For all of football's status as a European cultural icon, for all its intangible preeminence, the meat of its success, the living, breathing organism that is the European football fandom, is actually millions of organisms: individuals, countless raving, screaming, chanting, singing fans, all convinced like the followers of many a world religion that any and all non-subscribers to their creed are doomed to damnation, or in this analogy, to the gentle teasing endured by someone whose team performed badly in a sporting event. About 37,000 of these organisms converged on the Stade de Gerland this Thursday to watch Olympique Lyonnais (OL), the home team, play Tottenham Hotspur. These fans didn't make their way to the stadium in the belief that getting closer to the athletes would provide a better view of the game, which, illuminated and filmed from every conceivable angle by lights and cameras far above the spectators, is perhaps better appreciated in its detail in front of a widescreen television in a local bar; no, they came for the atmosphere.
The atmosphere: the sense of being physically there at the center of everything. The sense of unison, of being a part of and entirely swallowed up by this tremendous crowd of people, the collective fandom organism that boos as one when the ref calls it against the home team, draws in one huge gasping breath when the keeper makes a close save, sings the team anthem in one raucous atonal voice. The responsiveness of the organism is incredible; every little thing that happens draws an instant reaction, hugely magnified through the voices of thousands, who gasp and moan as if they were right there with the international football stars on the astroturf. Lit up from every direction like a sitcom or a porn film, every player throwing four little shadows to the cardinal points. The enormous flags that ripple ostentatiously like regimental banners among masses of shouting people. The phenomenon of it is incredible. It is incredible just to be there, to look around and see so many in one place, so much noise, color, movement, the senses incapable of processing and summing up, able only to comprehend that they are overawed.
Then again this is the larger impression, the sum of the parts. There are smaller concerns that occupy the senses: finding a place. General admission is often oversold, so if you don't have a box seat you must run to your seat before a nameless stranger in red white and blue occupies it. If you don't make it on time, if for example your friends are late, then you are out of luck. Enjoy standing at the back of a crowd of people in the aisle of general admissions or climbing up on a concrete barrier behind them to peer through the space between their heads and the bottom of the box seats above. You might think of standing at the back of the upper section; don't bother. Gardiens in blue windbreakers, oddly absent below, will check your ticket and kindly ask you to descend back down to where you came from. Don't despair! Just wait until halftime and push your way down the aisle.
But ignore all that. You made it in early. You found a seat. The game has begun and your pulse is already pounding from the run from the ticket checker to the stands; the stress and confusion have actually added to the experience. In a sense, all of these little inconveniences add to the experience: pushing through masses of people with a man's hand always on your back, bumping up against drunken Tottenham fans in the metro who proclaim loudly they're about to teach "all these frogs" a lesson, hearing the stories told in hushed voices about the mob wearing OL gear and masks that broke into an English pub and wrecked the place. All of these things contribute to the sense of the sublime evoked by the mix of fear, awe, confusion, and excitement that overwhelms all comprehension at any sort of event where thousands of people gather in one place for a night - a concert, a fair, a riot, a protest. You came to be overwhelmed; now take the bad with the good.
I'm looking right now at the ticket options for OL - PSG, 11 May, and they range between 32 and 128 euro. All I can say is, don't go if all you want to do is watch a game. You can do that for free plus the cost of drinks in a local pub, which'll be packed with roaring fans anyway. You'll be warmer, you'll see everything, you'll get commentary, and you can even get drunk. Do go if you want an adventure.