Parc Olympique, I became aware of an Impact crowd growing at every subway stop. Beyond confirming that I wasn’t lost, these fans – families, mostly – gave me a sense of the pre-game ritual in North America: tame and fittingly underground. They weren’t just Impact (or Revolution) fans, either. Some were simply football fans, sporting Messi and Ronaldo shirts – odd but undeniably on topic. Football itself, in all its iterations, is the subculture.
Comparisons with a century-old London fixture are admittedly unfair, but there was a slight non-descript quality to this second experience – at least at first. My brother confirmed that it felt slightly like entering a stock photo: stadium, soccer fan, celebration, emotions, scarf.
This impression all but wore off during a pre-kick-off tribute to retiring Impact captain, Patrice Bernier. A Montreal native, Bernier began his career with the pre-MLS Impact in 2000, ultimately playing most of his career in Europe and representing Canada from 2004 to 2017. A very local hero, Bernier is one of Canadian football’s proudest fixtures, as reflected by retirement-day chants about Patrice Bernier the man, Patrice Bernier the captain, and even la famille de Patrice Bernier.
Bernier scored on a penalty, blowing kisses to a crowd filled with ‘MERCI PATRICE’ signs and prompting his family to ring a designated, if slightly incongruous, goal bell. After the game (another 3-1 loss), Bernier said a few words into a microphone and threw his shirt into the crowd – back to the community, a major through line of his captaincy.
I felt entirely convinced by this guy, despite not knowing of his existence even hours earlier. On reflection, my instant conversion made me hopeful for growing franchises like the Impact. It doesn’t take much to embrace the game, it turns out. Trust me, one or two games and you’re in.