Any lingering doubts I had about the efficacy of supporter groups in general, and the Backline in specific, are gone.
While I may continue to hold out critiques about the originality of particular chants, or the overall alignment of cheers with the action on the field, I will no longer offer any types of critiques or neutral comments about supporter sections in general.
Last Saturday’s game against Montreal changed all that.
I have a friend—I’ll call him Rainy Day Paul—who, while not much of a soccer fan, has attended every match I’ve invited him to over the last several years. His nickname marks the fact that it has rained at every match he’s attended (this might have something to do with the fact that he’s the one person I know who will happily sit in the rain as long as beer is involved). One of the great benefits of taking Rainy Day Paul with me is that, while not much of a fan, he is always enthusiastic about learning about the game and about the culture that surrounds the game. In short, he asks me lots of questions, and I not only get to feel good about what little I know, but it also forces me to reflect on what I think of as firmly held beliefs.
This weekend, he asked me about the noise coming from the Backline and wanted to know who they were, why they were sitting there, why there were drums, who was the guy with the hair leading them, etc. At first, I gave him my standard response that includes my own entry into soccer through supporters groups, including some of my critiques. More, I explained the difference in models between Italian type groups that included capos leading the chants, and others (including most Premier League games I’ve attended) in which the chants and songs emerge from different people in the crowd and are a bit more reflective of the action on the field (i.e., does the team need to be lifted up?
Is there action we need to be quiet for?). In effect, I was raising some of the same types of questions we see raised weekly on social media (e.g., should Bohemian Rhapsody always be sung at the same time regardless of the action on the pitch? Does the audience become more passive if they count on someone leading them?)
As I said, these were the issues I was initially raising with Rainy Day Paul (even though, obviously, he wanted a much briefer response).
And then, I noticed something. On a rainy day, in a socially distanced stadium, in a context in which I could easily talk to people sitting 10 or 15 yards away from me in the midfield area, the only real energy I felt was coming from the Backline. On a day (there’s already been two of these, dammit!) when NSC went down by two goals early on, it was the Backline that kept the energy up. Indeed, the entire reason Rainy Day Paul asked about the section is because, in the languid setting of our seating area, his attention was drawn to the two places he felt energy at all—the pitch itself and the Backline.
That is a pretty strong, organic endorsement of their existence and of their actions.
Would I like if the world of fandom reflected my own preferences? Hell, yes. I would like my preferences everywhere? Would I make some tinkers and adjustments if I ruled the world? Who wouldn’t? Should we still discuss the best ways to support the team? Of course.
But, if the question is, even with all of my (our) critiques, does the Backline do an impressive job of being the backbone of support for the team, and a model for the middle-aged support in my sections, then the answer is also resoundingly affirmative.
Even Rainy Day Paul could see it.