Flint's Off on One

What makes football great? To be honest, countless aspects of the game could be pinpointed, but there’s not enough time to list them all. Social change can genuinely be achieved through the sport, giving anyone confidence and exercise. The CONIFA World Football Cup which I touched upon a couple of weeks ago is an incredible vehicle for awareness. Disengaged, threatened or displaced people suddenly have an identity. Fans feel part of a community. Perhaps too much in some cases – remember the banner at Old Trafford that reads: “United. Kids. Wife. In That Order”?

The point is, the breadth and depth of football’s influence is immense. No shockers here so far. For me though, it’s the irreplaceable tingle down your spine when a moment or an atmosphere just grabs you. Maybe it’s the occasion, or even a flash of inspiration, but little beats the thrill of live football.

Last night I was in the Krestovsky Arena to report on Zenit St. Petersburg against Celtic. For any of you hiding under a rock, it is a quite sensational stadium. Brendan Rodgers was itching to say it was “outstanding” but settled for magnificent. Inside, the stands are steep and focused on the pitch; one fan described it as feeling like a basketball venue. Zenit have long been the most fan-centric club in Russia, and they’ve worked tirelessly to get bums on seats. It’s working; the attendance of over 50,000 created a deafening volume.

Given the sub-zero temperatures that have frozen the entire Bay of Finland next to the ground, the roof was closed. We’re talking a huge body of moving seawater here, not a puddle; people were walking, skiing, even riding snowmobiles. These conditions made a bizarre contrast to the toasty, enclosed evening inside, and simply amplified the intensity. Step out into the stands, and your breath is stolen away – magical stuff.

For those of you not up to speed with Europa League scores, Celtic were leading 1-0 from the first leg. Celtic Park is rightly famous for its atmosphere, and set the bar high for Zenit fans, but boy did they deliver. The ultras had been displaced to the upper tiers after UEFA closed their main sector behind the goal after an offensive banner was displayed earlier this season, but all this did was redistribute the noise to a higher level, reverberating under the curved roof all around.

The fact that Zenit were brilliant on the pitch helped of course. Branislav Ivanović thumped home a header to level the scores on aggregate. Daler Kuzyaev sent a thunderbolt past Dorus De Vries later in the first half, before Kokorin bundled home a third. Celtic were passengers who just couldn’t make their 60% possession count, or deal with the atmosphere. Ever with a sense of the dramatic, fans lit their phones to create a mosaic of light and dark – beautiful

And then it happened. You’re probably thinking at this point, “Where’s the whinge?” Well, in one heinous act of utterly unforgivable shame, the fuckwits to my right tried to start a Mexican wave. The ultras were thankfully having none of that silly bollocks, and the first two attempts died out. Eventually, the prats got their way, and the wave rippled around the ground.

Are you fucking kidding me? Is a sensational performance to come back from behind on aggregate to knock out Celtic not enough? Is one of the most expensive and spectacular stadia in the world not enough? Forgive the Maximus moment, but ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED??

Jesus, save me. On second thoughts, don’t get in touch with the fictional fairy tale character from the Bible. Even he couldn’t save those poor, condemned souls.

What the hell is wrong with these people? If you make a stupid collective action the focus, then at the very least the football has to be dreadful. Mexican waves belong somewhere deep in the seven layers of Dante’s Inferno, not in a football stadium. “It’s just a bit of harmless fun,” some might say. Do it ironically in a long queue and I get the amusement – there’s nothing else to entertain you. Do it at a thrilling spectacle in epic settings, and I lose the will to live.

A choreographed tifo, chanting, even flares can augment the atmosphere. A fan protest at ticket prices or TV influence of kick-off times, like in Germany last weekend, is powerful. They belong in football. They belong amongst football fans. They serve a valid and meaningful purpose. Mimicking thousands of others in the middle of a game is like talking on the phone in the theatre. Rude, unnecessary and bloody irritating.

The upcoming World Cup is a wondrous prospect for me, living out here. Welcoming a whole host of other fans and teams, Russia actually having a chance to showcase it’s true nature (HINT: it’s not remotely the same as Putin’s foreign policy, or the lazy narrative vomited forth by the red-tops). If there’s one thing I could do, though, it’d be to lock up any tossers who dare attempt a Mexican bloody wave within five kilometres of a ground. Then we might actually watch some football.