I took in a soccer game during a vacation in Ireland last week. While the Ravens are my subject these days, I covered a pair of World Cups in my newspaper days and my interest in the other version of football goes way back. When it turned out Ireland's top league plays in the summer and there was a game near my hotel, I couldn't resist.
The game was at a little place called Tolka Park, home of Shelbourne F.C., a buried-in-last-place team with a history dating to the 1890s. Their opponents on this sunny, cool evening were the Sligo Rovers, the league's reigning champions.
It was the Ravens at Cleveland, basically, only there were many differences between this game and a typical NFL contest.
For starters, the stadium was not some jazzy, ultra-modern edifice looming over the landscape. It was an old, low-slung affair with a concrete exterior and peeling paint. A corrugated metal roof covered the dozen or so rows of seats ringing the field.
A sporting Taj Mahal it was not. It fit right into its working-class neighborhood, almost could have passed for a warehouse. Inside, vendors in little huts sold concessions and team gear. One vendor was a young mother rocking a baby in a stroller while she sold sodas and made change.
There was no marching band, just an eight-year-old boy banging a drum throughout the game.
There were no player introductions, no national anthem, no Squirrel Dance. The stadium's one electric scoreboard wasn't working, and as near as I could tell, alcohol was not being sold, except possibly in the "stadium club," which was basically a room under the home stands.
Several thousand fans were on hand, a lot of kids and families, a few young toughs. All seating seemed to be unreserved. My ticket cost around $20.
But while so much about the setting was different from a Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, there was one striking similarity – the fans cared deeply about their team, so intensely it almost seemed to hurt.
I wore a Ravens' Super Bowl cap to see if it stirred a reaction, but it didn't. These fans were focused on their team.
Before kickoff, a middle-aged woman and her son carefully attached a homemade banner to the railing behind the home bench, where the players could see it. The banner proudly noted that Shelbourne's history dated to the 1800s. You got the feeling the woman and her son had been hanging that same banner in the same spot for years.
Once the game began, it quickly became apparent the red-clad home team was the inferior side. An elderly man sitting behind me incessantly vented R-rated frustrations as Shelbourne's players made mistakes. Other fans made sarcastic wisecracks but also implored their team to do better.
With the game scoreless at halftime, the fans milled around, weighing their chances of seeing a home goal and an upset. Loud groans rippled through the stands when Sligo finally put one in the net early in the second half.
A few minutes later, a small cadre of Shelbourne super fans abruptly set off a round of flares in one end zone. It appeared the stadium was on fire, but no one reacted or commented and the game rolled on, the players paying no attention to the thick smoke. That happens at every game, it seemed. The fire soon died out.
After the game, which Sligo won, 2-0, the fans quietly streamed out, sharing their obvious disappointment. Shelbourne was their team and this steady drumbeat of losing was hard to take.
But I overheard two fans making plans to attend the next game in a couple of days. Your team is your team, through good times and bad.
I was struck by a thought, that regardless of the sport, league or setting, and regardless if the trappings are new and fancy or old and spare, the best part of being a fan is belonging to a community of people who feel the same way you do, bleed the team colors, obsess over games… care.
It's the common thread connecting all fans, across all borders and boundaries, and it's as true in Ravenstown as anywhere else. Owning a jersey and watching a fancy scoreboard video are tremendous fun and can be crucial to enjoying the experience, but what draws you in and keeps you is the roar of the crowd, the fraternity, being part of something big, win or lose – the fact that you're not alone, far from it.