Written by Jordan Harrison.
In the US, the World Cup Final never comes close to conjuring up the same sort of excitement or atmosphere that the Super Bowl does. Never mind the fact that the World Cup comes once every four years, the annual Super Bowl always reigns far more prominent. Not only prominent, it’s the TV event of the year. Everyone watches it. Consequently, I’ve always struggled to understand what specifically makes American sports fandom often considered somewhat inferior or “weaker” to that of football fans worldwide.
Obviously, the claim that American sports fandom is somehow inferior to worldwide football fandom is purely a subjective matter and not everyone buys it. But it’s a notion that I’ve heard echoed countless times throughout my life, so I’ve always attached some degree of validity to it. In other words, that Americans can be considered lame, or at least less strong of sports fans in general has always confused me, considering the huge turnouts that the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, or any other big American game have. Of course, every country in the world has its own, unique football culture, but there’s unmistakably a lore about Spain’s. So, Spain seems like a good place to sort out this confusion. And after 6 months in Sevilla, I think the puzzle is coming together. And the key piece to it is just so cliche that it pains me to say, but it all comes down to passion. Truly a groundbreaking finding, I know. But in case you care about how I reached this unoriginal conclusion, I’ll happily provide my insights and experience.
I certainly would never posit that American sports fans lack passion. I, myself, have shed my fair share of tears (happy and sad) following American football, baseball, or hockey games (shoutout to the Colorado Avalanche for producing some recent tears of joy). But I wouldn’t consider a highly emotional level of fandom to be entirely standard in the US. It’s certainly not uncommon to truly care either, however; one can easily see while attending or watching a professional sporting event in the US, that the sports match is a mere contribution to an overall program of entertainment. I’ve never attended a baseball game without feeling that the vast majority of the crowd was just there to soak up some sun, enjoy festivities at every break in play, and hang out with their friends. Similarly, the Super Bowl is equally as well-known for having funny commercials and extravagant halftime shows as it is for having a championship game. Pretty stark contrast to watching Real Betis compete for the Copa del Rey in an overflowing bar, situated just a few hundred meters across the Guadalquivir River from the big event itself.
I remember rolling my eyes when my friend told me to show up three hours before kickoff. Seemed absurdly early just to grab a spot at a bar that’s typically quiet, but it was barely early enough to catch the Copa del Rey final. For the entirety of the match, there were dozens of people standing outside of the bar, looking in, to watch the match intently. There was a collective, audible reaction to nearly every touch of the ball. There was a level of focus on the sport itself that I have yet to witness in any other large, group setting. To be fair, comparing any American sporting event to this one is comparing apples to oranges, and Real Betis playing for their first Copa in nearly two decades, in their hometown was a uniquely special circumstance to find myself in. With that being said, my exposure to Spanish football fandom wasn’t limited to this one experience. And as chaotic and fun as it was celebrating the Copa victory with a seemingly infinite amount of people at the Plaza Nueva, any fanbase in the world would celebrate a big trophy. But even then, the collective mental database of clever chants that this celebratory crowd possessed is something I’ve never seen in the US.
Either way, what sticks out more for me is the old man in Granada who, upon spotting my Betis hat, insisted on snapping a photo of me and his Betica wife hanging out in front of the Alhambra. Naturally, there’s also the man who cussed me out with a disgusted look in his eye just moments prior. But the point is simply that I was impressed by just how emotional certain responses to seeing the Betis badge were. There aren’t many days that went by with that hat on in which I didn’t make a new friend or enemy. Sure, I may get a comment or two from wearing my favourite American football shirt in the states but nothing as emotionally charged as what I’ve experienced in Spain.
Perhaps the most ignorant question that I asked recently was, “how’d you become a Betis fan?” In fact, I was naive enough to keep asking people this, substituting Betis for anyone’s preferred team at will, expecting a logical reason to be given for one’s support of their team. I always chose my teams for clear reasons (like their location, their athletes, or when I was younger, their colour scheme). Hence my thinking that Spanish football fans would also have reasons. But I got the sense that Spanish football fandom is less of a choice. Rather, it’s something far more intuitive. It seems inhabitants of Sevilla are either born Betico or Sevillista. Nobody gave me a reason for being one or the other, they just chuckled at my question before proceeding to explain that their fandom doesn’t require an explanation. It’s neither a location difference nor a political one that separates these bitter rivals (Sevilla FC and Real Betis), it’s just a matter of feeling. People love watching sports because they epitomize the human experience of feeling. A ninety-minute match can be all it takes for one to experience the purest form of joy and the deepest sense of despair. Ultimately, I think that the massive emotional investment put forth by countless Spanish football fans is what provides Spanish football with a sort of mystical allure to the rest of the sports world.