Crystal Palace played against 1.FC Union Berlin last summer. Union, a far weaker side on paper, surprisingly won the game 2-0. The day was hot, the beer was popular, and Palace brought a good amount, probably coming close to 400 / 500. Palace fans had been victim to some scraps with Eisern Union ultras the day before, with a flag being stolen, but on the whole it was a peaceful affair.
My real interest was not the game, but the Holmesdale Fanatics. Now, if you’ve been living under a rock, a back-story is required. Some fans in the Holmesdale Road end of Selhurst Park have come together to form an organisation that has driven the support at Crystal Palace in the past 10 years. They have copied the model seen frequently in other European leagues with choreos, flags, drumming, physical manifestations (simultaneous jumping and clapping), corteos etc. This style which I will from here refer to as the ‘Ultra Model’ is generally a lot more focused on the visual aspects of terrace behaviour and employs a significant amount of pre-game organisation and in-game control at the expense of the spontaneity and humour seen in terrace chanting. Regardless, in the eyes of many, Palace now boasts the #1 supporters in the Premier League. An ordinary drab team has transformed and now attracts a lot of respect from the international Football community – because of its fans.
It has required patience. I chatted at length to some of the lads and one, probably around 19, told me of the opposition they’ve had from other Palace fans. He recognised that some people were not interested in seeing the Ultra Model spread in their ground and frequently mocked their attempts and efforts. The very phrase he used was “To be honest, I don’t really like British people that much”. He couldn’t quite articulate it, but British people do not embrace the Ultra Model seen in France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Poland, Italy, the Balkans, Russia etc. Fans in these countries share similar organisational structures and terrace rituals, as the tried-and-tested Ultra Model boosts support and atmosphere in the ground quickly. In England, however, it remains not only absent, but unwanted.
The reasons why will be the subject of future posts on FBTG but for now we just have to acknowledge this fact. The point is, English fans are resisting the arrival of the Ultra Model in their stadia. Why then have Crystal Palace emerged as pioneers for it? Naturally the Holmesdale Fanatics will want to cite their own organisation, ingenuity and creativity, for which they do deserve credit. However, I would argue that Palace benefits from its position as a historically smaller and under-performing team situated in the British Capital.
London enjoys one of the largest economies of any city in the world. This attracts people, and while migration of course is good for business and for the economy, it also greatly influences culture. Thanks to its ability to attract workers of the world more than other English cities, London has become a hotbed of culturally-diverse peoples. The history of the movement of people and their ideas is also the history of innovation. Throughout history it has been the traders, merchants and nomads who have introduced new knowledge, ideas and technologies to the places they arrive at. Migrants arrive with a certain approach to problems that differs from those of natives. Over time, migrants learn to understand the mindset of their hosts but also apply their own insights and knowledge drawn from experiences to their everyday life. They therefore have a far greater understanding of potential solutions to life’s challenges, pick and choose from a greater spectrum of ideas, and boom, innovate. This wider spectrum of knowledge and subsequent innovation is to the benefit of the host peoples who start to learn from the migrants. Thus, natives in places that enjoy high immigration are not only exposed to more ideas and approaches, but are also quicker to listen to foreign ideas as they recognise their value.
Exposure and openness are the key ingredients. Returning to the context of Football, fans in London are much more likely to meet Poles, Italians and Bulgarians etc and subsequently learn from them. It makes perfect sense that fans of a London club should be the ones to absorb and internalise foreign Football practices first. But why Palace? Because their smaller size means that there has been less opposition from fans of the same team. Looking back 10 years, a group of fans wanting to bounce around and create tifos would’ve had much less opposition at Selhurst Park than at Chelsea, Arsenal, West Ham or Spurs where attendance was higher. Fans of those teams wanting to adopt the Ultra Model would’ve had far more people jeering and belittling their efforts and would’ve lost enthusiasm. At Selhurst Park, that English opposition existed, but not to the same extent. It could’ve been Charlton, Leyton Orient or Barnet. It just happened to be Crystal Palace.
The story is now complete. I hate London, and I hate Crystal Palace, and I hate having to admit all this. But writing objectively, London’s position in the world has been a key factor in the amazing revolution seen at Selhurst Park. The Eagles’ increasing popularity will attract more fans and better players. Slowly but surely, fans of other small and mid-sized English teams will follow suit and take up the Ultra Model. Those who don’t will see attendances drop, subsequent relegation, and the fans trying to build the Ultra Model will be in an easier position to do so. Attendance will boom again once fans are more comfortable with it, and the team grows stronger and climbs back up to the league above. Watch this space.