Field of Screams

This Article originally ran in the November 2007 issue of Seattle Metropolitan Magazine

Two years ago I stood under the setting sun amidst a throng of suede-headed, disaffected young men in a stadium in Vienna. Green and white flags waved around us, an incessant drumbeat led our cheers, and we hoisted our scarves toward the sky. Did it matter that it was my first time at the Gerhard Hanappi Stadium and I didn’t know a single person around me or understand a word of what we were screaming? No, no, and no. At my first European soccer match, all that mattered was that I was rooting for the home team, SK Rapid Vienna. I belonged.

Over the course of that match I felt all the things that made me love sports in the first place: camaraderie, a sense of identity, naked displays of emotion, and a healthy dose of escapism. More than 5,000 miles from home, I felt at home.

Ever since that memorable match, I’ve searched Seattle’s sports landscape, from the shores of Lake Washington to the stadiums of SoDo and the heart of Seattle Center, trying to recapture that excitement. My quest remained unfulfilled until I learned what hordes of local soccer fans have known for years: that as far as this area is concerned, a modest pub in Fremont called the George and Dragon is Mecca.

I had enjoyed my visits to the George before, but I’d never ventured there for a major soccer match, thus I didn’t appreciate the intoxication that its mixture of fish and chips, bangers and mash, and beer and the world’s game could produce. That all changed on a Wednesday morning in May when I blew off responsibility to watch the Champion’s League Final live at the George.

A little background: The UEFA Champions League is the world’s premier football club competition; its television audience nearly matches the Superbowl’s. Europe’s best teams compete from August to May, when one is crowned the finest on the continent. This year, five-time winners Liverpool FC navigated the group stage and knockout rounds to earn a date with six-time champions AC Milan. In 2005, Liverpool overcame a three-nil halftime deficit to capture the cup from Milan in what many call the greatest Cup Final ever. This rematch had all the makings of a classic.

I thought I’d come early, but 30 minutes before kick-off the George was packed shoulder-to-shoulder. A line formed out the door and the pub began turning people away. I wondered how many of them had jobs.

I waded through the human mass to the bar. Some fans were easing into the morning on coffee or water. Others ordered pints or Bloody Marys. The guy next to me had a Manny’s Pale Ale and a Bloody Mary. Something told me this wasn’t the first time he’d started drinking before noon.

Pint in hand, the air thick with anticipation, I readied myself for the match. The George and Dragon crowd let out its first collective cheer as the camera focused on the two teams gathered side-by-side in the tunnel the field. If the Europeans have one thing over us, it’s their innate ability milk such moments for everything their worth. Entering the field may seem banal, but as the players begin their slow procession, the Champions League Anthem played, and the stadium erupted in cheers, a chill went down my spine. I looked into each combatant’s eyes and knew that for the next few hours nothing else would matter to him or me but this game.

At kickoff an odd, tense silence fell on the pub; all eyes fixed on the screens positioned around it. But it took just a few moments for the patrons to snap out of their stupor and begin oohing and ahhing at every minor chance and clever move. Keeping one eye on the match, I glanced around the room and think to myself what great unifying forces soccer and a good pub can be. Race, religion, age, economic status, political bent… nothing mattered except whether you pulled for the Reds of Liverpool or the Rossoneri of AC Milan.

The first half was a roller-coaster ride of emotions. The patrons, mostly Liverpool supporters, went into halftime disappointed at their club’s conceding a late goal to Milan’s Pippo Inzaghi. But hope still reigned as they returned to the bar. I enjoyed my halftime ale with two 50-something Norwegians who hailed from the same town as Liverpool midfielder John Arne Riise. We started out talking about the game but soon diverged into discussions of our mutual Norwegian roots and the cruelty of the lutefisk my mother and grandmother used to make me eat each Christmas.

All discussion of disgusting lye-soaked cod halted as the match resumed and the fans resumed living and dying with each build-up on offense. Each time Liverpool moved forward their exclamations rose to a crescendo, invariably ending in collective groans as the Reds squandered their chances. Just when they thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did: Milan’s brilliant midfielder Kakà received far too much space as he dribbled toward the back four and slid a perfectly weighted pass to Inzaghi, who ran onto the ball and calmly slid it under the keeper to score his second of the day. A young Merseyside fan stared into his beer, trying to come to grips with his team’s collapse. I knew how he felt, helpless and empty and gutted. The final whistle confirmed our despair.

Most patrons closed their tabs and filed out, unable to watch the triumphant Rossoneri hoist their seventh championship trophy. I felt deflated by Liverpool’s loss but triumphant at having finally found all that I had longed for in sport since I left the Hanappi Stadium two years before. Once again I was in a place where the crowd and the play seemed joined as one, where total strangers could share a beer and cheer in unison. I felt at home, and I knew I wouldn’t have to travel 5,000 miles to recapture the exhilaration of that Viennese night.

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